Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To You [whoever you are...]" (1856)
Author:
Mulcaire, Terry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem first appeared in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass as "Poem of You, Whoever You Are," and took the title "To You" in 1871. It is one of three poems Whitman published with the same title in various editions of Leaves. One of these, a two-line fragment, appears in the "Inscriptions" section of the final edition; the second appeared in the 1860 and 1867 editions, but was dropped by Whitman from later editions. The 1856 version, of around fifty lines, may reasonably be taken, then, as his fullest direct expression on an important theme in Leaves: the theme of his dependence on each of his individual readers to bring to completion, or, as he puts it in "Full of Life Now" (1860), to "realize" his poems.

"To You" shares with numerous other poems in Leaves an insistence that Whitman is intimately, physically present to his readers. "I place my hand upon you," he writes; "I whisper with my lips close to your ear." But "To You" is distinct in its aggressive foregrounding of the paradoxical logic of such a sensuous intimacy. In order to get this close to every possible reader or "you," in other words, Whitman has to strip away all particularities, good and bad, all that might limit his offer of a democratic embrace to less than all of humanity. What's left, paradoxically, is a universalized and curiously anonymous individualism, a cosmic and spiritual essence which constitutes what is most perfect and beautiful in each individual, but only in the abstract.

What Whitman asks his readers to complete, in "To You," is a relation of erotic spiritualism, which miraculously elevates the absolute particularity of sensuous, physical experience to the level of a cosmic universal. He can only proffer the abstract universal; it remains up to each reader to animate it, so to speak, with his or her own particular, embodied experiences and desires. "Whoever you are," he pleads, then, "you be my poem." The reward for the reader's returned desire, his or her self-transformation into his "poem," is a kind of apotheosis; thus he pictures a halo, a "nimbus of gold-color'd light," around the head of each "you" that he addresses.

In Pragmatism (1907) William James praised "To You" for its philosophical pluralism, in its exhortations that each individual reader, each "you," should strive to realize his or her potential greatness, in whatever particular form it might take. Justin Kaplan notes that James also hailed Whitman as an apostle of the "religion of healthy-mindedness" (qtd. in Kaplan 56). David Reynolds has expanded on the optimistic religiosity of "To You," suggesting that the nimbus image in this poem marks Whitman's debt to the Luminist school of American painting, in which effulgent light was the sign of God's immanent presence. Indeed, in 1857 Whitman described his ongoing work on Leaves as "the Great Construction of the New Bible" (Notebooks 1:353), and "To You" might be described as an expression of Whitman's religion of progressive democracy, where the circulation of mutual desire transforms individualism into a poetic principle of universal, spiritual identity.

Bibliography

Breitweiser, Mitchell. "Who Speaks in Whitman's Poems?" Bucknell Review 28.1 (1983): 121–143.

James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, 1907.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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