Writing Inspiration: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

As we approach Labor Day Weekend, it seems an opportune moment to share one of Walt Whitman’s best loved poems: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Here Whitman summons images from his commute home after a day of work in Manhattan, evoking a sense of solidarity in our shared experience as humans. These verses address the throng of workers who accompany Whitman on the ferry, but they eventually extend beyond the crowd to include the reader. Whitman imagines future commuters, others who will lean against the ferry’s railing and look out across the water and up at the sky. He blurs the lines between the writer and reader, imploring us to see that we are all united in our humanity.†

Below you’ll find a portion of Whitman’s text. We hope it provides you with writing inspiration this Labor Day Weekend!†


Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

1††FLOOD-TIDE†below me! I watch you, face to face;

Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I†
†††††††††see you also face to face.†

2††Crowds of men and women attired in the usual cos-
†††††††††tumes! 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 med-
†††††††††itations, than you might suppose.†

3††The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at†
†††††††††all hours of the day,†
The simple, compact, well-joined schemeómyself†
†††††††††disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part†
†††††††††of the scheme,†
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights†
†††††††††and hearingsóon the walk in the street, and†
†††††††††the passage over the river,†
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with†
†††††††††me far away,†
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me†
†††††††††and them,†
The certainty of othersóthe life, love, sight, hear-
†††††††††ing of others.†

4††Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross†
†††††††††from shore to shore,†
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and†
†††††††††west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south†
†††††††††and east,†
Others will see the islands large and small,
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross,†
†††††††††the sun half an hour high,†
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred†
†††††††††years hence, others will see them,†
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-
†††††††††tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.†

5††It avails not, neither time or placeódistance avails†
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,†
†††††††††or ever so many generations hence,†
I project myselfóalso I returnóI am with you, and†
†††††††††know how it is.†

6††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 refreshed by the gladness of the river,†
†††††††††and the bright flow, I was refreshed,†

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with†
†††††††††the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried,†
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships,†
†††††††††and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I†

7††I too many and many a time crossed the river, the†
†††††††††sun half an hour high,†
I watched the Twelfth Month sea-gullsóI saw them†
†††††††††high in the air, floating with motionless wings,†
†††††††††oscillating their bodies,†
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their†
†††††††††bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,†
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual†
†††††††††edging toward the south.†

8††I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the†
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of†
Looked at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round†
†††††††††the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,†
Looked on the haze on the hills southward and south-
Looked on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with†
Looked toward the lower bay to notice the arriving†
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near†
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the†
†††††††††ships at anchor,†
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the†
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls,†
†††††††††the slender serpentine pennants,†
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in†
†††††††††their pilot-houses,†
The white wake left by the passage, the quick trem-
†††††††††ulous whirl of the wheels,†
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun-set,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled†
†††††††††cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,†
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the†
†††††††††gray walls of the granite store-houses by the†
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug†
†††††††††closely flanked on each side by the bargesóthe†
†††††††††hay-boat, the belated lighter,†
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry†
†††††††††chimneys burning high and glaringly into the†
Casting, their flicker of black, contrasted with wild†
†††††††††red and yellow light, over the tops of houses,†
†††††††††and down into the clefts of streets.†

9††These, and all else, were to me the same as they are†
†††††††††to you,†
I project myself a moment to tell youóalso I†

10††I loved well those cities,
I loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the sameóothers who look back on me,†
†††††††††because I looked forward to them,†
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and†
11††What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years†
†††††††††between us?†

12††Whatever it is, it avails notódistance avails not, and†
†††††††††place avails not.†

13††I too lived, (I was of old Brooklyn,)
I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island, and†
†††††††††bathed in the waters around it,†
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within†
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they†
†††††††††came upon me,†
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my†
†††††††††bed, they came upon me.†

14††I too had been struck from the float forever held in†
I too had received identity by my body,
That I was, I knew was of my bodyóand what I†
†††††††††should be, I knew I should be of my body.†

15††It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seemed to me blank and sus-
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not†
†††††††††in reality meagre? would not people laugh†
†††††††††at me?†

16††It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabbed, blushed, resented, lied, stole, grudged,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly,†
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous†
†††††††††wish, not wanting,†
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness,†
†††††††††none of these wanting.†

17††But I was a Manhattanese, free, friendly, and proud
I was called by my nighest name by clear loud voices†
†††††††††of young men as they saw me approaching or†
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the neg-
†††††††††ligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,†
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or pub-
†††††††††lic assembly, yet never told them a word,†
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laugh-
†††††††††ing, gnawing, sleeping,†
Played the part that still looks back on the actor or†
The same old rÙle, the rÙle that is what we make it,†
†††††††††as great as we like,†
Or as small as we like, or both great and†

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