In this poem, the speaker describes his daily commute on a ferry running between Brooklyn and Manhattan. He begins by describing his surroundings: the water below, the clouds, the sunrise, and the commuters around him. Though all of the passengers are following their ordinary daily ritual, the speaker finds them to be "curious" (strange). He thinks about all the people who have made this journey in the past and how many are yet to repeat it long into the future. This thought carries him into a meditation on the connection between the past and the future and how all of the people on this particular ferry fit into the equation.
In the third section of the poem, the speaker explores the commonalities between all the commuters who have traveled and will travel on this ferry. No matter the era, travelers on this ferry route will experience the same, timeless view: the round masts, the steamer ships in motion, and the seagulls flying by. The speaker feels as though these shared experiences can unite people across different historical eras. In the fifth section of the poem, he asserts that all humans are connected across time and space.
The speaker offers some details about the rest of his routine - living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan. He professes to be fairly confident in his identity. However, there are traces of darkness in his life, as well. He admits that sometimes, evil thoughts cross his mind. He used to wonder if he was the only one who felt this way but has since overcome his insecurity. Now, he reassures his readers that he has continued living his life fully despite these moments of weakness. He has learned to quell his desire to sin as if he is an actor playing a part, just like most of the people he passes on the street.
The speaker then "approaches" his readers more closely and claims that they see each other in the same way. He reiterates the eternal connection between all human beings. In the 10th verse, he exclaims that nothing is more beautiful or admirable than his view of stately Manhattan from his ferry. He commands the river to keep flowing, the waves to keep frolicking, and the clouds to drench him with their splendor. In a joyous tribute to his ferry trip, he lists all the different components of his environment and commands each one to keep doing what it is doing. He says that it is the physical world that binds us all together and allows us to know our own souls. We must revel in our physical surroundings, for our relationship with our environment is the ticket to achieving spirituality and fulfillment.
Walt Whitman wrote "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" before the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (which was completed in 1883). During Whitman's time, the ferry was the way most commuters traveled between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Additionally, Whitman wrote this poem at the cusp of the American Civil War, during a time when America's identity was deeply bifurcated. Therefore, Whitman's message of unity and the importance of shared experiences was both rare and vital.
In accordance with his signature style, Whitman wrote "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in free-verse. The 1881 version is divided into nine sections and has 147 lines. The sections are of varying lengths, as are the lines; Whitman did not like to constrain his poetic expression with form, meter, or a specific rhyme scheme. Whitman also utilizes his favorite list technique many times in this poem. He lists the aspects of his surroundings, lists, the evil thoughts he has had and the sinful acts he has committed, and, at the very end of the poem, he lists the characteristics of his environment. These lists create a powerful and detailed image, so that the reader can travel alongside Whitman on the "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."
The overarching theme of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is the shared human experience. Whitman draws the reader's attention to the quiet details of his commute and makes them sound extraordinary. Even though time may pass and society might change, natural wonders like the wind, the clouds, the sun, the seagulls, and the water will always be markers of the journey between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Ultimately, Whitman makes "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" universal by emphasizing the inherent and enduring connection between man and nature.
The speaker's journey between Manhattan and Brooklyn is a metaphor for the passage of time. The repetition of this trip across the East River time and time again represents the cycles of history. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker remarks that many have completed this journey before him and many will travel this route after he is gone. The idea that many will experience the same feelings that he is currently experiencing gives the speaker comfort. Although time will change many things - the faces of the people, the ferry itself, the cityscape before him - there are certain markers of his journey that human beings can never tamper with. The poem, like the ferry, moves the reader fluidly through past, present, and future and the speaker's words highlight the narrative thread that connects all human beings.
Besides the ever-moving tide, Whitman uses light and darkness to symbolize the multiple facets of the human identity. He describes his evil thoughts as his inner darkness, hidden from public view just as the night casts a blanket over the river during his evening commute. He also uses the theater as a metaphor to represent the difference between public life and private life. He acknowledges that he has a sinful streak - but in society, everyone plays a role. The speaker's tone in the poem is honest but also grateful. By appreciating the small things in his life, he feels like a part of something bigger.