That shadow my likeness that goes to and fro seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering,
How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits,
How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;
But among my lovers and caroling these songs,
O I never doubt whether that is really me.


This “Poemet” first appeared on February 4, 1860 in the New-York Saturday Press on 4 February 1860. Whitman revised the poem as section 40 of “Calamus” in 1860 and in 1867 it was retitled “That Shadow My Likeness.” The Calamus sequence, first titled “Live Oak Moss,” first included twelve poems. Whitman added more poems to the sequence and the forty-five poem sequence became the Calamus cluster in 1860.

“That Shadow My Likeness” begins with a speaker talking about how a shadow of his likeness is seeking “livelihood, chattering, chaffering.” The poem personifies the shadow into a sentient being looking for companionship. The speaker says that when he is alone he looks upon the shadow and wonders how it fits into his life. There is a tone of sadness when he can’t see the shadow as part of himself but as an entity separate from himself. However, the shift is clearly seen in the line “But among my lovers and caroling these songs.” The speaker stops talking about a shadow and alludes to something more tangible in his life. Through most of the poem the shadow is referred to as an “it.” However, in the last few lines of the poem Whitman changes and replaces the word “it” for “that.” Whatever “that” is he makes known that when he is with others he no longer doubts that it’s him.

Vivian Pollack writes how this poem reflects Whitman’s writing career relative to others in the Calamus group. “The writing self continues to thrive…at the end of the Calamus project.” she argues that the use of “the real me is ‘real me’” contradicts the idea that the poem expresses how he feels he can’t recognize himself as familiar within any particular community. “That Shadow My Likeness” reflects on a shadow and its relation to the person. The poem notes that even though it’s attached, the speaker is not sure if it’s really part of him, because it seems to be constantly moving even when the speaker is standing still. The poem contemplates something that is part of a person and not really thought of in that way.

Bibliography and Further Reading Basil De Selincourt, Walt Whitman; a Critical Study, University of Michigan Digital Library Text Collections; Russell A. Hunt, “Whitman’s Poetics and the Unity of ‘Calamus,’” American Literature 46.4 (1975); James E. Miller, “Calamus,” The Walt Whitman Archive; Susan Belasco, “Walt Whitman’s Poetry in Periodicals,” The Walt Whitman Archive, Gen. eds. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, The Politics of Love in the 1860 Leaves of Grass; Vivian R. Pollak, The Erotic Whitman, UC Press E-Books Collection (2000).

Credits Composed by Asia Hill, Fall 2018. Reading by Asia Hill


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American Poetry and Poetics Copyright © 2017 by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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