Saturday, February 23, 2008

Uncle Walt and American Song

An excerpt from this essay by Whitman scholar David S. Reynolds, author of Walt Whitman's America:

Recalling the entertainment experiences of his young manhood, Whitman wrote, "Perhaps my dearest amusement reminiscences are those musical ones." Music was such a powerful force on him that he saw himself less as a poet than as a singer or bard. "My younger life," he recalled in old age, "was so saturated with the emotions, raptures, up- lifts of such musical experiences that it would be surprising indeed if all my future work had not been colored by them."

Whitman regarded music as a prime agent for unity and uplift in a nation whose tendencies to fragmentation and political corruption he saw clearly. For all the downward tendencies he perceived in society, he took confidence in Americans' shared love of music. In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass he mentioned specifically "their delight in music, the sure symptoms of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul." As he explained in a magazine article: "A taste for music, when widely distributed among a people, is one of the surest indications of their moral purity, amiability, and refinement. It promotes sociality, represses the grosser manifestations of the passions, and substitutes in their place all that is beautiful and artistic." By becoming himself a "bard" singing poetic "songs" he hoped to tap the potential for aesthetic appreciation he saw in Americans' positive responses to their shared musical culture.

Whitman's poetry, then, was most profoundly influenced by what he called "the great, overwhelming, touching human voice—its throbbing, flowing, pulsating qualities." Of the 206 musical words in his poems, 123 relate specifically to vocal music, and some are used many times. "Song" appears 154 times, "sing" 117, and "singing" and "singers" over 30 times each. In his poems, too, he mentions no fewer than 25 musical instruments, including the violin, the piano, the oboe, and the drums. One senses a musical influence in his poem "Song of Myself," which, like a symphony, shifts between pianissimo passages and torrential, fervent ones.

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