Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The Bridge is a celebration of technique, the human agency by which things are related and unified. The Brooklyn Bridge is a piece of sublime artistry by which two islands are joined by work of dazzling precision and majestic boldness. The bridge stands for the work of art itself—for the power of art to link together great dissimilarities of experience, and to do so in an act of daring and invention that celebrates its own process as it joins the ends of life together. That is why Crane dissects the elements composing the bridge and finds in each of them an emblem of artistic energy: in particular, the bridge as a musical figure, with its columns rising as staves in a musical score, its cables representing strings, and the birds flying over it as the notes struck on them. In music, a bridge refers both to a brief connecting passage between two longer passages and to a support for strings on an instrument. Crane once described “The Harbor Dawn” as “legato”—a smooth and connected style of musical performance; its Latin root means “to bind.” There are songs and lyrical interludes throughout the work.

In undertaking this poem, Crane believed that he had discovered the essential symbol for a country and New World culture that lacked a vision of its spiritual aspirations. America was young, materialistic, and brash, and its formation was violent from the start. Whitman had already sung the song of its inner life in “Song of Myself,” but the country lacked unity, a collective selfhood in which action and revery, dreams and reason came together. The bridge thus stood as an industrial achievement that Crane strove to interpret as a symbol linking modern man with the primal depths of the New World.

In “Ave Maria,” Columbus is himself the divided man, at once looking for gold and jewels—plunder from the innocent native world of America—and pleading with the gods of his vision as he returns to Europe. The poems that follow explore this separation, running like a seam through all the actions of modern humans as they exploit the resources of the continent and show little or no respect for the suffering nature on which they wreak their havoc. Even the pioneer wife who returns to the Midwest in...

(The entire section is 920 words.)