In the poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman, the poet describes his crisscrossing journey back and forth Brooklyn via a ferry. The poem’s central theme relates to the shared human experiences that transcend both time and space. The poet uses symbolism to explore this theme whereby he connects himself to the crowds of people he encounters everyday in the ferry and city streets as well as to the rest of humanity.
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The poem is laden with a repetition of words, metaphors, personification, and rhetorical questions, which the poet uses to reinforce his central theme. The ‘seagull’ is a major symbol that Whitman uses to elaborate on the poem’s central meaning.
Their appearance and movements in air symbolize the commuters’ traveling experiences, as described in the poem. This paper argues that ‘seagulls’ symbolize the shared human experiences that transcend time, identity, generation, and space.
The seagulls form a key symbol in the poem. The poet says that he “watched the Twelfth-month seagulls floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 6). The central idea of the poem is the passengers’ crossing of the river via a boat. Commuters, presumably from work, boarded the ferryboat together when crossing the river on their way to their homes.
The poet describes the bodily movements of the seagulls as floating and oscillating, which fits the poem’s central idea. The word ‘crossing’ in the title indicates that the movements of the passengers were eternal, i.e., not limited by space or time. His description of the seagulls’ movements as ‘floating’ and oscillating’ also creates a sense of eternal presence. Their flight can be considered as another form of ‘crossing’.
The seagulls illustrate the poet’s idea that common experiences bind humanity together. Throughout human history, people have used boats to “cross from shore to shore years hence” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 13). This indicates that certain human experiences are passed on from one generation to another. The “dumb and beautiful ministers”, which include the seagulls, the tides, and the sunsets, remain unchanged in time and location.
The seagulls’ movements are perpetual symbolizing the repetitive nature of human experiences, such as commuting. The ‘dumb ministers’ depict the habitual human experiences that are perpetual. The poet’s observation of what the seagulls are doing is shared among people in distant places and generations.
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This indicates that the shared observation of seagulls is not bound by location or time. The poem revolves around the idea of values that bind people of different locations and generations together. Thus, the poet uses the seagulls’ ‘perpetual’ flight in the air to symbolize the agelessness of human observations and habits.
The poet uses nature to symbolize common human habits. The seagulls fly together in “slow-wheeling circles” as they “gradually edged to the south” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 17). This depicts the fundamental human values that bind people together. Each seagull flies as an individual, but in a group heading in one direction. The poet confesses that he “lived the same life with the rest and enjoyed similar gnawing, laughing, and sleeping” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 7).
His habits are not unique to him; rather, they represent shared human values. Similarly, the birds’ flight movements are alike in all respects. They are seen “floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies” and making circular movements, as they fly to the south (Whitman, 1993, Para. 16). Their actions of flying as part of a group underscore the poem’s central idea of shared human values.
The commuters in the ferryboat belong to a “compact, well-joined scheme” despite their individual differences (Whitman, 1993, Para. 9). They bound together by fate when aboard the ferryboat heading home. Commuters of different occupations, races, or socioeconomic class traveled via the ferry to their homes. Everyone on the ferry, just like the seagulls flying to the south, is traveling towards the same direction.
The poet says that passengers may board the ferry using different gates, observe the tides, recognize all islands, or perceive Manhattan and Brooklyn from different directions, but human observations will always remain unchanged for a long time (Dougherty, 1993).
The poet suggests that humans are permanently bound by their shared values and perceptions. The seagulls, though floating in air individually, must fly with the others to reach their destination. In this case, the seagulls symbolize the commonality of human nature.
The poet observes the seagulls “oscillating their bodies”, which means that the birds hovered between two points (Whitman, 1993, Para. 15). This repetitive action resonates with the theme of commuting between two cities. Each passenger operates as a separate entity that is connected to others to form an immortal ‘soul’. Traveling to home after work each day is a commonplace occurrence that transcends settings and time.
It can be likened to the physical movements of the seagulls’ bodies. Moreover, the seagulls’ movements appear coordinated and endless like the immortal soul. The poem is about the human experiences that appear repetitive and ‘immortal’, such as journeying back home daily after work.
The ‘seagulls’ image is one of the instances where the poet appears distant from his fellow commuters on the ferry. He strays from the people on the ferry to describe the seagulls flying in the sky. The seagulls, though flying in the same direction, are split. Similarly, the speaker withdraws himself from the surrounding crowd when he turns his attention to the distant birds.
He is also split between his past experiences and future aspirations. In the poem, he reflects on his past actions and misdeeds. He writes that he “blabbed, blushed, resented, lied, stole, and grudged” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 19). He also harbored “guile, anger, lust, and hot wishes” that he could not reveal (Whitman, 1993, Para. 19).
Besides his past, the poet talks about the future generations that shall come “from the general center of all” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 21). It appears that the speaker is split between the past and the future, just as the seagulls were.
Another instant where the speaker appears split is when he talks about Manhattan and Brooklyn despite being in neither of those places. He writes that “I too lived-Brooklyn, of ample hills” and “walked the streets of Manhattan Island and bathed in the waters around it” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 8). The speaker, being in a ferryboat, is neither in Manhattan nor in Brooklyn.
Although the speaker feels close to both cities, he is distanced from them, as the seagulls are from one another. The poet also talks of “dark patches” when referring to the shadows he is experiencing. He tells the reader “it is not upon you alone the dark patches fall”, which implies that misfortunes have also befallen him in his life (Whitman, 1993, Para. 9).
To the speaker, darkness represents misfortunes while light depicts beauty. The speaker writes that front seagulls’ shinny yellow bodies “left the rest in a strong shadow” (Whitman, 1993, Para. 18). Although some seagulls were dark and others bright, they both flew together as one.
Their existence together is symbolic; it shows that two opposite or contrasting qualities can be blended into a single entity. This resonates with the poem’s title of crossing the river on a shared ferry.
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The poem largely glorifies the natural beauty of the sunset, sunrise, seagulls, and tides. However, the speaker also talks about vices, such as lying, stealing, anger, resentment, and lust, among others (Handley, 2007). The duality of the soul is reflected in this statement. The rhythm in this statement is faster than that in the rest of the poem. Moreover, unlike in the other sections of the poem, in this line the poet is remorseful about his past.
Just like his description of the seagulls, the speaker perceives human values, experiences, and actions as either dark or bright. Similarly, the shared human experiences, which form the crux of the poem, are both dark and bright.
The seagulls are a symbolic image in the poem. Symbolism is evident in the way the speaker describes the seagull’s flight, the shadows they cast on the others, and their flight towards the same direction. Their ‘oscillating’ movements can be likened to the journey of the travelers aboard the ferryboat. Despite individual differences, the passengers are united together by the shared human experiences. This forms the central theme of the poem.
Dougherty, J. (1993). Walt Whitman and the Citizen’s Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Handley, G. (2007). New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Whitman, W. (1993). Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.