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,
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—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,
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.
“To a Stranger” appeared in in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass and is the twenty-second poem in the Calamus sequence. The free verse poem uses the pronouns “I and “you to create the effect of the the speaker talking directly to the reader. Yet Whitman places the audience in the position of a stranger and remarks on the fleeting connection they share.
The poem describes the passing of strangers. The speaker remarks on how they love and understand each stranger fully. Rather than describe the interaction as cold and distant, Whitman uses deeply intimate, even erotic terms, describing bodily and emotional closeness: “Your body has / become not yours only, nor left my body mine / only.” “To a Stranger” ends with a reference to one who has lost someone dear—a person going through the process of losing a loved one.
Berny Belvedere explains that “To A Stranger” asks the question, “If life had been different, wouldn’t their relationship also be?” He describes the poem the perceived disconnection between people and seeks to refute it. Belvedere also situates the poem in the rapid industrialization shaping the experiences of people in nineteenth-century America. “Whitman realized something,” Belvedere writes. “A stranger is only seen as such due to the sociological circumstances of urbanization. In another context, the same person who is now a stranger would have been a friend, a neighbor, a lover.” “To a Stranger” is a poem written at the brink of change. With the rise of urbanization, Whitman’s poem comes to terms with this change.
Bibliography and Further Readings Berny Belvedere “Walt Whitman on Neighbors and Strangers,” Mere Orthodoxy: Christianity, Politics, and Culture (2016); Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (1996); “Walt Whitman.” Poetry Foundation.
Credits Composed by Robert Sturtevant, Fall 2018. Reading by Robert Sturtevant.