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Line 2, “gait inimitable”: Rhetorical figure of anastrophe, used for the unusual arrangement of words or clauses within a sentence, often for metrical convenience or poetic effect.


Line 4, “Hoe much from thee! the revelation of the singing voice from thee!” The repetition of “from thee” at the end of each clause is an example of antistrophe, the repetition of words or phrases at the end of successive clauses or sentences.


Line 5, “that tremulous, manly timbre.”: “Timbre” is a musical term:

“the quality given to a sound by its overtones: as
a: the resonance by which the ear recognizes and identifies a voiced speech sound
b: the quality of tone distinctive of a particular singing voice or musical instrument” (from Merriam Webster).

An example of timbre is noticing the difference between the sound of a trumpet and the sound of the saxophone, even if they’re the same pitch and loudness.


Line 8, “Fernando”, “Manrico”, “Ernani”, and “Gennaro”: Whitman enjoyed opera, and these are all figures of operatic performances. All four characters sing in the tenor register, which is the highest male voice.

Fernando is the main character in “La Favorita”, a story of a love triangle between him, his lover Leonora, and the Spanish King Alfonso XI.

Manrico is the tenor role in the opera “Il trovotore”, a troubador and army officer.

“Ernani” is the eponymous name of an opera about a bandit and his doomed love for a woman who is set to marry her uncle.

Gennaro is the tenor voice in “Lucrezia Borgia”, a young nobleman in the service of the Venetian Republic.


Line 9, “my chants transmuting”:

transmuting: “1 : to change or alter in form, appearance, or nature and especially to a higher form” (M-W)


Line 10: “Freedom’s and Love’s and Faith’s…” The connecting of clauses or words by a repetition of conjunctions is called polysyndeton.

Cantabile: “: in a singing manner — often used as a direction in music” (M-W)


Lines 9: “Fernando’s heart, Manrico’s passionate call, Ernani’s, sweet Gennaro’s”

and 11: “(As perfume’s, color’s, sunlight’s correlation:)”

Notice the ommission of the conjunctions in these lines. The opposite of polysyndeton, this rhetorical device is called asyndeton.


(I’d like to note that “manly timbre”, talking about tenor, while it’s technically a register for male singing, I don’t think it’s necessarily thought of as masculine. So I’d daresay that this is ironic at passing glance.) I think it’s the point Walt is trying to make, by punning “deepest of all to me the lesson” it’s not the actual voice that clicks for him, but what is sung, with what emotion the singer puts into it.


Note from the Walt Whitman Archive, on a letter from TJ Whitman to Walt:

1. Walt Whitman readily acknowledged his admiration for Italian opera and stressed its importance to his poetry, even claiming that the method of “A Child’s Reminiscence” (1859; later “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”) was “strictly that of the Italian Opera” (Robert D. Faner, Walt Whitman & Opera [Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1951], p. v). Late in his career he again emphasized this influence in “The Dead Tenor” (1884), a memorial tribute to Pasquale Brignoli: “How much from thee! the revelation of the singing voice from thee!/ …How through those strains distill’d—how the rapt ears, the soul of me, absorbing / Fernando’s heart, Manrico’s passionate call, Ernani’s , sweet Gennaro’s .”

Jeff and Walt often attended operas together, especially during the period 1854-62. After the poet left Brooklyn for Washington, Jeff continued, in spite of the war conditions and a shortage of funds, to attend the opera “quite often” on his own. He and Walt shared similar tastes, as those composers, operas, and performers that Jeff mentions—Verdi’s Il Trovatore , Donizetti’s La Favorita , and the singers Amodio, Francesco Mazzoleni, and Josephine Medori—were ones that Walt praised in essays, notebook jottings, and letters. As Jeff’s appreciation for the opera grew, he instructed his former teacher by guiding Walt to the latest arrivals on the New York stage and encouraging him to hear them.


On Pasquale Brignoli, to whom The Dead Tenor is supposedly written for:

BRIGNOLI, Pasquale, singer, born in Naples, Italy, in 1824; died in New York City, 30 October, 1884. He received a fine musical education, and became a pianist of some ability. It is said that at the age of fifteen he wrote an opera, and, disgusted at the way in which the finest aria was sung, rushed upon the stage and sang it himself, to the delight of all. He paid little attention, however, to the cultivation of his voice until after he was twenty-one. Success in the concert-room encouraged him to appear in opera, in Paris and London. He came to the United States with Strakosch in 1855, and soon attained a popularity that lasted almost to the end of his life. His voice in his best days was a tenor of great volume and sweetness, and even in his sixtieth year he was still heard with delight in concert and English opera. He was unrivalled in grace of execution and facility in phrasing. He supported Madame Patti on her first appearance in the United States, and afterward sang with La Grange, Parepa, Nilsson, Titiens, and many other celebrated artists. Brignoli made three trips to Europe; but this country became his adopted home. Notwithstanding the large sums of money that he made by his singing, he died in poverty.


1 8

As down the stage again,
With Spanish hat and plumes, and gait inimitable,
Back from the fading lessons of the past, Id call, Id tell and
How much from thee! the revelation of the singing voice from
(So firm so liquid-soft again that tremulous, manly timbre!
The perfect singing voice deepest of all to me the lesson trial
and test of all:)
How through those strains distilld how the rapt ears, the soul
of me, absorbing
Fernandos heart, Manricos passionate call, Ernanis, sweet
I fold thenceforth, or seek to fold, within my chants transmuting,
Freedoms and Loves and Faiths unloosd cantabile,
(As perfumes, colors, sunlights correlation:)
From these, for these, with these, a hurried line, dead tenor,
A wafted autumn leaf, dropt in the closing grave, the shoveld
To memory of thee.