Whitman & Symphonic Metal | Michael Dickel

Nightwish, a “symphonic metal” band with gothic influences from Finland, presents in its homage to Whitman, Song of Myself (Imaginaerum track #12), a surprisingly complex poetics as it moves through strong emotions while addressing both personal struggles and social issues—for peace, for social justice, for hope and love—against hypocrisy, against indifference, against hopelessness. The dense music incorporates symphonic, opera, and gothic metal influences. There is an allusion to William Wadsworth in the lyrics, but the title itself, of course, alludes to Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name, and Whitman is mentioned directly in the lyrics:

          She dreams of storytime and the river ghosts
          Of mermaids, of Whitman’s and the Ride
          Raving harlequins…

                    —Lyrics from Nightwish website

The possessive of “Whitman” grammatically suggests “Whitman’s harlequins,” who are also “Ride/ Raving harlequins.” It could be understood to suggest “Whitman’s Ride,” by ignoring the “and,” a possible skipping reference to his poem as a “ride.” The harlequins reading, however, offers an additional reference, to “Last Ride of the Day,” another song on the same album (track #11), which has this stanza:

          Once upon a night we’ll wake to the carnival of life
          The beauty of this ride ahead such an incredible high
          It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead
          This moment the dawn of humanity
          The last ride of the day

                    —(Lyrics from Nightwish website)

And goes on near the end of the song, to optimistically call a “Dead Boy” to wake up to life’s adventures, where, curiously:

          …Tricksters, magicians will show you all that’s real
          Careless jugglers, snakecharmers by your trail

                    —(Lyrics from Nightwish website)

“Tricksters, magicians…Careless jugglers, snakecharmers…” all suggest a circus, and indirectly allude to harlequins. And the carnivalesque imagery suggests a modern rave event, its own kind of circus. “Whitman’s harlequins” also allows for a connection to Whitman’s approval of clowns, as cited in a New York Times article, “The Civil War’s Most Famous Clown”:

          Reviewing a circus in 1856 in Brooklyn, [Whitman] wrote:
          “It can do no harm to boys to see a set of limbs display
          all their agility.” (In a favorite mind-plus-body theme,
          Whitman added: “A circus performer is the other half
          of a college professor. The perfect Man has more
          than the professor’s brain, and a good deal of
          the performer’s legs.”) Meanwhile, fights were
          a daily occurrence [at circuses], drawing attention
          the way fights at soccer matches do now.

Although that particular connection might well be coincidental rather than intentional, it is an interesting dimension to consider in relation to the 21st symphonic-metal song. Whether or not a coincidence, the optimism of “The Last Ride of the Day” and the “careless jugglers, snakecharmers” of “carnival life” do echo Whitman’s optimism for America and its crazy-quilt society in his “Song of Myself,” which opens the poem:

          I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
          And what I assume you shall assume,
          For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

                     —Poetry Foundation, 1892 version

Nightwish’s “Song of Myself” acknowledges, as Whitman’s poem does, that the injustices of the world weigh on us, yet at the same time, also as Whitman’s poem, the song cries out that life, hope, and love require poetry and music. Whitman mentions the weight of the world in the 4th section of the poem:

          The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing
               or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
          Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of

               doubtful news, the fitful events;
          These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
          But they are not the Me myself.

                     —Poetry Foundation, 1892 version

While, Nightwish’s “Song of Myself” catalogs many of the personal and social injustices throughout the song, in the last two lines of the 21st C. song the poetry says that the music of life moves from the major key of G (reasonably happy) to its sad relative, E-minor, a scale with the same notes, but shifting to being with E rather than G in progression—

Still given everything, may I be deserving
and there forever remains that change from G to E-minor.

—both Whitman and Nightwish present this sadness as part—but not all—of the great fullness of life. May we learn to see “all that is real.”

©2023 Michael Dickel
All rights reserved


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