When Whitman incorporated his Civil War book Drum-Taps into Leaves of Grass, he kept this poem as the first poem in what became the cluster of poems called “Drum-Taps.” In both his 1870 and 1881 editions of Leaves, the “Drum-Taps” cluster is preceded by an 1860 poem called “To the States, To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiads,” and it is one of the angriest poems Whitman ever wrote. Like many Americans, he was fed up with Presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, all of whom failed to take the kind of firm and principled action that could have helped prevent the nation from dividing into irreconcilable halves. Whitman expressed his anger in an unpublished political pamphlet called “The Eighteenth Presidency!,” where he wrote: “The sixteenth and seventeenth and 18th terms of the American Presidency have shown that the villainy and shallowness of great rulers are just as eligible to These States as to any foreign despotism, kingdom, or empire. . . . Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, sniveling, unreliable, false-hearted men! Never were These States so insulted. . . . The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States.” In his poem introducing “Drum-Taps,” Whitman exclaims, “What a filthy Presidentiad!,” and he leaves us with an image of uneasy sleeping: “Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these States sleep, for reasons; / (With gathering murk, with muttering thunder and lambent shoots we all duly awake, / South, North, East, West, inland and seaboard, we will surely awake.)”
This sorry state of affairs, the political corruptions and endless stalemates, lead in the poem “Drum-Taps” to a kind of jubilation when something finally begins to happen, when the “scum floating atop of the waters” finally is cleared away by the actions of the awakening citizens, who have decided that they would rise up “at news from the south”—Confederate troops opening fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, the opening shots of the war. At this point, Whitman revels in the energy and the cleansing excitement of his city, “Manhattan,” and he feels “pride and joy in my city” as it goes about the activities of “arming” and volunteering and marching to the drum-taps on the “the stretch’d tympanum” (an image of the military drums, but also an image of the ears of the citizens, as the sound of those drums plays on the tympanums of the ears of the citizens, a million tympanic membranes that are vibrating, registering, and responding to those beating drums of war).
There’s an odd insistence in this poem on “arms” and “arming”: “falling in and arming,” “outdoors arming, indoors arming,” “arm’d sentries around,” “arm’d regiments arrive,” “arm’d! arm’d! the cry everywhere”—“War! An arm’d race is advancing!” But this “race” of young men, excited to enter into battle, will soon find that their “lithe limbs” are about to be sacrificed, as the Civil War stretches from “weeks” to “months” to “years” and becomes the great war of amputation. Perhaps only by the end of the poem do we begin to notice how the word “arm’d” is always contracted, missing a letter, carrying an absence, just as so many of these lithe-limbed young men would return to Manhattan missing limbs: once the “silent cannons . . . cease [their] silence,” then “soon unlimber’d” begins “the red business.” The armed lose arms; the limbed are unlimbed. Built into the excitement of the exhilaration of a fresh start, then, is the dark foreboding of the “hospital service, the lint, bandages and medicines” that Whitman will become so familiar with less than two years later, when he begins moving among the thousands of amputees in the Civil War hospitals of the nation’s capital.
FIRST, O songs, for a prelude,
Lightly strike on the stretch'd tympanum, pride and joy
in my city,
How she led the rest to arms—how she gave the cue,
How at once with lithe limbs, unwaiting a moment, she
(O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless!
O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O
truer than steel!)
How you sprang! how you threw off the costumes of
peace with indifferent hand;
How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and
fife were heard in their stead;
How you led to the war, (that shall serve for our pre-
lude songs of soldiers,)
How Manhattan drum-taps led.
Forty years had I in my city seen soldiers parading;
Forty years as a pageant—till unawares, the Lady of
this teeming and turbulent city,
Sleepless, amid her ships, her houses, her incalculable
With her million children around her—suddenly,
At dead of night, at news from the south,
Incens'd, struck with clench'd hand the pavement.
A shock electric—the night sustain'd it;
Till with ominous hum, our hive at day-break, pour'd
out its myriads.
From the houses then, and the workshops, and
through all the doorways,
Leapt they tumultuous—and lo! Manhattan arming.
To the drum-taps prompt,
The young men falling in and arming;
The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the
blacksmith's hammer, tost aside with precipi-
The lawyer leaving his office, and arming—the judge
leaving the court;
The driver deserting his wagon in the street, jumping
down, throwing the reins abruptly down on the
The salesman leaving the store—the boss, book-keeper,
porter, all leaving;
Squads gathering everywhere by common consent, and
The new recruits, even boys—the old men show them
how to wear their accoutrements—they buckle
the straps carefully;
Outdoors arming—indoors arming—the flash of the
The white tents cluster in camps—the arm'd sentries
around—the sunrise cannon, and again at sunset;
Arm'd regiments arrive every day, pass through the
city, and embark from the wharves;
(How good they look, as they tramp down to the river,
sweaty, with their guns on their shoulders!
How I love them! how I could hug them, with their
brown faces, and their clothes and knapsacks cov-
er'd with dust!)
The blood of the city up—arm'd! arm'd! the cry
The flags flung out from the steeples of churches, and
from all the public buildings and stores;
The tearful parting—the mother kisses her son—the
son kisses his mother;
(Loth is the mother to part—yet not a word does she
speak to detain him;)
The tumultuous escort—the ranks of policemen preceed-
ing, clearing the way;
The unpent enthusiasm—the wild cheers of the crowd
for their favorites;
The artillery—the silent cannons, bright as gold, drawn
along, rumble lightly over the stones;
(Silent cannons—soon to cease your silence!
Soon, unlimber'd, to begin the red business;)
All the mutter of preparation—all the determin'd
The hospital service—the lint, bandages, and medi-
The women volunteering for nurses—the work begun
for, in earnest—no mere parade now;
War! an arm'd race is advancing!—the welcome for
battle—no turning away;
War! be it weeks, months, or years—an arm'd race is
advancing to welcome it.
Mannahatta a-march!—and it's O to sing it well!
It's O for a manly life in the camp!
And the sturdy artillery!
The guns, bright as gold—the work for giants—to
serve well the guns:
Unlimber them! no more, as the past forty years, for
salutes for courtesies merely;
Put in something else now besides powder and wadding.
And you, Lady of Ships! you Mannahatta!
Old matron of the city! this proud, friendly, turbulent
Often in peace and wealth you were pensive, or covertly
frown'd amid all your children;
But now you smile with joy, exulting old Mannahatta!
Whitman’s fervor for the arming of Manhattan, inspired by the electric shock of Confederate forces launching an attack on Fort Sumter, the “news from the south” that jolted the Union awake, may seem perverse in light of the impending carnage. Unable to imagine the scale of bloodshed destined to become a defining feature of America, he celebrates a newfound sense of purpose in his fellow citizens, in sharp contrast to the political uncertainty of recent years. Opera music gives way to fife and drum, complex emotions to simple faith in “young men falling in and arming,” and in the new dispensation the poet’s song is a clarion call to battle, in the tradition of epic bards summoning their brethren down through the ages: “War! an arm’d race is advancing!”
Whitman welcomes this, like a summer thunderstorm that brings relief on a hot and humid afternoon. It will not be long before the drums are muffled for the dead. But for now he catalogues the different ways in which the city rises to the occasion, a hive of activity humming in workshops and houses and streets, all geared to the needs of the regiments and new recruits, “All the mutter of preparation, all the determined arming.” This tumult he will turn into song, making common cause not only with the troops but the crowd cheering them on, the mother kissing her son goodbye, the women volunteering for service in the hospitals: “Mannahatta a-march.”
War has been a constant in Western literature since Homer commemorated the wrath of Achilles in The Iliad, and Whitman’s embrace of the military, at least at the outset of hostilities, is hardly unusual. The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, for example, happily traded his Parisian café life for the barracks during World War One. “I love art so much,” he wrote to a friend, “I have joined the artillery.” Soldiering, he decided, was his true profession, and he took pleasure in training. “We said farewell to a whole era,” he wrote in August 1914, realizing that the first shell fired ushered in a new era, the contours of which he outlined three years later in his essay, “The New Spirit and the Poets.” Here he coined the term Surrealism, the seminal artistic movement of the last century, and what could be more surreal than his realization one day in a trench at the front that the blood dripping onto the newspaper he was reading was his own? The shrapnel removed from his skull scuttled his military career—he never really recovered—and perhaps revealed to him how dream and reality can merge. If war is the great clarifier, concentrating the attention of statesmen, soldiers, and citizens alike, poets praise its glory and mourn its horror. Apollinaire died of Spanish flu two days before the armistice ended the war in November 1918. His poetry endures, marching to the same beat as Whitman’s “Drum-Taps.”
Even though Whitman, through his hospital work, became more aware than most of the horrendous brutality and butchery of the Civil War, he nonetheless kept this boisterous first poem, written at the beginning of the war, in his “Drum-Taps” collection. Why did he want to preserve a poem that seems to exult in the sending of young men to a war that would kill hundreds of thousands and maim hundreds of thousands more? What point does the poem make in relation to the poems that follow it?
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