Beat! Beat! Drums!: War, Walt Whitman, and Where the Two Stood

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An anaylsis of Walt Whitman's Beat! Beat! Drums!


24 November 2010


Beat! Beat! Drums! And First O Songs, For a Prelude by Walt Whitman


Is war ever justifiable? Is the glory of fighting for a nation better than never fighting at all? There will always be people who are strongly for one side, if not the other.  The understandable viewpoint is probably the side being against war for reasons of trauma, loss and most of all death. How could a person cope when they have experienced even the possibility of these things? One way of coping is through forms of liberal arts like poetry. Albeit Walt Whitman never fought in the war, he received a great taste of the effects of war in the 19th century. The horrors of seeing wounded men lying broken in hospitals very profoundly changed Whitman and he expressed what he saw through his craft of poetry. Previously he wrote on war without really seeing what happened in Beat! Beat! Drums! However in First O Songs, For a Prelude, he had seen it. For this report, I will compare lines in Beat! Beat! Drums! and First O Songs, For a Prelude to present the before and after effects of experiencing war which changed on Whitman’s writing. The Civil War deeply influenced not only Whitman’s life, but his writing as well over time.

Walt Whitman did not become involved with the Civil War until 1862, when his brother George Whitman, was wounded. He travelled to visit his brother, but ended up staying to help with the rest of the wounded soldiers. Whitman wrote “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil war. While in New York City, he began writing after hearing the news of the firing on Fort Sumner and writing was his way of depicting the response of the people (Lowenfels and Homer, 21). First O Songs, for a Prelude was published in 1865 through a collective book of war poems he composed over during his time at the hospital. It was written sometime between 1862 and 1865.

 With the opening lines “Beat! Beat! Drums!—Blow! Bugles! Blow/Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force/into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation” (1-3), the words ruthlessly give a clue as to what this poem might lead to.  Churches are supposed to be one of the most sacred places and should never be disturbed or corrupted.  Whitman’s mother was a Quaker, but their house was not religious at the same time (Roper 82-83). I believe what Whitman wanted to achieve with these lines is the message that in early America, religion, mostly Christianity sects, was a hot button topic that was more dominant than it is today. Whatever this unnamed force was, it was clearly breaking up the church and in almost any religious belief, that would be considered upsetting to God.

“Into the school where the scholar is studying/Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride.” (4-5). At this point we now know this is an anti-war poem. War has been notorious for splitting married couples up and making young men in general stop their lives in order to serve their country. Whitman does not say it is a bad thing; he just sets the scene for the reader to decide. Part of what made Whitman such a unique poet was he let the facts of the situation speak for themselves (Roper 149). Sometimes that is all that is needed and just enough to get the point across. Breaking a newly wedded couple up and stopping a student from his studies to better himself is never considered a good thing. Granted, there were mainly poor men fighting these battles (Zinn 69), and young men in general were vital to the war.

“Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering in his grain” (line 6). War called for all men in society to enlist and serve. In First O Songs, For a Prelude, at the rising climax of the poem, it had a similar approach to scenes like this.

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 precipitation;)


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 horses’ back. (Whitman, page 19, lines 21-25)


 He continues to list other professions, all arming up to get ready for a brutal fight. The difference between Beat! Beat! Drums! and First O Songs, For a Prelude is the level of rawness in each poem. At the time Whitman wrote First O Songs, For a Prelude, he was already deeply affected from the war. The style clearly had not changed how he wrote his poems.

“So fierce you whir and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.” (Line 7), sounds like he is a little sarcastic here. From my personal view, it sounds almost as if this call to war is not only overbearing but pressuring. That would explain those affected above (the groom, the student, etc.). America was and still is notorious for spreading all kinds of propaganda—whether it was true or false, just to get people to feel like they must serve. One example is during the Revolutionary War. The elite class was very tactful about telling the poor that it was the King that was oppressing them because they felt the king was oppressing them  and printing anti-British pictures, cartoons, and articles  in newspapers and boycotting British—made goods as well (Zinn, 66-67). Perhaps the same thing was going on during the Civil war, anti-North and anti-South propaganda. This sort of thing could make a person who deeply loves his or her country feel obligated.

In the next stanza of Beat! Beat! Drums! “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.” (9-10), he is now starting to set up the scene of homes being broken.  I believe these sleepers are the young men who go into war, and the ones who prepared these beds are their mothers and maybe even their wives. In First O Songs, For a Prelude, the lines “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)” (Whitman, page 19, line 35) goes more into how the mother is feeling. She does not want her son to go into war but she lets him. Whitman often received letters from mothers of soldiers while he did his work in the Washington Hospital and he even wrote to his own mother stating that the letters were so heart breaking that they nearly made him cry (Roper 191).

“No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would they continue? Would the talkers be talking? Would the singer attempt to sing?” Whitman has not expressed the result of war at this point, he is merely speculating. “Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?” Even lawyers are called to war. It is beginning to get a little extreme now. At this rate, there would hardly be anyone left in the city. At the beginning of First O Songs, For a Prelude as a sort of introduction, he writes:

Aroused and angry, 
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war; 
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d myself, 
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead. (16, Whitman)


I see First O Songs, For a Prelude as an aftermath to the questions in Beat! Beat! Drums! Everyday Whitman was surrounded by death. Soon it just becomes something that just happens every day. In his personal diary, Whitman wrote:

“Death is nothing here. As you step out in the morning from your tent to wash your face you see before you on a stretcher a shapeless extended object, and over it is thrown a dark grey blanket… it is the corpse of some wounded or sick soldier of the reg't who died in the hospital tent during the night-- perhaps there is a row of three or four of these corpses lying covered over.” (Whitman's Drum-Taps  and Washington's Civil War Hospitals)


Perhaps Whitman was angry that the practice of disregard for human life was happening at the hospital and he did not fully understand this until he actually saw it first hand. According to Angel Price in her article Whitman's Drum Taps  and Washington's Civil War Hospitals, in order to better understand the rawness and sadness of the poems in Whitman’s Drum Taps, you had to understand the conditions of the hospitals. Doctors only received two years of medical schooling with very little hands on practice. Aside from the very less than thorough practice of sanitation, surgeries were even more harsh due to no asnesthetic (Drum Taps  and Washington's Civil War Hospitals). So we can get the idea that men may  have come into the hospitals alive and injured. However due to low levels of cleaniless, we can ultimately say they died anyway.

“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” (16-19). I interpret this that maybe there was some urging for the young men to go into to war, but the speaker is telling them that their pleas should not be heard because the war must be fought. The poem ends with “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.” (20-21). I sense that even before he went to the Washington hospital, and even before his brother was injured, that he was never really big on war. Toward the end of First O Songs, For a Prelude, Whitman writes of even the hospitals arming up to take on wounded soldiers and women lining up, ready to nurse

All the mutter of preparation, all the determin'd arming,

The hospital service, the lint, bandages and medicines,

The women volunteering for nurses, the work begun for in earnest, no

mere parade now; (Whitman, page 20, lines 23-24).


Everyone is so ready for war. The tone is still sarcastic, but seeing the facts laid out makes the reader wonder or probably think twice about war.

From the way Whitman wrote, the changes in how he wrote about these wars are so drastic that you would not know if it was his writing or not. The circumstances merely changed because he only gained experience. Whitman, being a man of pure compassion, poured more heart into the poems because of his deep affection.





Price, Angel. "Whitman's Drum Taps and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." The Capitol Project. 20 November 2010 <>.

Roberts, Edgar V. Literature: An Introduction to reading and Writing. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2008.

Roper, Robert. Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. New York, New York: Walker & Company, 2008.

Walter Lowenfels, Walter Lowenfels, Winslow Homer. Walt Whitman's Civil War. Da Capo Press, 1989.

Whitman, Walt. Drum Taps. BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New york, New York: Harper Collins, 2003.




Submitted: October 19, 2011

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