In "Beat! Beat! Drums!" we get a nice glimpse into the lives of American people. In the eyes of our speaker, the United States is a land made up of scholars, church-goers, and people who are used to going about their business, working hard. But at this moment in time, our speaker's vision of America is disrupted: this is now a country at war. It's easy to see how such a clear vision – an image that seems like a simple slice of American life – can be totally skewed by a civil war.
Questions About Visions of America
Is there anything fundamentally American about the people this poem describes? If Walt Whitman weren't from the United States, could we be sure that this was a poem about the American Civil War?
Do the people described in the poem reflect any great diversity? What do the particular people mentioned in the poem suggest about the speaker's vision of America?
If the poem presents the war as a disruption to daily American life, does this imply that there is something un-American about the war? How is a civil war different from other wars, in terms of a nation's identity?
How would you rewrite this poem if you were writing about the U.S. today? Who would you include in your description of the American people?
Chew on This
The poem describes a wide variety of people – from brokers to farmers, children to mothers, scholars to sleepers – to show that every citizen, regardless of position, age, or gender, is affected by the terrible build up to the Civil War.
Our speaker tends to identify people by the work that they do. Nothing ever changes: even today, Americans are a people largely defined by their work.