Walt Whitman

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Summarize Whitman’s poem “To a Stranger.”

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In Walt Whitman’s “To a Stranger,” the speaker passes a stranger. The sight of this person stimulates the speaker to reflect on the meaning of acquaintance, friendship, intimacy, and identity. The gender of the stranger is not provided, and it seems that the speaker is thinking or dreaming rather than talking to the stranger. Reflecting on people they grew up with, the speaker considers the ways that people share and are equal to each other.

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“To a Stranger” is a ten-line poem that presents the thoughts of a first-person speaker addressing another person. Encountering this “passing stranger” prompts the speaker to reflect on what it means to know another person or oneself. Their thoughts run the gamut from mere acquaintance through closer friendship to the bonds of intimacy that draw people together. The speaker’s initial thoughts may be occurring to them “in a dream,” which suggests that the encounter between the two people is taking place in the speaker’s mind: it is metaphorical rather than literal.

The speaker expresses their “longing” to find this person, whom they had been seeking. They also reminisce about the “joy” in a life they previously shared. The multiple impressions are summed up as “All is recall’d” in a moment’s “affectionate” passing. Rather than identify the stranger’s gender, the speaker says this person could have been either “a boy with me or a girl with me” when they were growing up.

The connections between the two of them are then extended further, as the speaker speculates how they have acquired parts of each other. Neither of their bodies are entirely their own any more. Merely in passing, this kind of intimate sharing occurs. The speaker continues thinking and states, “I am not to speak to you.” The importance of both remembering this stranger while alone and anticipating another, future meeting are emphasized, as the speaker concludes by stating they have “no doubt” about such a meeting.

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