Me, You and a Boat Ride, examining voice and journeys in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
I know that narrative voice was the topic of discussion last week, but it is one of my favorite literary haunts, and so I am returning to it again. Last week, one of the points raised in class was a discussion of Whitman’s use of “I” and “you” in conjunction with each other. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” the I and the You become even more interesting. The first thing of note is that this is a short poem, by Whitman’s standards; none of the “Song of Myself” length lyrics here. With the poem, then, being of that length word choice is not more important, but certainly easier to analyze.
This poem is set up as a conversation between an “I” and a “You” on a rather mundane trip across a ferry. The “I” in this situation is not inherently Walt Whitman though, or not even necessarily a form of the Whitman voice, as the speaker never identifies himself. The “I” voice, though speaks from an expansive place where it is moving towards the “You” figure. In the fourth section of the poem, he speaks “These and all else were to me the same as they are to you, / I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river, / The men and women I saw were near to me,”. This talk of cities expanding beyond just the Brooklyn Ferry lends to a reading of the poem where the speaker is the America of the past and the intended audience is the America of the present and future.
This reading is furthered in the sixth stanza where he refers to the dark patches falling on both of them with it culminating in “Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress, / The same 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.” Now adding to this the rhetoric of the journey. One person, the I is standing on a ferry speaking expansively of the world around him and heading towards the You which is stationary. The end of this, the past catching up with the present, so to speak, happens at the end of the poem, where the I and You language changes to a We speaker.
Also, this last section bares significant social commentary on it. The line “You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers” is a gloriously tongue in cheek look at the present. If the past is constantly heading towards the present, then it does not wait and bears all the weight of it’s gained knowledge with it, while the present standards there as ministers, bringing word of what is and what to come, and not necessarily getting it. To the speaker, however, this makes them beautiful.