I saw this Whitman poem from the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass during National Poetry Month but was unable to find the time to compose the music and arrange a performance during that busy month. Still, I was so stunned by its expression that I made a note to myself to get to it after April.
This week I did just that.
The de profundis poem is a fairly common poetic trope, up there with the aubade and the elegy in examples. It takes its name from the opening words of the Latin version of the Hebrew psalm 130, but it’s not a mode we often associate with Whitman. Whitman, with all his talk of containing multitudes and nonchalantly harboring his contradictions has a personal poetic voice associated with an unashamed and near-boasting manner, a self-portrayal as an example of an unafraid and unbounded life-force.
Why would he write such a poem then? Well, he did want to portray everything human, which would include doubt and failure, it could just be that. But let’s consider something else about Whitman. When this poem was written he’d been working for more than a decade on creating a poetry that was unprecedented: not just free in its subject matter, but “free verse” without fixed meter and rhyme. There were next-to-no models for that form then. Yet, if one was to go this week to a good bookstore, move to its poetry section, and then open any volume of contemporary poetry to a random page, the odds are you’ll find an unrhymed poem, rhythmic perhaps, but not likely in strict meter with unvarying beat-count line-lengths. That poem may not sound like Whitman, but the path to make its own sound can be traced to him.
Back in the middle of the 19th century, in an America which was just getting its poetic feet planted, and still in the process of proving it could write as well as the Europeans in the way the European’s wrote, there wasn’t any call for this. Isn’t it remarkable then, that this carpenter’s son and peripatetic journalist in a place so far off the cultural centers of the western world went and did this!
When Whitman wrote this poem America had just emerged from a great civil war. I’ve said here that WWI, a similar trauma for Britain and Europe, made from its breaking of nations a plausible opening for Modernist poetry. But in post-Civil War America, Whitman’s break didn’t quite take, even though Whitman would include free-verse poems about that war in this edition of Leaves of Grass.
Ah, but there was one Civil War poem in Whitman’s 1867 edition that, for the first time caught the public’s fancy: “My Captain, Oh My Captain,” an elegy for the assassinated President Lincoln all strictly rhymed up and in regular meter. Oh me! Oh life!
No matter, eventually Whitman got his due. We no longer even need to particularly like his poetry (though I suspect many here do), so significant is his prime-mover role.
I’d forgotten that an abridged version of this poem appeared in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” A photo of Whitman is in front of the classroom, but most recall the “My Captain, Oh My Captain” scene over the one above.
The things that stand out for me in “Oh Me! Oh Life!” are Whitman’s acknowledgement that the failures of those around him, which drive him to despair, are a way in which he is like and “intertwined” to those “cities fill’d with the foolish” and “sordid crowds,” and then the answer he says he receives from out of the depths: the answer that we live to experience that connection, however sorrowful as well as comforting — and that each of us, in our own wisdom, paths, failure, and imperfections contains a self-consciousness, an individual identity, the lifely miracle that we experience life through our own minds creating themselves.
In working on how to perform “Oh Me! Oh Life!” I considered spoken word (a choice I often make here) — but I soon decided that I needed to sing it in an open and emotive style. Whitman was a fan of opera (a more popular form in his time), and his poem here is something of an aria. This decision seemed right, but it presented a problem: I’m not that good a singer. I pressed ahead anyway, as I think imperfection in the service of required expression was the better choice. My version of “Oh Me! Oh Life!” isn’t opera — I kept the accompaniment spare for my setting perhaps in the hope that the simplicity of the music will match the limited nature of my voice. I think that did work somewhat. The irregular nature of Whitman’s line-lengths also presented some challenges, and I “solved” them in my performance by elaborating and repeating some of his phrases.
You can hear my Whitman performance two ways. There’s a player gadget below for many, but some can’t see that, and so I also provide this highlighted link to play it.