Thursday, 8 July 2010

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Walt Whitman I admire this side idolatry, so as I finish my study of Robert Frost I am especially interested in Frost's uneasy, and at times openly hostile, relationship to Whitman's legacy. In formal terms, their poetry could not be more unlike. Whitman sought a new and democratic poetry suited to what he considered the greatest poem of all: the United States itself. European models would not do:

Poetry is henceforth to win and maintain its character regardless of rhyme, and the measurement-rules of iambic, spondee, dactyl... The truest and greatest poetry... can never again, in the English language, be express'd in arbitrary and rhyming meter.

The United States was too big for the poetry of courts and patronage to survive. An expansive poetry was required, free from the shackles of cramped anti-democratic traditions, and Whitman set about creating it.

Frost had a similar ambition to make a national poetry, but in what was quite consciously a swerve away from Whitman, he developed a poetics which grew out of foreign models: 'When a man sets out consciously to tear up forms and rhythms and measures, then he is not interested in giving you poetry. He just wants to perform, he wants to show you his tricks.' In an unpublished lecture given in the last decade of his life, Frost explained that Whitman had 'decided to go entirely for scope, gave up art'. The allusion to Shakespeare's sonnet 29 --- 'Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope' --- is fitting not only given Frost's envy of Whitman, but because Shakespeare is the third in this particularly difficult relationship.

Today, Whitman's reputation in the UK is absurdly low. He has not travelled well, which is strange considering that for many decades the most important of his disciples were English poets. Kipling antagonised his teachers at Westward Ho! by claiming the (still sulphurous) Whitman as his favourite poet. 'I have written a few war poems', Isaac Rosenberg told Joseph Leftwich three months before he died, 'but when I think of Drum Taps mine are absurd'. The extent of Gurney's obsession is still not widely known because so much remains unpublished, but Gurney set Whitman's poems to music, borrowed lines, rewrote (and, he thought, improved) whole poems by Whitman, and felt entitled to write about 'Mannahatta' despite having only encountered it through Whitman's verse. It may have been easier for these English writers to praise Whitman because, unlike Frost, they did not feel themselves in competition with him.

Rosenberg did, admittedly, express some reservations about Whitman, complaining that 'his diction is so diffused'. Yet he considered that with 'Beat, drums, beat' (he meant 'Beat! Beat! Drums!'), Whitman had 'said the noblest thing on war'. I have blogged previously about Whitman and the American Civil War. 'Beat! Beat! Drums!' brings together two equal truths: that war is exhilarating, and that it is 'terrible'. The poem makes a terrific noise in its war-excitement, as Whitman insists that all activity not relating to the War must cease, and ploughshares must be converted to swords once again. However, gradually and unexpectedly the reader is brought to face the cost of that incessant rhythmical pulse. Whitman leaves the two irreconcilable truths to exist in uneasy balance:

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!---blow! bugles! blow!
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,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums---so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!---blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities---over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds 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?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums---you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!---blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley---stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid---mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
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,
So strong you thump O terrible drums---so loud you bugles blow.


  1. The Gurney link is fascinating, and I am trying to do it justice in my work at the moment. When you say that Gurney was rewriting Whitman for sake of improvement, I think it is more an element of personalisation, notably turning Whitman's Song of Myself to 'Gloster Stuff' and his own self.

    The influence of Whitman in 1925 goes beyond Mannahata, to Rappahannock and much more US geography referred to by WW. Gurney integrates his lines (such as 'Carolina's sands and pines', from 'Ethiopia Saluting the Colors', which Gurney uses in 'Western Sailors') and also experiments with his 'techniques' in a developmental phase of his art in 1925.

    Gurney's interest in Whitman probably arises from the English composers of the early twentieth century, who perhaps in their desire to seem bold and new, most notably Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius and, most importantly for Gurney, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

    Gurney took to Whitman's geography and the talk of the sea; he related to the poems that grew out of Whitman's civil war experience; and he felt deeply Whitman's connection with the earth in ontological terms, echoing his own - a connection Gurney found in Edward Thomas, John Clare, George Borrow and others.

  2. All drums Beat and bugles blown, with no parlay made and no pause for expostulation... and thus, sorely beseeched, did young Allen Ginsberg come to embrace old man Walt. (Howl havoc, you dogs of War!)

    I look forward to your tri-partite exhumation of Bob and Walt and Will, three names to conjure with indeed. When might it be seen?

  3. Well, some of those thoughts about their inter-relationship will come up in the introduction to my Frost book. But I can't really do it justice there.