Beat! Beat! Drums!

A while ago I thought about putting a war poem on Sweettenorbull to mark ten years since the beginning of the Iraq War. Seeing as this took place from March to May of 2003, I missed the boat somewhat. But war is always topical. The conflict in Syria continues to escalate at time of writing, and could, the television pundits tell us, turn into a ‘regional war’ involving Turks, Israelis and Iranians – even Russians and Americans. We should hope for Syrians’ sake that this doesn’t come to pass, but the chances of a peaceful solution are looking ever slimmer.

Recently, flicking through the ‘Faber Book of War Poetry’, I came across this poem of Walt Whitman’s which brilliantly evokes the way that war disrupts utterly the rules and rhythms, the prerogatives and the priorities of normal life.

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.

Because I’m not that familiar with Walt Whitman’s poetry, I did a little reading around the poem before posting it here, and was much amused to see the following comment on a query site:

Beat beat drums……makes zero sense!?

i have absolutely no idea what this poem is talking about…can someone help me please????

I was surprised by this at first – the poem is hardly oblique: isn’t it obvious that the drums and bugles represent martial music and the march towards war? Of course, I had a distinct advantage over this hapless reader, having read it the poem in a war poems anthology, whereas he or she might not have even known it was about war, or that Whitman wrote it during the American Civil War. It is funny anyway to read the poem from the confused reader’s point of view, imagining these obnoxious instruments strutting about, turning scholars out of schools, sleepers out of their bed and judges out of their courtroom, their motivation and the power invested them utterly inexplicable – ‘makes zero sense’ indeed.

But we all bring a certain amount of ignorance when we read a poem. When I first read Beat! Beat! Drums! I read it as a kind of ‘anti-war’ war poem – not in the sense that it is critical of a particular war or is protesting against war even – but in the sense it creates of war as something tragic and irrevocable, something that blots out beauty and education (that scholar, for example), love and conjugal happiness (as those newly-weds would agree) and that silences all opposition. I thought I detected an implicit critique of the way that war, once in train, brooks no disagreement and allows no dissenting voices. The imperative tone, was I thought, ironic and fatalistic – he calls on war to do these things because he knows it can’t be stopped anyway.

Bearded, but not a hippy!

Bearded, but not a hippy!

In fact, Whitman wrote this poem to rally people to the cause of the Union army. Those sleepers represent the apathetic of America who should, he thinks, be ready and willing to fight and die. He is a hawk, in other words. He is not exactly celebrating that martial music and what it stands for, but he thinks it is necessary, that normal life must be put aside and the war fought, whatever the soldier’s mothers and wives say, whatever the opinion of the old, the timid and the sophistic. The imperative is used sincerely, and death, when it is invoked is heroic and necessary. For Whitman, war is a necessary evil.

(Picture from Wikipedia)

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2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

2 responses to “Beat! Beat! Drums!

  1. This was an interesting piece to read and you might like to know that I returned to it a couple of times.

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