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date: 16 April 2021

Whitman, Walt(er) locked

  • Jack Sullivan

Extract

(b West Hills, Long Island, NY, May 31, 1819; d Camden, NJ, March 26, 1892). American poet . The self-proclaimed ‘poet of Democracy’, he inaugurated a radical freedom from dogma and hierarchy in art, politics and sexuality. His rugged egalitarianism, rhythmic elasticity, sexual electricity and freewheeling mysticism have inspired more than 1200 vocal and instrumental settings, from the modernist asperity of Ruggles’s Portals to the romantic expansiveness of Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony. Beginning with Parry and Stanford, some of the earliest settings were by English composers, who saw in Whitman a liberation from jingoism, prudery and prejudice. Despite the popular association of Whitman with undisciplined looseness, his concise, lesser-known later poems yielded more settings than the more rhetorical early ones. The searing humanity and compassion of his Civil War poems made them popular during both World Wars, inspiring settings by Holst, Weill, Hanson, Hindemith and others.

With its first-person intimacy and openness to experience, Whitman’s poetry has a peculiar universality, connecting with scenarios as varied as Holst’s transcendental mysticism (...

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