The Civil War was a big break in Whitman’s poetry. Sometimes, he’d drive you nuts before that with his oh, what a great country we are, marching towards this glorious future!—all that Emersonian optimism. He saw this vision of collective humanity in this country that he really believed in. He expected all good things would happen from this very energetic and attractive people. And then, boom—the war.
In 1862, his brother is wounded, and Whitman goes down to find him. He then becomes a wound dresser, as they used to call them, in the hospitals around Washington, D.C.—helping to attend to the sick and dying. At this point, a tragic note enters his poetry. This is not the same Whitman. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the great Lincoln poem, for instance, there’s no jingoism at all—just tragedy.
“A Sight in Camp” begins with the narrator waking up, leaving his tent, and seeing a row of covered bodies:
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
It’s just so matter-of-fact. There is not an extra word. Everything is completely pared down to the essentials. The whole thing is so understandable, vivid, poignant, troubling. “In the cool, fresh air”: right away, we’re there. We know what it’s like to be there with the “sleepless” narrator, who has seen these kinds of things before. And those shrouding army blankets—that detail is so interesting. Nothing is sticking out—no foot, nothing. Everything is completely covered. We don’t want to lift those blankets.
But Whitman does. There’s a kind of choreography in the poem. One by one, he lifts the blankets to take a peek.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Whitman had compassion. He understood these were unique lives that had been extinguished, three examples among countless others. Empathy is one of the strongest things in Whitman from the very beginning. And as I read this, I really feel sorry for that old man. And of course, for the kid—young guy, who goes to war to be a hero and gets killed. The whole poem is a live wire vibrating with feelings. It manages to be both restrained and emotional as he speaker uncovers those bodies and looks in horror at their faces.
And then we reach the final, shocking stanza:
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
We keep killing Christ, or someone Christ-like, over and over again. It’s a vision of our collective madness. Of course, in Whitman’s time there were a lot of people who read that poem and felt this was blasphemous—the idea of putting Christ there. But this is the power of the poem. I’m not a person who gets teary-eyed reading poetry—other people’s poetry, or my own. But my eyes were moist, and my students looked at me with some discomfort, as I tried to explain it to them what I was feeling.