Monday, September 6, 2010

"I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud"

It's nearly time for the annual interior orgy of nostalgia that autumn brings, and there is no better way, to my mind, to start it off than with excerpts from one of the greatest poems in the English language, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman, a poem which, by projecting the author's voice into the future from beyond the grave, has the groundwork for nostalgia inlaid in its very structure.  

This time of year, too, I always think of the years I spent in Brooklyn, because the maritime light refracted through the oxidizing leaves in the neighborhoods there is so very beautiful.


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.   
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! 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 meditations, than you might suppose. 

. . . . 
I too many and many a time cross'd the river, the sun half an hour high;   
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I 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.   
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,   
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,   
Look'd at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head
          in the sun-lit water,   
Look'd on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look'd on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,   
Look'd toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships,   
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,   
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops—saw the ships at anchor,   
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,   
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous 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 docks,   
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank'd on each
          side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,   
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high
          and glaringly into the night,   
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over
          the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.   


These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you;
I project myself a moment to tell you—also I return.   
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 same—others who look back on me, because I look'd
          forward to them;
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)   


What is it, then, between us?   
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?   
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.   


I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters
          around it;   
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,   
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.   
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution;
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.   


It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,   
The dark threw patches down upon me also;   
The best I had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious;
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
          would not people laugh at me?   
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,   
Blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, grudg'd,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,   
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;   
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.
But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!   
I was call'd by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men
          as they saw me approaching or passing,   
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh
          against me as I sat,   
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never
          told them a word,   
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play'd the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,   
The same old 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. . . .   
For an online critical edition of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," go here. 

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