“As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods” by Walt Whitman (1865)

As toilsome I wander’d Virginia’s woods,
To the music of rustling leaves kick’d by my feet, (for ’twas autumn,)
I mark’d at the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier;
Mortally wounded he and buried on the retreat, (easily all could understand,)
The halt of a mid-day hour, when up! no time to lose–yet this sign left,
On a tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.
Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering,
Many a changeful season to follow, and many a scene of life,
Yet at times through changeful season and scene, abrupt, alone, or in the crowded street,
Comes before me the unknown soldier’s grave, comes the inscription rude in Virginia’s
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.


Walt Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island, New York. Before his transformation into a radical poet, he edited a series of newspapers, worked for printers and publishers, was a schoolteacher, and even published a few short stories and poems, although these are considered unexceptional and conventional. When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, some of the poems shocked contemporary critics with their openly sexual themes.

“As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods” was originally published in 1865 in the collection Drum-Taps. This and the accompanying poems were later incorporated into the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman became involved in the American Civil War in 1862, when he went to Virginia to visit his wounded brother, and then to Washington, D.C., where he became a nurse to wounded soldiers. In both of the collections Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, Whitman’s verse contemplates his experiences with the Civil War, and includes one of his most famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

In this lesser-known poem, the speaker relates a story of walking through the woods in autumn and coming upon a soldier’s grave. The grave’s only marker is a hastily posted sign on a tree that reads, “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.” Despite the anonymity of the fallen soldier, the impression of this scene remains with the speaker over the years, returning to the fore of his mind at unexpected moments.

Like most of Whitman’s other compositions, this poem exhibits a break from traditional meter and form. It adheres to no clear metric pattern, but instead uses the phrase as a unit and end-stops each line with some form of punctuation. The absence of rhyme and meter leaves room for conversational interjections and a casually flowing stream of phrases that lends the speaker the air of a solemn storyteller. At the end of both verses, the inscription on the grave appears, true to Whitman’s characteristic use of repetition in his poetry.

While “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods” enshrines a particular moment, it is also expressive of Whitman’s general experience in the Civil War. In tending to the wounded, Whitman surely came to know the anonymous soldiers not as units that formed the numbered ranks of armies, but as real, tangible people. Although he cannot completely rescue the soldier from an anonymous death, the speaker of this poem attempts to acknowledge him as an individual, unknown though he may be. He remembers him just as those who buried him memorialized him, as a “bold, cautious, true . . . loving comrade,” carrying the memory of this fallen comrade with him through life.