W Walt Whitman

To a Stranger by Walt Whitman

‘To a Stranger’ by Walt Whitman describes a connection the speaker feels to a stranger they pass on the street. 

To a Stranger by Walt Whitman Visual Representation

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of clear, effective images that present readers with one speaker’s need for connection and meaning. Whether or not the speaker knows the person they’re talking to/about, or is simply expressing a broader need to find someone they do know and care about, is unknown. But, either way, readers should walk away from ‘To a Stranger’ feeling as though they understand the longing the speaker feels for a deeper, soulful connection to another person.

To a Stranger 
Walt Whitman 

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 by Walt Whitman


Summary

‘To a Stranger’ by Walt Whitman is a poem about connection. It describes one speaker’s desire for a meaningful connection with another person.

The poem begins with the speaker addressing a stranger, someone they passed on the street. This person, who is never named nor given a gender, is someone they think they know from their youth. They feel a connection to this person, one that could only be fostered from childhood. The speaker declares that despite the connection, they aren’t going to speak to this person, they are meant to be alone. But, in the future, the two may meet again and the speaker will ensure the stranger doesn’t leave them alone. 

Structure and Form 

‘To a Stranger’ by Walt Whitman is a one-stanza poem that contains ten lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that the poet does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines do not have connecting end rhymes and vary greatly in their length. The poem, in fact, reads more like a paragraph of prose. This is due to the length of the individual lines as well as the poet’s relaxed use of language. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me.”
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, the repetition of “lived” and “life” in line three and “flit” and “fluid” in line four. 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “[…] the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return.”


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-6

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,

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by addressing a “passing stranger.” This is someone who is walking near him on the street and to whom he’s never spoken before. He tells them that he looks at them “longingly” but they have no idea how powerful his feelings are. They believe that this person, a man or a woman, is the person that they’ve been looking for. 

He’s not sure who this person is exactly, because the feelings he’s expressing are coming to him as if from a dream. They are coming from deep inside him and he can’t quite pinpoint them. 

He tells this person that he believes he has “somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you.” The speaker feels a connection to the man or woman they are talking to. 

Throughout these lines, readers are likely to notice the poet’s use of alliteration. This is a technique that allows the writer to create rhythm without using a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

The speaker expands their memory of the person they’re talking to, telling them at they were an integral part of their youth. So much so, that their two bodies are intertwined in a special way. They do not only belong to themselves anymore, they are shared between the two. 

Lines 7-10

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.

In the next lines of the poem, the speaker continues to address the stranger. He tells this person, who is still neither a man nor a woman, that they give him the “pleasure of their eyes, face, flesh” as the two passes one another. Despite their meeting being incredibly brief, the speaker feels joy at seeing the eyes and face they believe they recognize. 

The speaker knows that despite everything they feel for this unnamed person they aren’t to “speak to you.” They are just to sit along and “wake at night alone.” This new emotion the speaker expresses suggests that he is longing for company in a fundamental way. He is longing for a connection with the human race and he’s seeing the possibility of connection in the face of a stranger. 

The speaker says that rather than reach out and speak to the person they’re passing on the street they are going to “wait” and no doubt that they will meet again. He will have faith that sometime in the future the two of them are going to cross paths again and that then they were with one another. The speaker will no longer be alone in their life. 

FAQs 

What is are the themes in ‘To a Stranger?’

The themes at work in this piece are connection and solitude. The speaker is experiencing the latter but feels a strong connection to the stranger they passed on the street. They feel as though they know this person from their youth and that sometime in the future the two will meet again. 

What is the purpose of ‘To a Stranger?’

The purpose is to celebrate the connection that every individual has to every other in the world. All human beings share fundamental similarities and the speaker is feeling that connection between them as he sees a stranger on the street. 

What is the tone of ‘To a Stranger?’

The tone is one of longing and passion. The speaker is filled with emotion as he recalls what he thinks are memories he shares with the stranger. He’s longing for a connection of some sort with someone. 

Why did Whitman write ‘To a Stranger?’

Whitman wrote this poem in order to share a universal need that all human beings have for connection. The speaker is moved by unknown memories or forces to seek out a  stranger they’ve passed on the street. It’s unclear whether or not the speaker truly knows this person who is simply casting their desires onto them. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘To a Stranger’ should also consider reading other Walt Whitman poems. For example: 

  • Animals’ – a poem describing the poet’s love for animals and their nature.
  • I Dream’d in a Dream’ – depicts a speaker’s dream of a utopian world in which love is the reference point for all decisions and actions. 
  • A Clear Midnight’ – a simple, yet impactful poem that depicts a speaker’s desire to free his soul from the confines of day to day life.

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To a Stranger by Walt Whitman Visual Representation
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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