While considering the questions for this week, I failed to see how Whitman’s relationship with the wounded soldiers and his relationship with the reader were all that different (aside, perhaps, from the erotic motives of the former). Or, to put it better, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the two. Whitman portrays the good uncle, the gray poet. Throughout the Civil War writing, he functions less a leader and prophet, a more a healer or empath. He unites the physically fractured soul and body of the soldier just as he unites the intellectually fractured body and soul of the reader and nation. As Whitman tended the soldiers, bringing them fruit and giving them kind words, I even wonder if there was conscious thought that he was simultaneously extending the work of “Leaves,” and healing the men so that they might possibly be able to heal their fellow countrymen. Perhaps he did, because Price comments that it was a hope of Whitman’s that the classes would become united through knowing each other on a personal level.
Morris remarks that “The Wound Dresser” is perhaps an attempt to connect to the soldiers on a “visceral level.” Portions of “Song of Myself” too are just that–attempts to find and connect to the physical portions of the reader, in the hopes that they will learn and accept them as well.
I felt especially this sense of synchronicity within the “The Wound Dresser” (although I won’t dwell on it too much here since I should be annotating it). Whitman says, “Whoever you are, follow me without noise and be of strong heart” (443). This line is almost directly reminiscent of “Song of Myself.” The poem itself also seems to be a connection of body and soul; the first and the last portions deal with memories and dreams. They are the identity of the speaker, the old man knee deep in nostalgia. The second two are action and physicality; this is the body acting out the desires of man, unafraid in the midst of the untouchable, be it putrid or sexual. Perhaps Whitman is not a literal wound dresser here (since as Morris points out, he did not act as one; he was merely a visitor), but rather Whitman is a figurative wound dresser of nation, reader, and soldier, binding the fracture between body and soul and creating the salve of language that will heal them.
In “How Solemn as One by One,” Whitman again unites mind and body of the soldier, although he is not necessarily healing the body Instead, Whitman acknowledges the body, like so many of the “faces studying the masks” (453) (ironically, his use of “face” here dehumanizes the civilians just as much as the soldiers) and seeks to unite and find the underlying soul within, which is so often lost within the countless losses of war. Whitman’s unification here is working backwards in the way that he initially sought to bond his intellectual readers. Rather than locate the repressed body under the layers of mind and celebrated soul, Whitman must find the voice and soul of the soldier under the faceless duty of the body. He does this through persona, in poems such as “The Artilleryman’s Vision” which describe in detail the War through a soldier’s point of view. He also does this through “Speciman Days,” to remind the civilians at home that the soldiers at the front are nothing more than their fellow citizens, with the same needs as their own. Through this, Whitman again serves as bond-maker, healing the fracture that divides the individuals who have seen the horrors of war, and those who have merely read about it.