Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
"CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY"
"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" has long been regarded as one of Walt Whitman's greatest poems. It shows Whitman (1819–1892) at his most optimistic, yet also at his most reflective, as he uses local and biographical detail to express transcendental ideas. The poem appeared for the first time in the 1856 (second) edition of Leaves of Grass in a somewhat different form and with the title "Sun-Down Poem." This first version's eleven sections, while notably different from the final nine-section revision in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, contains much of the language that appears in later versions. The main themes are present from the earliest versions: life, death and immortality, general optimism, and joy in the daily details of life in the cities of New York and Brooklyn (New York was not consolidated into its present five boroughs until 1 January 1898).
WHITMAN AND FERRIES
In a memoir of his earliest years in Brooklyn, "Old Brooklyn Days," Whitman recalls ferry rides he took in early childhood (Complete Poetry, p. 1282). In Specimen Days, in a piece titled "My Passion for Ferries," he describes how he has come to be "identified with the Fulton ferry," which connected Brooklyn to Manhattan and which he rode "almost daily" in the 1850s and 1860s; he states that he has "always had a passion for ferries: to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems" (Complete Poetry, pp. 700–701). Whitman also discusses ferries in several of his early pieces of journalism. In 1847 he wrote a piece for the Brooklyn Eagle called "The Philosophy of Ferries," a humorous description of the behavior of passengers on the various ferries that connected Brooklyn and New York. Two years later he described another trip in detail in the tenth installment of "Letters from a Travelling Bachelor" in the December 1849 issue of the New-York Sunday Dispatch.
"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" draws on this December 1849 newspaper piece. The trip takes place in winter (the poem mentions the "Twelfth-month sea-gulls," l. 28) and at the same time of day, late afternoon ("sun there half an hour high," l. 2), but the poem reverses the direction: the newspaper piece describes a trip from Manhattan to Brooklyn, whereas the ferry in the poem moves from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Changing the direction expands the trip's meaning: it is no longer merely a ten-minute commute from Manhattan back home to Brooklyn but a journey that parallels the direction of the sun throughout the day (as the original title, "Sun-Down Poem," suggests), a journey from life through death into an eternal future that is also eternally present. The newspaper piece goes into great detail about the human passengers, their behavior and appearance; the poem mentions them but prefers to detail the physical scene on the water and on either shore.
SYMBOLS, THEMES, AND TECHNIQUES
One of the most interesting features of the poem, one it shares with "Song of Myself" and other major works, is the speaker's direct address to those who will live after him. Whitman's joy in his surroundings is so great and transformative that he shares it not only with those who will read his words during his lifetime but also with those who will read them in the distant future. In the seventh installment of the "Letters from a Travelling Bachelor," from 25 November 1849, Whitman tries out the same view, wondering what future generations will make of the Croton Reservoir at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue (current site of the New York Public Library). He describes a late afternoon "jaunt" to watch a summer sunset from the top of its walls and says:
A hundred years hence, I often imagine, what an appearance that walk will present, on a fine summer afternoon! You and I, reader, and quite all the people who are now alive, won't be much thought of then; but the world will be just as jolly, and the sun will shine as bright, and the rivers off there—the Hudson on one side and the East on the other—will slap along their green waves, precisely as now; and other eyes will look upon them about the same as we do. ("Letters," pp. 336–337)
Whitman takes the situation of the viewer on land between two rivers, thinking of how that view will persist a century or more in the future, and makes it the situation of the speaker on the water, between the cities of Brooklyn and New York, speculating on exactly the same idea. But in the poem he addresses not an imaginary companion on a contemporary stroll but the generations who will come long after him.
Whitman turns his gaze and his address in many directions in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," with apostrophes to the tide, the waves, the clouds, the sun, even the rail he leans on as he rides. Sections 2, 3, 6, and 9 in particular feature catalogs; the one in section 9 is particularly notable for its exhortation of the ingredients of the natural scene to keep on doing what they are doing.
The poem relies on the physical realities of New York and Brooklyn, the river between them, the sights of the harbor and the movement of the ferry. It may seem strange, then, that none of the later revisions of the poem mention the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which began in 1869 and continued, with national attention to its progress, until it opened to the public formally on 24 May 1883. Any ferry trips Whitman would have taken during that period would have been overshadowed by the bridge. He includes it in a list of great public works in "Song of the Exposition" (1876), and mentions the part of the bridge that was standing in 1878 in "Manhattan from the Bay," collected in Specimen Days, but, as Richard Haw has noted, pays no particular attention to it, as he did to other technological achievements and public projects. For the purposes of this poem, the ferry is all he needs. He may have felt that the ferry linked him to ancient myths of immortality and that the bridge was an unnecessary distraction. In fact, he had other opinions about the very idea of a bridge. The tenth number of his "Letters from a Travelling Bachelor," from December 1849, concludes with these remarks:
We notice there is much talk, just at present, of a bridge to Brooklyn. Nonsense. There is no need of such a bridge, while there are incessantly plying such boats as the Manhattan, the Wyandance, and the Montauk. If there be any spare energy, let it be applied to improving the indifferent accommodations at Catherine Ferry, and the wretchedness of that at Jackson Street. Also, to completing the proposed lines from the bottoms of Montague Street and Bridge Street. (P. 352)
In temporal terms, Whitman sees no use for a bridge while there are so many ferries taking care of the transportation needs of the two cities, and in spiritual terms, he does not number the bridge among the "silent, beautiful ministers" that "furnish [their] parts toward the soul." His poem, for all its particularities about the harbor, is not a chronicle of the realities of harbor phenomena. It is instead an epic reworking of an ordinary episode.
Whitman's transposition of the thoughts of this type of immortality from the lip of the reservoir to the deck of a ferry plying between two cities connects his poem to all the significance attached to ferries shuttling the dead between the earth and the underworld. The critic Bettina Knapp has linked Whitman's ferry to the Egyptian "Solar bark" of the dead that transported the souls of the dead to the underworld (p. 147). But of course, unlike these mythic ferries, which bring the dead one way only, Whitman's Brooklyn ferry goes back and forth and can carry the same people—or their descendants—in either direction. This is a different type of immortality, manifested through the repeated phenomena of daily life that show forth eternity.
"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" has nine sections. The five lines of the first begin with an apostrophe to a few of the physical phenomena he invokes: the flood-tide, the clouds in the western sky, the crowds on the ferry, and "you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence" (Complete Poetry, p. 308). This brief opening stanza states the poem's main themes: the physical phenomena of the harbor, including the "hundreds and hundreds" of passengers "that cross, returning home" (p. 308), and the speaker's claim of connection to the future riders/readers of whom he is thinking. From here on, the speaker will establish his connection to the harbor, his contemporaries, and the future.
The second section puts forth the theory behind the poem: an overall "simple, compact, well-joined scheme" (p. 308) of the universe precipitates out individual phenomena and individual humans who can see and appreciate them. Two brief catalogues state the idea and give examples, ending again with those who will cross the river in the future, and the things they too will see.
The long third section is addressed directly to those who will come after and begins with the assertion, "It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not" (p. 308), making the central point that "I am with you" (p. 308), enumerating many of the poem's central images: the gull, the sun on the water, the ships coming into the harbor, the waves, the storehouses on one side of the river, a tug with two barges, and the foundry fires on the other side of the river. This is not merely a visual catalog of the harbor sights, however, because the items begin with "Just as you . . ." or "I too," cementing the connection (p. 309). The fourth section restates his enjoyment of it all, including the people, to whom he feels close, even to those who will come after: "Others the same—others who look back on me because I look'd forward to them" (p. 310).
The fifth section, at the poem's structural center, asks the central question: "What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?" (p. 310). It makes no difference, he says. He too was "struck from the float" (p. 310), and his individual consciousness comes to him from his body. This idea pervades Whitman's work, and here he joins it to an obliteration of time in the face of common origins (the "float") and common experience.
The sixth section establishes a connection through vices as well as virtues, beginning with an invocation of "dark patches" (p. 311) that fell on him as well as the ones who currently read him—echoing the "flicker of black" that the foundry fires throw "down into the clefts of streets" in the third section (p. 310). He insists that readers identify with him as fully as possible, putting forth all the ways in which he was just like those who will read him in the future, even in life's less admirable and forthright respects. Insisting that he too, as well as his readers, knew "what it [was] to be evil" (p. 311), he catalogs some undesirable behavior, including "hot wishes I dared not speak" (p. 311) and behavior like "the wolf, the snake, the hog" (p. 311). The speaker himself may actually be guilty of each of these things, or he may be mentioning general categories of "evil" as part of a confession of collective guilt, yet another way of solidifying the connection of present to future. He was one of the crowd, he insists, playing "the part that still looks back on the actor or actress" (p. 311).
The seventh section is another direct address to future readers, and it assumes that his readers are thinking of him: "What thoughts you have of me now, I had as much of you" (p. 311), amplified this time by the addition of the possibility that he may somehow still be present, "enjoying this . . . as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me" (pp. 311–312), an echo of the closing lines of "Song of Myself" and "So Long."
The eighth section begins with a sigh of appreciation: "Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm'd Manhattan?" (p. 312). It moves on to intensify the connection between the reader and speaker, invoking the attraction, the tie between him and others, "Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you" (p. 312). After this frankly coital image, the connection is firmly established: "We understand then do we not?" (p. 312).
The ninth and final section urges the phenomena he has already mentioned—the tide, the waves, clouds, current and future passengers, masts of Manhattan and hills of Brooklyn, the ships, the sea birds, ending with the foundry fires and their shadows—to continue doing their work in the overall scheme. This recapitulates the poem's main themes, with a triumphant shift into the imperative. Whitman's own embodied consciousness both connects him to generations ahead and separates him from the phenomena and people he sees. Without being atomized—"disintegrated," as he says in the second section—and apart from the whole, he would have no individual consciousness and no ability to seek out connection. But the last six lines, addressed to the cities and the phenomena he sees, shift into the first person plural. As he says in the last four lines:
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
These lines suggest that connection has, at least in some measure, been achieved.
Whitman's ideas about an all-encompassing film, a "float" from which the individual being is "struck," and the irresistible attraction between individuals, all expressed in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and other poems, echo Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay, "The Over-Soul." Emerson (1803–1882) also uses the image of a river:
As with events, so is it with thoughts. When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come. (P. 385)
The poem's insistence on an all-encompassing matrix from which individual souls are precipitated is also foreshadowed by Emerson when he says, "The soul circumscribes all things. . . . In like manner it abolishes time and space" (p. 387), as Emerson also foreshadows the irresistible attraction Whitman feels between these individual souls: "I am certified of a common nature, and these other souls, these separated selves, draw me as nothing else can" (p. 390).
Whitman's admiration of Emerson cannot be underestimated, and his eager adoption of a basically transcendental approach to life and poetry place him among the exemplars of Emerson's ideas. When Emerson praised the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman reprinted the letter and kept it with him for years. In its insistence on the existence of transcendental forces in the universe, and its related insistence on the ability of individual humans to be formed out of and return to this source, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" carries out the same self-exploratory agenda as "Song of Myself," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Whitman's point of departure for investigations of eternal truth is his own physical being, and all of these poems demonstrate how this exploration happens. He both explores and celebrates himself, setting himself forth as an example of how this sort of exploration happens.
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Patricia Spence Rudden