National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, 8/30

Whitman on Opera: after denouncing the art form as too foreign and highfalutin, he was won over by the stream of great Italian singers bringing the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi to New York, later saying he could not have written Leaves of Grass without having had the experience of opera.

There are more than a few references to opera (and to music generally) in his poetry. Here’s an excerpt from Proud Music of the Storm

All songs of current lands come sounding ’round me,
The German airs of friendship, wine and love,
Irish ballads, merry jigs and dances—English warbles,
Chansons of France, Scotch tunes—and o’er the rest,
Italia’s peerless compositions.

Across the stage, with pallor on her face, yet lurid passion,
Stalks Norma, brandishing the dagger in her hand.

I see poor crazed Lucia’s eyes’ unnatural gleam;
Her hair down her back falls loose and dishevell’d.

I see where Ernani, walking the bridal garden,
Amid the scent of night-roses, radiant, holding his bride by the hand,
Hears the infernal call, the death-pledge of the horn.

To crossing swords, and grey hairs bared to heaven,
The clear, electric base and baritone of the world,
The trombone duo—Libertad forever!

From Spanish chestnut trees’ dense shade,
By old and heavy convent walls, a wailing song,
Song of lost love—the torch of youth and life quench’d in despair,
Song of the dying swan—Fernando’s heart is breaking.

Awaking from her woes at last, retriev’d Amina sings;
Copious as stars, and glad as morning light, the torrents of her joy.

(The teeming lady comes!
The lustrious orb—Venus contralto—the blooming mother,
Sister of loftiest gods—Alboni’s self I hear.)

You can find the full poem here and there’s a nice summary of Whitman and opera here, including the fact that some of his poems are organized like operatic scenes, with recit and aria, something I didn’t know.

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 11.03.08 AM
The Astor Place Opera House in New York City, Broadway and East 8th, as it was in 1850, when Whitman would have been attending.

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