Walt Whitman, “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”

Walt Whitman, early 1863, looking on the Civil War dead:

A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim

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.
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?
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.


And this passage from Whitman’s notebooks:
Death is nothing here. As you step out in the morning from your tent to wash your face you see before you on a stretcher a shapeless extended object, and over it is thrown a dark grey blanket—it is the corpse of some wounded or sick soldier of the reg’t who died in the hospital tent during the night—perhaps there is a row of three of four of these corpses lying covered over. No one makes an ado. There is a detail of men made to bury them; all useless ceremony is omitted. (The stern realities of the marches and many battles of a long campaign make the old etiquets a cumber and a nuisance.) […] Sight at daybreak—in camp in front of the hospital tent on a stretcher, (three dead men lying,) each with a blanket spread over him—I lift up one and look at the young man’s face, calm and yellow,—’tis strange! (Young man: I think this face of yours the face of my dead Christ!)


8 replies »

  1. One of the writers who woke me to poetry, along with Stevenson, Bradbury (who did it through prose!) and later, Stevens and Rich. It doesn’t seem to me that I came out sounding like any of them, but they all put something in the soup, even if it was as simple as making me wish I could.

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  2. That’s a great assortment, you never can tell who, in Heaney’s phrase, your invoked spirits will be. I’ve never read any Rich, but your associating her with Whitman & Stevens might get me to her finally


  3. It’s an odd association, but I’d recommend with all enthusiasm The Dream of a Common Language. A good sampling of my favorite of her work is there — “Power,” “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” and the “21 Love Poems” series in particular.

    Stevenson was my first exposure to real poetry. Bradbury and Whitman had to do with their absolutely joyous just rolling in words, and Stevenson used them with a force that blew me away; it was a recording of him reading “The Idea of Order at Key West” that turned me forever from “I want to write” to “I want to write poetry.” Rich was hugely empowering for me; I liked Plath very much (and still do, though my taste in her poems has changed over the years), but Rich was the first woman poet I encountered who didn’t write from a weak or victimized stance. She was life-altering for me.

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  4. I’m a big fan of Whitman, but this one I find somewhat stilted and disjunctive, as if he is trying to push a point and surround it with metaphor. I think he is at his best when he shows rather than tells, and lets the implications arise from the work rather than bear down on it. Just my opinion, of course.

    Rich and Plath, celebrations of life as much as language. I too changed tastes about Plath as time went on. Started out most liking her Bell Jar and other darker family-mode poems. But wound up much more enchanted with imagistic pieces. Blackberrying ultimately became a favorite of mine. As rich and complex as any, yet always with its feet on the ground and its fingers plucking.

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  5. I agree, a lot of Whitman’s “telling” poems do get tiring, tho for me those are the chest-pounding America-is-big-and-great ones. Much of what he wrote during the civil war, & the dead & dying soldiers he saw, have always moved me, & seemed pretty perfect. I heard it said somewhere that he spent the best of himself, emotionally & poetically, caring for the wounded during the war, & if there’s any truth in that the war poem’s are something like his last great outpouring, even as he wrote & revised for 30 more years.

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  6. Thanks for this, I’ve just ordered a some Rich from the library. My favorite woman poet is still Dickinson; Elizabeth Bishop & Marianne Moore are good but I never thought great. I’m looking forward to Rich.


  7. I agree, the subject is very moving, and his authentic witness undeniably there. Its just the poems as poems that I can’t connect with. Perhaps that was his problem too. So able to render/celebrate things he encountered along the way, but here, face to face with the products of war, the moment outran his capacity to describe them.

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  8. I’m with you on Bishop and Moore; where they hit is amazing, but where they don’t, the work doesn’t reach me in any way other than admiration of the technical. My three women would probably be Rich, Plath, and Dickinson.

    Sadly, a lot of Rich’s later poetry also doesn’t reach me; the more overtly political she becomes, the less I enjoy her work. It’s still good poetry as poetry, but being preached at makes me close books in a hurry. I’d say her work has always been political, but early on it was part of the work, usually within it, not the whole surface point of it.

    Plath has turned out to be a lifelong experience for me. I liked of her work exactly what an over-wound teenage girl would be expected to like when I was one. It’s a shame that’s all most people ever see of her. As I approach 50, I took another look into her body of work and discovered I still love it — but an entirely different set of poems now than then. The experience was so startling and gratifying that I ended up writing a poem about it.

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