The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Benfey, Christopher E. G. The Double Life of Stephen Crane. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.

Cady, Edwin H. Stephen Crane. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Gullason, Thomas A., ed. Stephen Crane’s Literary Family: A Garland of Writings. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Hayes, Kevin J. Stephen Crane. Tavistock, Northumberland, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2004.

Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding “The Red Badge of Courage”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane: Journalism and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Weatherford, Richard M., ed. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.