Before the construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, many New Yorkers who worked in Manhattan used to commute back home to Brooklyn every night using ferryboats. Walt Whitman uses the crisscrossing journey of the boat as a metaphor for a journey of the soul. Even as he stands in one place on the deck of a ferry crossing from Manhattan to Brooklyn, his soul extends forward and backward through the waters of time and then snaps back into place like a slinky, or, more appropriately, like the ebbing and flowing tides of the East River in New York. In the process, the poet traces an increasingly wide circle connecting himself to his fellow passengers, his fellow New Yorkers, his readers, and, by the end, pretty much everyone. It's a trick Whitman pulls in many of his poems, including his longest poem, "Song of Myself," where he declares, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
Whitman wrote "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in the years before the American Civil War. As you read Whitman's rhetoric about a great Soul and the solidarity of all peoples, keep in mind that the nation was in the process of splintering into deadly rivals. The barriers "between us" that Whitman refers to were very real in the late 1850s.
The energy and rhythms of urban New York were important to Whitman's development as a poet. He started his writing career as a journalist, and he contributed to two Brooklyn newspapers, the Daily Eagle and Brooklyn Freeman, the latter of which he founded in 1848. He even wrote articles about the New York ferries, including one in which he criticized a plan to increase the fare (source). Whitman was a tireless (some might say shameless) self-promoter, and you could attribute some of his more sensational poetic tendencies, like the frequent use of exclamation marks, to that knack for grabbing attention that he honed as a journalist.
Whitman's big break as a poet was also one of the most important events in American literature: the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855. The poem we now call "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" was published in 1856 under the title "Sun Down Poem." Whitman later revised the poem and republished it in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass under its final title.
Whitman kept revising many of his most famous poems throughout his life, a habit that can prove frustrating to the modern reader wondering which version to read. Leaves of Grass is his signature collection, but it continued to evolve as Whitman returned to it again and again, adding new poems and performing significant "touch-ups" on the old ones. Many critics have come to think that the younger Whitman was a stronger poet – or at least a more concise one – than the older Whitman. Here at Shmoop, we are using the 1860 version of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," rather than its final 1881 revision.
Let's face it: most commutes are not exciting. You get on your bus or train or ferry or dirigible, hope against hope for a seat to yourself, and, if you find one, you make sure to take up as much space as possible so that no weirdos sit next to you. Talk to people? Yeah, right. That's why they invented earbuds, dude. Either those, or a big book will give everyone the impression that you're shooting for: Leave. Me. Alone.
But with this poem, good ol' Walt Whitman has gone in the exact opposite direction. Rather than shrink back into his own little, protected bubble, he gives us someone who actually embraces his fellow man (and woman), who celebrates his connection to them, and who is totally blown away by the interconnectedness of everyone on his boat and everything else in the world, throughout time—even the weirdo in the back seat who snores and drools every morning.
We're guessing that your last ride in to work was nowhere near this… trippy (See what we did there? Trip? Trippy?... Anyone?). Public transportation is rarely about getting your kumbayayas out. But Whitman's not just off on some cosmic joyride here (okay, okay, enough with the travel puns). Nope. He's making a point. More than that, he's making a decision, and a very powerful one at that.
Think about it. Sure, we can wander through our gray, miserable lives, experiencing just the six inches in front of our face. Or, like our man Walt, here, we can look around, cast our gaze backward and forward in time, and really—we mean really—take in the majesty of creation and the buzz of our own place in it. We are, like everything else that's spinning on this rock we call Earth, connected through the mysteries of existence, and that's actually quite something when you think about it.
So power down your iPod, put down that morning paper, and take a cue from this poem. Everyone, and everything—even us Shmoopers – is a part of your reality, and you are a part of everyone and everything else, including the belligerent bus driver.
Feel special? You should. And you have Whitman and his poem to thank for it.