USING VOYAGING TEXTS
A program note and the full Whitman text appear belo, suitable to copy for printing. (Dates of composition of the poetry and music and dedications by the composer are found in the score at the beginning of each movement.) Permission is granted to freely reproduce the title and list of movements with texts (public domain poetry) and brief version of program notes. Texts from movements II-X appear as they are found in the 1881 “Deathbed” Edition of Leaves of Grass as presented in the Norton Critical Edition (ed. Michael Moon).
Voyaging delves into Whitman’s poetry of the sea, and the American author’s fascination of its existential and spiritual metaphors. I am drawn to the seafaring poems in the author’s work which led me to select this vivid poetry. Before we notice the depth of Whitman’s text, we are brought by the bells and harp and chorus into the fluid and tumultuous space of Voyaging with the overture of “The Ship Starting,” where we first suspect that the “Ship” is something more to Whitman than a wooden vessel. A cyclical pattern of harmony underpins this metaphor throughout the songs. Warning alarm bells signal the unaccompanied poem “Aboard at a Ship's Helm,” the text selected first when the project began. Here the text drives the music to illustrate a Voyager, a young sailor, dutifully minding warnings. But the crux of all ten poems rests in the last lines, where we learn the real voyage is of the transcendent soul, aboard the ship of the physical body.
The journey continues with an ever-widening passage; the speaker convinces his soul to explore the world and defy time, returning back to experience all creation in the verse from “Passage to India.” The music reverses and winds the passage back down. Once back to the beginning, the chorus is immediately propelled in “The Untold Want” by the vibrant exhortation “now…” addressing the Voyager with vigor and intrepid energy. A second poem is set, beginning “Gliding o’er all…” and spanning all the wide dimension it describes. A 4-note motif at the word “Gliding” is one of the primary musical motifs of the song cycle and is woven into other movements. This second poem encourages the singing of both life and death, and the choir will merge it with the energy of the former poem, appealing all the more “now” to set sail on the soul’s voyage.
“Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd” shows how Whitman sees that all things and fragile bodies are tenderly interconnected as undying self-aware souls across the vast and unpredictable ocean; his poetry is represented here without words. Then the most famous of the Whitman poetry selected, “O Captain! My Captain!” follows, serving as the center of the larger work. Bell tones on the shoreline heralding the return of the victorious ship are set against impassioned phrases of shock on the deck that the leader has perished. While the other poems depict the voyage of the soul aboard the body and the eagerness to sail forth, this poem (itself metaphorical for the Civil War and the fallen Lincoln) depicts the starkness of returning to a fresh tragedy. It describes the death of the “body” of a people; for Whitman, this leader/Voyager represents the whole, and in the poet’s optimistic vision of democracy, the extension of the self through others means that though a body has perished, the “soul” of the people is not lost.
The news reaches land and the messengers and bell towers of the people, and “The Sobbing of the Bells” ties the souls of the people together. The voyage continues through grief into an awareness of the nature and continuity of death and life both. The Voyager is borne into limitless realms in the second “Passage,” as two choirs join back as one and the exotic tones of strange lands sound from strange instruments. The once-young Voyager is joyful in death also, even along with a shipmate appreciating everyone’s place in all things; in “Joy, Shipmate, Joy!” fellow Voyagers are freely untethering, one-by-one, from the shore. The bodily death sees the soul of the now-old sailor leaving the adventures of earth’s oceans in “Now Finale to the Shore.” The exhortation to “depart” is now given one last meaning. The ocean, the poet’s most complete expression of endless nature, is now for the sailor a continuous and infinite voyage.
I. The Ship Starting
Lo! the unbounded sea!
On its breast a Ship starting, spreading all her sails—an ample Ship, carrying even her moonsails;
The pennant is flying aloft, as she speeds, she speeds so stately—below, emulous waves press forward,
They surround the Ship, with shining curving motions, and foam.
II. Aboard at a Ship's Helm
Aboard at a ship's helm,
A young steersman steering with care.
Through fog on a sea-coast dolefully ringing,
An ocean bell—O a warning bell, rock'd by the waves.
O you give good notice indeed, you bell by the sea-reefs ringing,
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its wreck-place.
For as on the alert O steersman, you mind the loud admonition,
The bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth speeds away gayly and safe.
But O the ship, the immortal ship! O ship aboard the ship!
Ship of the body, ship of the soul, voyaging, voyaging, voyaging.
III. Passage 1: Passage to India (part 7b)
O soul, repressless, I with thee and thou with me,
Thy circumnavigation of the world begin,
Of man, the voyage of his mind's return,
To reason's early paradise,
Back, back to wisdom's birth, to innocent intuitions,
Again with fair creation.
IV. The Untold Want
(with Gliding O’er All)
The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.
Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.
V. Interlude 1: Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd (music based on these words)
Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me,
Whispering [I love you, before long I die,
I have travel'd a long way merely to look on you to touch you,
For I could not die till I once look'd on you,
For I fear'd I might afterward lose you.]
Now we have met, we have look'd, we are safe,
Return in peace to the ocean my love,
I too am part of that ocean my love, we are not so much separated,
Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how perfect!
But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us,
As for an hour carrying us diverse, yet cannot carry us diverse forever;
Be not impatient—a little space—know you I salute the air, the ocean and the land,
Every day at sundown for your dear sake my love.
VI. O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
VII. Interlude 2: The Sobbing of the Bells (music based on these words)
The sobbing of the bells, the sudden death-news everywhere,
The slumberers rouse, the rapport of the People,
(Full well they know that message in the darkness,
Full well return, respond within their breasts, their brains, the sad reverberations,)
The passionate toll and clang—city to city, joining, sounding, passing,
Those heart-beats of a Nation in the night.
VIII. Passage 2: Passage to India (part 8d)
O soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Sailing these seas or on the hills, or waking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death, like waters flowing,
Bear me indeed as through the regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear, lave me all over,
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
IX. Joy, Shipmate, Joy!
Joy, shipmate, joy!
(Pleas'd to my soul at death I cry,)
Our life is closed, our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, she leaps!
She swiftly courses from the shore,
Joy, shipmate, joy.
X. Now Finale to the Shore
Now finale to the shore,
Now, land and life finale and farewell,
Now Voyager depart, (much, much for thee is yet in store,)
Often enough hast thou adventur'd o'er the seas,
Cautiously cruising, studying the charts,
Duly again to port and hawser's tie returning;
But now obey thy cherish'd secret wish,
Embrace thy friends, leave all in order,
To port and hawser's tie no more returning,
Depart upon thy endless cruise old Sailor.