Equality in “The Wound-Dresser” and “Song of Myself”
The theme of equality permeates both “The Wound-Dresser” and “Song of Myself”. Whitman remarks upon judgments that others make and refutes them with his own ideas of impartiality. These manifest particularly strongly in Whitman’s attitude towards the bravery of soldiers in “The Wound-Dresser” and section 18 of “Song of Myself”. The narrators of both poems point out the valor of the men who fought for either army. The ways in which Whitman arrives at this depiction of equality, however, differ by poem. Through the vehicles of imagery and repetition, Whitman creates a certain tone for each work, which ultimately enables him to effectively demonstrate the equality of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.
In section 18 of “Song of Myself”, Whitman does not recognize the traditional values of winning and losing. He plays “music strong” for the soldiers on both sides of the war, stating, “I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons” (“Song” 362-363). He takes the inevitable byproduct of war, winners and losers, and demonstrates the worth of all men who fight. Whitman first emphasizes the schism, the “accepted victors” and “slain persons”, that has been created through battle and points out the similarity between both armies. In order to reach this equality, Whitman emphasizes those who have “fail’d” and raises them in significance. By playing his song for all men, he esteems even those who have been conquered. He renders them valuable, commenting that, “battles are lost in the same spirit in which they/are won” (“Song” 363-364). In order for Whitman to elevate the unsuccessful men, he must inherently emphasize their defeat. The reader understands the distinction between the sides of the war and gains empathy for the losers through the narrator’s assertion of their worth.
Whitman also discusses the two sides of the war in “The Wound-Dresser” and, as in “Song of Myself”, demonstrates his belief that soldiers on both fronts should be honored for their courage. He calls them “unsurpass’d heroes” (“Dresser” 7) and rhetorically asks, “was one side so brave? The other was equally brave” (“Dresser” 7). He labels these forces, “the mightiest armies on earth” (“Dresser” 9). Notably, it is not “army” but “armies”. This simple act of pluralizing demonstrates the equality of contest between the two. The war does not take place between one weak force and one strong; the two are both mighty. Through this introductory paragraph, Whitman sets the sense of parity depicted in the rest of the poem.
Whereas in section 18, Whitman underscores the different sides of the war to ultimately bring them together, in “The Wound Dresser”, he gives anonymity to the soldiers in the hospital. He fails to mention whether he works in hospitals for one particular side, or whether he travels around caring for anyone who needs him. He refers to his patients only as “my wounded” (“Dresser” 26) or “the soldier”. Whitman asserts equality amongst the armies, unifying all of the soldiers in their experience of suffering. His utter lack of detail regarding even the color of their uniforms (which would give away the army that they fight for) renders the hospitals one non-descript blur. The only details given pertain to the gore of battle injuries.
In “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman creates a dream-like state of recollection. He represents the victims as an anonymous mass of sufferers and fails to label his patients according to the sides for which they fought. On the other hand, section 18 very clearly delineates sides and then attempts to raise the defeated men to the same level of esteem as the victors. Whitman demonstrates equality in very different manners in these texts, and this manifests particularly clearly through his use of auditory senses. In “Song of Myself,” the narrator’s strong claims mirror in his manner of playing music loudly and confidently. On the other hand, the total lack of sound in “The Wound-Dresser” contributes to the dream-like quality of narration, which in turn makes the men equal through a dearth of description and difference, rather than an emphasis of it.
Section 18 deals almost exclusively with the auditory. The narrator discusses music throughout. A musical element pervades the section, with strong diction such as “beat”, “pound”, and “blow” (“Song” 365-366) associated with the narrator’s actions. Additionally, he employs the superlatives of “loudest” and “gayest” to describe his manner of playing. These words that emphasize create strong images, and jump out at the reader highlight the strength of the narrator’s conviction regarding the men for whom he plays. He wants the reader to follow along with the music, to recognize the worth of every fallen man, not simply those who were part of the winning side.
Sound plays a key role in “The Wound Dresser,” too. The utter lack of sound creates a tone that complements the lack of description about the victims. No man singles himself out by crying aloud or making conversation. The narrator aids one man after the next, tending to an endless parade of mangled bodies. This contrasts strongly with the emphasis on music seen in section 18 of “Song of Myself”. The entire account of his time in the hospitals is devoid of any sort of sound. This muted quality resonates because hospitals, particularly war hospitals, would be full of men yelling, men crying out. Therefore, the presentation of the narrator’s experience as a silent one lends itself to this dream-like quality. The editing out of sound is done by the narrator and is a conscious effort on his part. He entreats the reader to “follow without noise” (“Dresser” 24). This soundlessness enhances the impersonal feeling of the hospital. Because no individual cries out, the tenants of each bed become one faceless mass of people. In this manner, the opposing sides of the war are erased. All that remains are the men who used to fight for ideals and who now fight for their lives. The narrator says, “I pacify with soothing hand” (“Dresser” 61) which means to comfort them, but also fits with the silence that characterizes this account.
The tone of each poem further stems from Whitman’s extensive use of repetition. In section 18 of “Song of Myself”, repetition enhances the adulation of the narrator and the musical air of his expression. The last two stanzas have the tone of a salute. Beginning with “Vivas to those who have fail’d” (“Song” 367) and followed by four lines that begin “And to…” evinces an image of Whitman toasting these unsung soldiers. In particular, the repeated “And to” are reminiscent of a coda. They give the poem a certain rhythm that otherwise, because it is free verse, is missing. Furthermore, he uses repetition to highlight the term “heroes” that appears three times in the last two lines. In these instances he lauds the defeated soldiers to set them on the same plane of respect as the victorious ones.
Repetition in “The Wound-Dresser” highlights the relentless torrent of faceless patients. Whitman repeats the phrase “I onward go” (“Dresser” 34), or some variation, several times during the poem. The reader feels the narrator’s weariness as he aids the men, each man as injured as the next. Whether a shoulder wound or an amputated hand, these men endure horrific injuries. Juxtaposed with the “putrid gangrene” the reader expects accounts of cries and yelling. Instead, the narrator recounts his story, “in silence in dreams’ projections,” which is repeated twice. Here Whitman emphasizes yet again the universal suffering, the surreal experience that he witnessed.
Through these two poems, Whitman recognizes the valor of all who fought, and those who serve in other capacities, like the narrators of the poems. It is significant that he gives very little time to the traditionally exciting battle narratives. In section 18 the narrator focuses on the brave men and about the music that he plays for them. In “The Wound-Dresser” the narrator gives a short stanza to the description of battle before shifting his focus to hospitals to the rest of the poem. Whitman applauds the sacrifice of all of the men, and in section 18 he plays music for “the dead” (“Song” 365). Because much of the poem deals with the division of sides, this unifying state of death stands out. Whitman draws the reader’s attention to this common state of being, pointing out that death is common to all. Nearly the entirety of “The Wound-Dresser” focuses on the suffering, and perhaps this is why the tone of this poem gives so little importance to the sides of the war. In these works, Whitman focuses on the suffering of men, and when reading through the lens of equality, the conclusion emerges that suffering and death are the ultimate equalizer.