Weekly Whitman: “The Dresser”

Just what did Walt Whitman do in the hospitals where he worked? He was a wound dresser. The duties of the wound dresser—always a man, unless the emergency was dire—were to change bandages, hydrate wounds or operation sites, turn patients and check wound drainage, and—alas—to find those who had passed on and arrange for their removal from the hospital ward. Whitman did his best to cheer up the fellows he tended. He brought them stationary (and wrote their letters), fresh fruit, little flowers, books, and small amounts of money “so they had something of their own.”

This poem is sometimes called “The Wound Dresser.” It is notable for cataloguing the daily scenes of the hospital without becoming gruesome or maudlin. Sometimes Whitman simply sat with a patient, holding a hand so that the soldier would know he was not alone. We—in this time of Covid—now know just how important that contact is. Whitman knew instinctively.

The Dresser

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;
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 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,
In nature’s reverie sad, with hinged knees returning, I enter the
doors–(while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow me 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 already, 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.)

___________________________________________________

This is a reading of the poem. It is not the best, but the best I could find:

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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8 Responses to Weekly Whitman: “The Dresser”

  1. nygiant1952 says:

    Touching, especially during the physical exam, is a core element of that physical exam.

    Thanks Meg for this poignant thread.

  2. steve32ndil says:

    Note reference to Whitman writing letters for patients. Makes one wonder how many of these if any have survived. Imagine having ANY surviving Civil War correspondence from a wounded soldier in hosptial–then discovering it is in Whitman’s hand!

  3. Harry deButts says:

    Perfect as written.

  4. Meg Groeling says:

    I am so pleased this column is developing a following. I love reading the replies, and each reply helps direct my next choices. Thank you all so much.

  5. David Clark says:

    “So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the
    sand,
    In nature’s reverie sad, with hinged knees returning, I enter the
    doors–(while for you up there,
    Whoever you are, follow me without noise, and be of strong heart.)”

    I am now a old man and a combat veteran, and have studied this and other wars for many years. I find Whitman’s words inexpressibly sad and beautiful. That one of this nation’s greatest poetic voices was there to give care and to bear witness to the suffering seems a powerful act of Grace. How fortunate we all are to be able to read his words. I am moved to tears.

  6. Toddvjsnus says:

    Or listen to the poem set to music for chamber orchestra and baritone by John Adams

  7. Katy Berman says:

    Thank-you. I found myself drawn, more and more, into the scene.

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