On Walt Whitman

One and the Same

Walt Whitman asks himself and the reader of the poem, “Crossing

Brooklyn Ferry,” what significance a person’s life holds in the

scope of densely populated planet. The poem explores the

difficulties of discovering the relevance of life. The methods

that helped Whitman grasp his own idea of the importance of life

are defined with some simple yet insightful and convincing

observations. By living under and for the standards of others,

a person can never live a fulfilling life. Distinguishing

oneself from the mobs of society can be next to impossible when

every other human is competing for the same recognition with

their own similar accomplishments. The suggestion that Whitman

offers as a means of becoming distinguished, or obtaining an

identity, is to live a life of self-satisfaction. The

persuasive devices in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” successfully

communicate Whitman’s own theory of breaking the molds of

society by living as a self-satisfying individual.

What makes one person’s life different from the next? Whitman

leaves the apprehension that the distinguishing characteristics

are few. Whitman informs the audience that he has lead the same

life as they, who lead the same life as their children will and

their ancestors did. The poet questions the significance of a

person’s achievements by asking, “My great thoughts as I

supposed them, were they not in reality meagre [sic]?” It would

be hard for any person to measure their self-accomplishments on

the planetary scale which Whitman is speaking of. The second

verse of the poem introduces the metaphor of the world being a

“simple, compact, well-joined scheme” with the people dissolved

into the “eternal float of solution.” Like the

mechanical”scheme” that Whitman refers to, much of the poem

consists of topics that possess a repetitive or mechanical

quality. Sunrises, sunsets, tides, seasons, circling birds, the

daily New York commute on the Brooklyn Ferry, and the cycling of

generations are woven into the poem. A substantial amount of

stanzas in the poem all begin with the same word. The

continuous use of repetitive imagery conveys the feeling that

our existence is in fact part of an infinitely moving machine

that has no purpose or destination. By using these devices,

Whitman shakes his audience with the convincing notion that life

as it is normally perceived is not important. To assist these

devices, lines that bring sudden tension into the poem further

disturb the preconceptions of the audience: “Closer yet I

approach you,/What thought you have of me now…” Whitman now

has the readers of his poem in a vulnerable state – where their

minds can be easily swayed and he can preach his theory.

Towards the middle of the poem, Whitman enters a passage that

speaks of the “dark patches” that fall upon all people. The

evil traits of guile, anger, lust, greed, cowardice, and hate

that he, like all people, possess. These evils cause him to

live a solitary existence where he did not interact with even

the things that he loved.

Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly,

yet never I told them a word,

Lived the same life as the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing,


Following his comments about the bad parts of his life, he goes

on to tell about what he enjoyed in his life. The things that

gave him pleasure were in fact the sensory pleasures. What he

saw in the world, the voices and sounds of the people, the

accomplishments that he felt, and memories that he made were his

justifications for living. Living his life to the fullest and

cherishing the things that he did for himself gave him an


There is a key difference between living a meaningless life and

a leading a rewarding life with a purpose. In the first case,

the goal in life is to work hard to be accepted by the standards

of others. As a result, a life will most likely wasted on work

that gives no meaning or reward to the person. In the second

case, a person can live for their own standards and behave in a

way that is enjoyable to themselves.

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. . . .

About my body for me, and your body for you. . .

The interiority as Whitman describes, guarantees that an

individual can find meaning in life without comparing themselves

against others and bringing out the evil and deceitful qualities

of humans. In an ideal model of Whitman’s social behavior,

everyone would be content and there would be no evil in the

world. The final two lines of the poem set his conclusion

regarding the importance of interiority its results on the


You furnish your parts toward eternity,

Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

Whitman himself ignored the social standards of his day and by

doing what fulfilled his personal goals, he established his own

eternal identity as one of the greatest American poets.

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” communicates Whitman’s ideas about

life in an discrete but highly effective manner.


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