Hart Crane Essay - Critical Essays

Hart Crane American Literature Analysis

If his late poems, brilliant but few in number, are set aside, Crane’s poetry can be divided into two phases. The first is that of apprenticeship, when he was composing the poems to go into the volume White Buildings. “Apprenticeship” should not be taken in this case to denote any immaturity or lack of mastery but rather that in the individual short lyrics of this book he developed a language and outlook and worked with a variety of poetic forms that in his second period he would weld into one vast, multifaceted commentary on the United States in his long poem The Bridge.

In his first phase, he tried many forms: epithalamions, elegies, and love cycles as well as many types of versification, such as free verse, quatrains, and heroic couplets. He could work within highly constricted metrical structures naturally, never showing off this aspect of his poetry, never using this formal mastery for attention-getting effects. The most outstanding of his technical skills was his command of rhythm. Paralleling the content of his poems, which generally would describe a persona moving from a flaccid, uninspired, ordinary moment to one of heaven-sent revelation and uplift, the rhythmic movement would begin sluggishly, bogged down with caesuras (pauses in the middle of lines) and multiple uses of parataxis (clauses arranged with no apparent subordination), but the pace would gradually increase, building to an impassioned forward flow at the close.

What many readers experienced as the difficulty of entering a Crane poem is not only attributable, however, to the purposely stumbling meter at the beginning but also to both the poem’s language and manner of linking concepts. Crane had a voracious love of words from all levels of discourse, and he mixed into his poems such things as racy slang, scientific terms, everyday speech, and advertising slogans. Such combinations were common in the poetry of the day, but Crane’s approach was unusual. Where poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound juxtaposed high and low vocabulary to make a comment on modern vulgarity, Crane was trying to create a fused compound, almost a new tongue, where many lexical fields would blend together for a unified effect. His usage here paralleled his belief that the United States was, or rather would be, great because of its ability to meld together all the world’s races.

What caused even greater difficulties for readers was his presentation of a startling, allusive sequence of concepts. Many serious readers could not follow the leaps of this argument and imagined that his writing was the product of some sort of poetic frenzy. In actuality, his texts exhibited incredibly compressed and subtle trains of thought that recall the lightning-like logical discussions appearing in poems of John Donne and other seventeenth century British metaphysical poets, whom Crane much admired.

To illustrate the uncomprehending reception accorded his works, one could consider the response of Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, one of the most prestigious magazines of the period, who chided him about a submission: “Your poem reeks with brains. . . . [T]he beauty which it seems entitled to is tortured and lost.” She consented to publish the poem only with Crane’s explanation appended. In his clarification, Crane outlined his doctrine of the “logic of metaphor.” He argued that “emotional dynamics are not to be confused with any absolute order of rationalized definitions.” He went on to ask: “Isn’t there a terminology something like shorthand as compared to usual description . . . which the artist ought to be right in trusting as a reasonable connective agent toward fresh concepts, more inclusive evaluations?” That is, in order to depict accurately the flickering play of emotions as they intersect with intellection and the objects of feelings, what is needed is a style of writing that moves associatively and quickly inside language.

As mentioned, the theme of these shorter poems is transcendence. More specifically, and in keeping with his youth, Crane’s poems centered on such adolescent themes as appreciation of other writers or artists from whom the poet had learned, in pieces such as “Chaplinesque” (1921) and “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926), or of longing for experience, in such poems as “Repose of Rivers” (1926). The writer may (for example, in “Chaplinesque”) begin by meditating disconsolately on the nature of life but then see suddenly how great art finds and gives importance to the small victories that are still possible.

In his monumental The Bridge, Crane again must work his way from despair to hope, but in this work his melancholy turns on the sorry state of the crass, materialistic United States—a country which the writer eventually sees revealed, in an apotheosis, as the center of light and democracy that it could be, symbolized in the image of a bridge. His final poems, darker and yet still as lyrically intense—poems such as “The Broken Tower” (1932)—portray a bid for elevation that fails as the poet’s own force seems insufficient for renewing vision.

“At Melville’s Tomb”

First published: 1926 (collected in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

The poet visualizes nineteenth century American novelist Herman Melville sadly meditating on the destructive force of the ocean but then rising toward acceptance.

“At Melville’s Tomb” is the poem that caused Poetry editor Harriet Monroe such trouble in interpretation and called forth Crane’s famous reply in which he expounded his theory of composition. The sixteen-line poem pays homage to the nineteenth century American novelist Herman Melville. In the manner of many poems by young writers addressing their forebears, it manages both to praise the older writer and to suggest that he shares the younger writer’s outlook.

Crane pictures Melville as meditating on one of Crane’s favored themes, the dual nature of the sea, beginning the lyric with the imaginative depiction of the novelist watching breakers roll onto a beach. Certainly Melville, a sailor, wrote knowingly about the sea, but his major novel, Moby Dick (1851), to which Crane alludes, is little concerned with this topic and centers on fraternal and hierarchical relations in a small community of men on a whaling ship.

As Crane depicts the ocean that Melville is observing, it is a place both of death and of eventual resurrection as men overcome their fears and create a faith in something higher. Water has traditionally been viewed as connected to rebirth in baptism and other rituals. As Melville looks into the surf, he sees “the dice of drowned men’s bones” and thinks of the wrecks and lost lives in the depths. His thought rises up, though, to a vision of men at sea finding a spiritual solace in the sky as “silent answers crept across the stars.”

The poem is written in four-line stanzas in iambic pentameter. The strict meter and stanzaic form play against an irregular rhyme scheme that is used to reinforce the argument. The only heroic couplet (consecutive rhyming lines), for example, occurs in the climactic lines at the end of the third stanza, where Melville finds metaphysical rest.

The terrific condensation of image and argument make the poem difficult to read easily, and this difficulty starts with the title. “At Melville’s Tomb” suggests that the piece to be presented will describe the poet pondering the novelist’s tombstone. Yet from the first line, setting the poem on a deserted beach, it becomes evident that the “tomb” denoted by the title is not one in which Melville is buried but the place where many of his characters, such as the crew of the Pequod in Moby Dick, are buried—that is, the bottom of the sea. This redirection of the reader from an individual grave to broader resting place can be seen as symbolizing the way an artist redirects a reader’s gaze from his or her own personal problems to the universality of the human condition.

“For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”

First published: 1926 (collected in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

Crane presents mythic characters from the Trojan War as embodiments of human energies that can still be unearthed in humankind’s midst by the poet-seer.

It would be appropriate to begin the analysis of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” with its title. The reader will search in vain for any mention of a marriage or of Faustus in the three-part piece; however, a study of the title leads directly into an understanding of Crane’s ideas about historical correspondence. He wrote that in this poem he was trying to find “a contemporary approximation to an ancient human culture.” In the case of Helen, considered the most beautiful woman in the classical world, Crane sought to reconstruct in “modern terms . . . the basic emotional attitude toward beauty that the Greeks had.” Thus, in the poem’s first part, the narrator sees Helen in modern garb stuck in rush-hour traffic.

This attitude toward the past offers a strong rebuff to the outlook of Crane’s pessimistic contemporaries. An example of this more prevalent, darker attitude is to be found in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970). In this work, the poet, disavowing the present, imaginatively envisions previous times in history, in Renaissance Italy or feudal China, for example, when one could combine writing verse with living a socially and politically active life. Crane refuses to follow Pound in entering the past as a refuge but insists that every possibility for heroic life that could be found in other periods is still to be found.

As if to prove this assertion, his poem finds modern equivalents for specific events in the life of...

(The entire section is 4112 words.)