"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" first appeared in the second edition of Leaves of Grass under the title "Sun-Down Poem." It received its present title in 1860, and Whitman revised the poem through the various editions. Thoreau named it and "Song of Myself" as his favorite Whitman poems, and he was only one of the first in a long line of readers who have ranked "Crossing" among Whitman's best. It is one of those mid-length lyrics that offered Whitman what some critics have felt to be his most effective form—not so sprawling as "Song of Myself" but with enough space to allow him some musical and thematic amplitude. "Crossing" is generally regarded, along with "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," as one of his supreme achievements in this mode.
Late in life Whitman commented, "My own favorite loafing places have always been the rivers, the wharves, the boats—I like sailors, stevedores. I have never lived away from a big river" (Traubel 71). In his younger adult years and again in old age, his river experiences were especially connected with ferries—the latter crossing the Delaware between Camden and Philadelphia, the former crossing the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Both of these periods are acknowledged in entries in Specimen Days : "I have always had a passion for ferries; to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems" (16), and "What communion with the waters, the air, the exquisite chiaroscuro —the sky and stars, that speak no word, nothing to the intellect, yet so eloquent, so communicative to the soul" (183). He had written about ferries in his journalism. He editorialized against rate increases, and used the hustle and bustle of the ferries as an image of the frantic pace and impersonality of modern life—no doubt among the earliest protests against the rat-race of the urban commuter. In "Crossing" he looks at ferries and ferry-riding from a quite different perspective.
"Crossing" says nothing about the poet's reason for crossing the river; the focus is not on a purpose or destination but on the act of crossing itself and the surrounding spectacle: the water, the people, the sun going down, the boats and docks and city in the distance. The poem describes the daily experience of a mid-nineteenth-century New York ferry-rider, mundane enough to most but glorious to Whitman. At the same time it makes the trip the basis for a profound meditation on time and flux and how we exist both within and outside them.
"Crossing" is a very visual poem, conveying a strong sense of particular detail, the play of light, and vista; a number of critics have compared it to painting in its effects, including that of the luminists, Turner, and the popular panorama paintings of the day. It is also richly symbolic, and its symbolic implications arise naturally from the setting and images. The river, the ebb and flow of tides, the boat, the shuttling from one shore to the other—some of the oldest, richest images of the human imagination presented themselves to Whitman in his ferry-riding; in his daily experience he was moving among archetypes.
Whitman grasped not just the larger fundamental images that resonate throughout the poem; he used discrete particulars strikingly as well. For example, leaning on the rail of a ferry is a particularly apt image of standing still and moving simultaneously and of the paradox of existing in both particular moments and a ceaseless flow of time. Similarly, "the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water" (section 3) is perfectly accurate in its observation, entirely native to the scene, and at the same time uncannily suggestive and appropriate in a poem in which ordinary human beings going about their daily business have a kind of transcendence, so that the poet asks "what gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand . . . ?" (section 8). These examples only begin to suggest the symbolic resonances and possibilities of the poem.
Critics have disagreed about the degree to which the poem is psychological, and psychologically troubled—that is, how much it expresses doubts and struggles in its author, whether feelings of isolation, fear of actual intimacy in life as opposed to intimacy in poems, or gender identity. Psychological critics find a good deal of conflict sublimated into the poem's imagery and tend to emphasize the poem as process, a way of coping or groping toward a resolution Whitman may or may not achieve or fully believe. Of course, many critics are by training and temperament disposed to look for the dark, and some, as if by reflex, view any affirmation, let alone one as far-reaching as Whitman's here, as suspect or regressive. Other critics, while not denying psychological content, see the poem as more philosophical—an Emersonian poem in that it conveys a transcendent apprehension of reality, an achieved vision, and does so with a certain degree of didacticism and composure. Even Edwin Haviland Miller, one of the best-known of Whitman's psychological critics, finds the poem placid, circling rather than journeying or diving and lacking the psychological exploration or turmoil of such poems as "The Sleepers" or "Out of the Cradle."
Whatever directions critics take in their readings of "Crossing," all include the fundamental theme of time and flux, which Whitman introduces in the first section as he addresses first the physical scene itself, then the people riding the ferry with him, and then those who will come after him, far into the future. He makes large claims from the outset: that he sees in all things a "simple, compact, well-join'd scheme" (section 2) and that time and place "avail not" (section 3)—a transcendental claim of unity and cohesion in the universe and throughout time. The conscious purpose of the poem is to communicate this sense of unity; not just to explain it, but to convey it in the most immediate way.
How does one go beyond individual identity, flux, and time? The poem offers at least three ways: through the physical world itself; through shared human nature and experience; and through works of art (and especially this work of art).
In addition to being a poem of cumulative, orchestral, meditative beauty, "Crossing" is also a poem of memorable lines and phrases. One of those lines, in fact, suggests the effect very well: "I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution" (section 5). Just as an individual person is catalyzed out of a flow—both the bodily fluids of parents and the flow of life itself—the poem turns on certain phrasings that seem "struck," precipitated sharply and suddenly, out of the larger meditative and rhetorical movement. Two such phrases, which critics have focused on and any reader would take note of, express the key point of the importance of the things of this world, of physical reality. Near the beginning of the poem Whitman calls the sights and sounds around him "glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings" (section 2); near the end, he refers to objects and physical surroundings as "dumb, beautiful ministers" (section 9). The pun on religion hearkens back to Whitman's 1855 Preface and his suggestion that priests will soon be supplanted by the physical world itself, poetically perceived. Though Whitman did not foresee the demise of the ferries, he knew that people in the future would, like him, see the gulls turning in late afternoon light, the rise and fall of tides, the river flowing, and the sun, and in that he felt a kind of immortality. (Later, when the Brooklyn Bridge was being built, the threat to ferries became apparent, and Whitmanregistered far less enthusiasm for that particular modern engineering wonder than would be expected of him.)
Another of the poem's memorable lines, "The dark threw its patches down upon me also" (section 6), expresses the second way that Whitman finds unity across time. The dark patches at first refer to "curious abrupt questionings" (section 5) that stir within him. Then he goes well beyond doubts to a litany of human frailties and failings, all of which, he tells the reader, he was as subject to as anyone. This empathy creates another bond between poet and reader, present and future. Some critics have found this confession unconvincing, too general or easy. (One of the acts to which Whitman did seem to attach some real guilt, masturbation, was removed from the catalogue when he cut the phrase "solitary committer" in later editions.) But even some who feel this way find another aspect of the poem's reaching out to the reader remarkable. Whitman raised the direct address to the reader, a common enough device in pre-twentieth-century literature, to an entirely different level, not artificial, but strangely, convincingly intimate. "Crossing" is one of the outstanding examples of this, both in individual lines, such as "Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now" (section 7), and in its overall effect. To what degree Whitman meant this ghostly, vivid presence to be taken literally is left to the reader's judgment and imagination.
The idea of art as a means of transcending time is one that "Crossing" shares with other works, such as Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." What perhaps makes "Crossing" distinctive in its treatment of this theme is its dynamic, kinesthetic quality. A number of critics have commented on the way the poem creates a sense of motion, how, through imagery and linguistic devices, everything within it seems to be flowing, swirling, moving. The experience-caught-in-art seems here more like a motion picture than a carving.
"Crossing" has long been admired for its artistic control. Theme, imagery, rhythm, and symbolism work together to a degree that Whitman rarely achieved, and the poem has a formal quality without sacrificing freshness. Whatever the artistry or alchemy he brought to bear, in "Crossing" Whitman wrote a poem that fits startlingly well his description of the experience-poems that ferry-riding gave him personally again and again: "inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems" (Whitman 16).
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