Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Black Riders begins with an affirmation of the existence of sin and ends with an affirmation of the existence of God. While the title poem demonstrates the power of sin, it does not offer any hint as to its origin or indicate a possible remedy. One cannot derive any more comfort from the final poem in the collection, for although God finally strikes down a spirit for denying him, thus proving that he exists, he would not aid the spirit or even admit his presence during the spirit’s long and anguished search for him. Thus what seem to be certainties are not certain at all, and what appear to be answers merely direct one toward more questions.

It is not surprising, then, that one of the dominant themes in the collection is that of the search for truth. Crane does not minimize the difficulty of this quest. Too often, he thinks, the overconfident find themselves in the position of the “learned man” in number 20, who confidently leads the persona into the unknown, only to find that he himself is lost. Crane is skeptical of people like the man in number 28, who insists that he has ascended to the “mighty fortress” which is truth and viewed the world from his unassailable position. In Crane’s opinion, it is more likely that truth is a “shadow, a phantom” that he may never discover. Nevertheless, Crane knows that something in the human spirit yearns for truth. It may be that one is a fool for seeking it, like the man in number 24, who keeps “pursuing the horizon” even though he is told his quest is utterly “futile.” It is interesting to compare this poem with number 7. Here the searcher is pictured not as a fool but as a person of some courage: “Fear not that I should quaver,/ For I dare—I dare./ Then, tell me!” Perhaps the difference between being a fool—one of Crane’s favorite terms—and being a brave man is simply the difference between pride and humility. A fool does not know his limitations, either as an individual or as a human being; a brave man acknowledges them but refuses to embrace despair.

Whatever his uncertainties about truth or the possibility of discovering it, Crane did have firm opinions as to what constitutes human error. High on his catalog of sins was pride. Sometimes he points to this epitome of folly by contrasting human beings with animals, as he does...

(The entire section is 956 words.)