Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Walt Whitman: "I Hear America Singing"

The American poet and essayist, Walt Whitman, was born on this day in 1819 in West Hills, Long Island, New York. His formal education ended after six years but his insatiable desire to learn immersed him in libraries, museums, lectures, salons, and landscapes in and around New York.  His life as a poet, essayist, journalist and humanitarian would take him to New Orleans, Washington, Boston, and Camden, New Jersey, but his associations in New York would make the great metropolitan area the hub of career.

File:Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpg
Whitman in 1887

A free spirit easily recognized as the most extraordinary poet of his time, Whitman bridged the American experience from the early Romantic period in literature to the advent of hard realism as the end of the century approached. I'm not sure what presence he has these days in the public school systems across the country but baby boomers - born between 1946 and 1964 - had a full dose of his poetry beginning in elementary school. For more information on Whitman, including an extensive biography, visit the outstanding resources at the Walt Whitman Archive.

For an example of his work here is "One's-Self I Sing," the introductory poem to the third and last section of his collection, Leaves of Grass, as published in 1867.

ONE’S-SELF I sing—a simple, separate Person; 
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse. 

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing; 
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the
Form complete is worthier far; 
The Female equally with the male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, 
Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine, 
The Modern Man I sing.

Much of Whitman's poetry has been set to music. Sometimes the blend of music and existing poetry has limited success and authors often do no think favorably of such adaptations. I think Whitman would have approved especially with the music coming from fellow a impressionist, in this case Frederick Delius. This composition has been a personal favorite for forty years. This recording features the superb Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Richard Hickox.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photo, George Collins Cox, restored by Adam Cuerden, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Walt Whitman entry,
One's Self I Sing,
title quote from the poem of the same name 

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