To What You Said


This song is Leonard Bernstein’s setting of Walt Whitman’s unpublished, incomplete poem/letter “To What You Said.” A magnificent mixture of personal pathos and public plea for tolerance and understanding, the piece comes from a cycle called Songfest. Originally a Bicentennial commission, the song cycle’s texts are all by American poets.


The audio recording, provided in the audio player to the right, features Thomas Hampson, baritone, and Wolfram Rieger, piano. To listen, please click on the track name itself. You can download a recording of "To What You Said" for free through the Instant Encore website with the download code: THSOA2009.

“To What You Said,” is the fourth song in the cycle. Nearly mistaken as an abandoned scribble, the poem was discovered on the verso of page 30 of the holograph manuscript of Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871), which is housed in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection at the Library of Congress. Bernstein was reportedly attracted to the text not only because it was unfamiliar, but also because the poem’s message of repressed love spoke to him at a time when he was experiencing a sexual identity crisis. While many have suggested that “To What You Said” was Bernstein’s homage to homosexual love, it is probable that the poem itself was intended for Anne Gilchrist, an Englishwoman who fell in love with Whitman.

For a more detailed analysis of the text, including an examination of the poem’s genesis and Bernstein’s setting, see the article by Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold entitled “The Frailest Leaves: A Study of Whitman’s ‘To What You Said’,” originally published in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (Winter 1995) but also available online at "A Study of the Text and Music For Whitman's 'To What You Said'".

--Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.

To What You Said
by Walt Whitman

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
Nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships the cold guards
l am that rough and simple person
l am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
And l am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors --
What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?

Audio PLaylist