Within ‘Brooklyn Heights’ John Wain delves into themes of American life, poverty, and immigration. The mood for the majority of the poem is optimistic, even when those within the text struggle. But, towards the end of the poem, it takes a turn and the reader is confronted with the truth, that the dream of America might not be real.
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Summary of Brooklyn Heights
The poem depicts New York City and those who struggle to make a life for themselves there. Wain focuses on the turn of the century, from the nineteen to the twentieth specifically. There is hope in the air and on the streets, but beneath it, the corrupting force of capitalism and profit motives. Those who come to America might “Dream” of an ideal country but they are unlikely to find it. They should seek out something, the speaker thinks, that’s more important than commerce and base their lives around that instead.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques in Brooklyn Heights
‘Brooklyn Heights’ by John Wain is a thirty-line poem that is separated into couplets or sets of two lines. The lines do not follow a rhyme scheme, not do they conform to a metrical pattern. The majority are also end-stopped, meaning they end with some kind of punctuation.
Wain also makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Brooklyn Heights’. These include alliteration, enjambment, personification, and simile. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “forge of the future” in line twelve and “sky swept” in line twenty-four.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. As mentioned previously the majority of the lines in this poem are end-stopped, but there are a few that are enjambed. For example, the transition between lines five and six.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. There are examples throughout the poem, for instance in line four where Wain states that the ones “gaze vigorously at the ocean” or in line ten where he uses the phrase “America comes smiling towards them like a neighbour”.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, n the third line of the poem where the poet compares the “gay cliff of the nineteenth century” to “retired sea-captains”.
Analysis of Brooklyn Heights
This is the gay cliff of the nineteenth century,
The houses gaze vigorously at the ocean.
In the first lines of ‘Brooklyn Heights,’ the speaker begins by describing the transition between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries as a cliff. One that is both cheerful, or gay, and dangerous. The progress from one century to the next feels, in these lines, like an all-around good thing though. This liminal space is “Drenched in the hopeful ozone of a new day”. There is much that can be achieved as humankind moves forward together.
The houses look out onto the ocean and the East River. It is there that immigrants would enter into America. It represents that same hope mentioned in line two. The houses are also compared to “retired,” dependable, and wise sea captains.
With the hospitable eyes of the retired captains
Whole families walk in the fresh air of the past.
The phrase “retired captains” is reiterated in the fifth line. The speaker states that they “preside over the meeting of the sea and river”. These two powerful forces come together and the speaker looks back over the past 100 years and considers the lives of those who came to America in the hope of finding a better life for themselves.
Their children tricycle down the nineteenth century:
They hammer in the blazing forge of the future.
The images presented in lines nine through twelve are hopeful. The mood remains optimistic as the speaker depicts children playing, and “America” as a kind neighbour who greeted them on the street. These children were able to leave the past behind, metaphorically, as they peddled down the street on their bikes. They moved into the “blazing forge of the future”. This last phrase is a great example of alliteration and how it can benefit the overall rhythm of the poem.
Brooklyn Bridge flies through the air on feathers.
Its overhead lights crackle in their blood-vessals.
Finally, the speaker brings in the “Brooklyn Bridge”. It is high, flying through the air with “the iron feathers” as if some kind of massive bird. The children see it, but they don’t know its real weight. To them, it is light and wonderful, but there is a history to it that is undeniable. In fact, the speaker adds, the bridge does not fly through the air at all. It is carried on the shoulders of the citizens of the city. This is a hardship, one that represents the larger struggles of both those born in America and those who immigrated there.
But now it is Sunday morning, and a sky swept clean.
They forget the tripping dance of the profit motive.
Juxtaposed with the weight of the bridge and the crackling of light is the “Sunday morning”. The sky is “swept clean” and everyone can briefly relax. In these moments those who live and work in America forget the underlying greed of the society and walk hopefully with change in their pockets.
Despite the “hope” that runs through these stanzas, there is something darker hiding in plain sight beneath that— “the profit motive”.
The big ships glide in under the high statue,
They ride with their children under a sky swept clearn.
The next stanzas move back out into the river. Wain depicts the “big ships” that glide “under the high statue” of Liberty. These “big ships” and how they “glide” through the water likely do not relate to the immigrant experience. They seem grand and lavish in a way that’s antithetical to the struggle of those with the bridge on their shoulders.
Dream on, citizens! Dream the true America, the healer,
Be the citizens of true survival!
The last three stanzas make use of alliteration, anaphora, and caesura as the speaker directs his words at the “citizens” of America. He tells him, sarcastically, that they should “Dream on” in amongst the corrupt profit motives and powerful elites of the country. He brings up the ideal image of America as “the healer” and protector of the needy in a flippant and disingenuous way. America is powered by those who travel to it from Europe.
He tells the immigrants from “the narrow cities” of Europe to “Dream” but then juxtaposes that directive with an image of the ship laded with “prayers and bundles”. These people were, and still are, poor. For the vast majority of them, their dreams have gotten them nowhere.
Lastly, Wain concludes by asking that the immigrants try to find something that is older and more meaningful than commerce. It is a corrupting force, one that should not be the end-all of one’s dreams. They should be “citizens of true survival”. What’s more meaningful than commerce will depend on a reader’s perspective, or on each traveller’s experience and values.