The human condition is defined by passage. Ceaseless and all-embracing, it is at the heart of Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” As Whitman’s speaker observes the ferry cross from Manhattan to Brooklyn, he reflects upon the crowds of men and women making the familiar passage and, more expansively, all people making similar passages – past, present, and future. He knows well what they experience and feel, for the same experiences and feelings make up his own life. In this shared journey, he finds a certain kinship and harmony. Ultimately, Whitman asserts that, though we move through life as individuals, our common experiences and our very nature unite us across space and time – that, like the scene before the speaker, we exist simultaneously both and in and out of time and so achieve unity with all.
Central to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and to Whitman’s worldview in general is human individuality. One’s unique, physical identity is the lens through which he or she experiences life – it is an anchor to reality that keeps one firmly within the flow of time. Throughout the poem, the speaker is keenly of this individuality and of the inherent barriers it creates between all humans. In the first section, for example, he comments on the “men and women attired in unusual costumes,” (3) remarking twice that they are “curious” (3-4) to him. His language is that of an intrigued observer, hardly a familiar. Broadening his focus in section two, he goes on to state that each person, including himself, is “disintegrated yet part of the scheme” (7). In other words, we are distinct; each of us exists within a grand framework, yet has his own individual meaning. The speaker builds upon this notion is section five when he states that “[he] too had been struck from the float forever held in solution” (62). Here the “float forever held in solution” could represent a state of timelessness, or perhaps the elusive “universal soul” – the collective consciousness –...
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