Beat! Beat! Drums!


Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying,
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.

*

The twenty-one line poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” first appeared in the September 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, and the newspaper the New York Leader, and was reprinted in newspapers across the United States. In 1865, the poem was included in Whitman’s Drum-Taps, a collection of poems in which Whitman attempted to provide an account of the Civil War. At the time that Whitman published this poem, the Civil War was only a few months old, having started in April of the same year with the Confederates’ firing on Fort Sumter. Even in these early months, Whitman had a personal investment in the war as his brother, George, volunteered to enlist in the Union Army. Whitman would remain connected to the war and the Union’s efforts throughout its duration.

The poem begins by calling forth familiar sounds of war: the beat of the drums and the blow of the bugle. In fact, the line “Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!” is repeated as the opening line for each of the poem’s stanzas, the refrain creating a repetition of sound and rhythm steady and war-like. These sounds of war are described as carrying a “ruthless force,” capable of breaking through barriers with seemingly no limits to the scope for which they are heard. As the first stanza progresses so too do the sounds of the drum and bugles, interrupting the lives of a diverse crowd of individuals ranging from the scholar at school to the farmer in his field.

In the second stanza the poem asks five questions that together ask if seemingly normal everyday activities will continue as these sounds of war continue to spread. From asking if “beds are prepared for sleepers” to wondering whether “talkers be talking” and “singers attempt to sing,” the speaker’s preoccupation with the idea that the sounds of war are impacting everyone continues to grow.

In the poem’s final stanza, the poem turns yet again, no longer asking questions but instead speaking again to the force of the sounds of the drum and bugles and their inability to stop for anything nor anyone. In fact, the speaker seems to be commanding the drums and the bugle, ordering them to “stop for no expostulation.” Similarly, the speaker seems to command the sounds to “mind not” a cast of individuals who might have objections to the course of the war—”the timid,” “the old man beseeching the young man,” “the child’s voice … nor the mother’s entreaties.” The sounds of war, it would seem the poem concludes, must go on.

John E. Schwiebert, in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, focuses on the contradictions between the values of peace and war in Whitman’s poem. Schwiebert explains that when one places the questions asked by the poem’s speaker and the protests for peace made by the old man, child, and mother in the third stanza in context with what is known about Whitman’s own beliefs, a sense of “thematic ambivalence” becomes apparent. Here, Whitman’s stance on the war can be summarized as “unwelcome but necessary.”

Bibliography and Further Readings “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Poetry Foundation; “Published Works: Periodicals.” The Walt Whitman Archive; M. Wynn Thomas, “Whitman and the American Democratic Identity before and during the Civil War,” Journal of American Studies, 15.1 (1981); “Whitman and the Civil War.” The University of Iowa – International Writing Program; “Whitman’s Drum-Taps in a Time of War.” Academy of American Poets; John E. Schwiebert, “Commentary: Selected Criticism,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (1998).

Credits Composed by Nicholas Yialiades, Fall 2018. Reading by Nicholas Yialiades. 

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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