‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ by Walt Whitman is a three-stanza poem that employs no visible rhyme scheme beyond the work’s tendency to begin and end each stanza with lines that conclude with the word “blow,” and the trio of stanzas are ordered into groups of seven lines each.
Even without the rhyme scheme then, there’s organization behind Whitman’s poem that offers structure and format that’s consistent throughout the work with those stanza factors. This structured format is strict enough to parallel military concepts, which is fitting as from start to finish, the purpose and theme behind the poem are based on ideas and consequences of war.
Given that this poem was written around 1861 when the American Civil War was beginning, assuming that the military catalyst that prompted this poem—and the central topic of the work’s imagery—is that specific war would be a fair gesture, and the commentary that Whitman provides in regard to that war is that it’s all-encompassing and negative.
Beat! Beat! Drums! Analysis
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.
This first stanza of ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ wastes no time in diving into the military concepts by calling on the “drums” and “bugles,” both of which are instruments that have historically been linked to military orders and direction. The notions of a bugle or trumpet blaring for a battle and a soldier tapping out a distinctive rhythm on the field are common ones in regard to battles in history, and within that first line, Whitman brings the reader to those concepts to introduce the setting in a clear tie to battle. Wherever this poem will go, the reader could have no doubt where the journey is beginning, and that beginning is in combat.
The analysis of war’s effect on society begins with the second line of the stanza when the terrors of military chaos among common people are linked to the “ruthless force” that is warfare. We start sorting through those terrors by being informed that nothing can keep out the effects of the battle—not “windows” or “doors” that a common citizen might have to keep creatures and strangers at bay. Regardless of those barriers, the damage that battle brings will come “through,” and not in kind form. In place of a gentle knock or a slight push, the ramifications of battle will “burst” into homes and buildings with little care. This choice of verb is extremely important in the overall impression given of warfare since “burst” comes with connotations of explosion, surprise, and inevitability, as if nothing could be done to prevent it from happening.
From there, the reader is taken through a series of unpleasant ways in which the battle will spill onto civilians. The church’s “solace” will be stolen, and the reverberations will be so strong that the unity among its members will not endure. Instead, the churchgoers will “scatter” in the chaos of warfare, just as the student’s learning will be interrupted, the newly married couple will be sorrowful, and “the peaceful farmer” will share in that same state of “no happiness.” Even those who have reason to be content will suffer from the effects of the war as the music of battle continues.
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.
The second stanza of ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ dives back into the repeated source of discontent by restating the actions of the “drums” and “bugles.” By returning to this battle-focus, Whitman prevents the reader from straying too far from those basic notions that represent the central theme of the poem. Rather than starting the stanza by proceeding with his analysis on the societal impacts of war, he pauses to ground the reader once more in the battle itself, which is the core happening that leads to the other aspects being discussed in the poem. Once that battle-focus is once more the center of the reader’s attention, Whitman moves on with further analysis in the second line of this second stanza.
The second line of this stanza begins in a similar format as the second line of the first stanza in stepping into the description of how the war is impacting society. As in the first stanza, Whitman begins by detailing how warfare reveals itself in the inanimate aspects of the land, though this time, the effects go “over” instead of “through” those inanimate details. The significance of this prepositional change could be that it provides another level of depth of war’s impact—that just as the ramifications can go “through” us, thereby changing us and impacting us on personal levels, these consequences can also be so grand that grasping them is well out of our reach—that they are “over” our heads and suspended above us.
Once this small variation of preposition marks a new level of impact that is too high for the common citizen to grasp, Whitman turns the discussion toward asking questions, reinforcing this out-of-reach element. Whereas in the first stanza, Whitman made declarations of what was happening, now he’s addressing circumstances in a more uncertain fashion, as if he had been sure about what was happening “through” us, or on our level, but can only wonder what’s happening “over” us. All he seems to say throughout the rest of the second stanza with any confidence is that “no sleepers must sleep,” which feels understandable if a war is “through” and “over” us, and that the music of war will increase as the “drums” play “heavier,” and the “bugles wilder blow.” This could give a reason as to why the ramifications suddenly become “over” society in this stanza as the escalation of the instrumentation signals an increase in warfare intensity that could take the consequences of war to much harsher levels.
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.
Again, Whitman brings the reader back to that central focus of “drums” that “beat” and “bugles” that “blow,” but once that area of concentration is reestablished, he forsakes the perspective of the pitiful townspeople and countrymen to instead embolden the war that’s plaguing the land. He makes the command to those war instruments to “[m]ake no parley” or “stop,” potentially not only excusing the situation for its lack of mercy, but encouraging that lack of compassion to the point that those who are impacted—“the weeper or the prayer,” “the old man beseeching the young man,” “the child,” “the mother,” and “the dead”—are brushed off as almost irrelevant pieces of war’s equation who are not to be “mind[ed]” at all. This difference in the atmosphere of the poem seems to mirror war at its cruelest level yet—that it pities no one and offers no comfort as the “terrible drums” play on.
It’s worth noting that in this final stanza, there seems to be a reference to families divided, and that idea would be a particular connection to the American Civil War as soldiers chose sides between the Union and the Confederacy. This aspect can be viewed in the commentary of “the old man beseech[ing] the young man,” and “the mother’s entreaties” being paired in line to “the child’s voice.” These details could be labeled as parent/child relationships that are in distress, which would have been the case for families divided during the Civil War if parents implored their offspring to choose their stances on war differently. Still, the war goes on, and the “bugles blow.”
The humanity within ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ seems to dwindle from the first stanza to the last, from problems that can be addressed with certainty, to issues that can only be presumed, and on to a prevalence of war concerns that outweigh the notion of compassion and human care altogether. Through this method, Whitman has given a viewpoint of war that could be clear—that it affects everything, and that it can effectively take our very humanity from us.
About Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and would become one of the most recognized names in American poetry. In addition to his stance as a poet, he was also a teacher, an editor, and the founder of Long-Islander. He was linked to Romanticism, and his artistry extended to having designed his own tomb before his death in 1892. Read more of Whitman’s poetry here.