Six Songs

Since his death in 1892, Walt Whitman has become an unwitting collaborator for a steady stream of composers, myself included; four of these texts I have previously set, in 1990.  Despite its high romantic tone, Whitman’s verse remains palatable to our ears: the beauty of his language, his loving attention to its rhythm and sound, and his direct, unpretentious tone make him one of the most approachable of poets.  These songs are mostly from the earlier books of Leaves of Grass, verses which explore facets of desire, be they quiet, turbulent, or defiant.  In my earlier settings, I explored the texts more for sound than for meaning, but this time I have approached them more traditionally, as art songs, trying to hold up a musical mirror to their essences.

Six Songs were commissioned by Soundstreams (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) through The Ontario Arts Council.

Six poems by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass


I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ

I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday I pass’d the church,

Winds of Autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your long stretch’d sighs up above so mournful,

I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;

Heart of my love! You too I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists around my head,

Heard the pulse of you when all was still singing little bells last night under my ear.


Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only


Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only,

Not in sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself,

Not in those long-drawn, ill-supprest sighs,

Not in many an oath and promise broken,

Not in my wilful and savage soul’s volition,

Not in the subtle nourishment of the air,

Not in this beating and pounding at my temples and wrists,

Not in the curious systole and diastole within me which will one day cease,

Not in many a hungry wish told to the skies only,

Not in cries, laughter, defiances, thrown from me when alone far in the wilds,

Not in husky pantings through clench’d teeth,

Not in sounded and resounded words, chattering words, echoes, dead words,

Not in the murmurs of my dreams while I sleep,

Nor the other murmurs of these incredible dreams of every day,

Nor in the limbs and senses of my body that take you and dismiss you continually—not there,

Not in any or all of them O adhesiveness! O pulse of my life!

Need I that you exist and show yourself any more than in these songs.


O you whom I often and silently come


O you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you,

As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,

Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.


Trickle drops


Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!

O drops of me! trickle, slow drops,

Candid from me falling, drip, bleeding drops,

From wounds made to free you whence you were prison’d,

From my face, from my forehead and lips,

From my breast, from within where I was conceal’d, press forth red drops, confession drops,

Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I say, bloody drops,

Let them know your scarlet heat, let them glisten,

Saturate them with yourself all ashamed and wet,

Glow upon all I have written or shall write, bleeding drops,

Let it all be seen in your light, blushing drops.


One hour to madness and joy


One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not!

O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!

O savage and tender achings!

O to be yielded to you whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me in defiance of the world!

O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!

O to draw you to me, to plant on you for the first time the lips of a determin’d woman.

O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!

To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!

To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!

To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!

To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!

To rise thither with my inebriate soul!

To be lost if it must be so!

To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!

With one brief hour of madness and joy.


A clear midnight


This is thy hour O soul, a free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,

Night, sleep, death, and the stars.