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Music and especially Italian opera had a significant impact upon the poetic style and life of Walt Whitman. Fond of music and fascinated with opera performances, Whitman wanted to spread the idea of the beauty of music to the masses.
The opera performances have become a source of pleasure and inspiration for the poet. Whitman was amused with opera as a multi-layered canvas combining the features of drama, music, dance and poetry and tried to use opera allusions and singing voice for extending the traditional frames of poetry.
The phrases ‘I see’ and ‘I hear’ are interchangeable throughout the text of Whitman’s poems and appeal to the readers’ imagination for intensifying the effect produced by other language means and stylistic devices used in his works.
The poems “Song of Myself” and “Proud Music of the Storm” which were included into Whitman’s collection of poems Leaves of Grass demonstrate the impact of music and opera upon the poetic style, images and rhythmic contour of Whitman’s poetry.
Authenticity of Whitman’s poems
The collection of poems Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman represents the result of the poet’s searches for himself and his contribution to authenticity of American poetry.
As it was cited in the book by Skaggs Overtones of Opera in American Literature from Whitman to Wharton, commenting on his works published in Leaves of Grass, Whitman admitted that he needed to find himself and his niche in American literature so that to create those poems first published in 1855 (Skaggs 13).
Whitman acknowledged the influence of Emerson, another outstanding American poet who promoted the idea of authenticity of American poetry and supported Whitman in finding his unique style.
Under the influence of Emerson’s aesthetics, the traditional American democratic ideals, including those of democratic equality, diversity and self-reliance, have become the central themes of Whitman’s poems (Loving 355).
In “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”, one of works included into the 1889 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman admitted that contributing to authenticity of American poetry was his primary inclination in selecting the themes and motives for this collection of poems: “I would sing, and leave out or put in, quite solely with reference to America and today” (Skaggs 13).
It is significant that treating his works as songs of democracy, Whitman indicates not only content of his poems, but also their form and rhythmical contour. Whereas Emerson’s aesthetics had a significant impact upon the selection and molding of Whitman’s ideals, the musical rhythms and particularly Italian opera influenced the poet’s meter-making methods.
Bringing the beauty of music to the masses
Faithful to the ideals of American democracy in his works and personal life, Whitman highly appreciated the music and was aimed at bringing its beauty to the masses in his poems. Whitman rejected the stereotype that only the wealthy elite can understand the aesthetic value of music and emphasized the role of music in public education and civic life.
The poet admitted that making music a regular branch of studies at schools could have a positive impact upon the minds and habits of American youth. Developing his ideas, Whitman pointed out at the vital role of music in establishing the national identity of American people: “The subtlest spirit of a nation is expressed through its music – and the music acts reciprocally upon the nation’s very soul” (Skaggs 14).
In Whitman’s opinion, music and songs can help a nation to express their concerns and feelings. First, Whitman differentiated the music of feeling and the music of art. Later on, in the process of evolution of his views, he concluded that music can become a spiritualizing force for a democratic society and an art form for expressing the democratic ideals in his poetry.
These changes can be explained with the inner conflict in Whitman’s soul. He was always fond of music, but when Italian opera first came to New York in 1825, most journalists criticized it for its falsity, and Whitman inevitably undergone the influence of this prevailing negative opinion.
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The critics claimed that opera singers sounded unnatural expressing their passion or revenge in songs because people do not sing in real life. However, after closer acquaintance with opera, Whitman was fascinated with its beauty and spiritualizing force and decided to spread its beauty to the masses by interpreting opera in his poems.
Opera as a source of inspiration and vocational necessity
Though Whitman was fond of music in general and appreciated various musical genres, his discovery of opera allowed him to apply its musical forms in poetry. The spiritualizing force of opera was helpful for expressing human feelings and describing their experiences.
Whitman’s acquaintance with opera started as vocational necessity. As a journalist, he had to attend and review numerous opera performances. Thus, this vocational necessity allowed Whitman to hear and see the best of European and American opera singers.
First, Whitman like most of his compatriots did not appreciate the beauty of opera because of his outdated musical tastes. However, his journalist practice which coincided with the golden years of opera in America fostered the evolution of his tastes and made opera not only Whitman’s favorite form of art, but an important device which the poet implemented in composing his later works.
There is evidence that Whitman continued looking for the opportunities to attend opera performances even during the years of the Civil War (Skaggs 16). Moreover, even after his journalist career was over, the poet sought for opera experiences which remained the source of his amusement and inspiration.
There is historical evidence that the personality of an outstanding opera singer of the period Marietta Alboni and her proclamation of the principles of Aural beauty and nonchalance in opera art influenced Whitman’s style significantly (Schmidgall 52).
The years of Whitman’s fascination for opera coincided with the years of his work on the poems which later were published in the collection of poems Leaves of Grass.
For this reason, the influence of opera upon Whitman’s writing style can be identified in the interplay of images, rhythmical contour and stylistic devices of the poems included into the book, such as “Song of Myself” and “Proud Music of the Storm”, for example.
Singing voice in “Song of Myself”
Aimed at spreading the democratic ideals and the beauty of music to the masses, in translating the power of opera to the wide audience in his poems, Whitman found the opportunities for poetic self-expression and including the singing voice into his works for enhancing their aesthetic value.
It should be noted that opera as an art form is a hybrid genre which incorporates the features of not only music, but also drama, dance and poetry. Opera as a multi-layered canvas attracted Whitman’s attention with the variety of opportunities for poetic self-expression.
As a poet, Whitman lacked the methods which can be used in music and dance and decided to incorporate a singing voice into his poetry which allowed him to overcome the inadequacy of words and turned out to be a breath of fresh air into American poetry.
The poem “Song of Myself” can be regarded as Whitman’s aesthetic confession in which he proclaims his main goals for using opera allusions and touching upon the democratic ideals in his works.
The opening of the poem resembles poet’s sociopolitical identification and proclamation of his philosophical and aesthetic principles (Williams 49). An important principle of Whitman’s poetry is celebration of the power of human voice which is connected to the body and can go beyond the primary meanings of words.
In the poem “Song of Myself”, Whitman proclaims: “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul” (Skaggs 19). The singer disappears and these are only his pure voice and its sound that are left to for the audience.
Thus, incorporating opera allusions into his works and translating his personal perception of opera into a singing voice, Whitman extended the traditional frames of poetry and intended to reach the invisible dimensions of reality in his songs which would be impossible without using a stylistic device which allowed using the text of a poem as a multi-layered canvas.
The readers of the poems by Whitman are expected to see more than the surface of his words. “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach” (Skaggs 19).
In general, in his poem “Song of Myself” Whitman explained his understanding of the role of a singing voice in enhancing the aesthetic value of his works and improving their inner working for communicating the democratic ideals and the idea of the beauty of music to the intended audience.
In the poem under consideration, Whitman manipulates the language material, paying special attention to the connection between the speech and the corresponding vision of poetic reality.
Starting from the poet’s personal amusement, Whitman’s fascination of opera grew into his desire to share his impression with this splendid form of art with his audience and translate certain fragments of opera performances in his poems for making them understandable for wide audiences.
Thus, the poems by Whitman were expected to become a bridge between the opera as a form of art and masses whose musical tastes were unprepared for perceiving the opera performances and appreciating their beauty and aesthetic value.
On the other hand, the role of opera allusions in Whitman’s poems was not limited to fostering love of music in masses. The singing voice was also significant for enriching the meaning of Whitman’s poems and adding special appeals to his works so that to allow readers to see much more than is actually said by words.
Along with devices and multi-layered canvas, Whitman borrowed his extraordinary rhythmical patterns from opera. For example, a well-known literature critic Malcolm Cowley in his introduction to the collection of poems Leaves of Grass, admitted that the structure of Whitman’ poem “Song of Myself” was rather psychological than logical (Thomas 212).
This work is more than a mere poem in terms of its rhythm and tone, and is closer to the form of rhapsody. As opposed to his predecessors and even to his own poems written earlier, Whitman used wavelike flow for “Song of Myself”.
Analyzing the tone of the poem which changes its tempos, raising at the moments of climax and falling in other episodes, it can be stated that the rhythmical contour of the poem resembles a musical progression as opposed to the traditional geometrical figure used by other poets.
Thus, the rhythmical contour becomes an influential factor affecting the readers’ perception of Whitman’s poems which should be taken into consideration for evaluating not only the imp[act of opera forms upon the poet’s heritage, but also the aesthetic value of Whitman’s poems in general.
Hearing and seeing in “Proud Music of the Storm”
The poem “Proud Music of the Storm” is another example which illustrates the influence of Italian opera upon the images, language style and contours of Whitman’s works.
The singing voice was an effective method use by Whitman in his poems for enriching the meaning of words by influencing the readers’ perception of the language materials. T
he poetic representations of singing and seeing are interrelated and mutually dependent in Whitman’s poetry because even the phrases ‘I see’ and ‘I sing’ give way to one another, as it can be observed throughout the texts of Whitman’s poems (Skaggs 29).
The experiences of ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘feeling’ are interlaced in the text of the poem “Proud Music of the Storm” at the intersection of the sounds of nature and the author’s opera experiences.
Even admiring the sounds of nature in this poem, Whitman draws upon opera for expressing the depth of his feelings and evoking the intended emotional reactions in his readers.
Praising the music of storm at the beginning of the poem, in the line 75, Whitman mentions ‘Italia’s peerless compositions’ and emphasizes the role of opera singers in awakening of his soul. This approach allows communicating the author’s idea of the beauty of opera performances and the ability of this art to reveal the deepest emotions and the strongest human feelings.
Whitman recalls his personal associations between the sounds of storm, episodes from opera performances and the feelings expressed by the opera heroes and heroines on the stage.
Describing his opera experiences, Whitman uses the phrases ‘I see’ and ‘I hear’ which not only demonstrate the multi-layered canvas used in operas, but also appeal to readers’ senses for enhancing the effects produced by the language materials.
Coming across the phrases ‘I see’ and ‘I hear’ in the text of the poem, the readers are expected to use their imagination for perceiving the images created by the author and hearing the sounds of nature and the singing voice for receiving the poet’s messages at their fullest.
In the line 94, Whitman mentions Alboni and compares her to ‘sister of loftiest gods’ (Skaggs 30). This simile and opera allusion demonstrate the author’s fascination of opera performances in general and the specific impact of Alboni’s personal talent upon Whitman’s aesthetic taste and poetic style.
Whitman paid special attention to the sound composition of this poem uniting the sounds of the sea and opera into the poetic whole and expresses his claim in the phrases “Give me to hold all sounds (I madly struggling cry,)/ Fill me with all the voices of the universe” (Skaggs 29).
The poet creates the links between the processes in the world of nature and the motives of the opera performances, associating the sea storm with the plot lines of passion in love, the tragedy of suicide and the outrage of revenge.
It should be noted that the initial title of the poem was “Proud Music of the Sea-Storm” which was later revised by the author by omitting the word sea which according to the systems of Whitman’s poetic concepts, symbolizes the cosmic life processes (Skaggs 30).
Taking into account the fact that his personal interpretation of symbolic meaning of the concept of sea can be not understood by some readers, the pet deleted the word sea so that not to limit the readers’ imagination in decoding the meaning of the word storm, its sounds and processes.
The lines “Poems bridging the way from Life to Death, vaguely wafted in night air, uncaught, unwritten” express Whitman’s primary concern in creating the sound effects of the storm and communicating his ideas to the readers (Skaggs 30).
Thus, the opera allusions, sound whole and the singing voice used in “Proud Music of the Storm” intensify the impression produced by the poem upon the readers by involving their imagination for translating the author’s symbols and understanding his philosophical ideas.
In general, it can be concluded that love of music and fascination of opera experiences played an important role in Whitman’s personal life and development of his poetic aesthetics.
The instances of opera allusions and a singing voice can be detected in Whitman’s poems “Song of Myself” and “Proud Music of the Storm” which allowed the poet to extend the traditional frames of poetry and intensify the effect produced by the actual language material of his poems, making readers look beyond the surface of the words and using their imagination for not only reading, but also hearting the sounds and seeing the images created by the poet.
Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. Google Books. Web.
Schmidgall, Gary. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. New York: Dutton Press, 1997. Print.
Skaggs, Carmen. Overtones of Opera in American Literature from Whitman to Wharton. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Google Books. Web.
Thomas M. Alexander. John Dewey’s theory of art, experience, and nature: the horizons of feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1978. Google Books. Web.
Williams, Charles. On Whitman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.