Matthew Aucoin on his 1st opera, Walt Whitman – Harvard Gazette


But – civil war? Oh good? This moment in history seemed both distant and too familiar; to immerse oneself in civil war studies was, I thought, to risk being exposed to various kinds of moldy and unhealthy nostalgia. The music that I associated with this historic moment was not appealing either. The sound image the war conjured up to me was an unaccompanied nasal violin moaning behind a voiceover from Ken Burns, a grainy voice actor reading a sad letter from a soldier at his home. Halfway through our first black president’s eight-year term, what could be urgent, new, or relevant about it?

Whitman was the key that unlocked this era for me. The poet’s very personal account of the war, recorded in the diaries he kept during his years working as a volunteer nurse in Virginia and Washington, DC, provided the window I needed to see the Civil War in the human scale. Whitman knew that the death toll of the war was so astounding that the enormity of the loss could not be felt, except as an impersonal statistic, by anyone who read about it from afar. For this reason, his journals stubbornly focus on individual life and experience. He insists that the most important events of the war were the countless acts of love and heroism that usually go unrecorded: “Real war will never go into the books,” he writes, even as he tries to write a book that would tell the story. of this “real war”. If I was to explore this moment in American history, I needed Walt Whitman as a spiritual guide.

Whitman’s decision to devote years of his life to volunteering in field hospitals was an act of unfathomable generosity, and one that would strain the optimism that was his natural state of being. The first thing the poet describes upon arriving at a makeshift hospital in Virginia is “a bunch of feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.” amputees, a full load for a one-horse cart, ”with“ several corpses ”lying nearby, covered with blankets. But this macabre spectacle, and the carnage he would witness almost daily thereafter, did not deter him. Whitman had both a strong stomach and an unlimited capacity for sympathy; he was born to be a nurse. As we will see, some of his pre-Civil War poems show traces of a poignant inner struggle to understand what the role of a queer poet might be in society, especially in times of war. He had no desire to be a soldier – can you imagine Walt Whitman pointing a gun at his neighbor? But he wasn’t an ivory tower writer either; he wanted to be there, in the heart of the crisis, helping as best he could.

In hospitals, Whitman channeled his creative exuberance into the multifaceted work of healing. Depending on the needs of individual soldiers, he served at various times as a medic, companion, bedside scribe, talkative storyteller, and shamanic source of spiritual comfort. This varied and outgoing work suited him perhaps better than the solitary work of writing poetry. One can often feel a frustration, in Whitman, that his poems cannot get off the page and metamorphose into an embrace, a kiss, a common song. The war created a unique opportunity for Whitman to translate his artistic principles into action. Instead of writing poems for an imaginary future reader, he could tell stories and write individual letters, face to face. The Bedside Gathering is the perfect venue for Whitman’s art.

However, the more I studied Whitman’s diaries, poetry, and biography, the more certain things bothered me. Wasn’t there something odd about the way Whitman spent virtually all of his time with helpless soldiers – often mere boys, as the poet repeatedly exclaims in the newspapers and in his frequent physical expressions? affection? (“I loved him very much, I always kissed him, and he did,” Whitman writes of a young soldier, in a typical description.) Did Whitman perhaps need the radical intimacy of these war friendships as much, or more than, the soldiers he was responsible for comforting?

The war also had a curious impact on Whitman’s artistic work: his experience in hospitals seems, on one level, to have cured him of the need for poetry. He continued to write, of course, but his more ambitious poems – “Song of Myself”, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, “The Sleepers” – date from before the war, and his poems about war generally strike me as pale echoes of experiences that were, for him, too intense for words. The line between the transcendent and the terrible, the inspired and the simply grandiloquent, is still quite thin in Whitman, and even in his prewar heyday there are arguably more weak poems than great ones. But after the war, his batting average was much lower; the wind seems to come out of its sails. Whitman called the war “the deepest lesson of my life”; has this “lesson” reduced her need for creative work? And where does the vast ambition of the pre-war years come from in the first place? What was this unlimited hunger that needed to be expressed in poetry?

Whitman’s poetry is not only “operatic” in the generic sense: he was an opera enthusiast, and his experiences attending live opera in New York greatly influenced his development as a writer. . It might be surprising that the self-proclaimed bard of American democracy, the poet who wanted to break free from the shackles of received verse forms and who had a declared allergy to any art that reeked of continental decorum, shamelessly worshiped at the altar of the ‘opera. Whitman viewed opera as an emancipating volcanic force, capable of precipitating transformative spiritual experiences in listeners who submitted to its power. In one of the extravagant catalogs of human experience in “Song of Myself,” a series of earthy working sounds (“the heave’e’yo of longshoremen unloading ships near docks”, “the steam whistle” , etc.) is followed by a euphoric vision of the opera:

I hear the trained soprano… she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;

The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,

He tears unspeakable ardor from my breast,

It makes me vibrate in full sip of the most distant horror,

It navigates me …

Whitman experiments the art form with his whole body: opera invades and overloads his nervous system, causing an ecstasy so extreme it borders on trauma. The experience of lyrical performance, for Whitman, hardly seems to distinguish itself from sex or an acidic trip.

Like many fans of this art form, Whitman only came to love opera after overcoming an initial aversion to it. In his youth, he preferred unpretentious local music, such as marching bands and family vocal groups on tour. He first found the classical European singing style “stale” and “second-hand … with its frills, its ridiculous sentimentality, its anti-republican spirit.” What made her change her mind was her experience performing a fully staged live opera. In the many operas that arose in the mid-19th century in New York City, Whitman heard the bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, as well as earlier works by Verdi, and evidently underwent some sort of conversion. Here at last is an art form as big, daring and loud as he imagined the American spirit itself! (As a Verdi lover, and as someone with a taste for high-decibel live performances, I am delighted that Whitman’s poetic swagger may have something to do with the mind-blowing intensity of the orchestra. of Verdian playing at full blast, “what we confess in private … is one of the greatest pleasures we get from a visit to the opera.”)

Once “converted,” Whitman enthusiastically proselytized the art form. In a touching letter from 1863, Whitman described the opera to a group of young soldiers in a Washington war hospital. Whitman was volunteering in hospitals at the time, but had returned home to Brooklyn to visit his mother. “Two or three nights ago,” he writes, “I went to the NY Academy of Music, to the Italian opera. I guess you know it’s a performance, a play, all music and song, in Italian language, very sweet and beautiful. He then writes a detailed and detailed synopsis of the plot – it’s clear from his description, which makes the opera sound like an action movie, which he writes for a teenage audience – at the end of which Whitman reminds his young friends of the basic facts of the art form: comrades, remember that it is all in the song and the music, and a lot too, on a large scale, in the band, all the instruments to which you can think of, and the best players in the world, & sometimes the whole group & all the male choir & female choir all warming up together – & all in a huge house, bright as day, & with a crowded audience women and men. Such song and rich and loud music always give me the greatest pleasure.

Whitman’s description of the opera’s atmosphere – the men and women singing together, the vast theater, the bright light, the crowded audience – resembles the vast American panoramas that fill his poems, those impossible snapshots that aim to describe the bustling activity of an entire continent. A letter like this sheds light on how opera, in its attempt to create a comprehensive and commonly shared sensory experience, provided Whitman with a model that no other art form could offer. Other poems might aspire to the condition of music, but Whitman’s aspires to the condition of opera.

Copyright © 2021 by Matthieu Aucoin. All rights reserved.

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