In this short, two-line poem, the poet addresses an unidentified stranger and questions society's expectation that strangers should refrain from addressing one another. He wonders why, if parties are willing, two strangers cannot meet on the street and communicate freely.
The poem consists of one stanza with two lines. The poem is a direct first-person address to a stranger, about whom Whitman reveals nothing. He simply asks the stranger why two unknown individuals should cannot openly address each other, but offers no answer. This poem is very similar to "To a Stranger," in which the speaker wonders why it is so strange for people who have not spoken in a long time (or ever) to directly approach one another. In "To a Stranger," though, the speaker feels a connection to a very specific stranger and wonders if they have met before, while in "To You," the subject of the speaker's query is more vague.
This short verse operates on many levels. On the surface, it is about two strangers passing each other on a street. However, Whitman is using this simple scenario to compress the distance between the artist and his or her audience. The poem's title, "To You," emphasizes the fact that the artist, Whitman, is directly addressing you, the reader. Whitman believed that all humans are connected and related in some way and therefore, communication should flow freely between everyone. Ih this poem, he laments that this does not often happen, perhaps due to the constraints of society or to other behaviors that are innate to human nature.
Though neither of the two lines rhyme or meter, Whitman formats both as questions. By leaving his queries open-ended, Whitman engages the reader in his process as we all struggle to form an answer. Though Whitman wrote this poem was more than a century ago, the simple questions he presents are still quite relevant. He uses very simple diction, which shows that these questions are simple to ask, but much more difficult to answer.