Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1188
The book-length poem The Bridge far surpasses in scope anything else Crane attempted. In “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” he had indicated how the energies of ancient mythic symbols still exist in modern times. In this larger work, he attempts to explain how primary American myths are embedded in current consciousness and, further, how these myths are basically emancipatory, pointing the United States to a future of ethnic harmony and a valuing of artistic achievement.
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One thing that spurred Crane to the creation of this work was his reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In looking at the work, Crane was both awed by Eliot’s technical mastery and irritated by his hopelessness. Eliot, too, drew on mythology to create his work, turning to agrarian cultures for his theme. In those cultures, there was often a myth of a king or hero who died in the autumn but who was reborn in spring with the new crops. Eliot, as his title suggests, stopped the unfolding of this story halfway, depicting modern society as one that had lost all of its legitimate authorities and was stuck in a winter without hope of resurrection.
A look at the manner in which Crane treated the story of Rip Van Winkle in the second part of his poem will indicate his contrasted approach. The folktale is presented in a way that is both wittily irreverent and personal. It is not called up in a portentous meditation but by recalling how it first was learned by the author in a primary school lesson, where the pupil “walked with Pizarro in a copybook.” The story is interpreted positively, as charting the capacities of the human mind.
Rip Van Winkle woke up in a confused state, in which events that for him occurred yesterday had actually taken place twenty years before. Crane presents his mature narrator effortlessly, vividly recalling his school days, and so indexes Van Winkle’s juxtaposition of time periods to the human ability to recapture the past. This point validates, in turn, the broader project of the poem, which argues for the centrality of memory. If, the poem argues, the United States’ historical and mythic apprehension were fully used, the nation would be regenerated.
It should not be thought that Crane’s fervent optimism meant that he underestimated the problems of America. Two of its major defects, as he diagnosed them, propelled his work. The country had lost touch with its past, he says, and this is shown in a number of ways. For one, the omnipresent clamor of advertising and other distractions, as described in the opening of “The River” section, tricks the people into a pointless immersion in contemporary ephemera.
A related point is that the lack of historical circumspection has undercut an appreciation of who really built the country. “The River” section casts light on the lives of transient workers, roustabouts, and ne’er-do-wells who worked the farms and factories. He speaks of “hobo-trekkers that forever search/ An empire wilderness of freight and rails” as the true elders of the country. This group has come to know the physical terrain of the nation in a way the comfortable never could—by their daily harsh contact with it.
A second fault that Crane spies is the United States’ mistreatment and ignorance of the American Indian. This represents another loss of the country’s past, for, in conceiving of America, Crane is thinking not primarily of the history of the United States since the thirteen colonies but of the history of the geographical land mass. His sensitivity in examining the symbolic, personal, and interpersonal connotations of the Caribbean Sea in “Voyages” had prepared him for the similar examination he carries out in this work of his own country’s topography. In studying this terrain, he repeatedly finds evidence of a layer of history and myth left by the Indians. The section “The Dance” focuses on Indian ceremonials and beliefs, which he reveals need to be acknowledged and integrated into his country’s awareness.
With themes as powerful as these handled with such boldness and lyricism, it is not surprising (or pretentious on Crane’s part) that he was to compare his poem to the Roman epic poem by Vergil, The Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). In the most elementary of ways, The Bridge is not an epic, as it lacks both a straightforward narrative and an epic hero, but it does employ a number of epic devices and is guided by an epic theme.
A standard epic poem begins with an invocation of the muse, the goddess of poetry who the writer hopes will provide inspiration on this high venture. Crane, believing in no gods, calls on the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he could see close at hand from his window during some of the time he was writing this work. He calls to it, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend.” The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and so reveals to the poet that America can, on rare occasions, use its mechanical, pragmatic genius for the construction of lovely objects.
A second important device Crane reemploys is the epic guide. In Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), for example, the poet narrator is led through hell by the ghost of his predecessor, Vergil. In the “Cape Hatteras” section of Crane’s poem, the shade of Walt Whitman, nineteenth century American poet, appears. Whitman also had seen his country on the rack, having served as a male nurse in the Civil War, and yet had felt the country’s promise, as Crane does. The poet of The Bridge feels his vigor renewed by contact with this earlier giant.
Finally, epic poems are often concerned with the founding of cultures or countries. The Aeneid ends with the founding of Rome. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) concludes with the origins of the Christian world in the Garden of Eden. The Bridge sets out to reform America by pondering its origins. The first section of the poem, “Ave Maria,” concerns Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America for the Europeans. The next section, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” however, undercuts the finality of Columbus’s so-called discovery, both by discussing the Indians, who came to the land long before Columbus, and by noting that it was anonymous workers and farmers, not the well-known, who did most of the work of discovery.
The following sections develop the narrator’s own sense of the past and explore how the past is sedimented in every landscape. In “Quaker Hill,” for example, Crane’s visit to the New Avalon Hotel, a building that had once been a Quaker meeting house, leads to reflections on the political and spiritual changes one area of New England has undergone in its history. The last section, “Atlantis,” returns to the Brooklyn Bridge, playing off the multiple associations of its architecture to dream of what happiness the future will hold if only the nation can follow the lead of its poets in grasping hold of its own myth and life history.