Walt Whitman, whose birthday is Friday, wrote this poem about the experience of being 71 for Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. It was published in November 1889.
The poem is split into two parts. The first three lines refer to personal “changes, losses, and sorrows,” while in the second three Whitman compares himself to an “old broken soldier” who still manages to report to “the Officer over all.”
Whitman spent 1862 through 1864 working in hospitals in Washington, D.C., tending to Civil War wounded. In the early 1880s, the poet published his book Specimen Days, which was written with the help of his notes from his Civil War experiences.
George Hutchinson and David Drews write that this book brought together autobiographical material with observations about the course of American history, consistently linking the individual with the community. This poem, which compares Whitman’s experience of old age with that of the many Civil War veterans still alive nationwide, makes the same connection.
This draft copy of the poem shows how Whitman added “the war of ’63 and ’64” to the end of the third line—an addition that makes the bridge between the autobiographical and the historical explicit. (This is how the poem appeared in its final form on the magazine’s pages.)