Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Mystic Trumpeter, The" (1872)
Author:
Butler, Frederick J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in The Kansas Magazine in February 1872, this poem was reprinted in the 1872 volume As A Strong Bird on Pinions Free, in Two Rivulets in 1876, and ultimately in the cluster "From Noon to Starry Night" in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass.

For Whitman music is a great source of inspiration, as well as an invaluable resource for his poetry. "The Mystic Trumpeter" adopts as its theme music's inspiration—the vehicle for which is the trumpet. Whitman opens the poem by addressing this "strange musician" (section 1), calling it forward so "I may translate thee" (section 2). The trumpeter is ultimately called upon in each of the sections to provide music that will create, or re-create, various themes, allowing the poet an opportunity of expression.

W.L. Werner, in his "Whitman's 'The Mystic Trumpeter' as Autobiography," proposes that the last five sections of the poem are the poet's "attempt to divide his own life into five periods" (455). Section 4, he asserts, represents Whitman's early days, when he "revel'd in romance-reading" (456), referring primarily to his interest in the novels of Walter Scott. Section 5, it is proposed, "reproduces the ecstasy of the early Leaves" (457). Section 6 symbolizes the Civil War, while section 7 comments on the despair the poet has encountered, on the "wrongs of ages" (457). The final segment becomes one of "optimism and ecstasy" (457), a theme, it is suggested, with parallels to Whitman's poetry of the 1870s and beyond.

A similar reading on various divisions of this poem is presented by James E. Miller, Jr. He suggests that the trumpeter is the "spirit of poetry, the muse, grown 'wild' and 'strange'" (247). The intimation is that because the poet has reached old age, his poetic powers are declining. In section 4, Miller points to the various images that "conjure up" (247) the poetry of the past. Such "pageantry," he claims, is what "our poet has rejected as the theme of his poetry" (247). This view seems to play out Werner's notion that this "feudal element" was so important that Whitman "could never wholly free himself" from its influence (458). If we accept Werner's view that the poem portrays "moods parallel to Whitman's own life" (458), it also seems an appropriate position to stand with Miller's reading of the poem as Leaves of Grass "in miniature" (248).

"The Mystic Trumpeter" differs from many of Whitman's poems in that we see the poet looking outward, needing the "song," as it were, to expand his "numb'd imbonded spirit" (section 3). V.K. Chari, in his book Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism, suggests that this reaching out is more in accordance with Christianity than the poet's customary "conception of the cosmic self" (15) so prevalent in his early poetry. Yet throughout, the poet maintains that link between himself and the higher power. Even in moments "all lost," there is "endurance, resolution to the last" (section 7). And if, as Miller suggests, the muse plays a different tune to the older poet, Whitman never loses sight of those joyous moments when it is "enough to merely be" (section 8).

Bibliography

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

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

Weis, Monica R., SSJ. "'Translating the Untranslatable': A Note on 'The Mystic Trumpeter.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1.4 (1984): 27–31.

Werner, W.L. "Whitman's 'The Mystic Trumpeter' as Autobiography." American Literature 7 (1936): 455–458.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

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


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