The Antidote: A Reading of ‘The Drum’ by John Scott

By Christopher Nield
Christopher Nield
Christopher Nield
December 6, 2012 Updated: January 20, 2019
Epoch Times Photo
(Liza Voronin/The Epoch Times)

The Drum

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round:
To thoughtless youth it pleasure yields,
And lures from cities and from fields,
To sell their liberty for charms
Of tawdry lace, and glittering arms;
And when Ambition’s voice commands,
To march, and fight, and fall, in foreign lands.

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round:
To me it talks of ravaged plains
And burning towns, and ruined swains,
And mangled limbs, and dying groans,
And widow’s tears, and orphan’s moans;
And all that Misery’s hand bestows,
To fill the catalogue of human woes.

—John Scott (1731–1783)

The war drum is pounding. Does it ever stop? The drum pounded for John Scott, who lived through long forgotten conflicts such as the Seven Years War between Britain and France (possibly the first global war as it drew in America, India, and Russia) and it pounds for us today. Conflict blares into our living room the moment we turn on the television—along with the claim that we must take sides and fight.

Scott wants none if it. Perhaps inspired by the radical pacifism of his Quaker faith, he declares his opposition. The opening of each stanza, with that bold pronouncement “I hate,” dares the world to disagree. But he seems like a voice in the wilderness, unheard by the crowd that has been whipped up into a frenzy of enthusiasm.

To “thoughtless youth,” war appears to be exciting and meaningful. This is expressed brilliantly in Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy “Coriolanus,” when a group of servants fed up with the lack of action discuss the promise of the battlefield. One remarks with relief that “the drum” calling men to combat shall soon be “struck” once more. Another declares: ‘Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible.” Ironically, peace “makes men hate one another.”

In Scott’s poem, the drum pounds on. Part of an army parade, it is on public display and it calls on all the young men from the “cities” and the “fields” to enlist. Yet while it seems powerful, it also seems proud and boastful. When we speak of ourselves being put “on parade,” we mean that we are made to act a role that isn’t true.

Parading suggests progression. Going forward. Growing up. It suggests that the drum leads “thoughtless youth” away from silly dreams into a life of purpose. Yet going “round, and round, and round,” this progression goes nowhere. It is pointless. The triple repetition of “round” suggests relentlessness and ultimately tedium.

Though the drum pounds on, the drummer is oddly absent. The call to war promises fame and glory and yet demands that men sacrifice the one thing that should most be cherished: liberty. We see this in Stanley Kubrick’s classic war film “Full Metal Jacket,” where new recruits are bullied into clone-like submission. The drum recalls the entrancing pipe of the Pied Piper, luring rats into the local river.

Behind it all is “Ambition,” personified as an officer commanding his army to fight. Yet as the soldiers “march” and “fight,” they “fall” down. They die in “foreign lands,” far from home. Did they even understand the cause for which they supposedly fought?

The first stanza sees the soldiers as victims. The second reflects on those who they victimize. The drum continues to parade, instigating a cycle of violence. We see a merry-go-round of mayhem and murder: “ruined swains” (young men) and “widow’s tears.” Even children are slain. People are stripped of their dignity, now merely “mangled limbs” and “groans.” The repetition of “and” adds a sense of scale, as if one horror will always be topped by another. “Ambition” has become “Misery.” The chronicle of history has become nothing more than a “catalogue of human woes.”

John Scott’s poem uses powerful repetition, rhythm and rhyme to evoke the sound of the drum and also to compete with it. The poem is like a different drum, pounding out a different note, a different message. But to which shall we listen?

John Scott (1731–1783), also known as John Scott of Amwell, was an English poet, Quaker, and writer on the alleviation of poverty.

Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.

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Christopher Nield
Christopher Nield