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Beat! Beat! Drums! -- Walt Whitman

(Poem #887) 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.
-- Walt Whitman
Today's poem is not so much about war, as about the *idea* of war, and the
terrible urgency with which it can sweep through a nation's consciousness,
consuming or overpowering everything in its path.

The structure and rhythms of the poem reflect that urgency - not the
measured cadence of a marching drum, but the rising, almost hysterical rush
of sound as action seeks to displace thought, as the drums 'rattle quicker,
heavier' and the bugles 'wilder blow'.

It is tempting to view this as purely an antiwar poem - tempting, but overly
simplistic. More accurately, the poem is more descriptive than judgemental,
capturing rather precisely the raised emotions and demanded sacrifices of a
brewing war, and the frightening, jealous power with which an idea, a Cause
can grip a people.


Yes, today's poem was prompted by the terrorist attack on the World Trade
Center, and its nascent aftermath. A poem that better resonates with my
feelings, though, is MacNeice's "The Sunlight on the Garden", already run on
Minstrels: poem #757


28 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

SarCanz said...


Thank you for choosing a poem with the terrorist attacks in mind. I live
in Washington, DC, and have been getting first hand reports from a niece who
lives in downtown NY in an apartment that had a view of the World Trade
Center. However, I think almost all Americans have felt personally affected
by this tragedy.

I'm sure I'm not the only one of your subscribers who has been looking
for poetry that speaks to us at this time. I hope others will send you their
suggestions. Regarding "Beat! Beat! Drums!" I agree with your comments that
the poem describes how an idea -- a Cause -- can grip a people. It does
occur to me that the Cause in the case of Whitman's war was ending slavery, a
Cause worth fighting a war if there ever was one. There is real irony in the
fact that his poem just as effectively portrays less worthy Causes.

As I looked through my various poetry books, I found myself coming back
to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's A Psalm of Life. Here in America, one has to
be struck by the way Americans have risen to the occasion: fire and rescue
workers giving their lives trying to save others; people carrying others down
70 flights of stairs; thousands of people lining up to donate blood. I think
the Longfellow poem speaks to that sort of spirit.

Here is the poem. A note in my book says that, "significantly,
[Longfellow] referred to it variously as both a psalm of life and a psalm of


Bruce Alan Wilson said...

Has anyone here familiar with Ralph Vaughn Williams' cantata "Dona Nobis Pacem"?
I'm not sure what year he wrote it, but I know it was between the two World
Wars. It is for baritone & soprano soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and uses
texts from Walt Whitman and the Bible.

It opens with the soprano soloist singing the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, grant us
peace) in Latin, and then jumps right into the chorus singing this text.

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