Recurring Images and Motifs in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
In the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, by Walt Whitman,
there are many recurring images and motifs that can be seen.
Whitman develops these images throughout the course of the
poem. The most dominant of these are the linear notion of
time, playing roles, and nature. By examining these motifs
and tracing their development, ones understanding of the poem
becomes highly deepened.
Whitman challenges the linear notion of time by
connecting past with future. This can be seen in the first
stanza, as the poem opens: “And you that shall cross from
shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my
meditations than you might suppose”(4-5). This lets the reader
know that he has written this with the reader in mind, even
before that reader existed. He challenges time by connecting
his time with ours. He has preconcived us reading this poem.
When we read his words we are connected to him and his feelings,
all in the same time. He is sure that after he is gone the water
will still run and people will still “see the shipping of
Manhattan/and the heights of Brooklyn” (14-15). He makes his past
and our futher all one.
No matter the time nor the distance, the reader will
experience the same way he experiences at the moment in time
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky,
so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was
one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshd by the gladness of the
river and the bright flow, I was” (23-26).
This same motif follows through to the next stanza, as he
continues to emphasize how things are the same to him as
they are to those of us interpreting the poem.
By tracing this motif we see that no matter where we are
or how far away from Brooklyn and Manhattan, the images that
Whitman saw will live on long after his passing. This deepens
the understanding of the poem and assists the reader to
comprehend Whitmans state of reasoning when composing this poem.
He, in fact, was writing this poem to be read long after he was
gone. He “considerd long and seriously of you before you were
born” (88). He realized that certain constants would stay the
same, including people and the roles they take in their lives.
In stanza six, the idea of playing roles develops:
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old
laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Plays the part that still looks back on the actor or
The same old role, the role that is what we make it,
as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.(82-85)
This demonstrates how we all play a part in our life, but yet
we all experience the same feelings. We are trying to play a
role we are not. We hide behind our roles and hurry, not taking
the time to notice what Whitman noticed. He stood and watched ,
writing about what he saw, presuming that we will watch and
perceive the same.
There is yet further mention of how we play roles in
stanza nine: “Live, old life! Play the part that looks back
on the actor or actress!”(110). This deepens the understanding of
the point he is trying to convey. We are all playing the same
old roles, and taking on the same parts again, and again. The
role is enormous or small depending on the depth of ones
As the poem is further examined, we see Whitmans recurring
images of nature. Very frequently there is mention of water,
red and yellow light of the sky, hills, and sea-birds. The
birds, in fact, coincide with the motif of role playing. The
sea-birds, unlike humans, do not have to play a role. They
are free to be one with nature:
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large
circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully
hold it till all downcast eyes
have time to take it from you!(113-115)
He tells the sea-birds to hold on to the beauty of nature, which
they are a part. They, unlike humans, do not look with
Nature is the one constant, for Whitman, that does not
change. In a sense it is perfection. It is the everlasting source
of life, which will remain long after our lives are through:
“Fifty years hence,/A hundred years hence, or ever so many
hundred years hence, other will see”(17-18). It has stayed
the same then, now, tomorrow, and beyond: “These and all else
were to me the same as they are to you”(49). As humans we accept
it for what it is. We do not look at it as we do humans. We
should look at humans this way – as perfect, pure, no masks, not
playing a role.
By examining these motifs and tracing their development,
the poem itself becomes more clear to the reader. We learn
that Whitman developed this poem with the idea it would be
read hundreds of years later. It is apparent that there is a
connection between people and their roles, nature, and time.
As times goes on thus nature goes on. People continue to hide
behind roles, unable to be as that of nature–unjudging. Nature
will continue to exist as the people around it continue to
stay the same, hurrying along in the masses oblivious to the
wonders around them.