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A Walt Whitman Reader

Find poems, essays, and reading guides about the life and poetry of one of America’s iconic poets, Walt Whitman.

poem

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

1

Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;   
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.   
   
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you
          are to me!   
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home,
          are more curious to me than you suppose;   
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me,
          and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.  


2

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;   
The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme—myself disintegrated,
          every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:   
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;   
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—
          on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;   
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;   
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.   
   
Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;   
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;   
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights
          of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;   
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an
          hour high;   
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will
          see them,   
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back
          to the sea of the ebb-tide.   
   

3

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so
          many generations hence;   
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how
          it is.   
   
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;   
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;   
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,
          I was refresh'd;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current,
          I stood, yet was hurried;   
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem'd
          pipes of steamboats, I look'd.   
   
I too many and many a time cross'd the river, the sun half an hour high;   
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air,
          floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,   
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest
          in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.   
   
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,   
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,   
Look'd at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head
          in the sun-lit water,   
Look'd on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look'd on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,   
Look'd toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships,   
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,   
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops—saw the ships at anchor,   
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine
          pennants,   
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,   
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,   
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun-set,   
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests
          and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite
          store-houses by the docks,   
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank'd on each
          side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,   
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high
          and glaringly into the night,   
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over
          the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.   
   

4

These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you;
I project myself a moment to tell you—also I return.   
   
I loved well those cities;   
I loved well the stately and rapid river;   
The men and women I saw were all near to me;   
Others the same—others who look back on me, because I look'd
          forward to them;
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)   
   

5

What is it, then, between us?   
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?   
   
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.   
   

6

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters
          around it;   
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,   
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,   
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.   
   
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution;
I too had receiv'd identity by my Body;   
That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be,
          I knew I should be of my body.   

   
7

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,   
The dark threw patches down upon me also;   
The best I had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious;
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
          would not people laugh at me?   
   
It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;   
I am he who knew what it was to be evil;   
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,   
Blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, grudg'd,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,   
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;   
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,   
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,   
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting.
   

8

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!   
I was call'd 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,   
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play'd 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.   
   

9

Closer yet I approach you;   
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born.   
   
Who was to know what should come home to me?   
Who knows but I am enjoying this?   
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot
          see me?   
   
It is not you alone, nor I alone;
Not a few races, nor a few generations, nor a few centuries;   
It is that each came, or comes, or shall come, from its due emission,   
From the general centre of all, and forming a part of all:   
Everything indicates—the smallest does, and the largest does;   
A necessary film envelopes all, and envelopes the Soul for a proper time.
   

10

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable
          to me than my mast-hemm'd Manhattan,   
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg'd waves of flood-tide,   
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the
          belated lighter;   
Curious what Gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with
          voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as
          I approach;   
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man
          that looks in my face,
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you.   
   
We understand, then, do we not?   
What I promis'd without mentioning it, have you not accepted?   
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not
          accomplish, is accomplish'd, is it not?   
What the push of reading could not start, is started by me personally, is it not?
   

11

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!   
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg'd waves!   
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men
          and women generations after me;   
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!   
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful
          hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!   
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!   
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly!   
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my
          nighest name!   
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small, according as one makes it!   
   
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be
          looking upon you;   
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the
          hasting current;   
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;   
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast
          eyes have time to take it from you;
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one's
          head, in the sun-lit water;   
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail'd schooners
          sloops, lighters!   
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower'd at sunset;   
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall!
          cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses;   
Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are;
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul;   
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas;   
Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers;   
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual;   
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.
   

12

We descend upon you and all things—we arrest you all;   
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids;   
Through you color, form, location, sublimity, ideality;   
Through you every proof, comparison, and all the suggestions
          and determinations of ourselves.   
   
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers! you novices!
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward;   
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us;   
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently
          within us;   
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection
          in you also;   
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul. 
Walt Whitman
1855
poem

Song of Myself, I, II, VI & LII

I

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

II

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.

The atmosphere is not a perfume.... it has no taste of the distillation.... it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever.... I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers.... loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My	respiration and inspiration.... the beating of my heart.... the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice.... words loosed to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses.... a few embraces.... reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health.... the full-noon trill.... the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop	this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun.... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.... nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

VI

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess if is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive then the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them, soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

LII

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Walt Whitman
1855
lesson plan

Walt Whitman, Poet and Keen Observer

This lesson was developed by the Academy of American Poets in collaboration with a small group of New York City elementary school teachers who are creating social studies curricula aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  We focused on Walt Whitman’s "Manahatta," since the teachers were looking at New York State as the focus of fourth grade work.  Obviously, Whitman’s work is universal, and a number of his poems can become a vibrant part of many curricular areas.  This lesson, in particular, focuses on Whitman’s keen sense of detail and can help teachers and students alike sharpen their own skills for deeply noticing images and the words that make images come alive in new ways.

As always, feel free to use parts of this lesson, or all of it, and modify the activities to meet the needs of your particular students.