“Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,” wrote American poet Walt Whitman. “But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself, To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.”
Once a champion of the American Civil War, Whitman’s observations of the wounded and dying on both sides of the conflict irrevocably altered his understanding of his nation.
Now in its third season, PBS’s “Poetry in America,” which centers on one iconic American poem each episode, examines “The Wound-Dresser,” written by the famed poet.
In 25-minute, bite-sized episodes, “Poetry in America” explores how our nation’s history intersects with and influences the written word and our understanding of what it means to be an American.
Whitman, who spent the latter half of the Civil War as an unpaid nurse, was drawn to hospitals after his younger brother, George, was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
Moved by his brother’s injury—shrapnel to the chin—the kindly poet spent hundreds of hours visiting wounded Union soldiers recuperating in Washington, D.C., hospitals during the war.
Whitman was, as author Milton Bagby writes, “more middle-aged candy striper than medical nurse,” yet his visits remained a bright spot for those convalescing. From his own meager income, Whitman purchased candy, tobacco, fruit, and magazines for the men and helped to write letters home from injured soldiers.
His poetry, later published in the volumes Drum Taps and Specimen Days, cemented his celebrity status and gave voice to the deep wound that was the American Civil War that left a young nation reeling for decades.
Eliza New hosts, and is joined by playwright Tony Kushner, composer Matthew Aucoin, and historian Drew Faust among others to discuss how the trauma of the Civil War shaped American history.
Airing weekly on PBS, the series is available to stream for free on PoetryInAmerica.org.
Read the full poem below:
An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?
O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)
But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
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, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)