The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” first appeared in 1856 under the title “Sun-Down Poem.” It was one of the twenty new poems added to the twelve originally untitled poems of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), the collection that Walt Whitman thought of as a single poem that he continued to expand and revise over the course of nine distinct editions. “Sun-Down Poem” became “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in the third, and again expanded, edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1860. The poem, in its final form of 132 lines, develops a single major idea throughout nine sections, the last of which serves as both reprise and climax.

The original and revised titles introduce the temporal and spatial figures that play such important parts in the poem and in the context of Whitman’s other writings. With the sun still “half an hour high” and the flood tide running, the narrator—not Whitman the man or Whitman the poet but the Whitmanic persona—is seen making the crossing between Brooklyn and Manhattan aboard the Fulton Street Ferry. Just as the literal ferry carries him from shore to shore, the figurative ferry and the equally figurative flood tide carry him “far away” to that purely poetic place from which his highly metaphorical meditation on time and space, doubt and faith, issues.

The extensive panorama of city and river as seen from the ever-moving (yet in a sense seemingly stationary) ferry gradually...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” announces the poem’s basic structure and line of development: the movement from separation through similarity and identification to the eventual fusing of I (or eye) and other, of part and whole (or the Emersonian “each and all”), present and future. The specific stylistic means by which Whitman accomplishes this integration are individually noteworthy.

One is Whitman’s idiosyncratic Transcendental style—less philosophical than Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and less learned and literary than Henry David Thoreau’s but no less effective than either and, in terms of its political implications, far more radically democratic. Whitman’s style is at once minutely inclusive and broadly expansive. It involves the merging, or juxtaposing, of the particular and the general, of private confession and public announcement, of the self-reliant individual and—democracy’s flip side—mass humanity. Whitman’s preoccupation with the crafting of a completely new and entirely democratic poetic becomes especially pronounced in his catalogs, including the one that takes up all but the first five lines of the poem’s relatively long third section.

The second stylistic element derives from Whitman’s decision to forgo conventional poetry’s reliance on narrowly defined rhythmical patterns and his willingness to explore the possibilities of a more fluid and organic rhythm based upon repetition of various...

(The entire section is 478 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.