At the beginning and the end of the Civil War, Whitman sought a certain comfort in traditional meters and formal verse. His very earliest, pre-Leaves of Grass poetry was all written in traditional verse patterns and rhyme, so he was well-equipped to set aside his free-verse form at any time and pick up patterned writing again. In “Beat! Beat! Drums!” he plays with an insistent spondaic and anapestic meter in order to set up a pounding martial rhythm that plays through three stanzas of seven lines each. Many readers have been drawn to this poem over the years—Ivan Tugenev even translated it into Russian in the 1870s, struggling to maintain that insistent rhythmic beat, and it was one of the most reprinted of Whitman’s poems as the war was just getting underway, appearing in newspapers from New York to San Francisco and in the popular Harper’s Weekly in September 1861.
Like “Drum-Taps,” this poem can be heard as a kind of recruitment poem, a poem calling the populace to arms. Whitman’s own brother George, an early volunteer in the Union army, had just reenlisted when Whitman began writing “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Whitman took a draft of the poem with him to Pfaff’s beer cellar in Manhattan, where he used to hang out with his Bohemian friends, and read it aloud. One Southern friend took exception, and began a physical fight with the poet until other friends broke up the scuffle. Tempers were running high after the Union humiliation at the first battle of Bull Run, and Whitman was determined to stoke up support for the Union cause.
Like the first poem (and the Drum-Taps collection as a whole), this one plays upon the military drum as it beats the march to war, but we are also always aware of the other “Taps” these drums play, the three strong beats to signal the extinguishing of lights at the end of the day in soldiers’ camps. It was during the Civil War that “Taps” came to be played at funerals for both Union and Confederate troops—the ultimate extinguishing of the light—often with the familiar bugle accompaniment. So the opening line of each of the three stanzas in this poem—“Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!”—offer three strong beats along with one weak syllable—a single note of hesitation perhaps in the otherwise relentless push to war. Just as drums and bugles lead the way to battle, so, too, in playing “Taps,” do they lead the soldiers killed there to the grave.
The poem offers a terrifying image of the war-inducing drums and bugles tearing “through the windows—through doors” of the city with a “ruthless force,” emptying out civilian society by scattering congregations and classes, clearing workers from the farm fields, pulling the bridegroom away from his bride, and sounding louder and more fiercely at any signs of resistance. Whitman seems to undo the catalogs of city and country life with which he famously filled “Song of Myself”: here the infinite variety of activity of the city—“America singing,” as he called it in another poem—is drowned out by the singular sound of the drums and bugles that seek to funnel the variety of life into one unabating unitary purpose—to make the lawyers, students, brokers, farmers, and singers all wear the same uniform and conform to this pressing new need. If the war is understood at some level as the way to preserve this glorious and variegated civilian life, then the very thing the war is being fought to preserve must first be entirely undone.
The third and final stanza gives us the voices of the resisters of this intoxicating martial music—the mother, the children, the “timid,” the old men, even the dead (who, were they able, might warn the young men not to rush so swiftly toward those beckoning battlefields). “Make no parley,” the voice of the poem cries: to “parley” (from the French “to talk”) usually means to meet with the enemy to negotiate or settle a dispute, but here the poet tells all his listeners to avoid talking with anyone who would stand in the way of the blood-lust, for they are the enemy if they try to stop this terrifying, irrepressible march to war.
BEAT! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a
force of ruthless men,
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, plowing 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
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 specu-
lators—Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case
before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder
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 en-
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.
“Here is something we can all count on,” Charles Simic wrote in an essay on the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia. “Sooner or later our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder.” Alarmed by the readiness of intellectuals in its constituent republics to espouse separate nationalist causes, he likened the destruction of his homeland to “watching a man mutilate himself in public.” No doubt many Americans had similar misgivings about the sundering of their country. (It is worth noting that Yugoslavia had about the same population as the United States during the Civil War—and a quarter of the casualties.) Great poets may be fierce nationalists, as Whitman proves, but for Simic the true poet does not belong to any tribe. “The sole function of the epic poet,” he argues, “is to find excuses for the butcheries of the innocent.” Against the epic he offers the solitary human voice, the lyric mode, which elevates the dictates of individual conscience above the desires of the tribe—a useful distinction to bear in mind when reading Whitman’s clarion call of 1861.
The martial pace of the first line in each of the three sections—“Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!”—may startle readers accustomed to Whitman’s versets, which often wander across the page in a leisurely, even prosaic, fashion, gathering emotions, images, and impressions into a larger vision of the whole. But six stressed syllables out of seven make a different music, shrillness and ferocity invading the solemn church, the scholar’s study, the wedding chamber, the harvest, scattering ordinariness to the wind. No time for happiness when there is a war on.
In the second section, Whitman calls into question the routines of daily life, demanding that drums and bugles sound throughout the city, making it impossible for anyone to sleep. For vigilance is the watchword of this new order. And those who would presume to carry on as before, bargaining and speculating, talking and singing and appealing to the judge, will be drowned out, uncertainty giving way to the inexorable logic of war. The voices raised in the final section—the timid and the old, the mother and the child—are as nothing compared to the wild bugles and terrible drums, which will not only call the troops to arms, to march and fight, to rise at daybreak and put out their lights at dusk, but also provide the music for their funerals, such sad music.
Whitman’s use of uniform verses and a steady rhythm in this poem marks it as different from most of the free-verse poetry he is best-known for. He would retreat to more conventional forms at various moments of historical and cultural crisis (as he did when Lincoln was assassinated, with “O Captain! My Captain!”). What is the effect of the steady beat and uniform pattern in “Beat! Beat! Drums!”? If we think of the second half of the nineteenth century as the era when poets began to abandon traditional poetic forms in favor of all kinds of experimental verse, then why do some of the most radical innovators (like Whitman) return to such forms at disruptive historical moments?
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