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To a Stranger is a poem written by the American poet, Walt Whitman. The poem first appeared in Whitman’s celebrated anthology Leaves of Grass, published in 1860. This poem is included in Book V of the anthology, which is also labelled as the Calamus, a section containing forty-five poems. In the poem, the speaker describes his encounter with a stranger as they both pass each other by. The speaker becomes deeply curious and enamoured by the strangers, whose gender remains uncertain, and develops a connection with them. They also go on to imagine a life that they share with them which shows the yearning of the speaker.
About the Author
Born on May 31, 1819, in New Jersey, Walter Whitman Jr. was an American poet, journalist and essayist. He is considered one of the most influential poets in American literature and is often referred to as the “Father of Free Verse”. Whitman’s poetry is characterised by free verse, expansive lines, and a celebration of the human body and spirit; the same can be seen in his most famous literary piece Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman is a key figure in American Transcendentalism and has incorporated the genre of realism in his work. Interestingly, during the American Civil War, Whitman worked in hospitals and treated the wounded. Some of his famous works include The Half-Breed, A Tale of the Western Frontier (1846), Drum-Taps (1865), Democratic Vistas (1871), etc.
The poem comprises thirteen lines which are presented as a single stanza.
Lines 1- 3
Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you, You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,) I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
The poem starts with the speaker directly addressing the stranger who passes them by. The speaker comments on how the stranger is unaware of how longingly the speaker is staring at them. The speaker gets an epiphany that it is the stranger that they have been seeking all along. Even though the stranger’s gender is kept vague, the speaker claims that this realisation to form a connection with them comes in the form of a dream. The speaker remarks how they are sure that they have left a life full of joy with the stranger in another life.
Written in a conversational tone, the speaker directly addresses the stranger with a “You”. these lines talk about the chance encounters that we have with strangers that often alter us in some way or form. Here, the speaker comes to a realisation that they have been seeking the stranger and have known them in another life.
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,
The speaker continues with the idea of sharing a life with the stranger and says that they recall these memories as they pass by the stranger. These memories are fluid, affectionate, chaste and mature. In another life, the speaker grew up with the stranger, who was a girl or a boy with them.
The speaker goes on to depict the possibility of a life that they shared with the stranger. This is a very human tendency where people often imagine and entertain “could-have-been”, especially with other people.
I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has become not yours only, nor left my body mine only, You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
Continuing with the image of a shared life, the speaker says that they did all the things people who are close to each other often do. The speaker ate with the stranger and slept with them as well. As a result of this, both of them share soulful and emotional aspects of each other’s bodies. As the speaker passes the stranger by, they take pleasure in witnessing the physical appearance of them. Conversely, the stranger also takes in the physical appearance of the speaker.
The speaker’s yearning to be close to the stranger and share a life with them is evident in these lines. These lines also show how even people who are unknown to us, shape our lives and emotions. We take in their appearance and, in exchange, they take a speck of our life as well.
I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone, I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again, I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
The speaker laments that they are not supposed to speak to the stranger because they don’t know each other. The speaker is only allowed to think about the stranger when they sit by themselves or wake up at night alone. The speaker is sure that they will meet the stranger again and owing to this, they are willing to wait. The speaker endearingly remarks that they have to make sure that they do not lose the stranger.
These lines portray the sad reality of how the speaker cannot just simply walk up to the stranger and introduce themselves. Rather, they will have to be happy just by recalling their encounter with the stranger. As other people often do, the speaker hopes to see a glimpse of the stranger once again since they do not wish to lose them.