Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ" (1861)
Author:
Dacey, Philip
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was first published in the New York Leader (12 October 1861) under the title "Little Bells Last Night." When it appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), it acquired the current title and lost four of the original nine lines—the first three, which were filled with contemporary martial allusions, and the seventh, which was addressed to a female harpist; thereafter the poem stayed at five lines. (The original is available in Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer.) After appearing in Leaves in 1867, the poem was transferred to the "Children of Adam" cluster in 1871, thereby emphasizing the sexual content of the poem. Perhaps surprisingly, given the removal of the female harpist and the lack of gender specificity in the last line, the poem has no history in "Calamus."

Sacrificed in Whitman's excisions were "beating" and "drums," which prefigured "heart" and "ear" in the last two lines, and the epithet "round-lipp'd" (for cannons), which subtly initiated the sensual intimacy of the poem's conclusion. Whitman may have considered the original seventh line repetitive of the human voice (Italian tenor) and of musical instrumentation (church organ). He simplified the punctuation of the first version considerably for Leaves, dropping most commas and changing dashes and semicolons to commas. Because of a dropped comma in line five, "still" could now be read as an adverb modifying "ringing," whereas its original punctuation makes clear it is an adjective modifying "all."

Four categories of sound constitute the subject of the poem, in apparently ascending order of importance: artificial, instrumental music; the music of nature; the singing human voice; the audible pulse of human love. The last line's image of "little bells last night," though the emotional crescendo, circles the poem back to the first category of sound, effecting both closure and the suffusion of the physical with the spiritual ("bells" recalls "church"). A tone of intimacy is achieved by the use of apostrophe in all lines but the middle one. Appropriate for a poem about music, the sound effects are multiple, striking, and subtle (e.g., the play between "morn" and "mourn" in lines one and two and the lulling repetition of the letter "l" in five out of the eight syllables in "all was still ringing little bells").

The combination here of two subjects greatly important to Whitman, music and personal love, and his consummate handling of them in such a short space, gives this poem significance far beyond its size.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Coberly, James H. "Whitman's Children of Adam Poems." Emerson Society Quarterly 22 (1961): 5–8.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Faner, Robert D. Walt Whitman & Opera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1951.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Pound, Louise. "Walt Whitman and the French Language." American Speech 1 (1926): 421–430.

Schwiebert, John E. The Frailest Leaves: Whitman's Poetic Technique and Style in the Short Poem. New York: Lang, 1992.

Wright, James. "The Delicacy of Walt Whitman." The Presence of Walt Whitman: Selected Papers from the English Institute. Ed. R.W.B. Lewis. New York: Columbia UP, 1962. 164–188.


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