Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | Beat! Beat! Drums! | Summary



Whitman's speaker addresses the drums and bugles of war, telling them to "beat!" and "blow!" He asks them to alert the public, to call attention to the war. There are many who would go about their daily activities—sleepers in their beds, singers singing, lawyers going before judges—but the speaker implores the drums to "rattle quicker" and the bugles to "wilder blow." The instruments should not stop for anything—not for the "timid" or the child or even the dead.


Whitman wrote "Beat! Beat! Drums!" in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War and revised it in later editions of Leaves of Grass. In it, Whitman's persona asserts himself as the speaker not by using "I" but by using the imperative, giving commands to the personified instruments used in the army corps, the bugles and the drums. Whitman makes good use of exclamation marks to emphasize the loud disturbance these instruments create in "the solemn church" and for "the peaceful farmer." His commands do not actually have an effect on drums or the bugle; rather, they are more of an observation of what is happening. By the last line, the speaker drops any pretense of having control over the war. He simply calls the drums "terrible" and the bugle "loud."

Although Whitman does not usually use iambic meter (where the stress is on every second syllable), he does so in the last line of the first stanza: "So fierce you whirr and pound your drums—so shrill your bugles blow." He also repeats the same line to start each stanza. Perhaps he is commenting that even in the chaos of war, there is some order in the regimental processes of the army, or at least in the steady beat of the drums.

Whitman also employs onomatopoeia, words like "whirr" and "rumble" and "rattle" and "thump" that sound like what they are describing. These words convey a sense of powerful sound to the reader, the kind of ominous sound the "weeper" and "old man" and "mother" might hear as the war comes closer to them.

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