Walt Whitman, Opera, Leaves of Grass

“Whitman said that two things served as a catalyst for Leaves.

The first was hearing and reading Emerson - Whitman was present in Manhattan for the essayist and poet’s debut -  and the second was Italian opera. Whitman instructed his biographer John Burroughs to be certain to include these words: 'It has already been told how, during the gestation of the poems, the author was saturated for years with the rendering, by the best vocalists and performers, of the best operas and oratorios.' The difference between Whitman as a mere maker of verses and a true performer is dramatically apparent if we look at an early poem like Our Future Lot and the opening few lines of Song to Myself. Everything about Our Future Lot is thoroughly predictable, from the shape and content of the poem’s argument, to its hymn meter and rhyme scheme. The language is so traditional that it is hard to identify the century in which it was written.

         Mortal! And can thy swelling soul

               Live with the thought that all its life

        Is centered in this earthy cage 

               Of care, and tears, and strife?

         Not so; that sorrowing heart of thine

               Ere long will find a house of rest; Thy form, re-purified, shall rise,

           In robes of beauty drest.

In his 1855 Leaves Whitman does more than abandon rhyme and conventional verse forms. We hear immediately a confident voice speaking to us as an equal, not a preacher:

         I celebrate myself,

         And what I assume you shall assume,

         For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

         I loafe and invite my soul,

         I lean and loafe at my ease… observing a spear of summer grass. 

The mark of true genius in the arts is an immediately recognizable style. No one could mistake these lines for any poet other than Whitman. This is a poetry which takes its pleasure in sentence shapes, in balance and repetition rather than repeated metrical units. It is a music at once new and very old, familiar to us from the Psalms.” (Location number 403-431).

Source: Whitman, Walt, and Francis Murphy. The complete poems. [Kindle DX Version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com