The prelude to “Drum Taps” is an ode to New York, Whitman’s home. He sings an ode to the city for being the first ones to arms when the duties of war called. The city, he reports, did not hesitate to send its men to war. Whitman recounts how he had seen soldiers parading through the city for forty years, but with “…news from the south… A shock electric,” the young men, the lawyers, the judges, the drivers, the salesmen, and squads of other common or noble men took up arms and marched to war. Whitman loves each of these men for their bravery and willingness to take up “a manly life in the camp.” “Mannahatta” smiles for all its men.
Whitman then imagines the year 1861 as a soldier, marching into battle. No “dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses” will describe this year. Whitman can only imagine the year as a “strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing, / carrying a rifle on your shoulder.” He sees the year as one of Manhattan’s city dwellers and he sees this year move across the West, into the Mid-West, through Pennsylvania and into Tennessee and Chattanooga. 1861 is a “hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year.”
In his call to arms, “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” Whitman calls on the sounds of drums and bugles to pierce every silent place, to leave no person undisturbed with their noise. They must disturb the churches, the schools, the farms, and those that are in love. If anyone tries to do anything resembling normal life – if the brokers and speculators continue their trade, if the lawyers attempt to argue a case in court, or if a singer attempts to sing – they must be drowned out by the sound of the drums and the bugles. They must “rattle quicker, heavier drums – you bugles wilder blow.”
“Song of the Banner at Daybreak” is a beck and call between a poet, a Banner and Pennant, a father, and a child. The poet begins the poem by announcing that his “new song, a free song,” flies freely in the open air along side the flapping banner and pennant. The poet will “weave the chord and twine in, / Man’s desire and babe’s desire” and will give powerful verse to inspire those that hear it. The pennant cries out to the poet and to the child to “come up here” and to “fly in the clouds and winds….” The child wants to know what it is that calls out to him from the sky, but the father tells the child that it is nothing. The valuable things, he points out, are the “dazzling things in the houses” and in the stores, “the vehicles preparing to crawl along the streets / with goods….” These are the things that the earth envies. The child cries to the father that the banner and pennant call out, that it is alive and full of people. The father hushes the child and says to only behold “the well-prepared pavements” and to mark “the solid- / wall’d houses.” The banner and pennant cry to the bard to speak to the child and to all children. They ask if they are “mere strips of cloth profiting nothings, / Only flapping in the wind?”
The poet replies that he does not see only strips of cloth. Instead, he hears “the tramp of armies…the jubilant shouts of millions of men….” The banner and pennant cry out for liberty. The poet says that he has seen the results of peace, the great economic and social profit of the thirty eight states. The pennant represents war, however, and now “the halyards have rais’d it” and peace has been discarded “over all the sea and land.” The banner and the pennant cry for the poet to go “louder, higher, stronger” in his song. They ask the bard to show the children that they do not represent wealth and prosperity alone, but also war and “death supreme.”
The child tells the father that he does not like the money or the houses, only the banner and pennant flying high above it all. This anguishes the father, for he knows that these pennants are symbols of death and calls for the child to go and fight. The poet declares that he now understands the meaning of the banner and the pennant because a child taught him. They are not “houses of peace” or prosperity; they are also symbols of the destruction of the houses and the prosperity. The poet declares that he will sing only of this banner and pennant flying high over the country.
Whitman has an answer for war in “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice.” He says that, in the end, “affection” will “solve the problems of freedom….” Through love, the nation will become one again and “Columbia” will be victorious. Whitman mocks those that think the answer to the conflict of war will be found in “lawyers,” or an “agreement on a paper…or by arms…” Only through partnership and the “love of lovers” will there be unity. In the poem “Reconciliation,” Whitman’s tone is low and sad. He regrets that “my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead…” The realities of war have eternal consequences.
Whitman wrote the majority of “Drum-Taps” in 1865, just before the end of the American Civil War and before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Whitman had mentioned in several previous sections of Leaves of Grass that for all the promise that he saw in the democratic American experiment, it was still only promise. Injustice, especially in the form of Southern slavery, meant that all persons were not able to experience the true forms of individuality that made collective freedom a reality. The Civil War changed this idea for Whitman and “Drum-Taps” is both his chronicle of this bloody war and his understanding of how the promise of America changed because of the war.
There is no fixed tone to “Drum-Taps.” Whitman begins in a celebratory mode. He exalts the bravery and willingness to fight of the residents of New York. These celebratory poems seem to mirror an excitement in the nation as a whole that evil would be overcome by good. As “Drum-Taps” moves forward, the reader can sense the passage of time in war as well. Whitman provides scenes of war and what he sees is not often celebratory. 1861 is a particularly difficult year; January, 1861 saw the secession of most of the Confederate states from the Union. The attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, occurred in April. By that summer, the first major battles of the war had begun and it was apparent that there would be no easy victory. Whitman’s poems take on this darker tone.
An important theme from “Drum-Taps” is the idea that war is all-encompassing. He writes in “Beat! Beat! Drums!” that the sounds of battle awaken and disturb all. No institution of society is left untouched by the duty of just war. “Drum-Taps,” perhaps, comes closest to naming the anxiety that Whitman feels for his country and for his society. In this section, he does not laud the common working man but, instead, calls out those that would rather be busied by their trade than fight for their freedoms. Whitman’s gentler message is discarded here for a fervent and urgent one. All people of America (Whitman is specifically addressing the Northern Union) must come together to ensure that the promise of democracy.
Whitman uses several poems in a narrative mode in order to help tell the story of the country during the war. One such poem is “Song of the Banner at Daybreak.” Whitman uses the personification of battle flags to elaborate on a national conversation taking place during the war between people and generations. The tension is between the comforts of consumerism and the calls of national duty, or patriotism. The father of the poem seeks to shelter his son from the harsh reality of war, and from death, by encouraging his son to avoid patriotic callings. The world, the father says, wants only the goods and advancements won by democracy. The banner and the pennant, however, understand that comfort is won only through bloodshed. The poet, therefore, becomes the intermediary, explaining to the boy the meaning of patriotic duty. This is undoubtedly the role in which Whitman cast himself. He became an explainer of patriotic duty to those that would prefer comfort they did not fight for.
As the war ends, Whitman’s tone turns more somber. He understands the price that has been paid by all those who have fought. He thinks repeatedly of death in these closing poems, best exemplified by “Reconciliation.” The proud and celebratory tone of these early poems is muted. He uses the feminine personification of America by calling her “Columbia.” This calque on the word “America” is used in order to reinstate the sense of adventurous promise that had been put on hold during the war. Whitman attempts to balance the ending of “Drum-Taps” with a somber reflection on the life that was taken in order for the promise of democracy to once again flourish.