Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Human Voice
Author:
Griffin, Larry D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman addresses the subject of human voice in his essay "The Perfect Human Voice" (1890). In his discussion of the voices of opera singers, preachers, and actors he calls for a close connection between the literal and metaphorical voice:

To me the grand voice is mainly physiological—(by which I by no means ignore the mental help, but wish to keep the emphasis where it belongs.) Emerson says manners form the representative apex and vital charm and captivation of humanity: but he might as well have changed the typicality to voice. (Prose Works 2:674)

Regardless of the voice's association with elocution, drama, or opera, for Whitman the human voice itself is the most important:

Of course there is much taught and written about elocution, the best reading, speaking, etc., but it finally settles down to best human vocalization. Beyond all other power and beauty there is something in the quality and power of the right voice (timbre the schools call it) that touches the soul, abysms. (2:674)

Whitman also specifies those whom he has known who possess the perfect human voice: Marietta Alboni, Elias Hicks, Father Taylor, Alessandro Bettini, Fanny Kemble, and Edwin Booth. For Whitman the "perfect physiological human voice" creates the best philosophy or poetry (2:674).

The direct reciprocation of speaking and talking is listening and hearing. Hardly ever differentiating between readers and auditors in Leaves of Grass, Whitman continually acknowledges the human voice through references to speaking and hearing. He incites his readers to listen to live words rather than reading dead print; they must participate as listeners in the experience of his poems. In "Song of Myself" Whitman presents "the origin of all poems" as something heard with the ear rather than read with the eye: "You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self" (section 2).

Whitman's poetry in Leaves of Grass is more a matter of saying and talking, a voice speaking with a tongue. In the opening lines of "Song of Myself" Whitman claims to be speaking with an individual "tongue." This is the tongue of a poet "in perfect health" who continues speaking "till death," and with this tongue, Whitman so speaks: "I permit to speak at every hazard, / Nature without check with original energy." The "original energy" with which he speaks is the energy of breath.

Origination of the spoken word takes place in the lungs, the throat, and the mouth. Whitman associates the spoken word of the human voice in his naming all of the poems, the entire book, Leaves of Grass. The poems, as grass, originate from the mouth—"from under the faint red roofs of mouths"—where Whitman's initiators of the spoken word—"so many uttering tongues"—are found ("Song of Myself," section 6).

Several Whitman critics and biographers provide negative appraisals of Whitman's own voice. Clifton Joseph Furness includes a letter from Harrison Smith Morris in his edition of Whitman papers. This letter suggests to later critics and biographers Edgar Lee Masters, F.O. Matthiessen, Henry Seidel Canby, and Arthur Briggs a "high-pitched" quality in Whitman's voice (Workshop 203). More than a dozen witnesses, however, who heard Whitman's voice provide more positive appraisals of it. In his biography of Whitman, Morris himself provides the following description of Whitman's voice, which contradicts his letter to Furness: "A voice of many soft vibrations that rippled now and then into human laughter, seldom loud, always measured and even hesitating for the right word, grave in season and never monotonous or complaining" (196). Amos Bronson Alcott, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, Hannibal Hamlin Garland, Thomas B. Harned, Frank Harris, William Dean Howells, Bertha Johnson, Dr. John Johnston, Stuart Merrill, William Douglas O'Connor, Sarah Payson (Fanny Fern), Helen Price, Horace Traubel, and Susan Hunter Walker all heard Whitman's voice and provide positive descriptions of it.

In fact, readers can determine the quality of Whitman's voice for themselves. As listeners, they can hear Whitman reading the first four lines of his six-line poem "America" (1888). Recorded first on a cylinder in 1890 (perhaps at the Victor Recording Studio in Philadelphia), owned once by the collector Roscoe Haley, broadcast in 1951 on NBC radio by Leon Pearson, and packaged by Audio-Text Cassettes and sold for classroom use in 1974, the Whitman recording is available today on acetate in the Belfer Audio Lab and Archives at Syracuse University, and is also available both on cassette tape from The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review at the University of Iowa and on CD-Rom from Rhino Records. When this writer listens to the recording, he hears a rich voice that is neither monotonous nor high-pitched.

In the final poem of "Messenger Leaves" in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, "To You [Stranger, if you...]," which was later included in the "Inscriptions" cluster of the 1881 Leaves, Whitman presents two questions, that, as rhetorical questions, underscore the importance he must have placed on the human voice in his desire to speak to all his readers: "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?"

Bibliography

Morris, Harrison S. Walt Whitman: A Brief Biography with Reminiscences. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1929.

Whitman, Walt. "America." 1890. Rec. Voices of the Poets: Readings by Great American Poets from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost. American Literary Voices Audiotape. 14026. Center for Cassette Studies, 1974.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton Joseph Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.


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