This poem was originally called "Sun-Down Poem" (1856), and the present title was given it in 1860. It was substantially revised in 1881.
The major image in the poem is the ferry. It symbolizes continual movement, backward and forward, a universal motion in space and time. The ferry moves on, from a point of land, through water, to another point of land. Land and water thus form part of the symbolistic pattern of the poem. Land symbolizes the physical; water symbolizes the spiritual. The circular flow from the physical to the spiritual connotes the dual nature of the universe. Dualism, in philosophy, means that the world is ultimately composed of, or explicable in terms of, two basic entities, such as mind and matter. From a moral point of view, it means that there are two mutually antagonistic principles in the universe — good and evil. In Whitman's view, both the mind and the spirit are realities and matter is only a means which enables man to realize this truth. His world is dominated by a sense of good, and evil has a very subservient place in it. Man, in Whitman's world, while overcoming the duality of the universe, desires fusion with the spirit. In this attempt, man tries to transcend the boundaries of space and time.
The ferry symbolizes this spatial and temporal movement. It is also associated with the groups of men and women who ride it, who have ridden it, and who will ride it. The coming together of these men and women symbolizes the spiritual unity of men in this world.
The poet first addresses the elements — the tide, the clouds, and the sun — saying, "I see you face to face." He next observes the crowds of men and women on the ferryboats: "How curious you are to me" he says, for he thinks of these people in relation to those who "shall cross from shore to shore years hence." The poet meditates on the relationships between the various generations of men.
This first section establishes the setting of the poem. The poet is on the bank, and he observes the ferry as well as the passengers, whom he expands to symbolize the large united self of mankind. The tide, the cloud, and the sun become integral characters in this spiritual drama between the poet and the elements. The poet first responds to natural objects and then to people with the ultimate aim of bringing about an imaginative fusion between himself and the reader.
In the second section, the men and women on the ferryboat become the eternal "impalpable sustenance" of the poet. He thinks of "the simple, compact, well-join'd scheme" of the universe and believes himself to be "disintegrated yet part of the scheme." He thinks again about all the people of the future who will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore."
The poet thinks about his role in relation to the nature of the universe. To him, the universe seems compact, harmonious, and well-adjusted. He is part of the multitude of men, part of the eternal processes of birth, life, and death. Whitman probes into the future and identifies himself with persons who will cross the river "a hundred years hence." Thus a link is established between the poet and the "others" — including future readers.
In section 3, Whitman declares that neither time nor place really matter, for he is part of this generation and of many generations hence. He speaks to future generations and tells them that their experiences are not new: "I too many and many a time cross'd the river of old,/Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, . . . /Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water." He, too, saw the ships arriving, "the sailors at work," and "the flags of all nations." He, too, saw "the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night."
This third section reveals the poet's desire to transcend time, place, and distance in order to establish contact with people of future generations. His own experience is similar to that of the reader years from now.
The description of the journey on the river is very vivid. The movement of the day from morning until midnight is parallel to the movement of the poet from one side of the river to another and from the physical to the spiritual.
In section 4, Whitman declares his deep love for the cities, the river, and the people. This section is transitional and marks the beginning of the change of the poet's attitude toward men and objects. For the first time (in this poem) he becomes emotionally involved in his relationships with other people and things. The reference to the future is prophetic and anticipates the growth of spiritual kinship between the poet and the reader.
The poet, in section 5, poses a question about the relationship between himself and the generations to come. Even if there are hundreds of years between them, they are united by things which do not change. He, too, lived in Brooklyn and walked the Manhattan streets. He, too, "felt the curious abrupt questionings" stir within him. He believes that his body, his physical existence, has become a ferry uniting him with all mankind.
Thus section 5 is the central core of the poem. The poet, in seeking his own physical and spiritual identity, endeavors to unite his sensibility with that of his reader. His experience transcends the limits of the Brooklyn ferry and is universalized. His quest now becomes more intellectual than before; the "curious abrupt questionings" are no longer emotional. Wishing to suggest the quality of spiritual unification, Whitman has used the metaphor of a chemical solution: "The float forever held in solution" is the infinite ocean of spiritual life which contains the "potential" of all life. The spiritual solution is the source of one's being. The use of the term "solution" is significant because it indicates the merging of man's existence with his spirit. Spiritually, he is united with future generations and with all of mankind.
In section 6 the poet tells us that he has been engulfed by the same "dark patches" of doubt which have engulfed the reader. His best actions have appeared "blank" and "suspicious." He, too, has known "what it was to be evil" and he, too, "blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, grudg'd,/Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak." But life, finally, is what we make it — "the same old role . . . as great as we like,/Or as small as we like." The "old knot of contrariety" the poet has experienced refers to Satan and his evil influence on man, which creates the condition of contraries, of moral evil and good in human life. The poet suffered from these evil influences, as have all men. So, the poet implies, do not feel alone because you have been this way — one must accept both the pure and the impure elements of life.
In section 7, the poet, addressing his reader, says: "Closer yet I approach you." The poet is thinking as much of the reader-yet-unborn as the reader, while he reads, is now thinking of the poet. And perhaps now, though he cannot be seen, the poet is watching the reader. The poet is trying to establish a link between himself and his future readers. The link is not only of location (as on the ferry) but of thought processes as well. These thought processes will eventually lead to the mystical fusion between the poet and the reader.
In section 8, Whitman describes the beauty of the Manhattan harbor, the sunset on the river, the seagulls, and the twilight. He realizes that the bonds between himself and other people are subtle but enduring. Between himself and the person who "looks in my face" is the subtlest bond. The union between himself and others cannot be understood in ordinary terms, by teaching, or by preaching — it is more mystical and intuitive. Recalling the scene of the river and the people with whom he was associated, he evokes the spiritual bond that links man with his fellow men. The reference to fusion ("which fuses me into you now") is the basic ideal the poet sought in the beginning. The union with the reader is mystical and beyond the bounds of rational thought or philosophy.
In section 9, the poet invokes the river to flow "with the flood-tide," the clouds to shower upon him and the other passengers, and the "tall masts of Mannahatta" to stand up. He calls on everything — the bird, the sky, and the water — to keep on fulfilling their function with splendor, for everything is part of the universal life flow. The poet desires that the "eternal float of solution" should suspend itself everywhere. Physical objects, like "dumb, beautiful ministers," wait for their union with the poet's soul. Thus, at the end of the poem, Whitman addresses himself to material objects, which are also part of the life process because they are useful to man.
This section is significant in that it uses the language of incantation. The poet invokes the images of his experiences to suggest the flowing of time. The physical existence of man is like a ferry plying between the two shores of mortality and immortality. He and his fancy (his imagination) use objects to express the idea of the search for the eternal beyond the transient. This search, or the function of fancy, is exemplified by the ferry ride which moves from a point in the physical world to a destination in the spiritual world. This journey of the spirit can take place easily in a universe which is harmonious and well adjusted.