Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand" (1860)
Author:
Martin, Robert K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The third of the "Calamus" poems is a warning to readers and would-be disciples. The "me" of the title is both the poet's body and his book, and a commitment to either requires a loss of a former self. Whitman demands of his acolytes submission to him as to God, for he is "your God, sole and exclusive" (1860 Leaves). Like Jesus he calls on those who would follow to give up "all conformity."

After such a warning about the consequences of disciplehood, Whitman offers a very different view of himself, one not available in the house or the library, but only in the open air. If he can find a safe place, away from the gaze of others, then he can accept the disciple and offer him the "comrade's long-dwelling kiss." Unlike the enthusiasm of many of the "Calamus" poems in the celebration of achieved love, this poem situates love between men in a context of social danger and ostracism, and makes clear the price one will have to pay for "coming out."

Whitman also makes himself available as his book, not to be read, but rather to be thrust "beneath your clothing." By insisting on the bodily, Whitman refuses his idealist heritage. He recognizes that much of what he says about the body will be misunderstood. Those who cannot grasp his meanings, cannot see him as the new evangel of male love, must simply release him. At the same time, Whitman makes understanding difficult, always refusing to identify clearly the "one thing" that should make the rest clear, which can only be called "that which you may guess at."

Underlying Whitman's play is a sense of the opacity and elusiveness of language. He will not be pinned down, any more than meaning can be prevented from dissemination. Whitman himself is fleeting, evanescent, his language in constant deferral. He places in question the idea of a true meaning, like a true self. The reader is left with what Edwin Miller has called "the chill of the type face" (153), the book as object, with the self that produced it having vanished. At the same time the reader has been offered a glimpse of another response, if only he (women are absent in the poem) can make the necessary sacrifice.

Bibliography

Grossman, Allen. "Whitman's 'Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand': Remarks on the Endlessly Repeated Rediscovery of the Incommensurability of the Person." Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. Ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 112–122.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.