Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Italian Music in Dakota" (1881)
Author:
Krieg, Joann P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Written after Whitman's western excursion in 1879, "Italian Music in Dakota" appeared for the first time in the 1881 Leaves. Though his tour did not include the Dakotas, Whitman no doubt heard the Seventeenth Regimental Band—described in a caption as "the finest Regimental Band I ever heard"—in an appearance in the Western region.

In seventeen lines Whitman captures the effect of hearing music of Italian opera in the natural setting of the American West. For him the effect amounts to the blessing of nature on the art form he most loved. Originally disdainful of European music, especially opera, in a democratic nation, Whitman had succumbed to Italian opera by 1855 and later declared it one of the sources for Leaves. "Italian Music" contains specific references to bel canto works, Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula (1831) and Norma (1831) and Gaetano Donizetti's Poliuto (1838), which were favorites of Whitman in the 1840s when he attended opera in Manhattan. When played by the regimental band in the western wilderness, rather than in a city opera house, the operatic harmonies seem to the poet to acquire new and more subtle meaning, and nature, in its wild state, appears to acknowledge an affinity with this music, which produces a complete harmony. In essence, the poem epitomizes Whitman's many references to music, in that it reconciles and dispels apparent disparities.

Bibliography

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


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