It was just a ferry crossing, nothing out of the ordinary. People used the Brooklyn ferry all the time, and it was not normally an occasion for imaginary time travel. But writers are weird that way, and poets are the oddballs among writers, and Walt Whitman was an oddball among poets.
Whitman takes a remarkable flight of fancy in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which is why it is one of my favorite Whitman poems. I’m only going to quote a few bits, but the full text is here.
Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
And he goes on to describe the scene vividly while maintaining his awareness that other people will be here in the future, just as others have already been here in the past.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the obvious, and about the non-obvious lurking inside the obvious. In a way, Whitman is making a very trite observation: time doesn’t begin and end with me. Other people have been here; others are still to come. But people have loved this poem for more than 150 years, so clearly Whitman’s expression is anything but trite. What is it that resonates with so many readers?
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
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,
(And now we can also say that many others have read this poem before me; many others will read it centuries later and be similarly moved by it.)
Whitman spends the next stanzas embellishing the picture in that exuberant way of his, repeatedly drawing the connection between his own experience and ours. “I too lived… I too walk’d… I too felt…” — and the poem moves beyond the particulars of the Brooklyn ferry into the universals of human experience.
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
. . .
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d 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.
Again, the obvious. Of course our experiences would be similar in many important ways. Of course. But do we really appreciate that, or often consider how that connects us one to another? You think you understand this aspect of human experience, Whitman is telling us, but do you really?
And then he starts teasing us, reaching out across the years, as if he’s tickling our ears with a feather while our back is turned (my metaphor, not his):
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?
And, Whitman being Whitman, he boasts:
What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?
We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach — what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?
Yes, Walt, it is accomplished. The merely obvious has been revealed to be moving and profound. In the poem’s final lines, Whitman borrows what would be religious language in another context (”perfection,” “eternity,” “soul”) but which he uses for his own purposes. We’re united by our common experience of life, and are left not so much with the poet’s individual perspective, but with a sense of all the individual stories being compiled into one grand story.
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside — we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not — we love you — there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.
(There’s a lot more to be said about this poem. See, for example, “A Close Reading of ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’” at poets.org.)