Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is one of Whitman’s most anthologized works, and not without good reason. It is one of the shortest, most succinct statements of his poetic vision, but it can also be read as a justification of art itself. It attempts to show how common experiences and our perception of those experiences, as conveyed by the artist, unite us no matter who we are, where we are, or when we live.

On its simplest level it suggest how art can give us a sense of commonality with an artist, or a people, who have been dead for thousand of years. On a higher level, it argues that we are all united through Nature, the Oversoul, precisely because we are all suspended in this “eternal float of solution.”

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.

Whitman begins tying together Nature (fast-flowing water, clouds, sunrise), the people crossing on the ferry boat, and the people who will be crossing on ferry boats in the future. At this point it is the motion that most links them, the moving water equating to the people moving on the water.

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.

We are all sustained by these things, though we are but part of the scheme of things, not the whole. These beautiful sights that sustain us, these “glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings,” are shared by the poet and the “others that are to follow.” Fifty years or even many hundreds of years later, other people will share exactly this same experience when they board the ferry and make the same trip. They, too, will share the beauty of the sunset and the flood-tide of the water. Sharing this beauty irrevocably ties us together.

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.

Neither time, nor place, nor distance can separate the poet from those who share the same experience. We are tied together by our shared feelings when we look at the river and sky, when we stand on deck fascinated by the fast flowing water, and when we lookup at the seagulls circling overhead. And amidst all this beauty if we look carefully enough we can see our reflection in the water and see “the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,” a virtual “halo,” our own aura of glory. Our common experience of all the things that make up this ride tie use together.

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.)

In case you missed it, or even if you didn’t, “These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you.”

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.

Even hundreds of years cannot truly separate us.

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.

We have both felt the same questions about who we are and about our universe. We both were born and thereby separated from the Oversoul, the “float forever held in solution,” forced to identify with this body, not with the eternal Oversoul.

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.

What’s more, we both have fallen upon dark times and shared evil thoughts, “knitted the old knot of contrariety,” and done things we are ashamed to admit.

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.

Whitman, too, was friendly and outgoing, playing “the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,” the role that makes us question who we really are.

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.

Whitman, in writing this poem, has thought as much about you as you now think about Whitman. Perhaps somewhere Whitman is still enjoying the fact that you are reading his poem. It is not just Whitman and you who come together, though, for everyone comes from the “general centre of all” enveloped by a “necessary film.”

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?

Nothing could be more wonderful to Whitman than this scene crossing to Brooklyn, this scene that ties him to each of us. Now, by truly sharing this scene with Whitman, you too are forever linked to him, linked to him in a way that explanations and sermons could never convey, linked to him in the same way you are to any great artist who portrays a beautiful moment you have shared with him.

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.

Turning back at the river once again, Whitman reaffirms the beauty that ties us together and urges “the baffled and curious brain” to continue to question, knowing that intellect alone can never understand the truths that have been revealed here. Go back to your everyday life, but consider whether Whitman may not “in unknown ways” still be sharing this experience with you, for it is this experience itself that lies at the heart of our realization that we are one.

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.

All these things we see are really “dumb ministers,” silent conveyers of the Oversoul through their beauty. Once we have seen them truly for what they are, signs of the infinite universe, we can never get enough of them and can never again be fooled into believing they are just material objects. Though we do not understand them, we carry them with us forever as they carry us towards eternity.

Loren Webster

5 thoughts on “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

  1. I really agree with this interpretation. It captures and expresses my exact thoughts of the poem and some. Great Job Webster.

  2. Thank you for the awesome footnotes, you helped me to understand the poem with a much deeper apprication. You’re the best.

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