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!”

Poetry vs. Nonfiction

What are some of the main differences between poetry and standard nonfiction?

  1. the obvious:
    – form: what drives it?
    – content
    – rhythm
  2. clarity vs. ambiguity
  3. rhyme (does nonfiction rhyme?)
  4. density -> concentration
  5. purpose of information
  6. role of TRUTH (post-truth?)
  7. use of page
  8. sonic/sensual
  9. everything + nothing
  10. scope -> scale
  11. language: stability and instability / different kinds of exact
  12. time
  13. audience
  14. spectrum of difference
  15. market
  16. there’s no money in poetry 😦



Class Notes: Week 1

This class focuses on teaching an American tradition which looks at the places where the poetic mind and the reportorial mind find ways of intersecting.

When reading, focus on the one book each week, then read the articles.

  • Why does Whitman refer to some pieces as poems and others as reports?
  • Email poems around by Friday.
  • 40,000 eggs?!
  • Chapbook – polished thing
  • Folders – drafts & processes
  • Errol Morris: Documentary filmmaker, what is it to craft a nonfiction truth?


  1. Write a letter (refer to syllabus)
  2. Write a ballad
  3. Read civil war poetry and prose
  • Tom Sleigh: Display of collector’s hunger/sensory hunger?
  • Paul Muldoon – notes towards getting round
  • Role of theoretical
  • New Yorker podcast – there’s someone whose job it is to fact-check poems
  • Ballad: a series of small, intense sound snapshots
  • Auden – Fall of Rome – reclaiming the ballad as a modern form


  1. Don’t worry too much about making it look like a ballad, e.g. we don’t necessarily have to keep i the ABAB rhyme scheme.
  2. Try to think more about what a ballad is and what it is for.
Class Notes: Week 1