What is the meaning of this Stephen Crane poem below, "A Man Said to the Universe":
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.” (Crane, 1899)
A man declares to the universe that he exists in order to be recognized, in order to feel that his existence is recognized, that he has meaning and purpose in the grand scheme of things. It is not enough for the man to conceive of his existence to and for himself. He is seeking recognition, or at least to be acknowledged by the universe around him. The universe replies that the fact that the man exists does not create a sense of the universe being obligated to that man. In other words, the (personified or sentient) universe acknowledges that the man exists but is indifferent to his existence. On the one hand, the universe gives the man what he wants; acknowledgment of his existence. But on the other hand, the universe essentially says, "yes, but it doesn't matter to me."
Some readers might interpret this poem as a conversation with God, the universe being God. In this case, God acknowledges the man's existence but is not obligated to him. This would be a Deist perspective; a belief that God does not intervene in the world and in human affairs. The man is left to find the divine in himself and/or the abstract world of the spiritual.
Reading this poem with "The Open Boat," it seems more likely that the universe is not God. Therefore, the poem is about man's quest for significance in a world that does not acknowledge him in a way that an intervening God would. The man is therefore faced with being acknowledged but ignored; just as the natural world reacts to him in physical ways but, having no consciousness, nature ignores him. In "The Open Boat," when the men are faced with drowning, the narrator (perhaps also the voice of the correspondent), notes:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.
In the poem, the man may have similar frustrations. He is in a world/universe which does not care about him. His only hope to feel significant is to accept the indifference of the universe to his fate and create significance for himself.