Walt Whitman: Civil War Poetry and Prose, “First O Songs for a Prelude,” “Eighteen Sixty-One” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!”

Poems from Leaves of Grass (1891-92)


First O Songs for a Prelude

And the sturdy artillery,
The guns bright as gold, the work for giants, to serve well the guns,
Unlimber them! (no more as the past forty years for salute or courtesies merely,
Put in something now besides powder and wadding.)

This poem can be read as an ode to New York, where Whitman lived at the time of writing. The piece is in praise of the city for arming itself and being prepared to fight as soon as the war needed them. It ends with a personified “Mannahatta” smiling in support of its men as they go to fight.

Eighteen Sixty-One

Arm’d year – year of the struggle,
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you terrible year,
Not you as some pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas piano,
But as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing, carrying a rifle on your shoulder,

I’m enjoying these poems a lot more than the Whitman I studied in second year of my undergraduate – Song of Myself, etc. That said, I don’t see what’s wrong with being a “pale poetling!”

This poem addresses the year 1861 as if it were a person, making it an apostrophe – a “[s]peaker in a poem addresses a person not present or an animal, inanimate object, or concept as though it is a person.” (source) This is a term I only learned this week.

Whitman seems to perceive the year as being a strong, powerful everyman.

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Through the windows – through doors – burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet – no happiness must he have now with his bride,

This piece has the strongest sense of rhythm of any of the Whitman pieces I have read so far and is thick with obstruents – another term I learned this week. This makes sense as it’s a piece about drums and bugles being generally very noisy. The poem is Whitman’s call to arms.


Walt Whitman: Civil War Poetry and Prose, “First O Songs for a Prelude,” “Eighteen Sixty-One” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!”

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