Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your
feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners,
troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate
away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me,
They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops,
work, farms, clothes, the house, buying, sell-ing, eating, drinking, suffering, dying.
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long ago,
I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.
I will leave all and come and make the hymns of you,
None has understood you, but I understand you,
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself,
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no imperfection in you,
None but would subordinate you, I only am he who will
never consent to subordinate you,
I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better,
God, beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself.
Painters have painted their swarming groups and the centre figure of all,
From the head of the centre-figure spreading a nimbus of gold-color’d light, But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus of gold-color’d light,
From my hand from the brain of every man and woman it streams, effulgently flowing forever.
O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about you!
You have not known what you are, you have slumber’d upon yourself all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in mockeries, what is their return?)
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you,
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the ac-
custom’d routine, if these conceal you from
others or from yourself, they do not conceal you from me,
The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion,
if these balk others they do not balk me,
The pert apparel, the deform’d attitude, drunkenness, greed,
premature death, all these I part aside.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you,
There is no virtue, no beauty in man or woman, but as good is in you,
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is in you,
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits for you.
As for me, I give nothing to any one except I give the like carefully to you,
I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than
I sing the songs of the glory of you.
Whoever you are! claim your own at an hazard!
These shows of the East and West are tame compared to you,
These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, you are immense and interminable as they,
These furies, elements, storms, motions of Nature, throes of apparent dissolution, you are he or she who is master or mistress over them,
Master or mistress in your own right over Nature, elements, pain, passion, dissolution.
The hopples fall from your ankles, you find an unfailing sufficiency,
Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest, whatever you are promulges itself,
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing is scanted,
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are picks its way.
“To You” was first featured in the 1856 version as “Poem of You, Whoever You Are.” Though drafts of the original manuscript for Leaves of Grass have been archived, none for “To You” exist.
“To You” is a free verse poem comprised of eleven stanzas, with a varying number of unrhymed lines per stanza. Whitman uses lists and imagery throughout. For example, in the seventh stanza, Whitman writes, “The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion.” Whitman is known to beseech the reader to recognize herself, the connection between her body and soul, and the natural world. Whitman addresses the reader throughout the poem as “you” and tells the reader that he loves her in the second stanza. As Elisabeth Panttaja Brink states in an introductiry note to an edition of Leaves of Grass: “For Leaves of Grass, we sense immediately, is a book written for us. Whitman has us in his sights at every moment; he knows our deepest, most sacred need, even when it is so deep and secret that we ourselves do not realize it exists.”
In addition to the pronoun “you,” Whitman uses “he or she” and the nouns “master or mistress.” This language is inclusive of both men and women. Whitman’s also refers to biblical paintings of Christ and his disciples in the fifth stanza. “Painters have painted their swarming groups and the centre/ figure of all, / From the head of the centre-figure spreading a nimbus of / gold-color’d light.” He says that he is a painter of this image, but with his brush he paints every person, man and woman, with a “nimbus of / gold-color’d light,” implying that the divinity in God and Christ is also within every person.
Whitman’s use of the word “hopples” in the final stanza is significant. A hopple is a device used to restrain an animal to keep it from running away. When he says that “the hopples fall from your ankles” he compares the unenlightened human to an animal unknowingly held back.. This line indicates that “To You” offers the reader awareness as a tool to access an epiphany of sorts, freeing them from this imprisonment of the subconscious. In addition, Whitman’s use of the word “ennui” in the last stanza invokes a complex feeling of discontent and lethargic indifference that results from the absence of a vocation and/or missing enthusiasm for life. The specific connotation of this word suggests the feeling in the poem that Whitman understands exactly what his reader is going through and empathizes with them––acknowledging this fault and other negative qualities, which he knows no person is exempt from possessing, Whitman ends “To You” by encouraging the reader to seek change and growth by understanding their faults and embracing previous mistakes.
American philosopher William James commended “To You” “for its philosophical pluralism, its exhortations that each individual reader, each ‘you,’ should strive to realize his or her potential greatness, in whatever particular form it might take” (LeMaster and Kummings). The friendship and love for the reader in “To You” is found in other poems in Leaves of Grass which also uses the second person, such as the short, three-line poem of the same name, “To You,” and the poem “O You Whom I Often and Silently Come.”
“To You” is a loving poem addressed to Whitman’s reader that elicits tenderness and personal growth. The poem represents Whitman’s progressive embracement of people from all walks of life. “To You” invites the reader to feel seen, heard, and understood.
Bibliography and Further Reading Ed Folsom. Whitman’s Manuscript Drafts of “Song of Myself”; J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (1998), The Walt Whitman Archive; Leaves Of Grass. Introduction by Elisabeth Panttaja Brink (2013).
Credits Composed by Lexi Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Lexi Palmer