Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Beat! Beat! Drums!" (1861)
Author:
Schwiebert, John E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Written shortly after the first battle of Bull Run (July 1861), "Beat! Beat! Drums!" was published in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript on 24 September 1861. It was reprinted in the New York Leader and Harper's Weekly Magazine on 28 September and was included in Drum-Taps in 1865. In 1871 the poem was incorporated into the body of Leaves of Grass as part of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, where it remained through subsequent editions.

Among the so-called mobilization poems Whitman wrote during the opening months of the Civil War, "Beat!" is one of relatively few that employ a quasi-traditional verse structure and form. The work is organized into three stanzas of seven lines each, with a refrainlike repetition occurring across stanzas in the opening and closing lines of each. Like other of Whitman's more successful traditional poems, however, "Beat!" combines traditional and free verse elements. For instance, meter is variable, ranging from dactylic to iambic to iambic-anapestic; line lengths within stanzas are also variable; and Whitman's customary structuring devices of anaphora and parallelism are also pervasive.

The poem depicts peacetime scenes being dashed aside by the frenzy of war. Despite its overt bellicosity, many scholars have detected signs of thematic ambivalence: in the speaker's persistent questions; in the protests of the peace-loving (e.g., the old man, the child, and the mother in stanza three); and in Whitman himself, for whom the war and its totalizing structures were an unwelcome but necessary means of redeeming a divided and increasingly materialistic democracy.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Schwiebert, John E. The Frailest Leaves: Whitman's Poetic Technique and Style in the Short Poem. New York: Lang, 1992.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

White, William. "'Beat! Beat! Drums!' The First Version." Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 43–44.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's "Drum-Taps" (1865) and "Sequel to Drum-Taps" (1865–6): A Facsimile Reproduction. Ed. F. DeWolfe Miller. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959.


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