A Close Reading of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"
PostedJanuary 01, 2000
"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is a poem about a man taking the Brooklyn ferry home from Manhattan at the end of a working day. It is one of Walt Whitman’s best-known and best-loved poems because it so astutely and insightfully argues for Whitman's idea that all humans are united in their common experience of life. A long poem in nine sections, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" prepares us for the final poem of Leaves of Grass, when Whitman writes, "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you." Whitman achieves, in these two poems, an intimacy of address and commonality of experience that bridge the gap between writer and reader.
Whitman's narrator begins the poem "seeing" the flood tide and the setting sun more clearly than his fellow passengers on the ferry; he regards the crowds as so removed from him that he cannot understand them:
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
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years
hence are more to me, and more in my meditations,
that you might suppose.
As the speaker shifts from addressing the crowd to the second person, something strange happens: the crowds become not only the literal crowds of commuters on the ferry, but also, more expansively, everyone who has ever rode the ferry, and then, finally everyone who has returned home, including the reader of the poem. Throughout the poem, he alternately despairs of his distance from his fellow men, and then feels himself coming to know them, as in the fifth section where he writes, "Closer yet I approach you."
As if to mimic the "ebb-tide" and the "flood tide" that Whitman continually refers to in the poem, the poem itself moves closer, as in the intimate address of the first section, and then farther away, as in the second section, where Whitman begins to list a series of abstract, meditative observances, each beginning with "the" and using passive, verb-less syntax. With phrases like "The similitudes of the past and those of the future," and "the others that are to follow me, the ties between them and me," he creates a rocking motion within each line, as well as a kind of distance between the speaker and the reader. In addition, the expansive anaphoric lines mimic the movement of the boat and the ebb and flow of the tides, which is at once comforting, mesmerizing, and even, in its repetition, numbing.
The third section is a detailed description of the sights and sounds of the ferry ride that the speaker claims will be shared by every future rider of the ferry. The repetition of syntax is shown here to its full advantage and scope, where he begins each line with the word "just," invoking both the Bible and Shakespeare, and serving the greater purpose of uniting the disparate elements of the scene around him.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river
and the bright flow, I was refreshed,
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-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.
He gives equal weight to both natural and manmade images in this section, noticing the "numberless masts of ships" as well as "the swift current." Whitman writes of "The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme." The repetitive phrasing in this poem is an enactment of the poem's subject matter (e.g. crossing back and forth). Each individual on the ferry, but also in the past, present and future of Whitman's world, as well as each disparate image, is at once completely separated and joined to a greater purpose, what he comes to call later "the soul." The ferry journey at the close of day brings to mind Charon carrying his passengers across the River Styx; though this is not a poem only about mortality, this layer of image and myth lends weight and gravity to the very real and very commonplace experience of the daily journey home.
It is in the third section that the first of two central images of the poem are established, the seagulls:
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in
the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies
and left the rest in strong shadow,...
This is one of several "split" images in the poem representing both the speaker and the crowds from whom he feels distanced. Like the seagulls, the speaker himself is split, somehow between the past and the future (living in his own time, but apparently able to imagine the future), and is neither in Manhattan or Brooklyn, but between the two, both distanced from the world around him and inside it. Throughout the poem, he will refer to shadows as the "dark patches" that have fallen upon him, comforting us that "It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall." For Whitman, the light is purity and the dark is weakness. While much of the poem is a celebration of beauty, he berates himself for having "Blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, grudg'd / Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dare not speak." The rhythm of these lines is quicker than the pace of the rest of the poems, with continual, unrelenting stresses, lending the lines a sense of authentic and painful passion and regret. It is not that the seagull he sees is either "bright" or "dark" but equally both, two opposites existing in one body, a contradiction.
The second central image of the poem is that of the speaker leaning over the edge of the boat with the sun behind his head and, seeing spokes of light surrounding his face, imagining that another passenger, endless numbers of other passengers, will someday look into the water and see the same thing. "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 centrifugul spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water." By the end of the poem, he treats this image rather differently: "Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or anyone's head, in the sunlit water." Throughout this poem, the speaker becomes somewhat casual about physical identity and ownership of a particular body. If he claims that we will see what he sees, then we must, in some sense, be the same person—so that ultimately it doesn't matter whose head he sees there in the water. The circle in the water is his head, the reader's head, and the sun itself at the same time, and so the experience of looking into the water is both great and small. Because he is describing such a particular angle, no onlooker would be able to see what he saw, but at the same time, the sun itself might see it, or anyone looking into the water might see it with his own face. The light at his back divides him in two, like the seagulls; his back is dark while his face is lit. There is something about this vision that is disorienting as well. He claims to be "dazzled" by the "shimmering track of beams" as if it is the light that has made him momentarily lose reason and imagine himself to be a kind of ambassador to the future, telling us that he is thinking of us, that he has, as he says in Part 7, "consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born."
The ninth and final section of the poem revisits each imagistic line, almost word for word, as if in an incantation, but transforms the simple fragments to imperatives:
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!
It is strange and beautiful here that Whitman, known for his endless generative powers, would return to each image, almost in comfort, hypnotically, to remind us of the connection between past and present, writer and reader, and to enact the scene that he is setting, where the same visions might be seen twice, one passively (reading about it) and one actively (seeing it for oneself). This section, and the poem, culminates in a final stanza where Whitman uses the pronoun "we" for the first time, as if reader and writer have finally been joined together, but also literally referring to how the passengers are seeing, at last, those on the shore who are waiting for them:
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate
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 furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.
As the reader, we are at once the future "perfection," waiting for the arrival of the ferry, but because we are now presently living, we are the travelers as well. In the final line, Whitman refers to "the soul," as if there were only one, without ownership (i.e. not your soul, and not my soul). There is also a slight echo with the unwritten word "whole" (parts toward the whole) as if the words might mean the same thing. Whitman has united the disparate elements of the crowd and has drawn closer to his fellow travelers by imagining a unified whole. The dualities of the poem are resolved: light and dark, reader and writer, past and future, life and death—all become momentarily the same as the ferry approaches the shore.