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The Dresser

A good poem for today.

The Dresser” by Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1867)

THE DRESSER.1

1 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?

2 O maidens and young men I love, and that love me,
What you ask of my days, those the strangest and sud- den your
   talking recals;
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.)

3 But in silence, in dream’s 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.)

4 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.

5 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.)

6 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.)

7 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 looked on it.

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.)

11 Thus in silence, in dream’s projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and the 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.)

1 Whitman served as a nurse in Washington during the American Civil War.

 

Comments

We had trouble with our host today. Let’s hope that’s over now.

So that didn’t work. Let’s hope it’s over now.

I can’t believe nobody noticed this is “The Dresser” and not “The Wound-Dresser!”

But that’s not important. What’s important is gossip. This morning Dan Wickett noticed Im/pet/us Press and linked to both its Web site (Go there from EWN) and to an article about it. While Wickett’s purpose is pure—he promotes small presses all the time, and his efforts in that arena are commendable—JB is every bit the navel gazer she sounds like, which is to say it’s not just promotional copy. How many times I sat in the same room with that woman and listened to her brag about her work! Which was boring! Which, supposedly, she did while writing three novels! Which she couldn’t get published! So she started her own press! Because nobody else understands her! Only she can publish herself, because she understands readers! See a pattern?—and that’s in her copy alone. (I don’t know her partner, though I see him around town sometimes.)

AE, who wrote the article, is a good friend of JB and her ex-husband, whose name she still keeps. AE, like Wickett, is a good man and would probably be altruistic in writing to promote a friend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t a favor or two pulled to get A to do an interview in which they get to repackage their Web site copy as if it were fresh ideas.

i just now sat down to read through the poem, actually… tuesdays are not pretty days for me.

but, i had noticed that when i went to my modern library edition of LG that it was the wound dresser and not 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

this part is very, very nice. he quickly becomes the good ole papa whitman that goes on and on down that road and lane that moves every forward on and on, but the beginning is quite beautiful

Thus in silence, in dream’s projections,
Returning, resuming,
this is also quite nice

“An old man bending I come among new faces” is also a metaphor for the book. It goes with this invocation of the reader: ”(while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow me without noise, and be of strong heart.)”

that too is nice, and you’re right, they go together like bananas and pudding.

OK, I’ve been meaning to write about it, for a few days, but HR’s server troubles—not fixed yet, apparently—have made it all weird. So, briefly, this is “The Dresser,” and not “The Wound-dresser” because it’s from the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. As I remember, the 1867 even separated “Drum Taps” from LoG, in a separate binding, but my memory might not be quite clear there.

The 1867 edition was WW’s first postbellum edition. WW was a tinkerer, and the poem changed (getting “Wound-” prefixed to “dresser” is only the most apparent). It might be good to do some comparisons to the later editions, 1871, 1881, and 1891.

So, a thesis: “The Dresser,” above, is more pertinent as a war poem than later versions from later editions.