Study Guide

To Brooklyn Bridge Quotes

  • Awe and Amazement

    Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
    Over the chained bay waters Liberty— (lines 3-4)

    The speaker creates a contrast between the small white seagull and the grandeur of New York harbor that it soars above. The bird "builds" its flight around the Statue of Liberty, but the language is ambiguous. It sounds like the bird itself is creating a visual symbol of liberty. It breaks free of the "chains" of the shadow of the bridge's cables on the water. Go seagull, go!

    And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
    As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
    Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,--
    Implicitly thy freedom staying thee! (lines 13-16)

    Whoa, this is super-Romantic language, or maybe even super-duper Romantic. (These are technical terms here, people). Actually, the technical term for the way a speaker uses language in a poem is "diction." This speaker's diction is very serious and elevated. He is consciously trying to sound like a 19th century British Romantic like John Keats, or maybe even a poet from Ancient Greece, where the ode form was invented.

    And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
    Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
    Of anonymity time cannot raise:
    Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show. (lines 25-28)

    One way the speaker shows his awe for the bridge is by comparing it to a mysterious religious object, rather than seeing it as a mere heap of stone and metal. In lines 27-28 there is also a subtle allusion to royalty, as if we should be addressing the bridge as Your Majesty.

    O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
    (How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!) (lines 29-30)

    Crane uses a technique called "invocation," where he tries to summon the spirit of the bridge. Another famous example of invocation in poetry is in the first line of Homer's Odyssey: "Sing to me of the man, Muse…" Again, the speaker tries to make us think of the bridge as being more than just a material product of labor ("toil").

    Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
    And of the curveship lend a myth to God. (lines 43-44)

    After building up this ridiculously Romantic idea of Brooklyn Bridge, the speaker finally asks the bridge to descend to the human level, to inspire and sustain us mere mortals. Crane's amazement is so dramatic that he starts making up words, like "curveship." What do you think this word means in the context of the poem?

  • Spirituality

    Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
    As apparitional as sails that cross (lines 5-6)

    The seagull is one of the central images of spirituality and the soul in Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which inspired Crane's poem. Crane picks up on the symbol at the beginning of "To Brooklyn Bridge." Don't you love how poetry can turn something many people consider a flying rat into a symbol of a person's deepest core?

    And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
    Thy guerdon . . . (lines 25-26)

    The bridge gives a reward, or "guerdon," to its admirer. Its guerdon is like the Jewish heaven from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament, which is to say that it's full of majesty and mystery. This line marks the beginning of the poem's transition to a more spiritual tone.

    Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
    Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,-- (lines 31-32)

    Brooklyn Bridge is like something foretold in an old prophecy. If you think about it, a prophet living 3,000 years ago probably would have called you crazy if you'd told them there would one day be a road hanging in the air over a large body of water. Crane encourages us to look at the modern world with new eyes, to appreciate the marvels we typically take for granted.

    Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
    Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
    Beading thy path--condense eternity: (lines 33-35)

    Once again Crane takes a very ordinary image – traffic lights on a bridge – and turns it into a magnificent symbol of spirituality. The lights are like "beads" that go on forever, i.e., "condense eternity." Another way to read the image is that they are like stars that have fallen to rest on the bridge, stars being an age-old symbol for heaven or eternity.

    And of the curveship lend a myth to God. (line 44)

    Crane manages to elevate the bridge to mythic status while giving a kick in the ribs to the Judeo-Christian tradition. He says that the bridge should lend a "myth" to God, which suggests that God is lacking in mythological significance. "Curveship" is a word invented by Crane to express the bridge's special mythological qualities.

  • Visions of America

    How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
    The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
    Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
    Over the chained bay waters Liberty— (lines 1-4)

    The only thing that could make this scene a more inspiring vision of America's greatest city would be if the seagull were a bald eagle holding an American flag in its claws as fireworks went off in the background... You can see the whole of New York City in your mind, with the Statue of Liberty standing proud, even though these things are not mentioned specifically.

    I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
    With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene (lines 9-10)

    After the grandeur of the opening image, this depiction of crowds of people creepily "bent" toward a flashing movie screen is a stark change of direction. The word "sleights" suggests that the American entertainment experience is built around trickery and even deception. But at least the popcorn's good….

    Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,--
    Implicitly thy freedom staying thee! (lines 15-16)

    A paradox: the bridge is a symbol of freedom and movement even though it doesn't go anywhere. It seems to be mid-step between two shores, always active and alive. The vibrancy of American commerce and engineering prowess is evident in these lines.

    Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
    A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
    All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
    Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still. (lines 21-24)

    Wall Street is shown as a dark place where light is crowded out by tall buildings except for a jagged shaft of light like burning flammable gas. We'd say this might be a negative portrayal of our financial center, but it sounds kinda cool. Crane seems more interested in the appearance of the city than with what goes on inside it.

    O Sleepless as the river under thee,
    Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod, (lines 41-42)

    The poem mostly focuses on New York, except here at the very end. The river takes an imaginative leap over both the ocean and the prairies of the heartland. One critic thinks that "the prairies' dreaming sod" refers to the speaker of the poem. "Sod" could be short for "sodomite" (a disparaging term for a gay person); Crane was both gay and from the Midwest, where there are prairies.

  • Society and Class

    Some page of figures to be filed away;
    --Till elevators drop us from our day . . . (lines 7-8)

    The inspiring image of the seagull taking off and circling around the Statue of Liberty dissolves into this depressing image of office work. The speaker says "drop us from our day" as if he is an office worker himself.

    I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
    With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
    Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
    Foretold to other eyes on the same screen; (lines 9-12)

    The mass of people at the movies remind us of zombies receiving instructions from their master: "Must buy large soda and candy bar! Must buy large soda and candy bar!" They represent the faceless middle class of consumers who need constant diversion and entertainment.

    Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
    A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
    Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
    A jest falls from the speechless caravan. (lines 17-20)

    Crane does not focus on the powerful and wealthy; his concern and sympathies are for the outcasts and rebels of society. The most detailed description of a person in "To Brooklyn Bridge" is this view of an insane man jumping off the bridge. We just can't get enough of the line, "A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets."

    Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
    Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,-- (lines 31-32)

    Crane would have been right at home alongside Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, who also mixed up his "prophets" and "pariahs." Those at the margins of society, the underclass and the persecuted, are the ones worthy of attention. Try comparing this poem to Ginsberg's Howl.

    Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
    Only in darkness is thy shadow clear. (lines 37-38)

    This is the other point in the poem where the speaker reveals something about his class. What's he doing waiting by the piers at night? Trying to catch a glimpse of the boats? Nah. Lots of readers think this is a veiled reference to a cruising spot for local gay men. As a persecuted minority himself, Crane's sympathy for the marginalized is understandable.

  • Identity

    I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
    With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
    Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
    Foretold to other eyes on the same screen; (lines 9-12)

    The idea of prophecy is important to the poem. The cinemas "foretell" a scene where something is not ultimately "disclosed," while the bridge is like a prophecy revealed. The cinemas are portrayed negatively, while the bridge, as we know, gets fawned over like one of Paris Hilton's little dogs. But both the movies and the bridge make people feel anonymous – part of the masses – in their presence.

    Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
    A jest falls from the speechless caravan. (lines 19-20)

    Crane suggests how in the city we often observe people from a safe distance, like this person standing on one of the towers of the bridge. We don't have any details such as a face or a name to match with the "bedlamite." He is regarded simply as one rather insignificant part (a jester) of a large caravan.

    Accolade thou dost bestow
    Of anonymity time cannot raise:
    Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show. (lines 26-28)

    The bridge makes us feel small, but another way to put it – more positively – is to say that it praises our anonymity. Isn't that kind of a backhanded compliment? "Nobody knows who you are – but that's great! Good for you!" One aspect of living in a democracy is that one person is not supposed to be considered superior to another, so everyone is more or less a face in the crowd.

    Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
    Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,-- (lines 31-32)

    The speaker identifies with the marginal figures in society, like prophets, pariahs, and anguished lovers. These are the people who can appreciate the spiritual dimensions of the bridge, rather than seeing it merely as a means of getting from one place to another.

    Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
    Only in darkness is thy shadow clear. (lines 37-38)

    Here the speaker is positioned quite literally in the margins of New York – under the shadow of the bridge. His "waiting" might be a reference to his homosexuality, as we explained in the "Line-by-Line Summary." His identity is in the shadow, as if he were trying to stay hidden, to avoid revealing himself. Line 38 is a paradox that expresses the advantages of being hidden, "in the dark."