Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
But I was a Manhattanese, free, friendly, and proud
I was called by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
- Every once in a while, Whitman throws in a funny word that sounds made up: "Manhattanese" is one of these words. Literally, it means someone from Manhattan, like a Chinese person is from China.
- The speaker feels like a native New Yorker, and he's darned proud of it. Young men shout his name as he walks through the streets.
- Better yet, they shout his "nighest name," the name that refers most closely to his true self, like a super-secret code name.
- They put their arms around him like an old pal. He knows lots of people around town, but he "never told them a word" about his secret, inner thoughts. Are those the thoughts that we're reading right now? We can't be sure.
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Played the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.
- Like a spy, the speaker blended in among his fellow citizens, and all the while they were none the wiser: Mwa-haha!
- Whitman might be making a distinction between public and private selves. Our public selves are like roles that we perform in daily life in order to fit in. These roles can be big, small, or "both great and small." Our private selves are the part of us we find most difficult to express or feel ashamed to express.
- Whitman is all about trying to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable opening up their private selves to other people. He's not so naïve as to think that this can be done with the snap of one's fingers, and this section shows some acceptance for the theatrical nature of social life.