Selected Criticism

"That Music Always Round Me" (1860)
King, Jerry F.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This ten-line poem originally was number 21 of the "Calamus" cluster in the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Whitman made no changes to the poem after its first publication (except to give it a title in 1867) but in 1871 he transferred it to the new section of Leaves of Grass called "Whispers of Heavenly Death."

Whitman may have thought the transfer appropriate because "That Music Always Round Me," like many of the poems in the new "Whispers," and unlike much of Whitman's earlier work, puts emphasis upon sounds, rather than upon picture images.

The transfer from "Calamus" may have seemed to Whitman to be fitting for another reason also; "That Music" does not deal directly with manly love. However, in the context of the 1860 "Calamus," it certainly may include this subject, with Whitman announcing in his first line, "That music always round me, unceasing, unbeginning, yet long untaught I did not hear."

Whitman proceeds in the next line to describe a chorus of four elements to the music, represented by human voices, two male and one female, together with "the triumphant tutti, the funeral wailings with sweet flutes and violins." (Tutti is an Italian word which Whitman here uses correctly; it is the musical notation for full tonality of all instruments in an orchestra played simultaneously.)

"That Music" is Whitman's direct recognition of the power of music in his inspiration. It often has been compared with the later "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869). In "Proud Music," however, Whitman will present himself even yet as the seeker, finding poems "vaguely wafted in night air, uncaught, unwritten" (section 6). In "That Music" Whitman claims he is able to hear all of the music, "not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings." This poem may represent the peak of Whitman's sure self-confidence, and that may be why he chose never to change a word of its text.


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

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

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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