Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature
In praise of the “dainty abandon” that awakens us to wonder and carries us outside ourselves.
By Maria Popova
“Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import,” philosopher Susanne Langer wrote of music, which she defined as “a highly articulated sensuous object.”
Although many great writers have contemplated the power of music, few have articulated it more perfectly or more sensuously than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) does in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments and journal entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees and which the poet himself described as “a melange of loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling — a little thinking thrown in for salt, but very little — …mostly the scenes everybody sees, but some of my own caprices, meditations, egotism.” And what a beautiful, generous egotism it is.
One cold February evening in the last weeks of his sixtieth year, having finally recovered from the stroke that had rendered him paralyzed for two years, Whitman treated himself to a concert at Philadelphia’s opera house. Two decades after he wrote of music as “a god, yet completely human… supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply,” Whitman found himself surrendering to its transcendent transport in a way that eclipsed every other musical experience he’d ever had, revealing to him the very essence of music’s power. Enraptured, he writes:
Never did music more sink into and soothe and fill me — never so prove its soul-rousing power, its impossibility of statement.
Half a lifetime earlier, he had written in Leaves of Grass:
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus, nor that of the women’s chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.
Now, with the orchestral splendor of a Beethoven septet bringing him nearer and nearer to the beating heart of music and of himself, Whitman meditates on whether music might be the purest and profoundest expression of nature:
I [was] carried away, seeing, absorbing many wonders. Dainty abandon, sometimes as if Nature laughing on a hillside in the sunshine; serious and firm monotonies, as of winds; a horn sounding through the tangle of the forest, and the dying echoes; soothing floating of waves, but presently rising in surges, angrily lashing, muttering, heavy; piercing peals of laughter, for interstices; now and then weird, as Nature herself is in certain moods — but mainly spontaneous, easy, careless — often the sentiment of the postures of naked children playing or sleeping.
Long before scientists illuminated why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, Whitman intuited the singular mind-body attunement of performance. More than a purely aural bewitchment, he revels in the full-body, creaturely delight of music — both of playing and of listening:
It did me good even to watch the violinists drawing their bows so masterly — every motion a study. I allow’d myself, as I sometimes do, to wander out of myself. The conceit came to me of a copious grove of singing birds, and in their midst a simple harmonic duo, two human souls, steadily asserting their own pensiveness, joyousness.
Specimen Days is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on the source of music’s supreme power, Aldous Huxley on why it sings to our souls, and Wendy Lesser on how it helps us grieve, then revisit Whitman on the connection between the body and the spirit, why literature is central to democracy, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.
Published November 17, 2017