An interesting nuance between Drum-Taps and the rest of Walt Whitman’s work is his veer from the more personal address poem to a broader and more all-encompassing form of address. In these poems it seems he becomes less the prophet and removes himself almost as if he is letting the war speak for itself. This is especially noticeable in places where the speaker is not necessarily and specifically Whitman.
One of the ways he gives voice to the war is through dividing poems into roles where a certain labeled speaker narrates that part of the poem. This is not something we have seen before from Whitman and yet it occurs in several places in Drum-Taps. For instance, “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” is divided into several speakers: Poet, Pennant, Child, Father, and Banner. Though the poet can arguably represent Whitman himself (“O bard out of Manhattan”(423) etc.), by labeling the poet as Poet instead of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs” (50), as in “Song of Myself,” Whitman takes a step back.
After reading “Specimen Days” last week and Drum-Taps this week, it is becoming more apparent that Whitman approached his work very differently during the Civil War. For him, the war was more than just unnecessary violence; it was a blatant attack at the heart of the entire premise of America. By removing himself from “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” Whitman shows just how difficult it was for him to assess and come to terms with his crumbling country. The poet here still speaks out as omniscient, though the other speakers (particularly the banner and pennant) and even at times the poet himself seem to suggest that the poet is not completely sufficient in getting at the heart of how the war was affecting people. The poet even explains that he learned from the child in, “My hearing and tongue are come to me, (a little child taught me,)” (425).
The child in this poem also seems to be the most distinct voice of reason, which is perhaps Whitman’s way of suggesting that America return to a place nearer its birth, when the country was filled with a greater innocence, courage, and child-like wonderment of the American flag which, according to the child, is “so broad it covers the whole sky.” The father provides a weathered contrast to this example, as he calls the child “foolish babe” and claims that he fills him “with anguish.” The father attempts to get the child to focus on other things like money and property (sound familiar?), while the child prefers to focus on the banner and pennant, which represent America.
The poem closes with the poet’s longest monologue of the section; he claims within the last two lines, “I see but you, O warlike pennant! O banner so broad, with stripes, I sing you only, / Flapping up there in the wind” (426). Here, Whitman is not singing of himself as before, here he sings only of America and those things that represent it. This shift for Whitman ironically may help his readers to connect with him as they focus on the tenderness and real desperation with which he confronts America.