I have waited too long to return to reading that great American, Walt Whitman. We are now on Page 32 of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the 1855 (first) edition.
The ring of alarm-bells . . . . the cry of fire . . . . the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and colored lights,We begin the page surrounded in sound as the din of the city becomes majestic passion of the opera. The poet is ecstatically consumed yet ever observing how the experience feels.
The steam-whistle . . . . the solid roll of the train of approaching cars;
The slow-march played at night at the head of the association,
They go to guard some corpse . . . . the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.
I hear the violincello or man's heart's complaint,
And hear the keyed cornet or else the echo of sunset.
I hear the chorus . . . . it is a grand-opera . . . . this indeed is music!
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the trained soprano . . . . she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror,
It sails me . . . . I dab with bare feet . . . . they are licked by the indolent waves,
I am exposed . . . . cut by bitter and poisoned hail,
Steeped amid honeyed morphine . . . . my windpipe squeezed in the fakes of death,
Let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.
To be in any form, what is that?
If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and its callous shell were enough.
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand.
Is this then a touch? . . . . quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning, to strike what is hardly different from myself,
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,
Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial,
Depriving me of my best as for a purpose,
Unbuttoning my clothes and holding me by the bare waist,
Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture fields,
The poet considers himself and how he differs from, say, "the quahaug and its callous shell." He is a conductor of extraordinary sensitivity.
I'm not clear on what "this" refers to in "Is this then a touch?" Perhaps the reference is to the poem itself or the act of creating poetry. The "this" becomes figured as the motions of intimates and lovers. More than anything, the poet seems to want to describe what it's like at the limits of human sensation.