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 the 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.
On the surface, this poem seems very straight-forward and simple. Normally, I would leave it at that since I don't believe in looking for symbolism or other meanings in every word of a poem. Sometimes a duck is just a duck. In this poem, however, I think there is a deeper meaning than just telling the story of a soldier reviewing three of his dead comrades early in the morning.
First, let's talk about the setting, early morning in a Union camp. The morning is peaceful, but the speaker is not, due to a sleepless night and restlessness that is the result of uncertainty about whether he will live to see the end of the day. It's also one of those misty, foggy mornings that are common in the early Appalachian spring.
I'm not disputing the story of the poem, by that I mean that this poem is, on its surface, about a man walking through the camp and looking at three fallen soldiers. What I am saying is that Whitman is using this tale to make a bigger statement about the war and the fate of the Union.
We see three men lying under a blanket, each with a different set of characteristics. The old man with his graying hair and sunken eyes, the young boy just experiencing the first blush of manhood and finally the young man in his prime. The first layer of this scene exhibits the broad swath of age that the military required to fight the war. This wasn't today's army of twenty-year-old soldiers. This was an army whose enlisted ranks ranged from very old to very young. Looking deeper, though, the question that kept popping up was why does the speaker see the Christ in the final soldier? It seemed somewhat out of key with the rest of the poem.
Stepping back and looking at the big picture of the poem, it was then that I saw the crucifixion scene: a dead Christ figure with two comrades in death. With this imagery, Whitman is pointing to the stakes of the war and just how important he views the outcome of the fight. Christians believe that Christ died for the sins of the world, both those before his death and especially for those ever after. The two men who died with Christ were robbers; one mocked Christ, the other professed his belief and was told by Christ that he would join him in the kingdom of Heaven.
In this poem, the relationships are different, but the meaning is similar. The two thieves on the cross each served a different purpose, one to show that it was never too late to be redeemed, and one to serve as an example of what happened when redemption was refused. The comrades of Whitman's Christ-figure are also used as examples. The old man exhibits the fight of the old to regain the country they were familiar with and devoted to, fighting for their generation's nostalgia and for future generations' well-being. The young boy symbolizes the innocence lost by the relatively young country; he is literally Innocence dead.
Finally, the third soldier is Whitman's Christ-figure. This soldier, with "a face nor child nor old," is a justification for the lost innocence. Comparing him to Christ is Whitman's way of saying that the soldier's death (and those that will follow him) will not be in vain and has been for the good of the country; those deaths will ultimately redeem the nation. It's the (now) old adage of the soldier dying to protect our liberty. Even a quick glance at Whitman's poetry will show a religious devotion to country, so seeing this soldier as his Christ and the War as his Golgotha is reasonable.
Whether you take it at face value or view it as a symbol of the War as redemption, it's a powerful piece of poetry. The imagery evokes the reality of war by showing how the cost was paid by young and old alike. It's also an example of Whitman's naivety at the start of the war. Having not yet been an eye-witness to the carnage, there is still a hopefulness in the writing that will later darken as the poet sees the true cost up close. His love of country and belief in the cause will not waver, but his tone will change from the optimism of a sideline supporter to the realism of a participating player.