It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
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 round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,
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 pennants,
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 sunset,
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 storehouses 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 loved well those cities, 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.)
That is Walt Whitman. It is only a part, out of the middle of his great poem 'Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry' He wrote it during the time that the bridge was being built, in the years after the Civil War. It is not his most famous poem-- that would probably be 'Oh Captain, My Captain.'
But this is the one that I love best. It is long-- this is only a fragment. But there is not a lazy word anywhere in it. And it is so modern. It does not feel antique. There is something spooky about the sense that he is looking right at you, speaking from the past with deliberation.There is a great kindness in his face. Reading him you have the sense that he knows the worst that humans can do, and loves us all even so. He certainly saw what war can do. He worked in a war hospital, sitting with dying boys that the medicine of the time could do nothing for.
During his American tour Oscar Wilde came to meet Whitman. Wilde was not 30, Whitman more than twice that. And I have no doubt that Whitman was kind.