Beat! Beat! Drums!
by Walt Whitman
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
- Right off the bat, our speaker urges some drums and bugles to play their music. What band is playing this music?
- Drums, and especially bugles, have strong connotations as military instruments. So we have to consider that our speaker might be addressing a military band.
- But remember, he's talking to the drums and the bugles, not to the people playing them. This is an apostrophe (a direct address) to a bunch of inanimate objects. What's with that?
- You might have also noticed (read: you can't miss it) that our speaker seems a tad excited. There are only six words in this line, but each! word! gets! its! own! exclamation! point!
- Whatever is going on, it's got our speaker pretty worked up.
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a force of armed men,
- Our speaker seems to be commanding the instruments to burst through doors and windows. Well, we guess he's probably commanding them to play so loud that the sound bursts through.
- That word "burst" catches our eye. First of all, it's an imperative. Do it, bugles. Do it, drums. Also, it's a pretty violent word. It suggests an explosion of gunfire, or even bombs going off. Hmm, we're thinking we might have been onto something with that military comment in line 1.
- That simile – "like a force of armed men" – seals the deal. We're definitely supposed to be thinking military here, and now we're pretty sure that this is a military band. We might even imagine that it's a unit marching through the city.
- One thing's for sure: there's a definite sense of this being an intrusion. The music is not knocking and politely asking to come in. It's busting down the doors and coming in, like it or not.
- So the good ol' folk who live around here can't really do anything about it. More to come on that, though.
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
- Our speaker continues his imperatives (directions), telling the music to burst into the church and the school.
- This music really doesn't respect any boundaries. It's going into places of worship and study.
- And it's not going in to hang out. It's all about disruption: it scatters the congregation, and (we assume) disrupts the studying in the school.
- So, why does the congregation scatter? Well maybe they really hate drum and bugle music. Or maybe, just maybe, they're avoiding the whole war thing. These people in church and school sure aren't the soldier type: it's up to the instruments to remind them of the war while they're praying and studying (otherwise ignoring it).
- Check out the repetition of the word "into" at the beginning of both of these lines. This is called an anaphora, and it's no stranger to our friend Walt. Keep your eye out for more repetitions like these.
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride;
- Next, our speaker urges the instruments not to leave a groom to his happiness. Now, this is just mean. It's his wedding day – give him a break!
- At least grammatically, our speaker is commanding the music to take this not-so-nice action on an innocent groom. But we can't imagine anyone wanting a newlywed to be taken away from his bride; so does the speaker know something we don't?
- Since we've already seen our guy interrupt praying and studying, and now he's interrupting a wedding, we think there's a message here: our speaker seems to think that the war is so important that everyone – even newlyweds – should drop what they're doing and turn their attention to the war.
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain;
- Same goes for the farmer: our speaker urges the music not to leave the farmer in peace.
- That word "peace" seems pretty significant. First of all, with the drums and bugles and the phrase "force of armed men," we're already on high war alert.
- So we've got a lot of war, and that means there can't be "any peace" – not even for a farmer. So far, it seems to be the instruments' job to keep that peace away. (If you've ever heard a kid practicing his bugle at 8:00AM on a Saturday, you know what we mean.)
- More and more, we're starting to think that this music represents the war as a whole. Wars have a way of disrupting daily activities, even really important ones like growing food.
- After all, in war, farmers get enlisted and/or crops get stolen and fields are burned. Even peaceful people are not left in peace.
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.
- Here, our speaker tells us that the reason the groom and farmer can't have any peace and happiness is because of how powerfully the drums and bugles play.
- That word "whirr" not only conveys a sense of speed, but it also makes the drums sound almost mechanical. Our speaker is already referring to the drums as if they're playing themselves. Making them sound impersonal and mechanical makes their music seem even more inevitable and unstoppable.
- Just like, you know, the war.
- And "shrill" is a bit of a chilling word. It makes us think of a wail, or a lament. Sadly, wails and laments are the sorts of things you hear a lot once a war gets started.
- One last thing: take a second and read this line out loud. Has a nice meter to it, right? Almost like a marching band? Check out our "Sound Check" section for more on the rhythm and meter in this otherwise free verse poem.