‘Broadway‘ is fairly short, especially compared to some Walt Whitman poems. The lines themselves are short, as is the total number of lines. He speaks directly about his subject—Broadway, and the effect it has. The poem is filled with imagery, much of which should help readers imagine the street in the clearest of detail.
Broadway Walt Whitman What hurrying human tides, or day or night! What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters! What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow, stem thee! What curious questioning glances- glints of love! Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration! Thou portal- thou arena- thou of the myriad long-drawn lines and groups! (Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades, tell their inimitable tales; Thy windows rich, and huge hotels- thy side-walks wide;) Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet! Thou, like the parti-colored world itself- like infinite, teeming, mocking life! Thou visor'd, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!
‘Broadway’ by Walt Whitman is a passionate poem about how the swaths of humanity walk on Broadway, in New York, every day.
The speaker uses the short lines of this poem to express his appreciation for the men and women swarming down the street. He believes that all of the human experience exists there and that with some observational skills, one can see it all. There are sorrows and joys, winnings, and losses. If only, he adds, the street itself could talk, there would be so much to share.
Structure and Form
‘Broadway’ by Walt Whitman is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines six and seven.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line of text. This could be through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, “What curious questioning glances—glints of.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “What whirls” in line four and “glances—glints” in line five.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling / feet!”
What hurrying human tides, or day or night!
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow stem, thee!
What curious questioning glances—glints of love!
The first lines of this poem begin with the word “What.” This is an example of anaphora. The technique is seen again at the end of the poem (using the word “Thou”).
The speaker is discussing “Broadway,” a busy street in New York City. Without the title, it would be near impossible to understand where Whitman was considering in these fourteen lines. But, with this context, readers can easily imagine the street and its “human tides… day or night.”
The street is filled with all of the human experience, from the highs to the lows. The poet uses water imagery in these lines, suggesting that humanity rushes through the street, filled with passion and sorrow, winnings and losses.
The speaker is inspired by the “tides” of humanity that one can see there. There are endless experiences and people to explore.
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!
Thou portal—thou arena—thou of the myriad long-drawn lines
(Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades tell their inimitable
Thy windows, rich and huge hotels—thy side-walks wide;
In the next lines, the speaker uses accumulation to list out some of the emotions being experienced on this street. There is so much history there. The speaker pines over the fact that the street itself can’t tell its own stories. The “flagstones, curbs, facades” must have seen a great deal.
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like
infinite, teeming, mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker says that the street, which he addresses as “Thou” is a world within itself. There, it is filled with the shuffling feet of the passes and “teeming, mocking life.” When one goes to Broadway and pays attention to the people passing by, there is a “show and a lesson.” It’s entertaining, but as one observes the movements of various types of people, there is a great deal to be learned as well.
The tone is formal and passionate. Throughout, the poet uses complex, passionate words giving the poem a spirited feeling. This can be seen through the poet’s use of exclamation points. These appear numerous times throughout the piece.
The themes at work in this poem include contemporary life. The speaker uses one single street in New York as a representation of all of humanity. He feels as though all human experience has passed along the flagstones of Broadway.
The purpose is to express how filled with life New York is and how particularly interesting this one street is. If one takes the time to pay attention to the men and women walking on the street, they could learn a great deal.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Walt Whitman poems. For example:
- ‘I Dream’d in a Dream’ – depicts a speaker’s dream of a utopian world in which love is the reference point for all decisions and actions.
- ‘Animals’ – a poem describing the poet’s love for animals and their nature.
- ‘A Clear Midnight’ – a simple, yet impactful poem that depicts a speaker’s desire to free his soul from the confines of day to day life.