Title: Letters from Paumanok
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: August 14, 1851
Publication information: New York Evening Post 14 August 1851: .
Source: Original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00266
Contributors to digital file: Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, Mark Neels, Gertrud Elisberg Moreno, Vince Moran, and Ed Folsom
cropped image 1
Letters from Paumanok.
BROOKLYN, August 11.
The hot day was over at last; though the opera at the Castle Garden1 did not commence til eight; and even had it not been leisure enough and to spare, was there any escape from those imperial commands in the west? So with wool-hat crushed in my hand behind me, for the sundown breezes felt good, there on old "Clover Hill," (modernized Brooklyn Heights,)2 I took my time, and expanded to the glory spread over heaven and earth.
Sails of sloops bellied gracefully upon the river, with mellower light and deepened shadows. And the dark and glistening water formed an under-tone to the play of vehement color up above.
Rapidly, an insatiable greediness grew within me for brighter and stronger hues; oh, brighter and stronger still. It seemed as if all that the eye could bear, were unequal to the fierce voracity of my soul for intense, glowing color.
And yet there were the most choice and fervid fires of the sunset, in their brilliancy and richness almost terrible.
Have not you, too, at such a time, known this thirst of the eye? Have you not, in like manner, while listening to the well-played music of some band like Maretzek's,3 felt an overwhelming desire for measureless sound—a sublime orchestra of a myriad orchestras—a colossal volume of harmony, in which the thunder might roll in its proper place; and above it, the vast, pure Tenor,—identity of the Creative Power itself—rising through the universe, until the boundless and unspeakable capacities of that mystery, the human soul, should be filled to the uttermost, and the problem of human cravingness be satisfied and destroyed?4
Of this sort are the promptings of good music upon me. How is it possible, that among the performers there, with their instruments, are some who can jest, and giggle, and look flippantly over the house meanwhile? And even good singers, upon the stage beyond them, you may see presently, who will mar their parts with quizzing and ill-timed smiles, and looks of curiosity at the amount of their audience.
Come, I will not talk to you as to one of the superficial crowd who saunter here because it is a fashion; who take opera glasses with them, and make you sick with shallow words, upon the sublimest and most spiritual of the arts. I will trust you with confidence; I will divulge secrets.5
The delicious music of "the Favorite"6 is upon us. Gradually, we see not this huge amphitheatre, nor the cropped heads and shaved faces of the men; nor coal-scuttle bonnets; nor hear the rattle of fans, nor even the ill-bred chatter. We see the groves of a Spanish convent, and the procession of monks; we hear the chant, now dim and faint, then swelling loudly, and then again dying away among the trees. The aged Superior and the young Fernando, we see. In answer to the old man's rebukes and questions, we hear the story of love.
Those fresh vigorous tones of Bettini!7—I have often wished to know this man, for a minute, that I might tell him how much of the highest order of pleasure he has conferred upon me. His voice has often affected me to tears. Its clear, firm, wonderfully exalting notes, filling and expanding away; dwelling like a poised lark up in heaven; have made my very soul tremble.—Critics talk of others who are more perfectly artistical—yes, as the well-shaped marble is artistical. But the singing of this man has breathing blood within it; the living soul, of which the lower stage they call art, is but the shell and sham.
Yes, let me dwell a moment here. After travelling through the fifteen years' display in this city, of musical celebrities, from Mrs. Austin8 up to Jenny Lind,9 from Ole Bull10 on to conductor Benedict,11 with much fair enjoyment of the talent of all; none have thoroughly satisfied, overwhelmed me, but this man. Never before did I realize what an indescribable volume of delight the recesses of the soul can bear from the sound of the honied perfection of the human voice. The manly voice it must be, too. The feminine organ, however curious and high, is but as the pleasant moonlight.
The Swedish Swan,12 with all her blandishments, never touched my heart in the least. I wondered at so much vocal dexterity; and indeed they were all very pretty, those leaps and double somersets. But even in the grandest religious airs, genuine masterpieces as they are, of the German composers, executed by this strangely overpraised woman in perfect scientific style, let critics say what they like, it was a failure; for there was a vacuum in the head of the performance. Beauty pervaded it no doubt, and that of a high order. It was the beauty of Adam before God breathed into his nostrils.
Let us return to Balthazar, and his prophetic announcements "Ah, Fernando," we hear him say, "this magnificent world, which allures you, is deceptive and false. The angel you now love may prove treacherous. Yes, tossed by tempests, you will gladly seek again this haven of peace."
I always thought the plot of the "Favorite" a peculiarly well-proportioned and charming story. It is a type of the experience of human kind, and, like Shakspeare's dramas, its moral is world-wide.
Fernando, young, enthusiastic, full of manly vigor, and at the same time of tenderness, trusted and loved a beautiful unknown woman. She, Leonara, though the favorite and mistress of the king, returned the young man's love. Thus, he would not complete the burial of himself among the priesthood. He left the convent, and having received from Leonara a commission of rank in the army, joined the camp, and rendered such important services, that the king, in person, thanked him before the court. He, however, abruptly discovered the amour between his favorite and the young officer.
The king's own love was faithful, but the Papal court interfered, and Leonara confessing her genuine attachment to Fernando, the royal consent sealed their marriage. Previously to this, the disgraced woman had sent her lover a true account of herself; but it was intercepted, and Fernando immediately afterwards found that his idol was the cast-off mistress of the king.
All the indignant passions of his soul then broke forth. He upbraided the king with such perfidy, tore the golden order from his neck, broke his sword, and cast it at the monarch's feet, and retired in a fury of sorrow and disappointment, back to the shadows from which he had sallied forth into the world.
Now we approach the close of the legend. We see again the dark groves of the convent. Up through the venerable trees peal the strains of the chanting voices. Oh, sweet music of Donizetti, how can men hesitate what rank to give you!
With his pale face at the foot of the cross, kneels the returned novice, his breast filled with a devouring anguish, his eyes showing the death that has fallen upon his soul. The strains of death, too, come plaintively from his lips. Never before did you hear such wonderful gushing sorrow, poured forth like ebbing blood, from a murdered heart. Is it for peace he prays with that appealing passion? Is it the story of his own sad wreck he utters?
Listen. Pure and vast, that voice now rises, as on clouds, to the heaven where it claims audience. Now, firm and unbroken, it spreads like an ocean around us. Ah, welcome that I know not the mere language of the earthly words in which the melody is embodied; as all words are mean before the language of true music.
Thanks, great artist. For one, at least, it is no extravagance to say, you have justified his ideal of the loftiest of the arts. Thanks, limner13 of the spirit of life, and hope and peace; of the red fire of passion, the cavernous vacancy of despair, and the black pall of the grave.
I write as I feel; and I feel that there are not a few who will pronounce a Yes to my own confessions.
1. Castle Garden was originally a U.S. Army fort that was leased to New York in 1824 and used as a theater. The site was converted into the immigrant processing center for the state in 1855 and used until 1890, when Ellis Island was opened by the federal government. [back]
2. Clover Heights was the original name for the bluff overlooking Brooklyn Village (Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 449). [back]
3. Max Maretzek (1821–1897) produced operas throughout the 1840s and 1850s, including Lucia di Lammermoor at Astor Place in June 1851 (Vera Brodky Lawrence, Strong on Music: The New York Music Scene in the Days of George Templeton Strong, Vol. 2: Reverberations, 1850-1856 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995], 160–161). [back]
4. Whitman's tone and style in these paragraphs anticipate "Song of Myself." His reference here, for example, to the "pure Tenor" anticipates the "pure contralto" of "Song of Myself." Similarly, his strategic use of rhetorical questions to elicit an intimate connection with the reader anticipates his technique in "Song of Myself": "have you heard that it was good to gain the day?" "Have you outstripped the rest?" "Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? / Have you practiced so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?" (Leaves of Grass ) [back]
5. Compare this sentence to "This hour I tell things in confidence, / I might not tell everybody but I will tell you" (Leaves of Grass ). [back]
6. La Favorita, on opera by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), takes place in Castilian Spain during the first half of the fourteenth century. The plot revolves around the conflict between King Alfonso XI of Castile and the young lover Fernando for the hand of "The Favorite," Leonora (Whitman renders the name "Leonara"). [back]
7. Whitman refers here to tenor Geremia Bettini (1823–1865), a member of Max Maretzek's opera company. [back]
8. Soprano Elizabeth Austin (1800–1835) was one of the first British prima donnas to achieve fame in the United States. See Katherine K. Preston, Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825–60 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 10. [back]
9. Soprano Jenny Lind (1820–1887) was first brought to the United States by P. T. Barnum, who promoted her as the "Swedish Nightingale." During Lind's tour of the United States in 1850, she and Barnum grossed an average of $10,000 per night. See Judith Tick, ed., Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 185. [back]
10. Composer and violinist Ole Bornemann Bull (1810–1880) toured the United States throughout the mid-nineteenth century, traveling as far west as Wisconsin in the 1860s. In the 1850s, Bull attempted to found a Norwegian colony in rural Pennsylvania, and, though he purchased over 10,000 acres, the plan never came to fruition. See Einar Haugen and Camilla Cai, Ole Bull: Norway's Romantic Musician and Cosmopolitan Patriot (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 123. [back]
11. Julius Benedict (1804–1885) conducted the orchestra for Jenny Lind's Barnum-sponsored tour of the United States in 1850. See D. Kern Holoman, The Orchestra: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 49. [back]
12. Jenny Lind. See note on Lind above. Incidentally, Hans Christian Anderson met Jenny Lind in 1840 and fell helplessly in love with her. His feelings were not returned. [back]
13. A limner is an artisan who illuminates manuscripts. [back]