Study Guide

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Walt Whitman

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

The Current and Tides

The tide is the first thing that the speaker addresses "face to face" in the poem. The ebb and flow of the tides – and their currents – represent continuity. Whitman thinks that human generations show a similar continuity. The movement of the tides also parallels the speaker's movement back and forth in time, when he projects himself in the future and returns again. Finally, you could read a tide-like pattern into the structure of the poem, where the same images and phrases come and go and come again.

  • Line 1: There's a pun in these lines. The speaker is staring into the water and talking into the incoming tide, which he personifies as having a face. But he's also likely staring at the reflection of his own face in the water.
  • Line 10: The speaker describes the fast-moving current. He personifies it as "swimming."
  • Line 14: As it passes by the ferryboat, the flood-time seems to be running away from the speaker.
  • Line 19: The tides are "pouring in" with the flood and "falling back" with the ebb.
  • Line 25: The East River is personified as "glad," as its waters are lit up by the setting sun.
  • Line 110: Like a conductor or the leader of a military march, the speaker orders the tide to keep on what it has been doing for millions of years: ebb and flow, ebb and flow…Hey, it's the little battles that count.

Light and Darkness

An eternal tension between light and darkness: just another way "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is like Star Wars. The poem's imagery actually seems go grow darker as it progresses, as if to mirror the setting of the sun. Although darkness corresponds to evil and doubt, Whitman accepts it as a necessary part of nature, and not as a power to be fought and defeated.

  • Line 2: The speaker implies that the sun is setting rather than saying so directly. He notices the clouds in the west because they are lit up by the sun "half an hour high." The sun is half an hour away from setting.
  • Line 17: He looks into the future and imagines future generations seeing the same sun "half an hour high."
  • Line 30: The imagery of the flying sea-gulls is some of the most majestic in the poem. The play of light on the "glistening" birds could be a symbol of the soul, part of which is known to us but most of which remains unknown, "in strong shadow."
  • Lines 32-34: These imagery of beams of light moving outward from the shadow of the speaker's head suggests a halo.
  • Line 49-50: As with the earlier image of the sea-gulls, here a bright light shines out in mostly dark surroundings. The "red and yellow" fires of the foundry contrasts with the black smoke that moves over the houses and the streets.
  • Lines 68-69: The "dark patches" of shadowy light symbolize evil thoughts, or at least doubtful ones.
  • Line 130: The speaker returns to the image of the chimneys and the foundry near the end of the poem.

Theater and Acting

OK, so Whitman's poem is hardly the first example of this age-old comparison, perhaps most famously used in Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" speech. But the speaker of the poem adds a unique twist, suggesting that the roles we play in life are more enduring than we are.

  • Line 3: The everyday clothes that the passengers wear into the city are compared to theatrical "costumes" using metaphor.
  • Lines 86-88: The speaker uses subtle irony in these lines. Usually, an actor or actress looks back on a part they once played, but here, it's the role that looks back on the actor. In this extended metaphor between acting and everyday life, it doesn't matter whether the role one plays is big or small.
  • Lines 121-122: The speaker repeats the metaphor, comparing life to theatre, but he suggests that people have the power to make their role "great or small."
  • Line 147: The word "parts" forms a pun. He means "parts of a whole" and also "parts" in the sense of a theatrical role. He uses the same phrase, "great or small" to describe the role that these parts can play. He seems to give equal value to both the great and the small.

Apostrophe: "You"

Apostrophe is when a writer addresses someone or something that cannot respond. If we listed all the examples of apostrophe in this poem, we'd have to put down most of its lines. He starts out talking to the water and the sky, but by the end he seems to be talking to "all things," that is, the entire world, past and future. He spends a lot of the poem talking to us, the readers, including some delightful bits where he says he's watching us. There's not a lot of privacy in a Whitman poem.

  • Lines 1-2: The speaker looks down then up, addressing the flood-tide below him and then the clouds and sky above. He personifies both earth and sky as having a "face."
  • Lines 21-22: He shifts from addressing the fellow passengers on the boat to addressing future passengers and future generations.
  • Line 23: The speaker begins a series of lines that all begin with the same phrase "Just as." This rhetorical device is called "anaphora."
  • Line 51: This line is repeated a couple of times in the poem. It functions as a refrain to remind the reader that he is moving between the present and the future.
  • Lines 57-59: These lines are the climax of the first half of the poem. The speaker says that time and distance aren't going to keep him from us.
  • Line 89: Is it possible for a person to personify himself? That's what we think is going on here, where the speaker suddenly talks about himself as if he were a physical presence that is with us as we read. He's a body that can approach us "closer." Closer, even, than we might like.
  • Line 90: The speaker uses the metaphor of a farmer saving stores of his crops for the future to describe the way he has saved up thoughts of us.
  • Lines 106-109: He asks a series of rhetorical questions in order to suggest that the act of reading the poem has changed us in ways that other forms of education could not.
  • Lines 110-136: These lines begin a long list of imperatives, or orders, that the speaker delivers to the scene surrounding him. These orders amount to, "Do whatever it is you're doing!"
  • Lines 139-147: In these lines, the speaker is addressing not just the things around him, but "all things," or, if you want to get scientific about it, all the "solids and fluids" of the universe.

New York, New York!

What did you expect? The poem is about a ferry ride over the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn – of course Whitman is going to give us the sights and sounds of the city. He paints what amounts to a panorama, which is a 360-degree view of everything within sight. Much of the imagery is breathtakingly beautiful, like the descriptions of the light from industrial foundries.

  • Lines 13-16: These lines each begin with the word "Others." Beginning successive lines with the same word is called "anaphora." He imagines that other people will take the same ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn as he does.
  • Lines 17-18: Barring some sort of natural or man-made catastrophe, New York City should still be around far into the future. But even if it's not, at least the geography of its islands will be there.
  • Lines 35-36: These lines contain imagery of the haze and vapor that surrounds New York at this hour. Notice the alliteration of "haze on the hills" and "vapor […] tinged with violet."
  • Line 44: New York was an international shipping city, so it's not surprising that the ships in port fly "flags of all nations."
  • Lines 60-61: The speaker discusses his personal connection to the city. He lived in Brooklyn and liked to walk around Manhattan, and to swim in the waters around the island. Don't try this at home: those waters are filthy now.
  • Line 81: The speaker coins a word for people who are native to Manhattan: "Manhattanese."
  • Line 114: The speaker alludes to the Native American heritage of New York by using the word "Mannahatta." Politically correct? Maybe not. But it's the 19th century, people.

Spirituality and the Soul

We're not sure whether to call this imagery "spiritual" and "religious" – Whitman is caught in the netherworld between the two. He clearly does not have much taste for traditional, organized Christianity, as he makes clear with the many subtle digs he takes at religion. But he also borrows the language and themes of religious spirituality, particularly with regard to the individual communion with the divine known as mysticism. The principle message of the poem, repeated again and again, is that all material things large and small contribute to some larger spiritual reality.

  • Line 7: We think there's an implicit metaphor to building or construction in the phrase, "simple, compact, well-joined scheme," which is meant to describe the unity of the view from the boat and of reality in general. The whole world is like a really well-made birdhouse…or something like that.
  • Line 9: The amazing sights and sounds of the ferry ride are called "glories" and compared to beads on a necklace, using simile.
  • Line 65: For the speaker, the time he spends on the ferryboat feels eternal. He captures in this feeling in a metaphor comparing the scene to a scientific specimen preserved "in solution."
  • Line 99: A "film" is a thin layer of something, like grease on a pan. The "necessary film" is a complicated symbol for the mysterious connection between all things in the world. It coats everything.
  • Line 138: Material things are broken down scientifically into solids and fluids. These are personified as "faithful."
  • Line 141: Using metaphor, he compares material things to religious "ministers" and "novices." A minister is a leader of a religious group, while a novice is someone who wants to enter the group. In other words, these things are both teacher and student.
  • Line 144: These lines contain an implicit metaphor in which the things of the world are described as seeds that "we plant…within us."

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