History pop quiz! When did the American Civil War begin? Come on, you know this one… yep: 1861. And fancy that, that was the same year that Walt Whitman first published "Beat! Beat! Drums!" in Harper's Weekly. Coincidence? We think not.
Walt Whitman loved to write about his country: he's actually known as the founding father of American poetry. So it was kind of a big deal when something – namely, a civil war – threatened to either break up or redefine his beloved nation. It's no surprise, then, that he wrote a poem in response.
Throughout his life as a poet, Whitman often praised the newness and diversity that he thought America represented, but he also celebrated ideals of camaraderie, unity, and solidarity. So you can imagine that the outbreak of a war pitting Americans against Americans was a big deal to him. And although the information we have about Mr. Whitman during the early years of the war is pretty sparse, we do know that he was definitely invested in it: he visited many of the wounded in the Brooklyn hospital, and two of his brothers fought in the war (one died, one was wounded).
Like he did for many of his poems, Whitman revised "Beat! Beat! Drums!" later on in his life. We've used the first version here because it's the one written in the midst of the war's escalation, and because, well, we like it a little better. Hey, we're allowed.
Yeah, we know. The Civil War was a long stinkin' time ago. There have been plenty of wars since, and surely those things they were arguing about – you know, like states' rights and slavery – have no relevance in today's world.
Wait, what's that? You've heard politicians still arguing about the balance of power between federal and state governments? You've noticed that racial tensions still exist? You've seen news stories about controversies concerning the Confederate flag? Maybe this whole Civil War thing isn't so irrelevant.
Of course, like most great poetry, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" doesn't have meaning for just one historical moment. The poem confronts the impact of war on communities and families throughout history. The way it bursts in, turning the normal order of things on its head and totally disrupting people's everyday lives. Regardless of your political opinions, it's fair to say that the realities of war are relevant to pretty much all people throughout all human history.
So yeah, we'd say it deserves a poem.