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Stephen Crane's poetry was before its time: modern, satirical, full of paradox, free of convention. To a reader in 1899, it didn't look or sound like poetry--more like the stuff of crazed fortune cookie. It was free verse, like Whitman's, but it lacked Walt's optimism. It had the ironic bite and the brevity of Dickinson's, but without her meter. Ineed Crane was forerunner of the Imagists who, a decade after his death, would say:
I. Direct treatment of the “thing," whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
Originally bowdlerized in the back of The Philistine, a Periodical of Protest in 1899, Crane fronted the poem, originally titled "SOME THINGS," with prose satire regarding hats. The poem has since been cut into two stanzas, but origininally it was printed as only one. In particular, Crane characterizes Ali Baba of East Aurora, who collected 241 hats and wore a different one each day. Hats, he writes, are a mark of individuality:
To wear a hat just like everybody else is to outwardly acknowledge that your head thinks the same thoughts that all other heads think.
He goes on to say that the hat is a sex marker: the hat to the man is like the comb and wattles are to the rooster. Note the reverse anthropomorphism Instead of giving animals human qualities, Crane gives animal qualities to men.
Crane, of course, is attacking the Gilded Age's conformity and materialism. This time period is perhaps the greediest in human history in which railroad barons and steel tychoons formed monopolies at the expense of child labor, slums, polluted cities, and tenement houses. A theme in Crane's fiction is the disconnectedness of human beings, and this poem no doubt satirizes this detachment using greed as a primary cause.
Even if the poem was originally one stanza, the reader will note the turn in the sixth line (where most anthologies will separate it into two stanzas). The poem features the use of synesthesia:
the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.
So, the impact of the dollar, accumulated visually, has an original emotional impact. Crane uses sensual color imagery, "smiles warm," "rosily," "white," "cool velvet" and domestic metaphors, "hearth," "table," and "door." So, the impact of just one dollar has a pleasing effect: it provides for hearth and home.
Numbers are important here: one dollar, one heart, one hearth, one door. There's only a hint of satire here. This stanza is the genesis, the origin of the greed and chaos to follow. It seems harmless enough in its original movement: dollar to heart; heart to smile; smile to hearth; hearth to table; table to door.
In stanza two, that one dollar's impact, though, out the door of one's home and onto the streets of vendors becomes a conflation of violent and political imagery: "flunkeys," "Persia," "France and a sabre," "submission," "whored by pimping merchants, "dead men," and "slave." The sound imagery is deafening: "crash," "outcry," "chatter," "woof," "champing and mouthing," and "ratful squeak."
The class warfare is so distinct that this poem has been anthologized and read by the Occupy Wall Street protesters: "pimping merchants," "rich peasants," "cryptic slave." The metaphors and images all seem mismatch: "rich peasants," "an honest bear," "a cryptic slave." What's an honest bear or a cyptic slave? It's nonsense! Hence the original title, "Some things." It's chaos! And it ends with the sounds of rat's squeaking.
Champing and mouthing of hats,
Making ratful squeak of hats,
It's like imagism in reverse. Hats is all one sees and hears on the streets when a million dollars is in play. Hats are the scurry of rats. It's a kind of synecdoche:
a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa
The hats represent men (men's minds) who (which) have been reduced to rats. These hats have reduced men's thinking: they forget "state, multitude, work, and state." "State" is hilariously mentioned twice for ironic effect. So, the impact of a million dollars on a million hearts is chaos, the antithesis of community. Hats is the symbol of mass greed in action.
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