Selected Criticism

"To a Stranger" (1860)
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 twenty-second of the "Calamus" poems underwent almost no changes from the manuscript for the 1860 to later editions. It is a very tightly joined narrative of encounter and desire. Of the ten lines, half begin with "I," four with "You," and the first- and second-person pronouns structure every line, moving toward a union of self and other. The passing stranger becomes an object of desire who can evoke all earlier objects, recall the past, and promise a future.

Although the poem somewhat self-consciously tries to universalize its erotic desire by adding a feminine alternative in two lines ("You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking"), it is clearly written in celebration of urban male desire. Whitman manages to make out of a chance encounter a moment of deep significance and permanence. Such encounters are seen as marking the self indelibly. The poem records the loneliness of unfulfilled desire and the pleasure of visual contact, the longing for connection.

Although Edwin Miller has seen in the poem a need for secrecy, in fact the erotic attraction is the product of a public encounter that recalls a past dreamlike state of comradeship. Whitman makes of such a simple poem a touching record of desire and its expression, once again celebrating a transitory moment over a claimed permanence.


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


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