What are the motifs in "Beat Beat Drums" by Walt Whitman?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dark shades in the tone of his verse permeate Whitman’s Civil War lyrics. For, his experiences as a wound dresser in which he saw first hand the destruction of young men's bodies and minds left a lasting impression upon the sensitive poet. His poem about the overwhelming force of war, "Beat, Beat, Drums" has repetitive sound devices, anapora, and sweeping images, all of which are driven by an almost mechanical force of insistence. Clearly, then, the motifs are that of disruption, ruthlessness, and inevitability. Coursing through the entire poem is a driving imperative mood that suggests the insistence of these motifs.

DISRUPTION

"Through the windows--through doors--burst like a ruthless force" is the imperative given to the drums, instruments used in war to direct the march of soldiers into battle. The theme of the mighty, unforgiving, all-inclusive force of War prevails throughout the three stanzas of Whitman's poem as this force disrupts the scholar, the bridegroom, the merchant, the singer, the lawyer in court, the worshiper, the elderly, the young, the mother--even the dead as they "lie awaiting the hearses." The inflexible imperatives at the beginning of several lines suggest the strength of this disruption.

RUTHLESSNESS

War that so cruelly destroys crops and takes youths from their homes is conveyed in the first stanza:

Leave not the bridegroom quiet--no happiness must he have now with his bride.
Nor the peaceful farmer...ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound your drums--so shrill you bugles blow. (ll.5-7)

Again, the imperatives that disrupt the activities of people also suggest the unmerciful demands of war upon people, such as:

Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses, (ll. 19-20)

INEVITABILITY

Certainly, the repetition of such emphatic lines as the first of each stanza--"Beat!beat!drums!-blow!bugles!blow!''--connotes the insistence of war and its inevitable affect upon the lives of all the countrymen who are swept up in its terrible destruction. Indeed, this inevitability is suggested well in lines 9 and 10:

Are bed prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers' bargains by day--no brokers or speculators--would they continue?

Whitman's use of anapora [the repetition of phrases at the beginning of lines] and the use of the imperative mood with all its exclamation points present visually this insistence of a marching fate, the master of war that is so well expressed in the last line: "So strong you thump O terrible drums--so loud you bugles blow."

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