Course Hero. "Leaves of Grass Study Guide." Course Hero. 7 Dec. 2017. Web. 20 July 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/>.
Course Hero. (2017, December 7). Leaves of Grass Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved July 20, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "Leaves of Grass Study Guide." December 7, 2017. Accessed July 20, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/.
Course Hero, "Leaves of Grass Study Guide," December 7, 2017, accessed July 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/.
Whitman's speaker watches the Brooklyn ferry in the late afternoon as people head home from work in Manhattan. He knows he is not the only one who will ever enjoy the sights of the "sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide." He thinks of the sights he sees in the abstract, and contemplates how he saw "spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water." He loves the sights the same way everyone does. He is visited by darkness, too, like everyone is. He admires the city and its inhabitants. He calls out to the river to keep flowing and the waves to keep frolicking. All this is planted permanently within Whitman and his audience.
Nature as a democratic and unifying force is an important theme throughout Whitman's poetry, and he touches upon it here, too, as the sights he points out are the sunset and the ebb and flow of the tide. But in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman takes the idea even further to propose that time is also a unifying, democratic force. Being on the flowing river makes him think of the flowing nature of time and, as he says, "the others that will follow me, the ties between me and them."
The poem has the rhythm of ebb and flow like its subject matter, and Whitman alternates in distance between feeling a shared closeness to his fellow man ("I am with you ...") and feeling alienated from them ("how curious you are to me!"). This again speaks to the larger theme in Whitman's work of unity vs. separateness. In Section 2, he hammers this point across using the literary technique of anaphora. The first seven lines all start with "the" and build up to the next four lines, which start with "others." He concludes with the climax, declaring, "Fifty years hence ... A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them"—that is, people will continue to see the same sights in the future as Whitman sees on that day. He continues the anaphora in Sections 3 and 5 most prominently. In Section 3 he catalogs all the sights that he shares with "you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence." In Section 5 he asks, "What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?" Five of these lines start with "I, too," as he means to underline the shared experience he has with all Americans. But it is not until the end that Whitman's "I" becomes a "We"—a symbolic watershed moment where Whitman and his audience become one.
In many of his poems, Whitman's speaker seems almost cocky in his declarations of his greatness and his fitness to be America's poet, but in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he allows some introspective vulnerability when he admits in Section 6, "The dark threw its patches down upon me," and "The best I had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious." He lists all his inadequacies as he sees them, but concludes, "The role ... is what we make it, as great as we like, or as small as we like, or both great and small." Despite all his faults, or perhaps because of them, he can speak for America. After this dark night of the soul moment, he is exuberant in the last section, beginning almost every line with a call to action verb such as "Flow on, river," and "Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes." He repeats the images from earlier in the poem, but where the syntax was once stagnant, it now flows in jubilation.