A Short Analysis of Walt Whitman’s ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’ is a Walt Whitman poem addressed to his reader, and might be viewed as a disclaimer for all of Whitman’s poetry – much as another of his famous poems, ‘Song of Myself’, can be read as his declaration or credo.

‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’ appeared in Whitman’s landmark 1855 collection Leaves of Grass and is charged with erotic, sensual language, suggesting the importance of the physical body to Whitman’s poetics, and the close relationship he envisions between himself and his reader. First, here’s the text of the poem, followed by a few words of analysis.

Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.

Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?

The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive,
You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your sole and exclusive standard,
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,
The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon’d,
Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let go your hand from my shoulders,
Put me down and depart on your way.

Or else by stealth in some wood for trial,
Or back of a rock in the open air,
(For in any roof’d room of a house I emerge not, nor in company,
And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead,)
But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any person for miles around approach unawares,
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or some quiet island,
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.

Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;
For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,
And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.

But these leaves conning you con at peril,
For these leaves and me you will not understand,
They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you,
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.

For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,
Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me,
Nor will the candidates for my love (unless at most a very few) prove victorious,
Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much evil, perhaps more,
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at;
Therefore release me and depart on your way.

‘I am not what you supposed, but far different’: we should beware of jumping to assumptions about Walt Whitman’s poetry, or trying to pigeonhole him. As the sprawling, psalmic style of his free-verse poetry suggests, he is too varied and protean to be easily pinned down or categorised: he is ‘large’, he ‘contains multitudes’, to borrow from another of his poems. Throughout ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’, Whitman uses the metonymic idea of his book (Leaves of Grass) representing him, the man, Walt Whitman, and plays with this notion. To hold ‘Walt Whitman’ in our hand in book form is to hold the man himself, his soul and spirit, his beliefs and world-view.

What’s more, in ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’, Whitman is not desperately seeking followers. Indeed, ‘follower’ is a suggestive word for the poet to use, implying a disciple of sorts and inviting comparisons with religious leaders, even founders or central figures of new religions, such as Jesus Christ.

In order to prove ourselves worthy as a ‘candidate’ for the poet’s ‘affections’, we need to show that we’ve got the mettle, the strength, the open mind, the ability to abandon old views and subscribe to new ones, which the poet demands of his readers. In short, Walt Whitman isn’t simply saying ‘read my poetry’: he’s offering Leaves of Grass as something approaching a new philosophy or religion, almost as if it’s a holy text of sorts.

Indeed, Whitman continues ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’ by doing something surprising, effectively telling us, his prospective reader, that we probably haven’t got what it takes to be a ‘follower’ of his, and that we should ‘depart’ and leave off reading him right away.

If we are serious about reading him, we should take Whitman out in the open, or into the woods – either way, we need to be out among nature to appreciate him, rather than cooped up indoors at home or in a library. And there, out amongst the elements, a sort of union between reader and poet might be possible. Whitman figures such a union in explicitly romantic and even sensual terms:

Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.

From this first kiss, things get increasingly intimate: Whitman wants us to shove him under our clothes (the book, that is, but then the ambiguity of the ‘me’ here is suggestive, of course), so he can feel our beating heart and we can be close to him and he to us.

But then Whitman turns his back on us again and maintains that we will not understand him, that he will ‘elude’ us, and that we’re better off putting him down and departing on our way. Why? Because it is not ‘by reading it you will acquire it’, with ‘it’ being the true meaning of Whitman’s work. Instead, we must live it, we must be as open to the world and to new possibilities and beliefs as Whitman himself is.

He doesn’t want mindless devotees, or idle praise from people trying to look cool by saying they like him (the more recent example of politicians expressing their love for everyone from The Smiths to the Arctic Monkeys springs to mind here), but people who are willing to spend time with him, reread him, take him out into the world with them, and think about what his work is saying in a deeper sense.

Whitman would doubtless hate such a post as this present analysis of ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’, because we should leave off ‘studying’ or ‘analysing’ him and just read him and heed him.


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