Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Proud Music of the Storm" (1869)
Author:
Marcus, Mordecai
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 as "Proud Music of the Sea-Storm" in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1869, to which it was submitted by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a personal favor to Whitman. It was first included in Leaves of Grass, with the new title, in 1871 and was presented in its final version in 1881.

Sidney Krause divides the poem's six numbered sections into three parts: I, section 1; II, sections 2 through 5; III, section 6. The organization can also be seen as an envelope, the first and last sections enclosing the intervening ones, which provide overlapping forays into the experience of different music. This music is revealed to be or emanate from a spiritual substance and will become the force behind a new poetic vision. In the envelope, sleep or dream is the locus of music, at first multifold and mysterious and at last multifold but beginning to be understood. Otherwise, sleep is mentioned only once, toward the beginning of section 2. In the final section, the poet emerges from his sleep with his new realization. The two major and intertwined themes are specified respectively in line 51, "And man and art with nature fused at last" (section 1) and in line 163, where the poet discovers that music will form the basis of "Poems bridging the way from Life to Death" (section 6), which will provide for a new departure in his poetry.

In section 1 varied sounds, from nature and from human activity, enter the poet's sleep and mysteriously seize him. In section 2 music from human activities, human music-making, and nature blend into one orchestra which under God's direction creates unity of man, art, and nature. Section 3 divides into two parts. In the first, the poet reminds himself that since he was a child all sounds have become music for him. This enables him to move to his family's voices and then to sounds of nature, popular songs, and tragic operas. The operatic motifs suggest that music gives heartbreaking experiences a deep significance.

Section 4 continues to enumerate the parts of the one great orchestra, moving from other operas to dance music and then to music expressing worldwide religions, mostly Asian, each suggesting ecstatic union of the human and divine. Although the operas mentioned in section 5 reintroduce European material, the poet says that he moves from Asia to Europe because most of his material is now based on European, not Asian, religions. He then asserts that this music expresses the godhead and he experiences it as it fuses with nature, and by filling him gives him a sense of universal unity. He awakes "softly" in section 6 because the tumultuous sounds have brought him to a calming realization. As in "Out of the Cradle" he has found a "clew" but from all sounds rather than just the sea. He can walk amidst the real world "[n]ourish'd henceforth by the celestial dream" (section 6) that he has described in sections 1 through 5 because music transforms reality into the celestial dream of unity, with everything ideal that lies within and beyond it. Thus what he has heard is given a dimension greater than its surface substance. All that he has heard comprises the rhythmic impulsion that will lie behind new poems "bridging the way from Life to Death" (section 6). They have been "vaguely wafted" because the human and natural music have only suggested what he must embody in words that he hopes to write.

The poem echoes the arrival of a new bard announced in "Starting from Paumanok"; the bridging of matter and spirit central to "Passage to India"; the passage from life to death symbolized in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and "Out of the Cradle"; and the stimulation of inexpressible feelings by music described in "Song of Myself," section 26. It also hints of deep unformed feelings mentioned in "Scented Herbage of My Breast," whose "O I do not know what you mean there" is echoed by "I think O tongues ye tell this heart, that cannot tell itself, / This brooding yearning heart, that cannot tell itself" (section 2). Gay Wilson Allen found a symphonic structure in the poem, as in Sidney Lanier's poems. Sidney Krause denied the possibility of this by maintaining that music is the inspiration of Whitman's feeling and insight rather than its substance. James C. McCullagh proposed that Whitman reconciles diverse human states represented by sounds by reconciling natural and man-made sounds and sounds of world-wide religions and cultures. Several critics propose that the poem's real subject is Whitman's announcement of a new poetic program which will stress the connection of life to death and be more explicitly religious than his earlier work.

Bibliography

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

____. Walt Whitman Handbook. Chicago: Packard, 1946.

Kramer, Lawrence. "Conclusion: On Time and Form." Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. 223–241.

Krause, Sidney. "Whitman, Music and 'Proud Music of the Storm.'" PMLA 72 (1957): 705–721.

McCullagh, James C. "'Proud Music of the Storm': A Study in Dynamics." Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 66–73.

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.


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