Not Just Digression
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines a parenthesis as being “A comment departing from the theme of discourse; a digression.” It should follow that parenthesized quotes in works of literature should be minor, mere asides from the main themes of the text. Yet Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Wound-Dresser,” tells a different story. Throughout the poem the narrator asserts his opinion in parenthesized lines. These parenthesized lines, which by dictionary definition should just be inconsequential details, are actually crucial in getting to the heart of the poem. They open the doors to the narrator’s mind, illustrating his thoughts on the graphic scenes he recalls. Without them, readers of “The Wound Dresser” could miss Whitman’s point entirely.
The poem begins with young men and women asking the narrator to recount his days as a Civil War wound dresser, expecting him to tell them “of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,/ of unsurpass’d heroes” (Whitman 221). In using the romantic words “passions” and “heroes,” the young men and women make clear that they expect to hear stories about glorious, honorable war deaths more akin to Ancient Greek epic poetry than to the bitter reality of war.
The first time he uses parentheses, the narrator crushes his audience’s hopes of reading about a romantic Civil War experience: “(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,/ But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,/ To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)” (Whitman 221). In these lines, Whitman depicts the narrator’s transforming attitude toward the war. The narrator had been “arous’d,” meaning that he was excited to join the military. The words “urge relentless war” indicate that the narrator felt inspired to fight the other side, sparing them no brutality.
Yet it does not take the narrator long to see the true horror of war. Readers are at this point left to their imagination what specifically caused the narrator’s face to become “droop’d” and “resign’d,” but this imagery comes later. All Whitman indicates is that in the space of one line and in an amount of time he denotes as “soon,” the narrator transforms from being enthusiastic toward the killing of other men to feeling resigned to care for the wounded soldiers. This quick transition emphasizes how little witnessing of bloodshed it takes for one to snap out of the romantic, heroic mindset. All this information about the narrator’s disillusionment with war comes in the form of a parenthesized statement that appears at first glance to be a minor aside, but upon further examination is actually a key moment.
One other important bit of commentary the narrator makes that Whitman places in parentheses comes right after the young men and women ask the narrator to tell them stories of heroes: “(was one side so brave? The other was equally brave;)” (Whitman 221). In this line, the narrator breaks down the walls separating the sides of the war by refusing to believe one side to be more worthy of praise than another. He discards any notion his listeners may perceive of heroes on one side and villains on the other. Moreover, there is no right or wrong in the narrator’s mind; there are only dying men that he must try to keep alive.
The narrator transitions from the poem’s introduction to its graphic imagery of wounded soldiers with a parenthesized warning: “(while for you up there,/ Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart)” (Whitman 221). This comment serves dual purposes. The first and most obvious purpose is to prepare the reader for the blood-soaked images that the narrator describes throughout the rest of the poem. The explicit transition creates an expectation in the reader; it entices the reader to ask him or herself what events the narrator is about to recall in the doors of the hospital. The white space between the second and third stanza of section two enhances the effect of transitional suspense the parenthesized comment created.
The second purpose of this parenthesized comment is to reach out to viewers of his day and forever after. The phrase “you up there,/ Whoever you are” refers to all of Whitman’s readers throughout space and time. One can infer this because he uses the words “up there,” which indicates he is speaking to anyone looking down at the page on which the poem is written. “Up there” can also reasonably refer to today’s readers over a century later since Whitman establishes his intended audience as being universal with the phrase “Whoever you are.” The narrator’s inclusiveness is significant because it claims his message serves as a lesson to members of all societies in all generations. Whitman is making an appeal for his poem’s universal relevance, thereby causing his readers to apply the narrator’s experience to their own lives and to form negative opinions of war based on his poem.
Another use of parentheses worth mentioning comes near the poem’s conclusion: “These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)” (Whitman 222). Here the narrator reopens the door to the possibility of passionate emotion with the image of a burning flame. This passion, however, differs greatly from that of picturesque visions of heroes and romance.
This “burning flame” can be interpreted more than one way. One could take this flame to mean anger toward the injustice that is war. Yet that interpretation does not fit with the rest of the poem. The only other time the narrator expressly mentions anger occurs at the beginning when the narrator confesses to feeling an anger that briefly inspires him to fight the enemy in battle. After the parenthesized transition from romanticism to reality, however, Whitman chooses words that inspire pity: “poor boy! I never knew you,/ Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you” (Whitman 221). Whitman’s decision to call the soldier a boy instead of a man indicates the soldier’s helplessness; he is not a man who can be held accountable but is instead a boy who should be pitied. The narrator believes the soldier is innocent and would rather die than see the soldier die.
The narrator’s attitude of pity steers readers away from the conclusion that he feels a flame of passionate hatred toward the leaders who started the war. On the contrary, Whitman takes care to never blame any particular parties on any side of the conflict for the fighting. Instead, the narrator feels a flame of passionate love for the wounded and dying victims of war. This love is displayed again (not surprisingly in parentheses) in the final two lines of the poem: “(Many a soldier’s loving arms around this neck have cross’d and rested,/ Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)” (Whitman 222). Whitman’s use of the word “loving” is a dead giveaway that the narrator feels love and not anger. In addition, the narrator consummates his love for the men by kissing them. The act of kissing symbolizes the overflowing affection the narrator feels for the soldiers.
Whitman places a parenthesized sentence or phrase at each crucial point of “The Wound-Dresser.” These comments are not in the least digressive as The American Heritage Dictionary might suggest. Instead, they are quite the opposite of unimportant rambling side-notes; they are the most insightful lines of the poem. Whitman’s use of parentheses is a creative and effective method of drawing attention to his main points. This refreshing change from the usual format invites audiences to explore new ways to express ideas in poetry.
Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Ed. James E. Miller, Jr. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959.