Walt Whitman Discovery in Washington, DC



Washington metro riders view an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser” as they climb 188 feet aboard the station’s escalator. The inscription commemorates the selflessness of caregivers during the AIDS crisis. (http://www.alexblock.net/blog)


I have never been one to read a lot of poetry—love to read almost anything, including cereal boxes but was not drawn to verse.  That changed somewhat last October when I was visiting Washington, DC with a friend, and we saw a long, chiseled inscription in the curving granite wall surrounding our Metro station at Dupont Circle.  Upon further investigation, we discovered the quote was from Walt Whitman‘s Civil War poem “The Dresser” (later changed by Whitman to “The Wound Dresser”).  The quote follows:

        Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, 

        Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;

        The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,

        I sit by the restless all the dark night—some are so young;

         Some suffer so much—I recall the experience sweet and sad..

During 1862, the second year of the Civil War, Whitman, at age 43, left his mother’s home in Brooklyn, New York ,to try to locate his brother, George, who had been listed in the newspapers as injured during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whitman actually expected to find his brother dead in one of the numerous make-shift hospitals set up in the Washington area, but instead, found George only slightly wounded and safe near Falmouth, Virginia. Thus began Whitman’s unpaid volunteer/nursing stint that lasted for the length of the war.  Those that nursed the sick and injured at that time were usually convalescing veterans or others considered to be cowards for not actually being on the field in the thick of  the fighting.  There was no formal training involved.  The first time Whitman visited the Falmouth facility, he was met with the unimaginable sight of “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands etc…a full load for a one-horse cart.”  Needless to say, conditions in the hospitals were horrendous, and many soldiers would conceal minor injuries so as not to be admitted.

Interior of a Civil War military hospital 9 http://spotlights.fold3.com/)

Interior of a Civil War military hospital  (http://spotlights.fold3.com/)

Whitman came to know the patients well and began a journal, making note of family stories, injuries, and the likes and dislikes of individuals, providing treats such as peaches, tobacco, tea, stamps, and even fresh underwear!  He felt he was an advocate to these wounded soldiers and often wrote farewell letters home for them,  providing solace and support in what must have been a horrific place.

Of course, this war experience provided Whitman with ample inspiration for his poetry and prose.  At one point, he wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself.”

For years, scholars have speculated about Whitman’s sexuality, but have found no real proof he ever experienced a relationship with another man.  This will prove an interesting fact given the next part of the story.

Dupont Circle, considered to be in the “old city” part of Washington, had been in decline until the 1960’s and 70’s, when it became something of a “hippie” hangout with a large gay population.  It was there they felt accepted and free to live as they chose—many for the first time in their lives.  Unfortunately, the AIDS crisis was growing at this time, and many afflicted with this dread disease lived in the area.  Those with HIV/AIDS needed many caregivers to cope with and assist them in their daily lives, but  lack of information and fear of contagion meant it took great courage and fortitude to nurse the sick. There was no cure or real treatment, and as time went by, thousands died of what became known as “gay cancer.”

After many years, research discovered certain drugs in special combinations (called “cocktail drugs”) were helpful in prolonging the lives of those infected with the virus.  Though there is still no cure, at least these patients have hope of living longer.

AIDS vigil at Dupont Circle (Borderstan.com)

AIDS vigil at Dupont Circle (Borderstan.com)

On July 14, 2007, Washington, DC Council member Jim Graham unveiled the Whitman quote at the Dupont Circle metro station as homage to the countless nurses, doctors, aides and other volunteers who risked their own lives to care for those suffering with HIV/AIDS.  Every year since, on World AIDS Day, crowds gather in a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to the caregivers and to honor those who have died.  It is also an opportunity for local medical staff and volunteers to provide the latest information about the disease and to encourage those newly diagnosed to pursue treatment.

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Looking back to Walt Whitman’s devoted service to the wounded and dying soldiers of the Civil War, it seems fitting to use his words to praise all the selfless caregivers who sacrificed their own safety to bring comfort and care to the afflicted in Dupont Circle.

The 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass contained this preface, which was left out of subsequent editions:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.


Do you have a favorite poet?  Why were you drawn to him/her?


20 thoughts on “Walt Whitman Discovery in Washington, DC

  1. Susan,
    Until this post my go-to poets have all been women—-Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson (of course), Christina Rosetti, Karla Kuskin (children’s poetry) , —-but Whitman’s 1855 preface may change all that. Perfect in every way. Thanks for this.

  2. I don’t have a favorite poet–I have many favorite poems. For the most part, they are poems I taught. Like most people, I used to find reading poetry difficult. But teaching changed all that. I learned that I must read a poem more than once–many times in fact. I believe that if you can read a poem only once and “get” it totally, then there isn’t much there. I never grow tired of such poems because they always offer me something new.

    What most appeals to me is imagery, and so my favorite poems are those rich in imagery. You’ve probably read them, too. I suggest you give them another look–“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (Eliot), “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” (Donne), “Ode to a Nightingale,” (Keats), and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” (good stories, too!).

    Anyone interested in improving his poetry reading skills should consider Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry.

    • Guess I’m going to have to check out Mr.Perrine’s introduction to
      poetry and dig in! Thanks for the suggestion–always learning!

  3. Great post! I didn’t know the consummation of his sexuality was even a question – cool conflict. Me, I’ve always had a big soft spot for Rainer Maria Rilke. Like, wanted to name my son after him:) I’ve always been drawn to Baudelaire, Dickenson, and pretty much anyone lyrical and morose:)

  4. Thanks! I didn’t know anything about Whitman’s Civil War nursing
    and really enjoyed doing the research. I also fell in love with the
    “Leaves of Grass” preface included in the post, so guess some
    research on his poetry is in order!

  5. We were recently introduced to Billy Collins poetry by a long time friend and enjoyed hearing some of his poems. I also do not read a lot of poetry, but find when it is read aloud I seem to “see” it more clearly! Thanks for this post, the excerpts you included were reminders of how much I enjoy the imagery of poems.

  6. Thanks, Sandy–I have acquired a new appreciation for poetry
    by doing the research for this post. And connecting Whitman and
    his nursing with the care of AIDS patients was simply amazing.
    Appreciate your comments! And stay warm–yall have another
    big storm coming!

  7. Wow. What an incredible post. Leaves of Grass was required reading in college, and I never gave Whitman one thought after it was finished.

  8. Always a story behind a story, or in this case a poem–maybe now
    you might want to read Whitman again with a different perspective.
    This whole Dupont Circle/Whitman connection just blew me away.
    Thanks for your response!

  9. Follow-up: As a result of this post, Susan, I bought a copy of Leaves of Grass and have been enjoying it as if brand new. Reading bits of it aloud to myself every morning. Wow. Also—I loved the preface you quoted so much (it really is stunning) that I re-quoted it in my own blog in most recent post, titled “Advice from an Olive and Walt Whitman . . . ”

  10. Deb–how well the Whitman quote fit in with your beautiful blog
    entry about the olive shell’s journey! So glad you have re-discovered
    this amazing poet–he has a lot to teach us. And I’m going to make
    it a point to read your nature blog–loved the entries I read.

  11. Pingback: Guide to the classics: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the complex life of the 'poet of America'

  12. Pingback: Guide to the classics: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the complex life of the 'poet of America' | Activeline

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  14. Pingback: Guide to the Classics: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the Complex Life of the ‘Poet of America’ | Amos

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