Sunday, April 17, 2011

Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" & Emerson's Letter

--This is an image of NYC from Brooklyn Heights during late 1830s. Brooklyn was, at this time, a city unto itself (later incorporated in NYC) and one of the nation's largest but its population largely worked in NYC; in other words, it was a commuter city.

--Think about commuting and how this poem imagines the relationship of the individual to the city, to the periodicity of commuting (going back and forth the same way every day) and time more generally (present and future).



  1. Whitman’s Romantic proclivities billow forth in the lines of this poem in a way not so evident in Song of Myself, as the drawn out and serpentine structure of the latter does not so readily yield up such aesthetics to the reader. Like a mid-19th century Wordsworth, Whitman allows the visual scenes before him that he elicits in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry to serve as a medium of transport into the depths of his own mind as well as into those of the surrounding members of humanity who are able in equal measure to drink in the same arresting imagery. Much of the first two thirds of the poems dwells on this description and its ability to manifest itself to others of sentience across time, and through the faculties of memory, across the dimensions of space as well, as illustrated in the following stanza:
    Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
    Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
    Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
    Others will see the islands large and small;
    Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
    A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
    Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide (13-19).

    This inference is a product of Whitman’s practice of “looking to the world” for inspiration, an idea representative of the nexus of Romantic poetics and aesthetics that has roots in Eastern thought. Where Whitman diverges, however, is his direct treatment of both natural and man-made imager as symbolically undifferentiated. Whereas earlier Romantics revered “nature” for its properties of beauty and as a source of sublime inspiration, which could not be replicated in the constructions of man, Whitman implicitly presents a deep ecology perspective, asserting in his poetics that as man-made materials and ideas are in the world, so are they of the world, and worthy of Romantic treatments. Thus, as much as he considers the awe-inspiring natural beauty around him, so Whitman also re-creates the scene and process by which other men around him derive pleasure from it, something that he accords a certain sense of wonder in and of itself.

    Able to now consider the happenings of mankind, he looks to draw parallels between these goings-on and the cyclical patterns of nature. In loose fashion, Whitman alternates his stanzas between portrayals of his experiences in the physical scenes of the city as they meld into the natural forms that frame them: “I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it (62).” From there, inevitably leading into ruminations—“I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me (63)”—through which he ponders questions of temporality and identity, first in regards to himself: “I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution;/I too had receiv’d identity by my Body;/That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body (65-67),” and then in relation to the Other through second-person address of the reader: “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
    The dark threw patches down upon me also (68-69)”. This pattern occurs on at least four occasions through the second half of the poem, and strikes a sort of rhythm that can be likened to the daily back and forth commute of the Brooklyn resident to Manhattan Island. In this cycle, nature frames man and the minds of man, parallel to the way in which the self is framed by the Other, i.e., the individual consciences existing outside one’s own perceptions that nevertheless collectively enact an inescapable series of forces upon it.

  2. I feel that this poem (and Song of Myself) are fundamentally about connection; about how people, even strangers, are connected because of common experience. Whitman uses a example with in one time, travelers on a ferry, although they do not know one another they are bond because they witness the same beauty in the world they share with each other. He seems to expand this across time, suggesting that all people, from everywhere, from every time are connected. This city element pushes the point most effectively because citizens of large cities can often feel entirely disconnected-Whitman strives to challenge that notion. In Song of Myself he ties the metaphor about connection to grass, our connection is like grass-it grows everywhere.

  3. I agree with Becca. In this poem, Whitman is using his experiences and emotions in Brooklyn as something to connect himself to other people. What I think is significant about Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is that he puts a focus on how space and time do not, or should not, have any effect on the connection between people. He is very aware of his audience, and it seems as though he wanted to consider the fact that later generations might be reading his poems and wanted them to be spoken to as well. A good example of this is the beginning of section 3 when he says
    "It avails not, time nor place - distance avails not,
    I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence" or in section 7 when he writes,
    "Closer yet I approach you,
    What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you - I laid in my stores in advance,
    I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born."

    To me, Whitman is trying to convince the reader that time and space are irrelevant when it comes to connections between humans. What is important are the feelings, thoughts, and memories we all have that make us human.

    - Josh