J.D. McClatchy reads Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps”
Poetry of America: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
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. Cavalry Crossing a Ford A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands, They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark to the musical clank, Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink, Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles, Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford—while, Scarlet and blue and snowy white, The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind. Bivouac on a Mountain Side I see before me now a traveling army halting, Below a fertile valley spread, with barns and the orchards of summer, Behind, the terraced sides of a mountain, abrupt, in places rising high, Broken, with rocks, with clinging cedars, with tall shapes dingily seen, The numerous camp-fires scatter'd near and far, some away up on the mountain, The shadowy forms of men and horses, looming, large-sized, flickering, And over all the sky—the sky! far, far out of reach, Studded, breaking out, the eternal stars. Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day, One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget, One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground, Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle, Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way, Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,) Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night- wind, Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading, Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night, But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed, Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands, Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word, Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier, As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole, Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death, Faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,) Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear’d, My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form, Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet, And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude- dug grave I deposited, Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim, Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,) Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d, I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, And buried him where he fell. Look Down, Fair Moon Look down, fair moon and bathe this scene, Pour softly down night's nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple; On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss'd wide, Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.
J.D. McClatchy on Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps”
Transcription of Commentary
This is J. D. McClatchy, and I’m recording this on June the 11th, 2012, in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. These four years the country is commemorating the terrible events of those days so long ago, and on June the 11th, 1862, the South was enjoying a series of stinging victories. And I have in front of me a copy of a letter that General Lee wrote to Stonewall Jackson saying,
General, your recent successes have been the cause of the liveliest joy in this army as well as in the country. The admiration excited by your skill and boldness has been constantly mingled with solicitude for your situation. The practicality of reinforcing you has been the subject of earnest consideration. It has been determined to do so at the expense of weakening this army.
And so on and so forth, as General Lee planned his great campaign.
The Civil War remains the most cataclysmic and tragic event in our history. Behind the struggle, driving its purpose and passions, loomed the greatest of issues: the fate of a country and the rights of its people. Hateful decisions were at the heart of the conflict. A Northern sense of justice and a Southern sense of honor, moral principle and emotional pride, drove men to their deaths amid the terrors of war—the deafening noise, the blinding smoke, the ground slick with blood, the cries of the fallen. Over 620,000 soldiers died during those four years, nearly as many as in all of America’s other wars combined. Proud cities were put to the torch, civilian populations were brutalized, fertile countryside was reduced to wasteland, brother fought against brother, and there was not a household in the land that did not have a loss to mourn. The very names of the fearsome battles and valiant commanders ring in people’s memories with the force of myth. The grandeur and pathos of the two shredded armies never failed to thrill. In the end, slavery would be abolished, succession defeated, and a new nation born in fire, blood, and sorrow. And each side in the conflict would discover its tragic hero: for the South, Robert E. Lee, whom I just quoted—the model Virginia gentlemen who fought for the lost cause with audacious skill and relentless determination; for the North, Abraham Lincoln, the martyred redeemer president who spoke for American democracy with an eloquence unmatched in our history. It is such stuff as epics are made on. And yet, it seems strange that no one great sweeping poem, no American Iliad, ever emerged from this most momentous event in the lives and imaginations of Americans.
Individual poets did write, of course, and we have as our substitute for an epic poem marvelous lyric takes and moral meditations by Herman Melville and, above all, Walt Whitman, whose collection in 1867 called Drum Taps brought together the poems he had written, both in the field and back in Washington, about episodes in the Civil War, in which he worked tirelessly as a nurse in the field hospitals.
These poems are in the public domain.
- Checklist from the Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and ‘Leaves of Grass’ exhibition
- “Mercury dressing: poems,” by J.D. McClatchy (catalog record)
J.D. McClatchy (1945- ) was born in Pennsylvania and educated at Georgetown and Yale Universities. He is the author of six poetry collections, as well as essay collections and translations. A former chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. McClatchy teaches English at Yale University and is editor of The Yale Review. Photo credit: Geoff Spear
Learn more about J.D. McClatchy at The Poetry Foundation
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) has been called the father of American poetry, and is best remembered for his foundational book of poems Leaves of Grass (1855). Born in New York, he began an apprenticeship at the age of 12 in the printing trade. He went on to become a journalist, eventually leaving his home state to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. He returned to Brooklyn where he founded the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to write and develop his unique style of free verse. With the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman gained renown among the transcendentalist school of American intellectuals, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman left New York to nurse wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. but eventually settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he lived until his death.
Learn more about Walt Whitman at The Poetry Foundation