Saturday, June 12, 2010

Text Discussion #7: Beat! Beat! Drums! - Drum Taps

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, plowing 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--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.

Before we discuss what this poem is about, let's take a few moments and talk about form.  Whitman was not a poet known for his adherence to the standard poetic forms, nor did he usually hold any one poem to a predictable form.  Here, however, we have a loose form that Whitman adheres to, three seven-line stanzas each beginning with the same line of text.  In their book, Walt Whitman's Poems, Gay Wilson Allen and Charles T. Davis point out that the following six lines in each stanza are "anapestic-iambic in feeling, though trochaic substitution in the first and final stanzas adds force to the throb of the drums." (pg. 201)

The poem was written at the start of the war but before he left Brooklyn for Washington, D.C.  Broadly speaking, it is a poem about how war takes over everything and monopolizes every facet of life, that is, the life on the soil on which the war is being fought.  Looking deeper, we see the march of war from the farms in stanza one, to the city in stanza two.  In stanza three it marches through the battlefield without stopping for diplomacy, through the halls of power where the seasoned statesman tries to reason with the zeal of his younger colleague, and finally through the homes as it takes a father and son to the front.

Throughout the poem is the constant pulse of the drums and scream of the bugle.  These are, obviously, symbolic of the constant news of this time, the secessions, the battles and all the talk that surrounds a march to war.  It seems as if Whitman is encouraging this march forward while at the same time highlighting the effect it will have on everything in the country.  I suppose that could be seen as a mechanism for discouragement (pointing out the cost while sarcastically hollering for war to be waged), and it might be the music clouding a strict textual interpretation, but in this poem I see a clear call to battle by someone who does not yet know--who could know?--what the cost really will be.

This is the only poem that appears twice on my recital program.  I wanted to avoid multiple settings, but could not avoid it with this poem.  In Richard Pearson Thomas's Drum Taps, it is set in its entirety.  In William Neidlinger's Memories of Lincoln, it is set more as a prologue to "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain."  I'll write more about that when I discuss that piece.

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