The Black Riders

by Stephen Crane

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Themes and Meanings

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The Black Riders begins with an affirmation of the existence of sin and ends with an affirmation of the existence of God. While the title poem demonstrates the power of sin, it does not offer any hint as to its origin or indicate a possible remedy. One cannot derive any more comfort from the final poem in the collection, for although God finally strikes down a spirit for denying him, thus proving that he exists, he would not aid the spirit or even admit his presence during the spirit’s long and anguished search for him. Thus what seem to be certainties are not certain at all, and what appear to be answers merely direct one toward more questions.

It is not surprising, then, that one of the dominant themes in the collection is that of the search for truth. Crane does not minimize the difficulty of this quest. Too often, he thinks, the overconfident find themselves in the position of the “learned man” in number 20, who confidently leads the persona into the unknown, only to find that he himself is lost. Crane is skeptical of people like the man in number 28, who insists that he has ascended to the “mighty fortress” which is truth and viewed the world from his unassailable position. In Crane’s opinion, it is more likely that truth is a “shadow, a phantom” that he may never discover. Nevertheless, Crane knows that something in the human spirit yearns for truth. It may be that one is a fool for seeking it, like the man in number 24, who keeps “pursuing the horizon” even though he is told his quest is utterly “futile.” It is interesting to compare this poem with number 7. Here the searcher is pictured not as a fool but as a person of some courage: “Fear not that I should quaver,/ For I dare—I dare./ Then, tell me!” Perhaps the difference between being a fool—one of Crane’s favorite terms—and being a brave man is simply the difference between pride and humility. A fool does not know his limitations, either as an individual or as a human being; a brave man acknowledges them but refuses to embrace despair.

Whatever his uncertainties about truth or the possibility of discovering it, Crane did have firm opinions as to what constitutes human error. High on his catalog of sins was pride. Sometimes he points to this epitome of folly by contrasting human beings with animals, as he does in number 2, when the birds mock a man who cannot sing anywhere as well as they can, and in number 55, where anyone can see that the “stupid” ass who is enjoying himself in an earthly paradise is really cleverer than the man working so hard on the “burning road.” In number 18 Crane sums up the issue in the form of a parable. Brought before God for judgment, various little blades of grass boast of their achievements. One of them is diffident, confessing that he cannot remember his good deeds, whereupon God praises him as being best of all.

If human beings possessed the humility of the diffident blade of grass, they would not be so certain of their own infallibility. In number 47 an insufferably arrogant man insists that the persona think just as he does, threatening that if he does not, he is “abominably wicked,” a despicable “toad.” After due deliberation, the persona decides that under those circumstances, he would prefer to be a toad. However, as Crane points out in number 17, it is far easier to be a conformist. Very few people...

(This entire section contains 956 words.)

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are brave enough to think for themselves. As a result, the poet suggests, they are herded into church (number 32), where they worship other people’s gods (number 34), or go willingly to war in order to kill those they have been told are their enemies (number 14).

Even though the poet can see the weaknesses of humanity, he does not himself fall into the trap pride sets for nonconformists. Thus in number 45, he reveals his scorn for tradition, which he says is “milk for babes,” not “meat for men,” but then he admits quite honestly that “alas, we all are babes.”

While Crane seems firm in his ethical principles, he still wonders whether God exists, and if he does, how he relates to his creation. Sometimes the poet inclines toward nihilism (numbers 10, 66, and 67); at other times he taxes either an omnipotent God or some lesser divinity with being unjust (number 12, number 19). In number 6, he compares the world to a ship, marvelously made by divine hands, that slipped away before it could be equipped with a rudder and now drifts aimlessly through space. In this interpretation, God is not evil, just a bit careless and much too busy—it was his need to remedy a wrong that caused him to turn aside just when the world most needed him. Elsewhere, however, Crane is more hopeful. Clearly he would like to believe in a God of compassion (number 33) and of tender, “infinite comprehension” (number 51). Perhaps, the poet muses in number 49, there is a “radiance/ Ineffable, divine” that would give meaning to the universe. Perhaps it is only his own spiritual blindness that causes the vision to elude him. At the end of The Black Riders Crane is as uncertain about the existence and the nature of God as he was at the beginning.

Although Crane’s fiction has long been admired, his poetry has been largely neglected both by readers and by critics. It deserves better. The poems in The Black Riders are worth reading for the surrealistic landscapes alone, but they have other virtues as well, including stylistic originality, profound subject matter, and, above all, uncompromising honesty in their search for truth.