“A Glimpse” by Walt Whitman

We’ve encountered Walt Whitman’s poetry on this blog before: in a longish post where I offered some advice on how to interpret poems, I presented his poem To a Stranger. And now I would like to share with you another poem of his, on a similar theme of the need for love and companionship.

A portrait of Walt Whitman as a young man, bearded, wearing a hat and white shirt.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

This one is rather short, but powerfully evocative in its simplicity. A Glimpse paints the scene of a bar on a cold winter night, crowded with noisy, crude men sitting around a wood burner. They are drinking and telling lewd jokes, unwinding after a long day at work. Among them, the narrator and an unnamed young man—simply happy to share the same space and enjoy each other’s company, without the need to even exchange a word.



I love the first verse, which immediately gives this poem a picture-like quality, but also the quality of something concealed; not necessarily a secret, but not readily obvious or in-your-face, either. What we’re witnessing is just a brief section in time, a momentary glimpse seen through an interstice. Something entirely unremarkable at first glance, just like our narrator sitting unremark’d in the corner of the bar. The poet invites us to witness and share in the intimacy of a moment we would’ve otherwise completely missed.

Like many of Whitman’s poems, this one has an obviously androphile note: here we have a typically Whitmanesque setting peopled with men’s men, workmen and drivers. We can imagine a 19th century frontier saloon or a remote outpost inhabited predominantly by rough and burly men, or perhaps a bar not far from a mine or another industrial facility—the sort of place where women would be few and far between.

But that’s just the setting. Whitman uses it as a backdrop to his depiction of love as something quiet and unassuming, yet in a way much louder than the cacophony of surrounding sounds and voices. It’s also patient and long-suffering in the midst of the harshness and profanity of everyday life. There’s a stoic quality to it. Noises come and go, but the affinity and love stay a long while.


VOCABULARY EXERCISE

Find the words in the poem with the following meaning:

  • dirty, obscene, indecent (adj.)
  • a piece of kitchen equipment used for cooking and/or heating (n.)
  • a joke (n.)
  • unnoticed (adj.)
  • a small or narrow space between things (n.)
  • a serious promise; here an offensive, blasphemous word, a profanity (n.)
  • happy, pleased and satisfied (adj.)
  • a momentary view (n.)

To check your answers, please click here for the answer key.


How did you like this poem? If you have any thoughts on it, please share them in the comments sections below!

P.S. The cover image is a photo of a 19th century saloon in Castroville, Texas.

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