Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The question that Whitman poses midway through “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—“What is it then between us?”—sums up his and his poem’s twin preoccupations and perspectives. The one is personal, though not narrowly autobiographical, the other more or less philosophical. The question serves as the pivot on which the entire poem turns and from which, like a pendulum, it depends, moving back and forth (like the tide’s ebb and flow). The word “between” plays a similarly double and thematically crucial role in that it implies both separation (temporal, spatial, ideological, and psychological) and connection (the bonds that transcend all differences).

By means of the usual Transcendentalist intuitive leaps and metaphorical correspondences (the poem’s “similitudes”), “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” moves well beyond the seeming narcissism, even solipsism, of the opening line (“Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!”). Whitman’s transcendent as well as Transcendentalist narrator penetrates the “appearances” and “usual costumes” of the world of phenomena in order to discover the noumenal truth that binds each and all together in one “simple, compact, well-join’d scheme.” That scheme is nothing less than the cosmic design, the former house builder’s poetically prosaic version of Emerson’s more abstract Over-Soul.

In one of the poem’s most affecting and psychologically penetrating lines, “I too had been...

(The entire section is 457 words.)