“let sounds contribute toward it”

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds
contribute toward it.

—Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

Walt Whitman was famous for revising his own poems. According to Galway Kinnell,

Whitman took passages from one poem and put them in another. He made several poems of one poem, one poem of several. “Song of Myself” did not reach final form until twenty-six years after first publication.

In editing The Essential Whitman, Kinnell opted against choosing the final version of Whitman’s poems for his book, arguing that

most readers who look closely at Whitman’s revisions soon realize that while some may help, most do not, and many harm the poems, often severely. Whitman may be poetry’s most spectacular victim of the law of elapsed time.

Kinnell offered a long, well-reasoned argument for his approach, closing with Whitman’s own words not long before his death: “In the long run the world will do what it pleases with the book.” Kinnell chose to read “this remark as indicating acceptance” of his approach, but the statement can surely also be read as resigned recognition of the facts.

Readers, critics, theorists, and translators have all had their way with Whitman’s work. Beyond that, there’s this: In 1999, the American Composers Orchestra reported that, “According to Michael Hovland’s Musical Settings of American Poets, the poetry of Walt Whitman has been set to music 539 times.”

Poetry and music may have a long-term relationship, but it’s certainly not without its bumps. Poet John Ashbery and composer Ned Rorem, who has set Ashbery texts, differ profoundly on whether poems ought to be set to music. Rorem once said, “Tennyson, I think, said, composers are simply making me do the same thing twice, and Valéry said that a song is like looking at a painting through a stained-glass window.”

All of my life, all of it to this very day from the beginning when I began writing songs, I have a slight feeling, not so much of guilt, but of presumption. Who am I to presume to take this finished object and do something to it? What am I doing? I’m not even quite sure what I’m doing. Am I embellishing it? Am I changing it?

To some poets (and their readers), the poem should remain inviolate. Rilke and T. S. Eliot forbade anyone to set their poems to music. It’s understandable, after all. I, for one, shudder to think what Helmut Lachenmann might do to The Waste Land. Ashbery isn’t so dictatorial, but said, simply, “my poetry doesn’t need music. It has a kind of built-in music of its own.”

Rorem, thought by many to be a master of the contemporary art song, put the problem this way:

A lot of times the poets I’ve set to music, if they’re alive, are mildly flattered, but they don’t know why I bother. Elizabeth Bishop, for example. . . . It was very touching, her letter about trying to tell me she liked it even though she didn’t know what it was. . . . Well, let her write her own songs. But I can sympathize. She had heard her own “music” when she wrote the thing and mine is by definition not that. The song is a third thing, and it doesn’t belong to her any longer.

I don’t have vast experience listening to poems set to music. Often what stops me is odd gymnastics in the vocal line that, to me, at least, bear little relationship to the text. Every now and then, though, I come across a musical setting so sympathetic to the poem’s own music that the issue melts away. A stellar example is Benjamin Britten’s setting of Rimbaud’s Antique, to which I was introduced by the kind offices of David Nice. While Antique stands a place apart, the entire Britten setting of songs from Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations is beautiful; I now own and play this music with unalloyed pleasure.

I’ve not yet found a setting of Whitman by Benjamin Britten, but composers I’ve discovered who’ve set Whitman’s texts to music include Leonard Bernstein (To What You Said), Elliot Carter (Warble for Lilac-Time), Frederick Delius (Sea-Drift), Paul Hindemith (When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love), Gustav Holst (a dirge for two veterans), Charles Ives (Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude), Virgil Thomson (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (A Sea Symphony, on the beach at night, alone), to name but a few.

Along with Hindemith, George Crumb and Roger Sessions set When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, and there are several other examples of multiple settings of a single poem or text. And then there’s Kurt Weill’s Oh Captain! My Captain!, which in Urs Affolter’s eccentric interpretation becomes a sort of noir cabaret. What do you suppose Tennyson and Valéry would say to that?

Rorem has set many Whitman texts for solo voice and piano. His spare, elegant piano accompaniments give the texts room to breathe. At his best, Rorem’s vocal lines float gracefully along the cadences of Whitman’s text. To You, only three lines long, is full of poignant yearning, which Rorem captures fully in song:

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why
should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

Spilling piano notes frame the vocal lines of Youth, Day, Old Age, Night. Rorem’s music, in consort with the text, is by turns anthem-like and elegiac.

Youth, large, lusty, loving —
Youth full of grace, force, fascination!
Do you know that Old Age may come after you,
with equal grace, force, fascination?

Day, full-blown and splendid —
Day of the immense sun, action, ambition, laughter.
The Night follows close, with millions of suns,
and sleep, and restoring darkness.

Rorem’s rendering of a passage from Specimen Days honors Whitman’s understated prose to reveal the full harrowing poignancy of Thomas Haley, “a regular Irish boy” who sleeps “soundly at this moment, (but it is the sleep of death).”

Poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse beautiful shining hair. One time as I sat looking at him while he lay asleep, he suddenly, without the least start, awaken’d, open’d his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear, silent look—a slight sigh—then turn’d back and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover’d near.

Next to Rorem’s art songs, some orchestral renderings of Whitman texts can sound, at least to me, clotted and overblown. The Wound-Dresser, however, a setting by John Coolidge Adams of an excerpt from this Whitman poem, avoids that trap and evokes, with affecting clarity, Whitman’s lyrical, unsparing text.

The Wound-Dresser, for baritone and chamber orchestra, is one of the pieces that introduced me to Adams’s music and the piece that introduced me to this Whitman poem. These would be reasons enough for me to treasure it, but the poignant power of the setting is its most enduring gift.

Adams wrote that “The Wound-Dresser began as a plan to set prose cameos from Walt Whitman’s account of his Civil War days in Specimen Days.” The project became more personal as Adams’s father declined into Alzheimer’s disease, and his mother “performed the ultimate act of caritas by caring for this man whom she had loved since the day they met fifty years earlier on the floor of her stepfather’s dance hall.”

When I came to write my Whitman piece I kept thinking about my mother’s struggle and the devotion with which she nursed him. Instead of setting Specimen Days, I chose “The Wound-Dresser,” a poem that is both graphic and tender, perhaps the most intimate recollection of what Whitman experienced in his years of selfless work as a nurse and caregiver in the hospitals that surrounded wartime Washington.”

A timpani’s foreboding rumble begins the piece. The strings enter on long chords and drift into a rocking plaint, joined by a synthesizer’s ghostly tolling. We pick our way through the wounded to the high keening of a violin. A singer appears:

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,

We enter the filtered light of a hospital tent. We stand between rows of wounded; we hear their moans, the attendants’ clipped steps, the slosh of blood in a pail.

To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

The singer and violin withdraw. The music descends to a fathomless note and rises once again; steady hands roll a bandage around a wounded leg.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

The music undulates outward from the singer’s plea. A horn, then a trumpet, takes up the lament.

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)

The music gathers agitation; dark respite comes on solemn chords.

(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

The strings climb upward as a trumpet calls in anguish. Chords thunder in distress, then subside.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)

A lone flute floats out. The music is the soul’s silent speaking, voicing what the voice may not.

I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much . . .

A trumpet sounds above resolving chords; the music rises and falls, rises again, and hangs in the air. Silence, a haze of chords, a last bell-like tolling, and the singer offers the poem’s final lines.

(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)


For a Spotify playlist of settings of Whitman poems, including Adams’s The Wound-Dresser, as well as several settings of Whitman poems by Ned Rorem and other composers, click on Walt Whitman in Song.

To hear a performance of The Wound-Dresser on YouTube, click here.


Credits: The image at the head of the post can be found here, that of the Ned Rorem album cover here, that of the hospital here, and that of many editions of Leaves of Grass here. (The photograph of the text from the cover of The Wound-Dresser score is my own.) The quotation at the head of the post can be found here. The Kinnell quotations from The Essential Whitman can be found here. The American Composers Orchestra quotation can be found here. With one exception, the quotations from Ned Rorem and John Ashbery can be found here. The exception is the quotation concerning Elizabeth Bishop, which can be found here. The quotations from Whitman texts can be found as follows: To You here, Youth, Day, Old Age, Night here, Specimen Days here, and The Wound-Dresser here. The quotations from John Adams are from his indispensable book, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, which can be found here. A list of many of the settings of Whitman poems, including the text that has been set, can be found here. Song of America, a beautifully designed site with lists, information, and audio and video clips, features settings of Whitman here.

A special note of thanks to Mark Kerstetter, who some time back invited me to write a guest post at The Bricoleur, thus inspiring my initial investigation of musical settings of poems. Thanks also to Mark and to Lucy Mattingly, who urged me on to take UPenn Professor Al Filreis’s astounding Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course, which is the direct inspiration for this post. For more information about the course, click here.

15 thoughts on ““let sounds contribute toward it”

  1. David

    How can one not be moved by Adams’s setting of The Wound Dresser? Your response is so beautifully given. There’s also that fabulous clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons, relevant not to Whitman but to his father’s Alzheimer’s; the climax where the clarinet starts to self-repeat is absolutely terrifying.

    Rorem I’m not so sure about, but he’s always responsive to his texts.

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    We have very little knowledge of poetry set to music and absolutely none at all of any of the Whitman poems that you cite here. We can well imagine that, in the right hands, the combination of music and poetry could lift both pieces to higher planes. However, we can also imagine that the reverse may be also possible given an insensitive partnership. We must now, prompted by you listen to at least one of these pairings for ourselves before coming to a conclusion. Now that will be an interesting adventure in itself, we have no doubt!

  3. friko

    Susan, I think we have talked about composers setting poems to music before. This very erudite and detailed piece of yours gives me a far greater insight than I have hitherto bothered to collect for myself. I still feel that a poem is a work of art already and doesn’t need a musician to force his interpretation on it. Perhaps, as in some of the Lieder cycles, when the poetry is of lesser quality than the music and simply serves as a base for some sublime compositions, I not only accept, but welcome, the new form. The poems on their own would never have stood the test of time.

    What I am really saying, shame-facedly , is that I have no idea of the subject matter other than examples of it in the past. Perhaps it is high time that I should follow your example and educate myself. All I need to overcome is my dislike of the act of taking someone else’s work and bending it to one’s own craft.

  4. shoreacres

    One of the most interesting tales of poetry-set-to-music involves Eric Whitacre and Robert Frost – or, more precisely, Robert Frost’s estate. Whitacre had accepted a commission from Julia Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, to set “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” to music as a memorial to her parents. Whitacre tells the story of the conflict and its resolution on his website.

    In briefest terms, Whitacre set the poem to music, then was prevented by Frost’s estate from publishing or performing it until 2038, the year the poem would enter the public domain. Frustrated, Whitacre asked poet Charles Silvestri to write a new poem for the already composed music! The new piece, entitled “Sleep” can be found at the previous link.

    But that’s not the end of the tale. The original setting with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as its lyrics remains extant on YouTube. There are a few versions, some coyly entitled “Sleep” even though they include Frost’s poem. It may be the estate has realized hundreds of people have downloaded the videos, so removing them wouldn’t have much effect. I believe the piece was debuted with the Concordia College Choir, and we may have one of those students to thank for its availability.

    I very much like this version of “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening”.

    Now, I’m running on a bit, but I have to tell you one more story of poetry set to music. One of my earliest memories is of my mother singing to me while she rocked me.The lullaby was called “Sweet and Low”, and apparently it was quite popular – the Lennon Sisters sang it during their last performance on The Lawrence Welk Show.

    Imagine my surprise, some 60 years later, to discover the lullaby actually is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, set to music. There’s a newer setting now that’s quite nice, but this is the original melody, sung by Bette Midler. She does almost as well as my mother. ;)

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    This is an outstanding post, your descriptions of music here are excellent, and the way you’ve used the youtube “chop” tool (a tool I’ve not seen before) is very effective. I’m looking forward to letting your spotify list play at my leisure (by the way, I love the Adams violin concertos; the performances in your list are stellar).

    I’ve heard Williams’ ‘Sea Symphony’ done live with a large chorale. It’s got some nice moments and the clip you’ve featured is one of the best. When I heard it live I remember thinking how odd it is that Whitman has been set to music so often when he wrote in unmeasured lines of prose. Perhaps this accounts for the “odd gymnastics” you’ve mentioned? This raises the distinction between songs (and song lyrics) and the kinds of symphonic treatments or compositions done by someone like Rorem. I think of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) as a special kind of poet whose poetry consists of an amalgam of sound, singing and words. Likewise Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are two of my favorite writers but they must be heard to be appreciated. This is the beauty of a song. But I think Rorem is right – to take a poem from the page and incorporate it into music is to make a new thing out of it.

    I’ve never heard that Kurt Weill piece before. I don’t know what Tennyson would think of it but I think it’s really, really strange!

  6. Rubye Jack

    Well, from this plebeian, I prefer Whitman as he wrote, without music. I have a hard enough time with poetry as is without worrying about it being made into music. If the writer records their own poetry as music that’s a different thing as with Dylan and Reed, mentioned by Mark above. Perhaps this is because I have such a difficult time with hearing music.
    Regardless, this is quite intriguing Susan – even to a commoner.

  7. magdalenaball

    What an insightful analysis of poetry and music (not to mention the editing process). Of course poetry has its own internal music and so when a composer takes it on, he or she must work with that music – a difficult task when you’re adding in your own. Some do it better than others, but Adams is clearly a master. Thanks very much for taking so much time to explore this topic in such depth.

  8. Scott

    I admire your thoughts. Inspiring and thought provoking. In a way like art itself. Open to interpretation and expression. I would like to think that poets are glad people are listening and processing. Some bands do some really great cover songs.
    I was struck by both Whitman’s and Adam’s compassion.. I love the photograph of Whitman.

  9. Steve Schwartzman

    Your post has made me wonder about people who have written songs with words as well as poetry per se. Leonard Cohen is a good example. He’s still alive, so in theory we could ask him (or maybe someone already has) how he determines when words by themselves are enough, and when to combine music with words. And of course there’s also the possibility of such a person writing music without words (as Mendelssohn did in “Songs without Words”).

  10. Suze

    This venue seems to suit you more fully, Sue.

    As for the ancient ties between music and poetry, I concur (with greater minds that have come before mine) that the sorcery lies in the rhythm and meter — and the manner in which both seem to induce trance, greater facility with memorization and, eventually, transcendence.

  11. hilarymb

    Hi Susan .. such an interesting post to read .. and I must (as I so often say) come back and read through and listen to all your links again … or put Spotify on and just listen. Your course was obviously a very good recommendation – and this post shows your thoroughness and research into your topics.

    Thanks and have a happy weekend .. HIlary

  12. Susan Scheid Post author

    David: Indeed (re The Wound-Dresser). As for Gnarly Buttons, I will never forget hearing it live played by, yup, the intrepid Contemporaneous, with Conor Brown on clarinet. I was in the first row, and he was right in front of me. I didn’t know the Adams back-story at the time, but even so, that climax was absolutely terrifying. Adams is so magnificent, isn’t he? Now, as for Rorem, yes, not anywhere near the same category, but, as you say, “always responsive to his texts.” (Were you ever, BTW, to write a piece on what makes an art song great, it would be a must read for me . . .)

    Jane and Lance: If you have had a chance for a listen, I’d be interested to know which, if any songs work for you and which fall flat.

    Steve: Ah, the French language maven strikes again! Thanks for the links.

    Friko: Yes, we have discussed this before. It’s an interesting issue, isn’t it? My own view, based on the limited evidence I have, is simplistic: some work, some don’t, and I know what I like when I hear it. I think Adams’s The Wound-Dresser is a tour de force. He also composed a knock-out aria for Dr. Atomic with Donne’s Batter My Heart as the text. You can find it here.

    shoreacres: You have at least two posts’ worth of material here: you know that, don’t you? These are wonderful stories, and thank you so much for the links!

    Mark: Ah, well, necessity was definitely the mother of invention here. My initial thought had been to do a quick post, quote the poem, quote Adams, and exhibit the piece, but the piece was not to be found on YouTube, and I didn’t think the Hampson excerpts, strung together as they are on Youtube, did the piece the least bit of justice. So, as you see, no quickie post here. As for the vocal gymnastics: oddly enough, I think all but one of Rorem’s War Scenes, while interesting, fall prey to this. But, remember, I’m very ill-schooled on listening to art songs, so my ear is not the best for this. So pleased you are enjoying the Adams violin concerto—and, oh my yes, isn’t that Weill interpretation strange?

    Rubye Jack: NOT a plebiean. You’ve plenty of very high class company in preferring to hear poems on their own, unadorned. I’ve very much enjoyed our exchanges off-post on the topic, and am sort of exuberant with the thought that you’re enjoying Adams’s Dharma, a piece high in my personal pantheon!

    Magdalena: So pleased you dropped by! As you know, I thought the setting of Dickinson you exhibited on your blog was lovely, and beautifully sung. So much fun to share this with you, and hope you are getting on well with ModPo!

    Scott: Isn’t that the best photograph of Whitman? And compassion, yes, Whitman and Adams have it in spades.

    Steve: Two interesting points you’ve made—no surprise from you! As for Leonard Cohen, you may be amused to know that he’s done a collaboration with Philip Glass on settings (or some such) of Cohen’s Book of Longing. I’m no Glass fan, so if I were Cohen, this wouldn’t be my choice of composers. Give me Adams any day.

    Suze: Interesting observation on rhythm and meter. Thanks for stopping by!

    Hilary: Hope you enjoy the links!

  13. Cygnus

    What a great exposition on the links between poems and their (sometimes well-fit, sometimes disjointed) musical accompaniments. It particularly makes me want to find a better edition of Leaves of Grass than the dog-eared one I’ve had for years. I love those versions of the poems, but it’s exciting to think about opening them up into another dimension of time.

    On the other hand, it may be like viewing the Star Wars Special Editions… I don’t want to be disappointed by Greedo-shooting-first type moments! :-)

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