Whitman Says Clean Behind Your Ears

It as been mentioned in class of Whitman’s obsession with the body and physical health–something he later used in his poetry to represent the over all unrest and disruption of the nation. In I Sing the Body Electric specifically he dives into the true love and adoration he has for the human form, which can be seen in the following lines, “The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them, / They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them.” The glorification of the healthy human physique is a deep seated belief that echos in his often sensual language. So to imagine what it would have done to him physiologically to be constantly surrounded with the gory and mangled consequences of the war on the young men who partook in it, is heartbreaking.

At the hospital he had a great attention to the wounds and injuries that he came into contact with, and incorporated it in his poems with great detail. In his poem The Wound Dresser (section 3), for instance he catalouges a few of the gruesome sights he saw on a daily basis;

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 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.)
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
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
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.
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.
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.)

 With Whitman’s worship of the body in mind it is easy to see why these events would prove to be such a strain on his own body, both then and later on at the end of his life. As the film mentioned in class that Whitman felt a direct correlation between his numerous strokes and his time tending to the wounded solders. It also however enlightens us as to why he put forth such an amarable effort during that time to ease the pain of as many men at the time as he could, even at the expense of his own health.


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2 Responses to Whitman Says Clean Behind Your Ears

  1. Anton Vander Zee says:

    A few books have been written on Whitman’s mania for health–it’s a fascinating area of research, and one that I’ve done some work in given my interest in an old / aged / late Whitman. I think it is fascinating to think of Whitman’s aging, diseased body in age as a reflection of the broader body politic during what was called the Gilded Age–a time marked by the failure of reconstruction, the closing of the frontier, rampant corporate greed, and economic depressions.

  2. James Hess says:

    I find it fascinating what the human body can manifest in itself as a result of exterior stresses. The fact that Whitman suffered in old age from PTSD due to his time in the Union hospitals illustrates the severe and grievous impact those days had on his life, further solidifying the impact of his war poetry. A similar example has taken place in my family, though by no means on the same scale as what Whitman faced. As my aunt fought for her life in the face of breast cancer, my uncle, so overcome with stress and anxiety while simultaneously trying to remain strong for her, cultivated Type II Diabetes. Prior to her illness, his doctors considered him to be perfectly healthy and, surprisingly, the only medical explanation they could arrive at was that it was due to stress. Very, very interesting stuff.

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