Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Poem - Summary & Analysis

Also Read


      Introduction. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is one of the masterpieces in Leaves of Grass. Being a poet, and the voice of the people, Whitman took the role of a prophet and through his poems delivered his message to his people and to the world at large. He took the people with confidence and placed them under the sunshine of modern, healthy and vigorous outlook on life. He made people realize reality, and enjoy life to the brim.

      This poem was first published in 1856 under the title “Sun-down poem”, which James. E. Miller hails as “the Orient-like chant of spiritual unity lurking through all physical diversity”. He sees the external world around as he crosses Brooklyn in a ferry. Whatever
he sees he absorbs into his soul - the images, the clouds, the sun, the people, the boat and water.

      Summary. The poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry makes fine reading. It talks about the brighter aspects of life. It ends on a note of optimism. James E. Miller has summed the ideas in the poem in an apt manner: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry dramatizes a simple, ordinary experience in such a way as to symbolize the mystic unity that pervades all mankind and the universe. The crossing on the ferry by its very nature brings together in time many diverse people, holds them together in unity, lifts them for a moment beyond the reach of space and time, then disperses them. The poet sees in this moment of transcendence, when the ferry crowds are held suspended on the water between the shores, a symbol of the human fate and destiny. “The simple compact, well-joined scheme, myself disintegrated, everyone disintegrated yet part of the scheme”.

      The poet emphasizes that there is no time limit to the ferrying across the river. People, he says, were thus ferried, they are being ferried every day and they will be ferried thus for ages to come. Anyone familiar with the poems of Whitman will see how the poet tries to establish his identity with the people he sees, he becomes one with them; one with the milling crowd and enjoys the refreshing breeze of the tides; looks at -

The numberless masts of ships and thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats

      “The summer sky in the water”, “The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups”, and their experience become his.
The identification between him and the people or the rapport between him and the reader he thinks aloud:

What is it then between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not-distance avails not, and place avails not....

      Though the passengers come together only for a short time as they are ferried across, the poet finds the identification between him and the people who had ferried earlier, who are ferrying and who would also ferry in the future. This identification he elaborates in saying that he also lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan Island .... and that he also had the blending of contrariety in him like:

Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes, I dared not speak.
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant
.... Lived the same life with the rest, the same old
laughing, gnawing, sleeping...

      All the images of the ferry scene he catalogs and shows he is like any other human being with the same human passions. Slowly the poet, after referring to the ordinary ferry scene, tries to establish the identity with the others - it may be voyagers; it may be the readers and it may also mean the identification of the soul which later identifies itself with the universal soul. This idea is clearly stated in the lines:

We understand then do we not?
What I promised without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach-what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplished, is it not?

      After the direct identification which no books teach, the poet re-invokes all the images of the ferry scene of the earlier sections which assisted the poet in fusing with the reader, enabling the reader to see an additional meaning in it and persuades him to know the universal identity.

      There are critics who say that the poem itself is a ferry, shuttling across the river of time. People enjoyed reading his poems. They read this poem, and shared his experience. Even in the future, people would read it and share his experience. In this manner, the poet establishes identification with the reader, transcending time and space.

      The poet shows that unity exists in diversity. People from different walks of life ferry unitedly. Everyone is separate yet also an essential part of the unity. All objects in nature and world look separate, yet there is harmony and unity in them which go to make a ‘well join’d scheme.’ The poet after mentioning a catalog of scenes and sights, in the last section calls on the countless crowds of passengers to cross the river from shore to shore, calls upon the sea birds to reel and wheel, and the sun-set clouds to drench him with their splendor. The section doses with a philosophic touch:

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 towards eternity, Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul...


Accounts From Real Life

      The poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, begins in a realistic manner. The poet’s observations on his ties with the past, present and future are presented. To quote Whitman himself who gave details of observing life around- in “Specimen Days” he shows his study of people and life around: “Living in Brooklyn or New York Life was curiously identified with Fulton Ferry, already becoming the greatest of its sort in the world for general importance, volume, variety, rapidity and picturesqueness, almost daily I crossed on the boats, often up in the pilot houses where I could get a full sweep, absorbing shows; accompaniments, surroundings. What oceanic currents, eddies underneath - the great tides of humanity also, with ever-shifting movements! Indeed, I have always had a passion for ferries, to me they afford inimitable, streaming never-failing, living poems. The river and boy scenery .... the hurrying, splashing sea-tides-the changing panorama of streamers all sizes, ...the myriads of white sail’d schooners, sloops, skiffs what refreshment of spirit such sights and experience gave me.....”

      All this has been described in a picturesque manner in this poem. The zest for living is eulogized. The ferry across the river - a simple fact becomes symbolic of a man journeying across life. The ferry spans the voyage from life to death. It is also the journey of the entire humanity towards the ultimate reality. It is his firsthand experience. What he describes is true to life. He gives it a symbolic touch. What appears simple gets an aroma of mysticism about it.


      Some critics feel that the ferry also refers to the poems of Whitman which link the past, present and future. People enjoyed reading his poems. People would still enjoy reading them. There is a timelessness about them. Just as the ferry had ferried thousands of people across the ocean of life, just as it would ferry many more people to come, similarly his poems have an eternal optimistic message for humanity in general.

      Som. P. Ranchan appropriately summarises the poet’s observation: “one cannot help but note that the poet who had begun with the modest ambition of comprehending the future voyager and establishing a relation with him passes beyond the ultimate problems of the visible and the invisible which have baffled the human soul. For this he is eminently qualified, because in the course of the poem he has given an incontrovertible proof of absorbing and assimilating the concrete world of appearance in all its richness, density, and variety without abandoning the loci of the perceiving consciousness and of obliterating the temporal series of past, present and future... Crossing Brooklyn Ferry has to be placed in the framework of integration where self lives in Sansara, absorbing and assimilating its scenes, sights, sounds, its activities, and not selecting or negating it...”


      Praising the last section of the poem, Sutton writes: “The images of the harbor scene are again invoked in the conclusion but in a more exalted mood as the poet’s feeling of alienation, or individualization, is resolved by the assurance of the identity of soul as well as the community of experience. This confidence is also supported by an assertion of the unity of body and soul, for Whitman, unlike the transcendentalist, regards physical nature as a ‘necessary film’ which envelops the soul and without which the soul cannot be known.


      The introduction of a set of images relating to a single experience, the speculation upon their meaning, and the revocation which resolves the dualism of body and soul represent a new development in Whitman’s technique and they suggest the influence of music upon the poet’s conception of form. This device serves to inter-relate effects within the dimensions of sound, syntax, and meaning as well as that of the image. The principle involved is comparable to that of rhyme, if we recognize that in a broad sense, rhyme involves the repetition and resolution not only of sounds, but of grammatical units, sense impressions, and ideas. In this way we see that the repetition of the harbor images involves auditory rhyme through the repetition of words, visual rhyme through the images which the repeated words evoke, and conceptual and emotive rhyme through the associations of the words and images. All contribute to the central theme which they sustain and develop”.

      As one reads Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and goes through it one gets the whiff of fresh air as though coming from the water of the river. There is freshness about Whitman’s poems which do stand the test of time.


1. 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 poet takes a simple act of crossing Brooklyn by ferry. He talks of himself as an individual, traveling and observing the many things in life as he journeys ahead. He sees the many people, all separate individuals united now as they cross Brooklyn by ferry. All are united on the journey and they separate as soon as the waters are crossed. Thousands of people would have crossed similarly across the waters. Thousands more would go on crossing in future also. The ancestors had experienced the same sights as they crossed. The generations to come would experience the same sights which the poet saw. All are separate individuals, yet are united in the well-joined scheme. This also refers to the things in nature and the world and the universe. All are different and separate entities. Yet there is harmony and universal identity in the scheme of the Universe. Unity in diversity is explained by the poet.

2. 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....

      These lines from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, suggests universal identification which the poet establishes between himself and the other passengers on the Ferry. The river is eternal. It flows on forever - Men may come and Men may go but I go on forever - It is
the river of life. The eternal flow of humanity from time immemorial have been ferrying across it. People would continue to ferry across it. The scenes which they saw of the ships, of the steamers, of the sun and moon, of cities around, of the waters, will be the same scenes, seen by the present and future generations to come. The poet also sees similar scenes. So whoever it is, either in the past, present or future the poet feels there is “something between us” he says, which transcends time and distance: “it avails not-distance avails not and place avails not”. Some identity which he establishes between him and the surging humanity. This is the bond, which, “distance avails not and place avails not”. The people may be total strangers yet there is this combining factor when they come together to be ferried across.

3. Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak.
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant.

      These two lines show the common emotions which a man is normally made up of. The poet, after establishing a rapport with the fellow passengers in the ferry, proclaims that he was not a being aloof from the society. He belonged to the society. He also had those shallow qualities of lust, anger, greed. He was also sly and malignant like many other beings. Before he got to the depth of realizing what life was, he was shallow in his thinking. He says it is not at all wrong to be evil, or have adverse emotions, as man is a blend of the good and the bad. Understanding the facts of life would lead a man to have a healthy, mature approach to life:

4. Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, growing, 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...

      These lines show that a man is master of his own soul. His efforts can make his destiny. It is up to him to lead a rich useful life thinking big and great. Or else effortlessly he can have a very narrow approach to life. It is up to an individual to extract much from life, and live with full zest. It is up to him to play his part well. This reminds one of Shakespeare, who had averted that all the world is a stage and all the men and women are actors. The poet says, he also like the other human beings lived the same life, sleeping, laughing, enquiring into the mysteries of life and death, and taking life as it came.

5. 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 accomplished, is it not?

      This forms the theme of the poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. In the beginning he describes the ferrying across of the multitude of people day in and day out. He also ferries across. He and the people, he claims-past, present and future-see the familiar scenes around. They and he, though different individuals, are brought together on this ferry. The destination of everyone is the same.

      This is the common factor among them. He identifies himself with all those people. His identification gets a larger meaning when he brings a universal identification of the people - past, present and future. This, he says, no preacher could preach, nor study could teach. It is something to be realized and understood by the self. The journey towards this understanding is achieved. The purpose is accomplished. He also establishes a rapport with the reader. His poem becomes a ferry to all those who read it, to know the poet’s soul and self. That soul identifies with the reader’s soul. The purpose is achieved. The ferry is to span from life to death. The individual soul mingles with the universal soul. The purpose is accomplished, hence he questions :”We understand then do we not?”

Previous Post Next Post