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 poembecomes highly deepened.
Whitman challenges the linear notion of time by connecting past with future. This can be seen in the firststanza, 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 readerknow that he has written this with the reader in mind, even before that reader existed. He challenges time by connectinghis 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.Order now
He is sure that after he is gone the waterwill still run and people will still “see the shipping ofManhattan/and the heights of Brooklyn” (14-15). He makes his pastand our futher all one. No matter the time nor the distance, the reader willexperience the same way he experiences at the moment in timehe resides: 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 areor how far away from Brooklyn and Manhattan, the images thatWhitman saw will live on long after his passing. This deepens the understanding of the poem and assists the reader tocomprehend Whitmans state of reasoning when composing this poem. He, in fact, was writing this poem to be read long after he wasgone. He “considerd long and seriously of you before you wereborn” (88). He realized that certain constants would stay thesame, 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 actress, 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 arole we are not. We hide behind our roles and hurry, not takingthe time to notice what Whitman noticed. He stood and watched ,writing about what he saw, presuming that we will watch andperceive 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 ofthe 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 imagination. As the poem is further examined, we see Whitmans recurringimages 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 withdowncasting eyes”(114). Nature is the one constant, for Whitman, that does notchange. In a sense it is perfection. It is the everlasting sourceof life, which will remain long after our lives are through:”Fifty years hence,/A hundred years hence, or ever so manyhundred years hence, other will see”(17-18). It has stayedthe same then, now, tomorrow, and beyond: “These and all elsewere to me the same as they are to you”(49). As humans we acceptit for what it is.
We do not look at it as we do humans. Weshould look at humans this way – as perfect, pure, no masks, notplaying 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 hidebehind roles, unable to be as that of nature–unjudging. Naturewill continue to exist as the people around it continue to stay the same, hurrying along in the masses oblivious to the wonders around them.