Italian Music in Dakota

By Walt Whitman

The Seventeenth—the finest Regimental Band I ever heard.”

Through the soft evening air enwinding all,

Rocks, woods, fort, cannon, pacing sentries, endless wilds,

In dulcet streams, in flutes’ and cornets’ notes,

Electric, pensive, turbulent, artificial,

(Yet strangely fitting even here, meanings unknown before,

Subtler than ever, more harmony, as if born here, related here,

Not to the city’s fresco’d rooms, not to the audience of the opera 

Sounds, echoes, wandering strains, as really here at home,

Sonnambula’s innocent love, trios with Norma’s anguish,

And thy ecstatic chorus Poliuto;)

Ray’d in the limpid yellow slanting sundown,

Music, Italian music in Dakota.

While Nature, sovereign of this gnarl’d realm,

Lurking in hidden barbaric grim recesses,

Acknowledging rapport however far remov’d,

(As some old root or soil of earth its last-born flower or fruit,)

Listens well pleas’d.


This poem is in the public domain. It was originally published in the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass. It is thought to have been composed between 1879 and 1881 after Whitman journeyed through the West: Denver in 1879, Canada 1880, although it is not thought that he traveled through the Dakota Territory. It is worth noting that Whitman wrote another Dakota poem in 1876: ”From Far Dakota’s Canons,” dated 25 June 1876. During the Civil War, he also tended to wounded soldiers and corresponded with their families. Is it possible that these songs heard on a Dakota plain were described to him by another American? See also Whitman’s Drum Taps (1865) and Specimen Days (1882).

La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) was an opera by Vincenzo Bellini. It premiered in 1831 (Italy) and finally premiered in New York in 1835.

Norma was an opera, also by Vincenzo Bellini. Although it was first a failure when it debuted in Italy, it became one of the most popular operas in Europe and the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century. The lead role of Norma is thought to be one of the most difficult operatic roles to sing.

Gaetano Donizetti wrote the opera Poliuto in 1838, although he was not allowed to premiere it in Italy due to the content: Kiused to allow the martyrdom of a saint to be recreated on stage. The opera was first performed in New York in May, 1859.

Many operas and operettas were translated quickly into sheet music and especially incorporated into military band (and popular, civic band) performances, as well as becoming popular as sheet music for the private home piano. European music was seen as a cultured option to place in between marching, military, patriotic, folk, and religious songs and filled out a repertoire that comprised the nineteenth century’s playlist.

Whitman’s poem here contrasts music against a prairie wilderness: culture and open land, both very American, even when utilising Italian songs.

It’s also worth noting that the quartet of ”electric, pensive, turbulent, and artificial” is an ensemble of words that repeats in his work.

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