Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Looked at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,
Looked on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Looked on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Looked 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,
- "I too," the speaker goes on, before recounting sights we only wish we could see because they sound so beautiful.
- We learn that it's summer, which means the sun is extra bright. The angle of the light as it enters the water creates a kind of halo with "fine centrifugal spokes," which surrounds the shadow of his head. We bet you've probably seen this effect before, but did you ever think it could be described so accurately?
- Aside from this amazing light, the speaker has also seen the hazy hills, the violet-tinged vapor rising from the water, and the sails of ships arriving in port. He can see the sailors hanging out on different parts of the ships.
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,
- And what would the story of a maritime journey – even a ferry ride – be without some technical discussion of ships? Severely lacking, says we.
- He describes the ships: their masts, the way they roll or "swing" on the water, their "serpentine pennants" or the long flags that fly from the masthead, the different-sized steamships, and "the quick tremulous whirl" of the steering wheels as they turned.
- Even in the 19th century, New York was a very international port city, so the ships fly "flags of all nations."
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,
- A "scallop" is that clam-like mollusk with the distinctive shell that looks like a ruffled potato chip. The shape of the wave reminds the speaker of a scallop shell, while the troughs of the waves remind him of "ladled cups" of water. The crests of the waves he calls "frolicsome," or playful.
- He looks back toward the shore and the waves become harder and harder to distinguish.
- His eyes reach the shore and the first thing he sees are the "gray walls of the granite store-houses," where cargo could be unloaded.
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flanked 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.
- Notice how the sky is getting darker as the poem develops. He sees a "shadowy group" of other boats next to the shore, including the "hay boat," which literally carried hay," and a "lighter," which is like a flat-bottomed barge.
- Meanwhile, on the shore, business continues after hours. The foundries are up and running, judging from their smoky chimneys.
- Foundries produce castings of various kinds of metals and are associated with heavy industry. The smoke from the chimneys is a "flicker of black" that "contrasts" with the bright fires from the furnaces.