Here’s the thing about Walt Whitman…he can be talking about at least three different things at the same time while still making perfect sense. Take, for instance, his poem, ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand.’ As students and scholars-in-progress of the good grey poet, we have already learned that he dons many different mantles throughout his poetry, such as the voice of the working man, the naturalist, the traveler, the seer, the patriot, etc. etc. In the afforementioned poem, Whitman proves his genius through the crafting of a very personal poem, riddled with “I”‘s and “me”‘s and unanswered questions of the utmost importance to an unknown listener, all without specifically identifying his true meaning.
At first glance, one may read the poem biographically — it is widely believed that Whitman exhibited homosexual, or, at the very least, polyamorous romantic tendencies; he was the caretaker of the handsome young soldiers, showering them with affection while lovingly tending to their wounds. The poem seems to reflect Whitman’s search to find a life partner who understands exactly what drives his soul, which can be found reflected in his “leaves” (his greatest work, Leaves of Grass), and the truth of his sexual orientation. He concludes, illuminating the fact that “all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at” — a fact that, in his time, may do “evil” to himself or others because of conventional standards.
Then again, perhaps this poem is not about orientation at all, but that which Whitman carries deep within his heart and longs to spread — that “American” spark, and the all-encompassing love for country that connects every person who calls this land home. Certainly, much of Whitman’s poetry becomes impossible to interpret unless one truly understands Whitman’s desire for this spirit to be thrust into the hearts of every man, woman and child. A spark that can be evil when taken too far, as seen through manifest destiny.
Or it may be that what we have here is a poem about Whitman’s spirituality, by no means conventional, but deeply and personally saturated in his words. It is this strange spirituality that can be found in the earth, the grass, in the human condition and the connectedness of each atom, that Whitman finds easy to write about, but harder to explain intimately.
We know that Whitman strived to be the voice of not only his nation, but the whole of human experience. This poem is a perfect example of what he endeavored to be — the voice of everything. all-encompassing. Familiar yet completely vague. And maybe that’s why people take to him the way that they do.
Or maybe it is because….he’s a wizard!
You’re right. He totally looks like Gandalf. I like everything you say here, from the specificity of reference to same-sex love, to the broader ambiguity that Whitman seems to voice. It’s such a bold poem. At the end of Song of Myself, he’s utterly needy, constantly reminding us that we must grab his hand. Here, he’s totally playing hard to get. This is the poem I think of when critics writing that everything in Whitman is on the surface, everything is in plain sight. Whitman, as we now know, was a poet of “indirectness” and “suggestiveness” as he writes in his Preface to Leaves (1855). And if we every forget that fact, we risk losing Whitman himself.