Selections from by Walt Whitman Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1865, the Civil War was four years along on its destructive and divided path. Walt Whitman, the author of this document, was keenly involved with the war effort and used his poetry to convey the pride, pain, and horrors which he felt and experienced to the public. Whitman was not of an age to enlist, but he supported the soldiers, and his own friends, by visiting the wounded in hospitals and relating their stories to others. From his unique perspective, that of a published author and wordsmith, Whitman created the following document in which he was able both to convey his pride and patriotism concerning the soldiers that were marching off to fight for the North, and also his sadness at the loss felt by every person who saw a father, husband, brother, or son killed in the fierce fighting that split the country. The theme of military hospitals in this work shows Whitman’s own contributions to the war effort and his need to reveal the darker aspects of fighting for one’s country.

Summary Overview

In 1865, the Civil War was four years along on its destructive and divided path. Walt Whitman, the author of this document, was keenly involved with the war effort and used his poetry to convey the pride, pain, and horrors which he felt and experienced to the public. Whitman was not of an age to enlist, but he supported the soldiers, and his own friends, by visiting the wounded in hospitals and relating their stories to others. From his unique perspective, that of a published author and wordsmith, Whitman created the following document in which he was able both to convey his pride and patriotism concerning the soldiers that were marching off to fight for the North, and also his sadness at the loss felt by every person who saw a father, husband, brother, or son killed in the fierce fighting that split the country. The theme of military hospitals in this work shows Whitman’s own contributions to the war effort and his need to reveal the darker aspects of fighting for one’s country.

Defining Moment

Walt Whitman’s poems and whole body of work have been used to find beauty in the poet’s own surroundings and the events that occurred during his lifetime. But even more than finding beauty, Whitman tried to find truth through his work–truths about life, living, the human condition, and, in the case of this document, Drum Taps, about the immeasurable suffering which is ever the companion of war. Much of Whitman’s work was not appreciated by the public, at first, owing to the raw quality of the descriptions, which in earlier times tended to be buried by observers/authors in metaphor and ambiguity. But Whitman’s fearless portrayal of life gives a modern audience the ability to understand the Civil War in a way that a more traditional understanding of the sequence of events simply cannot.

This document contributes, in other words, to the social understanding of the Civil War. While there are several documents from the era that allude to or even speak plainly about the atrocities that happened during the battles of the Civil War, few are so eloquent on the topic as Whitman’s poetry. In the opening poem, “First O Songs for a Prelude,” the main feeling stressed is the movement and anticipation felt by Whitman himself and his fellow citizens heading into a fight which he, and they, found to be just and necessary. As the quote above shows, the nurses are prepared to go into battle, but the carnage and the toll of human casualties has not yet been fully understood. In the second quote, however, Whitman has gone to the front lines and spent significant time in military hospitals, tending to the wounded and trying to alleviate their suffering in any way he is able. His later poems, such as “The Wound-Dresser” and “Dirge for Two Veterans,” show the growing grief which is a by-product of the war. By examining the differences between the tones of the poems and the material which is his focus, Whitman’s distaste for the war and need to help those injured by it comes into focus, showing how war is so much more than the march of booted feet and the beating of drums.

Author Biography

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island to a working class family. He had four brothers and two sisters and spent much of his young life moving around New York, while his father speculated on real estate, attempting to turn a profit. Although Whitman is considered to be one of the greatest American poets, his basic schooling was rudimentary at best. Clearly overcoming this lack of fundamental education, Whitman, as a boy, spent many hours in museums and libraries, learning as much as he could, all of which influenced his later works, which are marked by the experiences of his youth. These experiences included becoming a laborer at age eleven and eventually becoming an apprentice in the printing trade.

Later in his life, Whitman was both a schoolteacher and an author of short fiction stories, which seems unlikely in a man so famous for his poetry. His main career, however, was that of a journalist, which he pursued throughout the 1840s. During this time, he began to write poetry, and, in the early 1850s, published Leaves of Grass, one of his most famous and enduring works. After several editions of Leaves of Grass were published, Whitman’s life was radically altered by the outbreak of the Civil War, with which he became heavily involved, even though, being over 40, he was too old to enlist. He began by visiting wounded friends in the hospital and progressed into becoming a nurse, moving from New York to Washington, D.C., and eventually heading to the battlefield of Fredericksburg. Here, while he was intent on finding out the condition of his brother, he came face to face with the horrors of battle in the 1800s–including the witnessing of amputations and disfigurements as occurred on the battlefield. During this time, Whitman ran errands for wounded soldiers and did anything he could in order to help them to regain some hold on their rapidly changed lives. He continued his work when he returned to Washington, D.C. and it was during these times that he began to write Drum Taps. His need to express all aspects of the war created a monumental work highlighting the driving forces behind the Civil War and all its consequences.

Whitman wrote many more poems and was involved in numerous projects after the end of the Civil War. He continued working on Leaves of Grass and even helped to have his own biography written by Richard Maurice Bucke, entitled Walt Whitman. He continued to be close to his family throughout his life, even living with his brother, George, for some time. After a long and colorful career, Whitman died in 1892 after months of illness which started with a stroke and left him partially paralyzed.

Document Analysis

In the numerous poems that make up Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, several are devoted specifically to the suffering of soldiers and those selfless individuals who are their caregivers. Furthermore, while the wounded may not be specifically referred to in each poem, the theme of military aid and the wounded carries through the compilation of the separable poems in order to express fully the magnitude and depth of Whitman’s own experiences. By focusing an analysis on two poems from Drum Taps, “First O Songs for a Prelude” and “The Wound-Dresser,” readers are able to understand how Whitman’s views of the war changed steadily as he became more aware of the hardships and tragedies which are associated with battle. The glory and pride demonstrated in the first poem of Drum Taps are replaced by disgust for the pain of the wounded and hatred for the battles which caused them.

“First O Songs for a Prelude”

In Whitman’s opening poem, “First O Songs for a Prelude,” he begins with an uplifting and proud image of a city coming to life in order to defend the values of its citizens and not submitting to the injustices, as they saw them, committed by the Confederacy. Whiteman here describes Manhattan, or New York City, as leading the rest of the country into war–springing into action and being strong in the face of danger and adversity. All of which sounds wonderful, for a city fighting for its beliefs and for freedom strikes a poignant chord with readers of all times and generations. Patriotism was not less known to those of Walt Whitman’s time than it is to modern readers. The ability for a city to throw off its normal daily routine in order to face some unknown difficulty ignites pride in those who learn of the sacrifice. As Whitman states, the high culture–the “opera-music”–was given up for the fight–the “drum and fife.” The movement shown in the first stanza of the poem leads Whitman and his readers into war, standing as an opening act to what is to come.

The next stanzas continue the set tone–a city hurdling toward war. Whitman describes the soldiers as “parading” and the whole affair as a “pageant”–strong images, but still overwhelmingly positive in their usage. The horrors that these soldiers, and even the civilians, would soon see have little place in this poem. The city and her inhabitants were galvanized by the actions of the South, and Whitman catches that somewhat frenetic movement in his poetry. The people do not just rise to the occasion, they run at it full force. Little of the poem is dedicated to the darker aspects of war, although he does use such phrases as “ominous hum” and “loth is the mother to part.” The main attitude is concentrated on the overwhelming force that the city has created and pushes toward the front lines.

Whitman spends many lines of the poem paying homage to those who walked away from their lives in order to become soldiers–everyone from cart drivers to judges. The young men are tutored by the old, and droves of men come together in order to form a fighting force. Whitman states that he loves them, each and every one, and here he is most likely presenting the attitude of most of the Union citizens, supporting the army with positive thoughts and prayers. He even spends several lines to praise those who act in supporting roles–specifically, nurses–little knowing that he himself would soon join their ranks. It is in this stanza that he speaks to the fact that from this point on war will no longer be pretty parades and simple drum beats: “…the work begun for in earnest, no mere parade now.” In the last few lines, praise mixes with trepidation, for he knows that not all the boys and men will be returning home and even those who do will never be the same.

“The Wound-Dresser”

This poem is essentially Walt Whitman’s personal account of his time in a battlefield hospital. The very title, “Wound-Dresser,” is more than probably a reference to the role that Whitman himself filled many times during battles and in the bloody aftermath. The most essential idea of this poem is in its comparison to the opening poem of Drum Taps, “First O Songs for a Prelude.” Unlike the forward movement evoked by that poem, “The Wound-Dresser” has a feeling of unrelenting despair and a lack of movement similar to being caught and held by the pain of those around him. Even though many years are referenced and the opening lines speak of a man growing old, there is no change in his life, just the pain of those with whom he sits.

As he says, battles come and go, but something that is every changing, and something that must be learned by the young and inexperienced, is that pain and death are the companions of war, far more so than bravery and heroism. The second stanza focuses on the fleeting nature of the battle itself, the charge and the rush of the fight fade quickly and only the bad things, “many the hardships,” are remembered by the survivors. The wound-dresser speaks of his more prominent role, not as a fighter but as an aid to those wounded, possibly drastically or even fatally, in battle. He invites his audience to follow him into the hospitals, but warns that a “strong heart” is necessary to look upon the carnage with which he now deals.

Beginning with the wound-dresser carrying in bandages, Whitman’s descriptions are poetic but do not dive straight into the horrors that he saw. It is a slow build–first, the soldiers lying on the battlefield after the fighting has ceased, unable to move under their own power, their blood flowing into the grass. Second, a more horrifying scene–the rows upon rows of injured soldiers in battlefield hospitals, pails used to dispose of bloody rags and anything else employed. Then, the more personal descriptions of pain and suffering begin. The soldier who pleads with eyes for some end. The soldier who has lost his sense from the blows to his skull. The member of the cavalry who knows he is dying but is not ready yet to give up and leave the world, even though death is now more merciful than life. Then begin the descriptions of the amputations, the gangrene, the shattered bones– even if the soldiers live through their wounds and the terrible conditions of their sick beds, even then their lives will no longer be the same.

The wound-dresser, Whitman himself, does his best to take care of these men who are dependent upon him, and others like him, for their lives. He is sickened by what he sees, but he is also “impassive,” for he has to become immune to the suffering or else empathy would destroy him as well. He would not be able to help those who are in such a desperate need if he could not push down his reactions and simply do what needs to be done. This does not mean that he feels nothing–“yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.” He clearly cares about these men, or he would just go home. Whitman went to the battlefield in order to check on his brother, but this short errand turned into something much more complex–a need to stay and do whatever he could for the wounded soldiers.

These experiences marked him for the rest of his life. He even writes in his last stanza that in his dreams he returns to the battlefield and continues to wipe the brows of the injured. He sees the dying faces of young boys and remembers how he tried to comfort them in their darkest moments or just before they passed. While he never displays any contempt for the wounded, his disgust, while not emphasized in the poem, is rightly placed with the war that brought the wounded so low. No parade or victory makes up for the lost limbs and lost lives. At best, it allows their sacrifice not to be in vain. Whitman uses his experiences to show his audience the true cost of war and to honor those with whom he interacted, whether they survived or not.

The differences in tone and wealth of experience between “First O Song for the Prelude” and “The Wound-Dresser” highlight Walt Whitman’s experiences during the Civil War. At the conclusion he was no longer the wide-eyed, hopeful, and slightly naïve man who wrote the opener for Drum Taps. Through his experiences he became almost imbued with the need to help those who suffered and was not able to turn his back on them. While this was not a trait unique to Whitman, he expressed it in a more eloquent manner than many would be able to pen. War for him, and for many others, was no longer the beating of drums and the push to right the wrongs committed by the South, but a thing of pain, suffering, and death which scarred the nation and had a profound effect on every individual–soldier, noncombatant, or civilian.

Essential Themes

War is too often thought of as the heroic actions of individuals and the glorious victories of generals. This is especially true when the horrors of war become overshadowed by the ultimate triumphs, which in the Civil War are remembered mainly as the emancipation of the southern slaves and returning the Confederate states to the fold of a united America. Walt Whitman, having experienced all aspects of war first hand, thought to expose not only the positive aspects of the Civil War–the patriotism and the fight for freedom felt by so many–but also the carnage and the destruction. In order that the public was able to absorb his experiences, by proxy, he used his poetry to highlight reasons to avoid war and how it affects soldiers and all other noncombatants. Soldiers suffered bullets and shrapnel wounds, limbs broken by cannon fire and other projectiles, and, possibly the most horrifying, amputation without truly proper medical care and conditions. But soldiers were not the only ones to suffer. In such a war, where family member could fight family member, families were torn apart, lands were destroyed and drowned in blood, and the survivors were forever haunted by what they had seen and done to survive. While Whitman couches these horrors in the softer form of poetry, he is able to bring light to these dire straits, in that manner for which he is revered. Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, readers may look upon Whitman’s work and see not the idealized view of war, which is too often portrayed, but a gritty and true-to-life portrayal, from which lessons can be learned and, possibly, lives saved.

Bibliography
  • Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price. “Walt Whitman.” The Walt Whitman Archive, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.
  • Whitman, Walt. Drum Taps. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1865. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bucke, Richard Maurice. Walt Whitman. D. McKay, 1883. Print.
  • Buinicki, Martin T. Walt Whitman’s Reconstruction: Poetry and Publishing between Memory and History. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2011. Print.
  • Morris, Roy. The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Roper, Robert. Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. New York: Walker, 2008. Print.
  • “The Walt Whitman Archive.” Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. Ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. U of Nebraska, Lincoln. Web.
  • Walt Whitman. Public Broadcasting Service. New York: Films Media, 2008. Electronic Resource.
  • “Walt Whitman at Chatham.” National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, Web.
Categories: History Content