This poem first appeared in the 1856 edition and received its final modifications for the 1881 edition. While “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” like most of Whitman’s poems, contains little in the way of a describable formal structure, it features a great deal of random internal patternings created by the repetition of words and phrases. This sense of repetition and revisiting reinforces the thematic content of the poem, which looks at the possibility of continuity within humanity based on common experiences.
This poem seeks to determine the relationship of human beings to one another across time and space. Whitman wonders what he means (not as a poet but as another anonymous individual) to the crowds of strangers he sees every day. He assumes that they see the same things he does, and that they react in the same way, and that this brings them together in a very real sense. This is different than the “what I assume you shall assume” credo of “Song of Myself.” Here Whitman’s sense of shared spaces and shared experiences is akin to that of the Romantics, namely Wordsworth and Coleridge. This poem can be profitably compared to Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “This Lime-tree Bower.” In both of those poems someone important to the poet—Wordsworth’s sister, Coleridge’s friend—is taken to a place that has been important to the poet. Wordsworth accompanies his sister, and is able to take delight in seeing her repeat his experience. Coleridge is not able to go with his friend, however, and he sits at home, wondering if his friend’s experience will have any meaning for either of them. While Wordsworth is more concerned with the idea of the power of place, Coleridge, like Whitman, is more interested in the relevance of shared experience, and its ability to potentially transcend barriers of space and mortality.
In the end Whitman seems to give more credence to shared experience than Coleridge does. Reminding himself that others have seen, and fifty years from now will still be seeing, the islands of New York City, he realizes that others have also shared his range of emotional and spiritual experience. This makes him significant as an individual but also part of a larger whole. Curiously this leads Whitman to turn to the physical as a locus for identity: “I too had receiv’d identity by my body, / That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” The body is both a vehicle for individual specificity and a means by which to partake of common experience: it is where the self and the world come together.
In his description of the New York waterfront Whitman does not differentiate between the natural and the man-made. Steamships and buildings are described in the same terms as seagulls and waves. This seems to be Whitman’s nod to historical specificity, which can disrupt continuity of experience. Fifty years before Whitman’s ferry crossing, the steamships and the skyline were not there, and he knows this. It is these minor changes that enable him to be specific, and that allow perspective on human existence.