‘To a stranger’ is a poem written by Walt Whitman, which was published as a part of the collection of his poems titled ‘Leaves of Grass’, in the year 1855. The sexual nature of the poems in this collection fuelled a great controversy at the time of its publication, and in 1865, he lost his government job as a result of the ’indecency’ which his boss saw reflected in his works. In the ‘leaves of Grass’, there is a separate cluster of poems called the ‘Calamus’, and ‘to a stranger’, is a part of that cluster. The main theme discussed by Whitman in this poem is the quest for love, understanding and companionship.
In this poem, Whitman expresses a feeling of yearning directed, not just to a person, but in general to the world. He sees brief and a chance encounter of strangers as an opportunity for them to interact, and enter into a relationship. From the subsequent lines, the readers are led to believe that the narrator is in love with that stranger. However, throughout the poem, the narrator remains skeptical whether to approach this stranger, and talk to him/her. The poem may also have been a dream vision, as Whitman relates to a transient experience, recalling some of the things the stranger and the narrator might have done together. "You grew with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me "I ate with you, and slept with you".
It is also not addressed to a particular person, and thus the vision of the strange person is an allegory, to a generic ‘everyman’ we encounter in life.
He uses the exclamatory mark in the very beginning, to lay emphasis on the word stranger, which is the fulcrum of the poem. No other line in the entire poem carries an exclamatory mark in the end, thus denoting the importance of that word/concept. The effect of this punctuation is to describe, the deep emotion associated with that word. The deep emotion expressed here is his happiness and attraction towards the stranger, and since he uses the exclamatory mark only in this part of the poem, it suggests the importance the poet has given to this particular phrase. The intimate tone adopted by the poet throughout the poem, is more suited for denoting a dream, than an actual real life experience. The poet says, "You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh . . .you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,". This is a metaphorical allusion to a spiritual encounter than an actual incident, as these verses are too sexual, as they talk about the physical pleasures of a relation, to be signifying physical reality.
Though, Whitman’s poems are known for their explicit sexual content and homoeroticism, these lines fit a spiritual encounter more than a physical relationship. The poet is explaining the commonalities and spiritual intimacy among men and women, and the things we can share with everyone, including the passing stranger. This can be inferred from the way the poet stresses on the emotional connection with the stranger, and the things they could share. Through this poem, the poet questions, why we should remain strangers with others, when we have so much in common to share.
At the close of the poem, Whitman establishes that the stranger is a product of his dream, when he says, "I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone." Since the stranger is a construct of his vision, he cannot lose him/her, because that person resides in his intellect. Whitman, throughout his life, was mocked upon, and his achievements in literature and personal life were denigrated, because of some of the unorthodox stands he took in life. His life was a constant fight against the society, which was a victim of homophobia. Whitman has struggled with himself to find happiness, and through this poem he urges his readers to embrace the actual reality of their own contradictions and dreams. In these lines, he talks about how certain form of relationships, like homosexuality, is forbidden by the society and thus it prevents him from talking to the stranger.
There are layers of meaning to this poem, which refers to love, sexuality, spirituality, companionship, comradeship and friendship. Given that Whitman was known for his homosexual lifestyle, some critics also opine that this poem talks about bonding between men. Homosexual literatures, particularly during Whitman’s time, were mostly coded. What makes this poem startlingly contemporary is the, overt rather than coded expression of the relationship that the narrator could have with another man. Since the poem stresses on the fact that the stranger could be him/her, we can see that the poet talks about both kinds of love – heterosexual and homosexual.
Whitman uses the technique of Anaphora, which helps to set up the rhythm. Anaphora is a poetic technique, which involves repeating a word or a phrase, at the beginning of lines. Out of the total ten lines of the poem, five lines start with the word ‘I’ and three lines with ‘You’. The entire poem is about the narrator or the poet, and his relationship with the ‘you’, which denotes a stranger who might be a man or a woman or a common man or divinity. With the use of the words ‘I’ and ‘You’ in front of each line, Whitman builds a separate imagery and meaning to every line. These various imagery and meanings unites into one common theme: the quest for love. Whitman by making use of anaphora has expressed a singular theme, in separate lines that have separate ideas.
The poem is written in a ‘free-verse’ style, which is a trademark of Whitman’s poetry. Other poets like Phillip Larkin, who also wrote similar themes about humanity and love, wrote poems that followed certain structure and meter pattern. For example, Larkin’s poem "Home is so sad” is a rhyming iambic pentameter.
“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left, Shaped to the comfort of the last to goAs if to win them back. Instead, bereftOf anyone to please, it withers so, Having no heart to put aside the theft”
He also uses catalogs, a technique of listing things in a poem in, ‘to a stranger’. He lists out things the narrator did with the stranger,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured
You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me,
I ate with you, and slept with you
And he also gives a list of the pleasures they gave each other.
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
This cataloguing of things brings out the childish joy the narrator felt when he spent time with the stranger, and also the depth of the feelings aroused by this encounter. This technique adds an extra emphasis on the poet’s feelings towards the stranger, and his quest to find companionship love with him. Whitman in this poem uses unrhymed poetry but develops the form through his expressive power. This free verse and long lined poetic structure became a perfect vehicle for Whitman, to write poems with themes of identity and transcendence.
The intimate tone used in the poem is more suited for a dream sequence rather than a reality. In essence Whitman, through this poem, conveys the spiritual intimacy he feels with all men and women of his country. This we know by the close reading of the lines of the poem, and examining the context of the poem, which was written during the civil war era, when the country was torn by its differences and mistrust. Through this poem Whitman, throws light on the commonalities that exist between all human beings, and explains why we should not remain strangers to each other. The ending of the poem confirms that the stranger is a product of a dream.
--"I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone. .”
It is clear that the stranger resides in Whitman’s mind or intellect, and thus there is no chance of losing him/her. He talks directly to the stranger in an active voice, which provides the poem an intimacy. Whitman’s poem talks about love and the quest for it, and the use of simple vocabulary enables even a common man to identify with his theme. He ends the poem with the hope that, love – even with a stranger- will find its way.
Finkelstein, Norman. The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature. New York: SUNY Press, 1992. Print.
Larkin, Philip. Home is so sad. 1964. Web. 3 February 2014.
Poetry foundation. Glossary of Terms - Anaphora. n.d. Web. 3 February 2014.
Whitman, Walt. To a Stranger. 1855. web. 3 February 2014.