The Black Riders

by Stephen Crane

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The Poems

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Stephen Crane was well launched into a career as a fiction writer before he ventured into poetry. As early as 1890, he was writing sketches for a college monthly, and shortly thereafter he began producing columns for the New York Tribune. In 1893 Crane published one novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, began work on another, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), and ventured into poetry. Since at that time he had only seven more years to live, it is hardly surprising that in all Crane produced only 136 poems. Half of these appeared in The Black Riders, another thirty-seven in a later volume, War Is Kind (1899). Only eight more poems were published during Crane’s lifetime; the remainder were collected and printed after his death.

Though Crane’s important first collection is usually referred to as The Black Riders, it actually appeared under the title The Black Riders and Other Lines. His poems deal with serious issues, but they are not based on a systematic theology or philosopy. Instead, they are speculations, born of fleeting thoughts or experiences, that the poet jotted down and then shaped into a coherent form. Like lyrics, each of the poems in The Black Riders is clearly tied to a moment, and therefore there are often marked differences between various poems on the same subject. Crane’s poems are not intended to express emotion as a lyric does, but to be little essays in poetic form—or, as the author also described them, “pills” to remedy the spiritual and intellectual ills that afflict humanity.

One reason Crane used words such as “lines” or “pills” to describe his poems was that, while he was happy to be classified with fiction writers, he did not want to be considered a poet. For him the term implied effete bohemianism. On the other hand, Crane was proud of his own works in the genre. He even admitted liking The Black Riders better than The Red Badge of Courage, explaining that the novel was limited in scope, whereas the poetry covered all areas of human existence.

The sixty-eight poems in The Black Riders are all written in free verse. They are very short, many of them no more than three to six lines in length. Only four are over twenty lines. Moreover, because most of Crane’s lines are themselves so short, sometimes consisting of just a word or two, even the longest of the poems in the collection (number 49) does not seem as lengthy as its forty lines might indicate.

Despite their brevity, however, Crane’s poems have internal conflict and move to a conclusion. For example, the first poem in the collection begins with a dramatic description of the “black riders” and ends with a startling explanation: The ride of the mysterious men, readers learn in the last line, is like that of “Sin.” By contrast, the drama in the second and third poems involves a contrast in perspective, in one case between the judgments of birds and human beings, and in the other between the persona and a “creature, naked, bestial,” who may or may not be human but in any case is acting in a very peculiar fashion, at least as far as the narrator is concerned. Crane introduces his unnamed persona for the first time in number 3; though he does not appear in all of the poems, he does so frequently enough to provide a degree of unity to the collection.

The book does not have the same tight structure as the poems within it or as any of Crane’s...

(This entire section contains 749 words.)

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fiction, however. While a dozen themes or motifs appear, disappear, and reappear as the collection proceeds, no thematic divisions are evident, nor does the work as a whole move toward any conclusion. It has been suggested thatThe Black Riders is meant to represent a journey through life, perhaps that of the persona, whose presence could be imagined even when he does not appear. If so, the journey is circular rather than linear, for though each poem moves toward some discovery, the work as a whole does not move toward any transforming vision or redeeming certainty. This may be exactly the point Crane is making—that while one may appear to be progressing in life, making one discovery after another on the way to some final understanding, actually one ends where one began, except that one’s mind is now crowded with conflicting truths, flooded with metaphors that still refuse to form a coherent pattern.

Forms and Devices

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Crane’s experiments with poetic form came as a direct result of his exposure to the work of another highly original poet. In the spring of 1893, Crane had been invited to call on the prominent novelist William Dean Howells. During their visit Howells read Crane several of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and almost immediately thereafter Crane began writing the poems that would appear in The Black Riders. It is not difficult to see why this exposure to Dickinson, along with Howells’s obvious admiration for her, so inspired Crane. Like her, he decided to ignore the conventions of the genre, even in so superficial a matter as the way his book would look. For instance, Crane insisted that his poems be given no titles, only numbers, and that they be printed, one to a page, in capital letters throughout. As a result, they looked at least as strange as Dickinson’s dash-filled lines.

There was also much in Dickinson’s style that appealed to Crane, notably her terseness and her use of epigrams. In number 34, for example, Crane’s persona spurns those who are attempting to foist their own images of God upon him: “I can’t buy of your patterns of God,/ The little gods you may rightly prefer.” In number 62, a final epigram denies the significance of a man’s entire life: “Yet when he was dead,/ He saw that he had not lived.” One of the antiwar poems, number 5, describes how a well-intentioned suggestion by a single individual led to a bloody and long-lasting conflict. In time, readers are told, the man died, broken-hearted. The poem ends with a memorable epigram: “And those who stayed in bloody scuffle/ Knew not the great simplicity.” The shortest poem in the collection, number 56, does not just contain an epigram, but is an epigram in its entirety: “A man feared that he might find an assassin;/ Another that he might find a victim./ One was more wise than the other.”

In other ways, however, Crane’s poetry is very different from that of Dickinson. Instead of meter and rhyme, he used the looser rhythmic patterns of free verse. Moreover, where Dickinson’s references to the natural world—a snake, a bird, a fly—were always exact and particular, Crane’s images are general, used primarily for allegorical purposes. The “little birds” in number 2, for example, have no individuality, and, except for his grin, the “fat, stupid ass” in number 55 is as unrealized as the “green place” where he is standing. Often Crane mentions mountains, deserts, gardens, and stars, but he does not describe them. Instead, he uses the words as stimuli which will prompt his readers to sketch appropriate landscapes from their own experience, while he proceeds to indicate the metaphorical implications of his imagery.

In The Black Riders Crane uses imagery to reinforce the statement he makes so often in his poems: that the world is, above all, a place of suffering and conflict. Even when his point about the seeming inevitability of human conflict is not made explicitly, as it is in number 27, where an encounter turns into a murder, and in number 5, where killing seems to be humanity’s favorite pastime, it is implicit in such images as the “clang of spear and shield” in the title poem and even the “noise of tearing” that threatens the persona in number 40. There is no refuge. If various gods do not attack a man, as in number 19, the mountains will, as in number 22. In number 41, the very landscape, with its rocks and briars, seems malevolent. Frequently the world is described as a hostile desert (number 3, number 42) or a place of “snow, ice, burning sand” (number 21).

Crane’s use of color imagery in Black Riders is particularly significant. At least a dozen times, the poet refers to red or to such associated images as fire and blood, and about as often, he mentions black or darkness. Thus blackness symbolizes not only sin (number 1) and death (number 68), but also existential fear (number 10) and the unknowable nature of the universe (number 29). This earth is indeed “a place of blackness” (number 23).

Though red is sometimes associated with life and hope, in Crane’s poems it symbolizes pain, torment, and, like black, inevitable death. There are specific references to the color red, such as the red demons in number 46, but red is also associated with fire, with the desert heat, with the “crimson clash of war” (number 14), and with blood. In number 30, for example, the “red sword of virtue” means virtual suicide. In the final analysis, it does not much matter whether one dies on a “burning road,” on the bloody field of battle or, more quietly, in black despair. In The Black Riders the serene, green gardens all lie “at impossible distances” (number 26). Red and black are the colors of this world, and there is no comfort in either of them.


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