Rhythm, Marching Band Style
Read this out loud, and tell us what it sounds like.
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill you bug-les blow.
With the exception of "bugles," each of these words has just one syllable. Boom. Boom. Boom. And together the line forms seven iambs – that means we get the sound pattern, da-DUM, seven times in a row. Now, what does this orderly, structured, and staccato sound remind you of? Perhaps a marching band? Aha! Walt Whitman has managed to make his words sounds like the image they are describing. Don't you think?
Repeat the Beat
And did you notice just how much repetition our poet includes this short poem? Just a few examples (among many): "through" (2), "Into the" (3, 4), "Mind not" (17, 18) – these repetitions add to that rigid marching-band sense we had before. The way he repeats words and phrases also leads to a kind of cascade effect. The language picks up momentum, and we get a sense of the rush of energy and emotion brought about by this military band. Finally, these repetitions remind us that these sounds aren't going anywhere. The war is totally non-negotiable.
Speaking of words sounding like what they describe, Mr. Whitman sure does give us a lot of onomatopoeia in this little poem. Words like "beat," "rattle," and "thump" (Lines 1, 14, 21) allow us to really hear the way the music might sound if we were there. We hear in the language a sort of awe, and even terror, at the sound of the drums and bugles and the power and violence of war that they represent.
So why did our poet choose to write this poem in free verse when there's so much structure to the sound? Check out our section on "Form and Meter" for our thoughts on that. You know you want to.