When we talked about “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in class I was surprised that the idea of war as a form of “moral purging” came into play. From my understanding of Walt Whitman’s experience with the Civil War it seems more that he was overwhelmed by the war than he was fixed upon its moral implications.
Walt Whitman once said “The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for . . . in the hospitals, among the wounded.” I believe that this quote changes the reading of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” The refrain seems to be a call to arms, and the sound of the line “Beat! beat! Drums–blow! bugles! blow!” has a rhythmic quality that inspires one to act, but I don’t believe that this refrain makes it a pro or anti war poem. For Whitman, it wasn’t a war of beliefs, but a war of people. After all, Whitman wasn’t a soldier in the war; he was a supporter of those who had been devastated by war.
I am arguing that Whitman was never sure of his own stance on the Civil War. Though Whitman was active within the war–the most involved American writer in the Civil War–he was active in way that never made him chose a side except against suffering. He was interested in the war in how it “reflect[ed] the expression of the American personality.” He saw his work as letting the child’s voice be heard. It would make sense that a man who has jumped into the rabbit hole of allowing “multitudes” to be contained within him would have a hard time orienting himself on either side of a war except to know that he is against the individual pain of each.
Did everyone know that for poets who were born before flip-cams the internet has thankfully provided manipulated poem-reading photos?