Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"First O Songs for a Prelude" (1865)
Author:
Gilbert, Sheree L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"First O Songs for a Prelude" appeared under the title "Drum-Taps," as the opening poem in Whitman's 1865 collection Drum-Taps. It retained its initial position when moved to the "Drum-Taps" cluster of Leaves of Grass in 1871 and subsequent editions, although it was prefaced in 1871 and 1876 by an untitled four-line epigraph. In 1881 the poem took its first line as its title and the epigraph reappeared in "The Wound-Dresser" (lines 4–6).

"Prelude" establishes the dominant symbol of "Drum-Taps" in its second line, with its call to "Lightly strike on the stretch'd tympanum." The entire poem celebrates the call to arms and the nervous, excited response of a democratic nation heeding that call. Whitman records the pageantry and energy of "Manhattan arming," responding "to the drum-taps prompt." The city is seized in a fervor of frenzied patriotism. In his litany of professionals laying down their work and taking up the challenge of war, only the mother demurs, and yet "not a word does she speak to detain him," making a noble sacrifice. "Prelude" is the celebration not of a professional army, but of the army of the Democracy rallying to the defense of a threatened Union. Within the cacophony of enthusiasm, however, there is a somber note of "determin'd arming "; these men and women know they shoulder tremendous responsibilities.

This poem has been read as autobiographical in nature, with several of the vignettes in the poem linked to actual occurrences in Whitman's life. His varied responses to the war are reflected by the changing tempo of the drum-taps throughout the group. In "Prelude," Whitman creates the constant and incessant "strike on the...tympanum" through his use of alliteration, homoeoteleuton (clauses successively ending with the same sounds), the rhythm of present participles capturing the arming in progress, and a one-sentence structure indicating the city's single continuous, relentless challenge that is inspired by its beat.

"Prelude" celebrates the glamorous veneer of war that Whitman had witnessed through military pomp and parade. He welcomes the Spirit of War, for he sees it as bringing new life to the land and energizing the potential of the common man. As the "Drum-Taps" poems progress, however, a darker, more ominous Spirit of War reveals its terrible power over the nation.

Bibliography

Cannon, Agnes Dicken. "Fervid Atmosphere and Typical Events: Autobiography in Drum-Taps." Walt Whitman Review 20 (1974): 79–96.

Davis, Robert Leigh. "Whitman's Tympanum: A Reading of Drum-Taps." ATQ 6 (1992): 163–175.

Hudson, Vaughan. "Melville's Battle-Pieces and Whitman's Drum-Taps: A Comparison." Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 81–92.

Kinney, Katherine. "Whitman's 'Word of the Modern' and the First Modern War." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 7 (1989): 1–14.

McWilliams, John P., Jr. "'Drum Taps' and Battle-Pieces: The Blossom of War." American Quarterly 23 (1971): 181–201.

Sullivan, Edward E., Jr. "Thematic Unfolding in Whitman's Drum-Taps." Emerson Society Quarterly 31.2 (1963): 42–45.

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


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