Study Guide

Beat! Beat! Drums! Death

By Walt Whitman

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Death sneaks up on us in "Beat! Beat! Drums!" The first nineteen lines focus on the living, and then suddenly, in the final verses, we're confronted with the image of the dead under their shrouds, waiting for the hearse. After we read these words, the rest of the poem takes on a different, darker meaning. Goes to show you: death is such a forceful theme that one brief mention of it can tinge an entire poem.

Questions About Death

  1. How are we supposed to understand the reference to the dead at the end of the poem? How might these dead, under their shrouds, relate to the rest of the poem?
  2. Is it the possibility of death that makes the sound of the drums and bugles so terrible? Do you read the poem differently the second time around, now that you know that death is in the picture?
  3. Why does our speaker wait until the last two lines to talk about death? Especially in a poem about war, you'd think it would make its appearance a bit sooner.

Chew on This

The image of the dead at the end of the poem is a metaphor: it suggests that the American way of life could also be brought to a sudden end.

The image of the dead at the end of the poem foreshadows the deaths of soldiers that will be caused by the Civil War.

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