Complete Literary Analysis Essay For Poem: “Drum Taps: First O Songs for a Prelude”

Literary Analysis Essay Of A Poem by Michael Hoeft

(I would like to thank Professor Karen Keeley who helped inspire an essay similar to this one when I was a wee undergrad college sophomore back in the day.)


  First O songs for a prelude,
  Lightly strike on the stretch'd tympanum pride and joy in my city,
  How she led the rest to arms, how she gave the cue,
  How at once with lithe limbs unwaiting a moment she sprang,
  (O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless!
  O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer than
  How you sprang—how you threw off the costumes of peace with
            indifferent hand,
  How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and fife were heard
            in their stead,
  How you led to the war, (that shall serve for our prelude, songs of
  How Manhattan drum-taps led.

  Forty years had I in my city seen soldiers parading,
  Forty years as a pageant, still unawares the lady of this teeming and
            turbulent city,
  Sleepless amid her ships, her houses, her incalculable wealth,
  With her million children around her, suddenly,
  At dead of night, at news from the south,
  Incens'd struck with clinch'd hand the pavement.

  A shock electric, the night sustain'd it,
  Till with ominous hum our hive at daybreak pour'd out its myriads.
  From the houses then and the workshops, and through all the doorways,
  Leapt they tumultuous, and lo! Manhattan arming.

  To the drum-taps prompt,
  The young men falling in and arming,
  The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the blacksmith's
            hammer, tost aside with precipitation,)
  The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the
  The driver deserting his wagon in the street, jumping down, throwing
            the reins abruptly down on the horses' backs,
  The salesman leaving the store, the boss, book-keeper, porter, all
  Squads gather everywhere by common consent and arm,
  The new recruits, even boys, the old men show them how to wear their
            accoutrements, they buckle the straps carefully,
  Outdoors arming, indoors arming, the flash of the musketbarrels,
  The white tents cluster in camps, the arm'd sentries around, the
            sunrise cannon and again at sunset,
  Arm'd regiments arrive every day, pass through the city, and embark
            from the wharves,
  (How good they look as they tramp down to the river, sweaty, with
            their guns on their shoulders!
  How I love them! how I could hug them, with their brown faces and
            their clothes and knapsacks cover'd with dust!)
  The blood of the city up—arm'd! arm'd! the cry everywhere,
  The flags flung out from the steeples of churches and from all the
            public buildings and stores,
  The tearful parting, the mother kisses her son, the son kisses his
  (Loth is the mother to part, yet not a word does she speak to detain
  The tumultuous escort, the ranks of policemen preceding, clearing the
  The unpent enthusiasm, the wild cheers of the crowd for their
  The artillery, the silent cannons bright as gold, drawn along, rumble
            lightly over the stones,
  (Silent cannons, soon to cease your silence,
  Soon unlimber'd to begin the red business;)
  All the mutter of preparation, all the determin'd arming,
  The hospital service, the lint, bandages and medicines,
  The women volunteering for nurses, the work begun for in earnest, no
            mere parade now;
  War! an arm'd race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning
  War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm'd race is advancing to
            welcome it.

  Mannahatta a-march—and it's O to sing it well!
  It's O for a manly life in the camp.

  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 salutes for
            courtesies merely,
  Put in something now besides powder and wadding.)

  And you lady of ships, you Mannahatta,
  Old matron of this proud, friendly, turbulent city,
  Often in peace and wealth you were pensive or covertly frown'd amid
            all your children,
  But now you smile with joy exulting old Mannahatta.

Essay Title: “Whitman's Wildness About War in Drum Taps: First O Songs For a Prelude

     Infamous President Richard Nixon once exclaimed “War is heck!” While Nixon’s quote emphasized the bloodshed and brutality that occurs in wars of all eras, American poet Walt Whitman instead would train his eye on the more community-inspiring aspects of these armed conflicts in some of his poetic pieces. Whitman’s use of word choice, line break, and personification in Drum-Taps: First O Songs For a Prelude shows that the poem’s speaker minimizes the atrocities of war and instead conveys an overwhelming emphasis on war’s inherent ability to bring people together. The first poem in Whitman’s anthology of poems, Drum Taps, relays the speaker’s jubilance when seeing people from all different walks of life, occupations, and demographics team up in order to fight in the US Civil War that took place between 1861 and 1865. This essay will chronicle Whitman’s use of different literary devices and will cover the poem’s lines in chronological order.

Early in the poem, the speaker conveys the connectedness of “Manhattan’s” masses via word choice in lines 24-25:

                                  “From the houses then and the workshops, and through all the doorways/

                                  Leapt they tumultuous, and lo! Manhattan arming.”

                                                                                -Lines 24-25

     The speaker excitedly (“!”) exclaims that these people “Leapt” from “the houses” and “the workshops” as opposed to leaping from “their houses” and “their workshops.” Here, Whitman’s choice of using “the” instead of “their” highlights the bonds among the city’s people while also minimizing the notion of private ownership that is the hallmark of a society built around individuals and individual progress. The speaker shuns individuality through this word choice, instead celebrating the collectivist nature of a single cause such as war. In addition, the domestic settings that are described in the poem all share similar structures (e.g. doors, doorways, etc.) which further conveys the emphasis on community and shared experiences as opposed to the uniqueness of any of the people described in the poem with regards to this war. Also, by introducing these shared spaces (“houses”, “workshops”, “doorways”) that themselves share line 24 before we are introduced to the people who actually move through the aforesaid spaces in line 25, the speaker – again through word choice — further relegates the individuality of each person to a minor role in this poem. Instead, the speaker implies that individuals don’t matter in this narrative (especially considering the omission of all proper names in the poem); rather, what matters is the notion of community and the use of word choice in Lines 24-25 reflects that notion. Lastly, with regards to these two lines, action is emphasized a la word choice again since the word “Leapt” comes before the word “they”, which further underscores the speaker’s focus on war’s ability to bring people together as a collaborative team.

     While Whitman uses word choice in order to emphasize war’s ability to bring people together, he also later uses both word choice and a line break to display said connectedness between Manhattan’s peoples in lines 34-35:

                                    “The salesman leaving the store, the boss, the book-keeper, porter, all/ leaving;”

                                                                                      -Lines 34-35

     Here, Manhattan’s workers depart from their respective workplaces as they all share the same line 34 together with the line concluding with the word “all”. Again, the speaker’s word choice and line break display an emphasis on war’s collectivist nature as “all” of these people from differing places of employment not only share the same line 34, but also that the word “leaving” is on its own line as it’s also granted a line break. The Manhattan multitudes described here essentially “leave” together, which further underscores the poem’s focus on war’s innate ability to leave their peace-time social and work spaces to join up for a common goal.  Not only does Whitman depict myriad Manhattanites of varying occupations as collaborative in the war effort, but he also goes on to emphasize that the connectedness among the townspeople during this armed conflict spans generations as well in lines 37-38:

                                  “The new recruits, even boys, the old men show them how to wear their/

                                  accoutrements, they buckle the straps carefully”

                                                                               -Lines 37-38

     The youth is introduced first with regards to having war lessons passed on by Manhattan’s elders as the more experienced gents “show [the new recruits]” how to properly don their war-time garb (“accoutrements”). Again, here the speaker’s word choice illustrates an emphasis on war’s ability to bring even different demographics together with “the old men” helping the young men (ie and “even [young] boys”) to prepare for their respective roles in this war as the youth “buckle the straps carefully.” Again, the speaker elects to use the word “the” instead of “their” when referring to the “[buckled] straps” which spotlights the poem’s emphasis on the losing of individuality and ownership in favor of the collectivist and community-forming aspects of war.  In Whitman’s poem, not only are multiple generations of Manhattanites inspired by the war to team up for a shared cause, but also specifically mothers and sons are connected by the war, with the latter encouraged by cheering crowds in lines 49-52 & lines 57-58:

                                   “The flags flung out from the steeples of churches and from all the/

                                   public buildings and stores/

                                   The tearful parting, the mother kisses her son, the son kisses his/ mother/…

                                   The unpent enthusiasm, the wild cheers of the crowd for their/


                                                                -Lines 49-52, 57-58

     Again, the speaker emphasizes the connectedness of Manhattan’s masses during this war effort through word choice as “all the public buildings and stores” let their “flags” hang out in front of the doorways of their “churches” and other various edifices. And although in line 51, the speaker portrays “[t]he tearful parting” of “mother” and “son”, nevertheless each “kisses” one another as the son presumably steps away from the domestic space of the home to go and fight for Manhattan and its proponents. Not too many lines go by for the “tearful parting” to transform into “unpent enthusiasm” and “wild cheers…for their favorites”, which again is an example of word choice conveying the poem’s emphasis on war’s ability to bring people together for a single mission. Also – in another instance of word choice — the fact that the raucous crowd has “favorites” tends to minimize the potential atrocities that come along with war, with the poem instead featuring a sort of comparison between being a soldier or the like going to war and, for example, being a member of a popular sports team going out to compete against an opponent. Finally, the fact that the word “favorites” gets line 58 exclusively – another use of line break — marks the celebratory nature of the poem’s scene, further illustrating that the speaker is focused largely on war’s ability to bring community members together and the excited environment that goes along with it a la a sports match.

     Not only does Whitman’s word choice show a clear de-emphasis on the messy and violent bloodshed that is a staple of all wars, but the word choice also later blatantly connects war with the advancement of civilization. Although the connection between the notions of “war” and “evolution” are not stated unequivocally in the poem, nevertheless the speaker uses a double meaning (another example of word choice) to emphasize this analysis as a possibility in lines 67-70:

                                  “War! an armed race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning/


                                   War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm’d race is advancing to/

                                   welcome it.”

                                                                                     -Lines 67-70

     There is a sing-songy feel to these lines as if the speaker is chanting in a celebratory manner, even exclaiming “no turning/ away” to the Manhattanites, encouraging them not to ignore the war efforts and instead to join in. Using word choice, the speaker repeats the phrase “an arm’d race is advancing” twice in four lines along with the phrase “the welcome for battle”. There are two main ways to interpret the phrase “an arm’d race is advancing”, with the first being denotative and the second being more connotative: 1) an armed group of people is literally moving forward in the streets in battle or getting ready to go to battle and 2) an armed group of people is “advancing” civilization itself by participating in this war. The speaker’s use of this double meaning – another instance of word choice — further illustrates the poem’s emphasis on war’s ability to bring people together.  Finally, at the poem’s close, in lines 74 & lines 80-82, the speaker again deploys word choice and line break – and also adds personification — to minimize the carnage that is oftentimes aroused during war and instead emphasizes the community-forming aspects of war:

                                 “[T]he work for giants…/

                                 Often in peace and wealth you were pensive or covertly frown’d amid/ all your children/

                                 But now you smile with joy exulting old Manahatta.”

                                                                                    -Lines 74, 80-82

     Line 74 is blatant and lays bare the speaker’s eager support for the war effort as it is deemed “the work for giants.” The word choice “giants” is hyperbolic and moves into the poem’s closing lines where the speaker uses personification when describing the city of Manhattan, even giving the words “all your children” a separate distinct line with a line break, further emphasizing the connectedness amongst the city’s inhabitants. The speaker concludes the poem by personifying Manhattan again as it “smile[s] with joy” as its masses all support the war effort, conclusively marking the poem’s focus on war’s ability to bring people together for a cause larger than any one individual. Alternatively, the speaker describes the city as “covertly frown’d” when in “peace” in line 80, which conveys the speaker’s belief that the city’s true nature is war rather than peace or that the city itself – as personified here in the poem’s closing lines – is more outwardly joyful when its people are in war rather than in peace.

     Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps: First O Songs For a Prelude presents a speaker who seems delighted at the prospect of Manhattan’s denizens going to war, at least when looking at the word choice, line break, and personification that is evidenced throughout the poem. Indeed, even if the speaker is not positively elated at the notion of this New York City borough’s citizens taking up arms and advancing to meet the enemy in battle, the poem regardless features a clear emphasis on the innate characteristic of war to bring community members from all walks of life, occupations, demographics, etc. together in order to fight for and/or support a single collective cause. Hence, the speaker elects to focus on these more positive aspects of war rather than the more negative ones such as the bloody violence, dismemberment, and death that so often accompany the experience. Through word choice, line break, and personification in the poem, Whitman challenges the reader’s expected notions of war versus peace, even hinting that society moves forward and evolves through war – or at least this war whereby Manhattan’s citizens are galvanized as a singularly-focused collaborative team. Additionally, perhaps Whitman is reminding his readers that we ought to remember what it’s like to be a true community not just in name, but in practice as well – and that perhaps war more so than almost any other event can bring the broad varieties of people who live in a city like Manhattan together in a cooperative effort. Whitman’s Civil War poem reads as a clarion call for Manhattanites to leap into the war effort and though I am reading this as a pacifist over a hundred years later, he almost made me want to move out to New York and strap on my buckles and boots and fight for “old Manahatta.”

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