Study Guide

The Bridge

by Hart Crane

The Bridge Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The book-length poem The Bridge far surpasses in scope anything else Crane attempted. In “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” he had indicated how the energies of ancient mythic symbols still exist in modern times. In this larger work, he attempts to explain how primary American myths are embedded in current consciousness and, further, how these myths are basically emancipatory, pointing the United States to a future of ethnic harmony and a valuing of artistic achievement.

One thing that spurred Crane to the creation of this work was his reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In looking at the work, Crane was both awed by Eliot’s technical mastery and irritated by his hopelessness. Eliot, too, drew on mythology to create his work, turning to agrarian cultures for his theme. In those cultures, there was often a myth of a king or hero who died in the autumn but who was reborn in spring with the new crops. Eliot, as his title suggests, stopped the unfolding of this story halfway, depicting modern society as one that had lost all of its legitimate authorities and was stuck in a winter without hope of resurrection.

A look at the manner in which Crane treated the story of Rip Van Winkle in the second part of his poem will indicate his contrasted approach. The folktale is presented in a way that is both wittily irreverent and personal. It is not called up in a portentous meditation but by recalling how it first was learned by the author in a primary school lesson, where the pupil “walked with Pizarro in a copybook.” The story is interpreted positively, as charting the capacities of the human mind.

Rip Van Winkle woke up in a confused state, in which events that for him occurred yesterday had actually taken place twenty years before. Crane presents his mature narrator effortlessly, vividly recalling his school days, and so indexes Van Winkle’s juxtaposition of time periods to the human ability to recapture the past. This point validates, in turn, the broader project of the poem, which argues for the centrality of memory. If, the poem argues, the United States’ historical and mythic apprehension were fully used, the nation would be regenerated.

It should not be thought that Crane’s fervent optimism meant that he underestimated the problems of America. Two of its major defects, as he diagnosed them, propelled his work. The country had lost touch with its past, he says, and this is shown in a number of ways. For one, the omnipresent clamor of advertising and other distractions, as described in the opening of “The River” section, tricks the people into a pointless immersion in contemporary ephemera.

A related point is that the lack of historical circumspection has undercut an appreciation of who really built the country. “The River” section casts light on the lives of transient workers, roustabouts, and...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)

The Bridge Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A serious student of poetry during the 1920’s, Hart Crane saw himself as one whose poetry would celebrate rather than denigrate the modern experience. His was to be a poetry of hope in the future and in the poet’s ability to transcend shortcomings. He sought to counteract the cultural despair that was typified, particularly, in T. S. Eliot’s influential The Waste Land (1922), a poem that Crane described as “good, but so damned dead.”

Crane consciously intended The Bridge to provide an antidote to the spiritual despair of modern life by holding up to its readers, as the emblem of the modern world’s own inspiriting accomplishments, John Augustus Roebling’s great technical achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883. Crane had first essayed the long poem form in the three-part “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” (1923), which utilizes jazz rhythms and a wide range of classical, biblical, and historical allusions in its exhortation to his contemporaries to “unbind our throats of fear and pity.”

The initial idea for The Bridge was the direct result of Crane’s insight that the contemporary world was the product, and therefore more likely the fulfillment rather than the negation, of the world’s previous effort toward understanding. By 1924, Crane had, for inspiration, taken up residence in the same Columbia Heights apartment that Roebling had occupied during the bridge’s construction. By then, too, Crane’s circle of literary friends, among them fellow poets and critics Gorham Munson, Waldo Frank, and Allen Tate, anticipated the completion of Crane’s great modernist epic with much the same excitement as he continuously shared its progress with them.

A sudden spurt of productivity occurred when the banker and art patron Otto Kahn advanced Crane one thousand dollars, with the promise of an additional one thousand dollars, so that he might leave his job as an advertising copywriter to devote his full attention to The Bridge. During the summer of 1926, on the Isle of Pines, off Cuba, Crane composed nearly half of the fifteen individual pieces that constitute the completed poem, including, along with the first three sections, “Cutty Sark,” “Three Songs,” and the final section, “Atlantis”—in sum, much of the poem’s most lyrical passages as well as its visionary heart.

The work then became bogged down as a result of Crane’s philosophical doubts after his having read Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918, 1922; The Decline of the West, 1926, 1928). Crane joined the American expatriate scene in Paris from December, 1928, to July, 1929, but rather than the experience serving as a source of renewed inspiration, he gained a considerable notoriety by indulging in assorted debaucheries. Back in New York, he finally completed The Bridge, which was published in a limited edition in Paris by the Black Sun Press in January, 1930, and by Liveright in New York in March.

The finished work might appear at first to be no more than a series of loosely connected individual poems, disparate in tone, voice, and style from one another. In fact, however, The Bridge is orchestrated much like a symphony, in which a progressive series of interrelated lyrics creates a narrative sequence that achieves greater intensity of vision as history and common experience give way to the mythic quest for an overarching identity and purpose—hence Crane’s ruling metaphor of a bridge.

In the opening poem “To Brooklyn...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)