The two poems I chose to compare and contrast are Langston Hughes' "The Weary Blues," and Walt Whitman's "Beat! Beat! Drums!" Both use onomatopoeia, which is a literary device where a sound is represented by a word that mirrors that sound. For instance, onomatopoeia is found in the "buzz" of a bee, the "snap" of a twig, the "swish" of a broom, or even in "snap, crackle, pop."
Both authors use this device purposely to draw attention to the circumstance they are describing, but each situation is dramatically different.
In Langston Hughes' poem, he is using onomatopoeia to describe the sounds of a musician playing the blues. The story the musician tells in his music is a sad one, where he wrestles with trying to be more positive and the other extreme, wishing he were dead. Examples of onomatopoeia that Hughes uses are "croon," "moan," "droning," and "thump." All these words are related to the sound of the music: the "blues."
The reader can almost hear the song the man plays with lines such as:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon...
Again the sound of the song comes to the reader, almost as if it were traveling through the night:
He made that poor piano moan with melody...
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
Hughes chooses to share a poem that mimics the sound of the blues, played by an old Negro musician who is expressing his sorrows and woes in a song that lingers long after he stops singing and playing.
Walt Whitman's poem uses sound to draw attention, but unlike the "lazy sway" of "The Weary Blues," Whitman's poem "Beat! Beat! Drum!" is a "call to arms," whereby the beat of the drum disrupts the lives of every person within hearing distance to stop what they are doing and come: it is the call to arms to fight, a poem that shares with the reader the changes and chaos war brings.
Examples of onomatopoeia in this poem are: "beat," "rumble," "rattle," and "blow." The "beat" refers to the sound of the drum that disturbs the peace of a normal day, where a "solemn" congregation gathers, where students study, farmers plough, where wheels "rumble" in traffic, a singer sings, one weeping or praying, or even the "dead where they lie awaiting the hearses."
This poem is like an battle hymn, where Hughes' poem was a bluesy song. Whereas the song in Hughes' poem gently carries one along, Whitman's poem is a martial strain: take up arms and follow me!
Beat! beat! drums! -- blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows -- through doors -- burst like a ruthless force...
Langston Hughes' poem, "The Weary Blues," sadly carries the listener along, almost lulling one to sleep. Very different, however, is Walt Whitman's "Beat! Beat! Drum!" that wakes the audience from its lethargic existence to rise up and move!
Whitman imitates the orderly beat of a drum and the rhythmic cadence of an army on the march.
And in closing, Whitman ends his poem with:
So strong you thump O terrible drums -- so loud you bugles blow.
While both poems use the literary device of onomatopoeia, the mood of each poem is extremely different. The use of imagery and sounds enable the poet to move the reader to two very different and distinct worlds.