Prufrock's Dilemma

“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.