Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
Whitman speaks first of actual perfumes, distilled fragrances in bottles. These were much more common in Whitman’s day, before the advent of modern deodorizers: consider hippies who even today use patchouli oil to mask body odours. Whitman himself was known to astonish with the stink of his armpits.
Here Whitman notes that he’s not going to allow artificial fragrances to “intoxicate” him, however pleasing they may be to the senses. Why go in for something manufactured when “the real thing” (the atmosphere) is right outside your door? Hence the comparison between perfumes and atmosphere becomes a question of authenticity, a comparison between the unreal and the real, which he is “in love with.”
Jong, Erica. Loveroot: New Poems. 1976.
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