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.

Dive in
  1. Drums and bugles were an important way for armies in the nineteenth century to send signals in the middle of battle. How does Whitman evoke the rhythm of these instruments in his poem?
  2. This poem was written at the beginning of the American Civil War, when many on both sides assumed the conflict would be over quickly. How does Whitman express that confidence and bombast?
  3. The poem wants all normal business to stop – no bargainers, no sleeping, no talking. But of course not everyone will be a soldier. What should the rest of the population be doing while the drums beat and bugles blow?
  4. Even in the midst of his excitement, the speaker of Whitman’s poem has an inkling that war would also bring suffering, as he lets us know near the poem’s ending.  Can you imagine what “the old man beseeching the young man” might wish to say, or what “the mother entreaties” might be?
  5. In many ways the poem is constructed like a song. Try inventing a tune to the poem as you practice reciting it – with the “blow you bugles blow” line as a kind of chorus or refrain. What kind of melody seems appropriate? If you play an instrument, think about what sort of tones or techniques would match the poem. Does the “song” rise into a crescendo or become quieter or more contemplative as you work your way through the poem?
  6. Enter the mind of a young soldier preparing for the American Civil War who hears Whitman’s poem, the drums, the mothers, and the old men. What might he be thinking? Write a poem from his perspective. Or perhaps write a poem from the perspective of his mother, or his sister.


Useful Links

  1. An article from the Washington Post about drummer boys:
  2. A recording of Whitman’s own voice reading a short excerpt from the poem “America,” at the beginning of a new technology in 1890:
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Bibliographical info

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th ed. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).

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