The Wound-Dresser by Walt Whitman: Theme & Analysis Video

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  • 0:03 The Wound-Dresser
  • 0:44 Themes
  • 2:44 Structure
  • 3:19 Style
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Walt Whitman's 1865 poem 'The Wound-Dresser' is a moving response to the destructiveness of the American Civil War, one influenced by the poet's own experiences as a hospital volunteer treating injured soldiers.

The Wound-Dresser

Although Walt Whitman wrote the poem in 1865, he first published 'The Wound-Dresser' in the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass, a poetry collection that appeared in several versions from 1855 until the end of the poet's life. 'The Wound-Dresser' is the centerpiece of the Drum-Taps section of Leaves of Grass, a series of 43 poems on the subject of the American Civil War.

The poems in the Drum-Taps section, including 'The Wound-Dresser,' focus on human suffering related to the Civil War. Whitman's time as an Army hospital volunteer during the Civil War helped to color the realistic details found in 'The Wound-Dresser.'

Themes

The 'Wound-Dresser' opens with children asking an old veteran to 'come tell us old man' about your war experiences. As the poem's narrator, or storyteller, the veteran explains that he was excited to go to war at first, but ended up as an army nurse when his 'fingers fail'd.' The narrator goes on to tell the children that it is not the glory of battle that sticks most in his mind, but the painful realities of war. This is a major theme in 'The Wound-Dresser:' the reality of war is suffering rather than glory or bravery.

Rather than the rifle and bayonet or the fife and drum, the narrator carries 'the bandages, water, and sponge' to tend to the 'long rows of cots' holding soldiers suffering from bullet wounds, amputations, gangrene, and other woes. The third part of 'The Wound-Dresser' explores another theme, that of the injured human body, highlighting its grisly, harrowing details: 'From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, / I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood.'

The gritty, realistic details of 'The Wound-Dresser' suggest that suffering and death are the results of war rather than heroic ideals, and that individuals bore the cost of a war labeled as a national struggle. Despite being a poem of the American Civil War, 'The Wound-Dresser' doesn't choose sides: one line asks 'was one side so brave?' and answers its own question, 'the other was equally brave.' Instead, as the fourth section of 'The Wound-Dresser' suggests, it's human contact that's important and the possibility of giving comfort to those who suffer: 'The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, / I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, / Some suffer so much.'

Through Walt Whitman's 'The Wound-Dresser,' we learn that poetry isn't always pretty. In fact, 'The Wound-Dresser' shows us just how powerful poetry can be when it directs our attention to pain, suffering, and the human experience.

Structure

At 65 lines organized into four sections, 'The Wound-Dresser' is a fairly long poem, but it's by no means Whitman's longest. Take a look at his 'Song of Myself,' if you've got some time on your hands. The sections in 'The Wound-Dresser' vary in length, but the two longest ones, sections two and three, have several stanzas, or groups of lines. These two sections include the old man's recollections from his time as an army nurse, focusing on details about the wounded soldiers. The first and last sections feature the veteran addressing the children who ask him about the war.

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