Waldo Frank (essay date 1933)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Bridge: A Poem by Hart Crane, Liveright, 1933, pp. xvii-xxxvi.
[In the following essay, Frank discusses the ways in which Crane represents the quintessential poet of modern America.]
Agrarian America had a common culture, which was both the fruit and the carrier of what I have called elsewhere "the great tradition" [The Re-discovery of America]. This tradition rose in the Mediterranean world with the will of Egypt, Israel and Greece, to recreate the individual and the group in the image of values called divine. The same will established Catholic Europe, and when it failed (producing nonetheless what came to be the national European cultures), the great tradition survived. It survived in the Europe of Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution. With the Puritans, it was formally transplanted to the North American seaboard. Roger Williams, Thomas Hooker, Jonathan Edwards; later, in a more narrow sense, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, carried on the great tradition, with the same tools, on the same intellectual and economic terms, that had been brought from Europe and that had failed in Europe. It was transplanted, it was not transfigured. But before the final defeat of its Puritan avatar—a defeat ensured by the disappearance of our agrarian economy, the great tradition had borne fruit in two general forms. The first was the ideological art of what Lewis Mumford calls the Golden Day: a prophetic art of poets so diverse as Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, whose vision was one of Possibility and whose doom, since its premise was a disappearing world, was to remain suspended in the thin air of aspiration. The second was within the lives of the common people. Acceptance of the ideal of the great tradition had its effect upon their character; and this humbler achievement is recorded, perhaps finally, in the poems of Robert Frost. Frost's art, unlike Whitman's or Melville's, is one of Probability. It gives us not a vision, but persons. They are frustrated, poor, often mad. They face grimly their resurgent hills, knowing the failure of their lives to enact the beauty of their great tradition. Yet their dwelling within it for many generations, their acceptance of its will for their own, has given them even in defeat a fibre of strength, a smoldering spark of victory; and it is this in the verse of Frost that makes it poetry of a high order.
Frost's record (North of Boston, 1914; Mountain Interval, 1916) was already madewhen the United States entered the War; and the War brought final ruin to the American culture of "free" individuals living for the most part on farms, whose beauty Frost recorded. The tradition which had tempered the persons in Frost's poems had already, before the Civil War, sung its last high Word in the old terms that were valid from Plato to Fichte. And this too was fitting, for the Civil War prepared the doom which the World War completed, of our agrarian class-culture. But the great tradition, unbroken from Hermes Trismegistus and Moses, does not die. In a society transfigured by new scientific and economic forces, it too must be transfigured. The literature and philosophy of the past hundred years reveal many efforts at this transfiguration: in this common purpose, Marx and Nietzsche are brothers. The poetry of Whitman was still founded on the substances of the old order. The poetry of Hart Crane is a deliberate continuance of the great tradition in terms of our industrialized world.
If we bear in mind this purpose of Crane's work, we shall be better prepared to understand his methods, his content, his obscurity. We shall, of course, not seek the clear forms of a poet of Probability, like Frost. But we shall, also, not too widely trust Crane's kinship with the poets of the Emersonian era, whose tradition he immediately continues. They were all, like Crane, bards of Possibility rather than scribes of realisation. Yet they relied upon inherited forms . . . forms emotional, ethical, social, intellectual and religious, transplanted from Europe and not too deliquescent for their uses. Whitman's apocalypse rested on the politics of Jefferson and on the economics of the physiocrats of France. Emerson was content with the ideology of Plato and Buddha, his own class world not too radically differing from theirs. Even Emily Dickinson based her explosive doubts upon the permanent premise of a sheltered private garden, to which such as she could always meditatively retire. These conventional assumptions gave to these poets an accessible and communicable form; for we too have been nurtured on the words of that old order. But in Crane, none of the ideal landmarks, none of the formal securities, survive; therefore his language problem—the poet's need to find words at once to create and to communicate his vision—is acute. Crane, who began to write while Frost was perfecting his story, lived, instinctively at first, then with poignant awareness, in a world whose cant outlines of person, class, creed, value—still clear, however weak, in Emerson's Boston, Whitman's New York, Poe's Richmond—had dissolved. His vision was the timeless One of all the seers, and it binds him to the great tradition; but because of the time that fleshed him and that he needed, to substance his vision, he could not employ traditional concretions. He began, naked and brave, in a cultural chaos; and his attempt, with sound materials, to achieve poetic form, was ever close to chaos. What is clear in Crane, besides the intensity and the traditionalism of his creative will, is the impact of inchoate forces through which he rose to utterance. Cities, machines, the warring hungers of lonely and herded men, the passions released from defeated loyalties, were ever near to overwhelm the poet. To master them, he must form his Word unaided. In his lack of valid terms to express his relationship with life, Crane was a true culture-child; more completely than either Emily Dickinson or Blake, he was a child of modern man.
Harold Hart Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, July 21, 1899. His parents, Clarence Arthur Crane and Grace Hart, were of the pioneer stock that trekked in covered wagons from New England to the Western Reserve. But his grandparents, on both sides, had already shifted from the farm to small town business; and Clarence A. Crane became a wealthy candy manufacturer in Cleveland. Here, the poet, an only child, lived from his tenth year. At thirteen, he was composing verse; at sixteen, in the words of Gorham Munson, [in Destinstions] "he was writing on a level that Amy Lowell never rose from." In the winter of 1916, he went with his mother, who soon separated from her husband, to the Isle of Pines, south of Cuba, where his grandfather Hart had a fruit ranch; and this journey, which gave him his first experience of the sea, was cardinal in his growth. The following year, he was in New York; in contact with Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of The Little Review; tutoring for college; writing; already passionately and rather wildly living. At this time, two almost mutually exclusive tendencies divided the American literary scene. One was centered byEzra Pound, Alfred Kreymborg, the imagists, Harriet Monroe's Poetry and The Little Review; the other was grouped about The Seven Arts. Young Crane was in vital touch with both. He was reading Marlowe, Donne, Rimbaud, Laforgue; but he was also finding inspiration in Whitman, Sherwood Anderson and Melville. His action, when the United States lurched into war, reveals the complexity of his interests. He decided not to go to college, and by his own choice, returned to Cleveland, to work as a common laborer in a munition plant and a shipyard on the Lake. He loved machines, the earth-tang of the workers. He was no poet in an ivory tower. But he also loved music; he wanted time to write, to meditate, to read. The conflict of desires led him, perhaps, to accept what seemed a comfortable compromise; a job in the candy business of his father where he hoped to find some leisure without losing contact with the industrial world.
The elder Crane seems to have been a man of turbulent and twisted power, tough-fibred and wholly loyal to the gods of Commerce. He was sincerely outraged by the jest of fortune which had given him a poet for a son. Doubtless, he was bitter at his one child's siding with the mother in the family conflict; but under all, there was a secret emotional bond between the two, making for the ricochet of antagonism and attraction that lasted between them until the father's death, a year before the poet's. The candy magnate set to work to drive the "poetry nonsense" out of his boy. Hart became a candy salesman behind a counter, a soda-jerker, a shipping clerk. He received a minimum wage. Trusted employees were detailed to spy on him lest he read "poetry books" during work hours. Hart Crane escaped several times from the paternal yoke, usually to advertising jobs near home or in New York. And at last, in 1920, he decided to break with both Cleveland and his father.
His exquisite balance of nerves was already permanently impaired. The youthful poet, who had left a comfortable household to live with machines and rough men, who had shouldered "the curse of sundered parentage," [The Bridge] who had tasted the strong drink of literature and war, carried within him a burden intricate and heavy, a burden hard to hold in equilibrium. Doubtless, the chaos of his personal life led him to rationalise that accessible tangent ease from the strain of balance, which excess use of alcohol invited. Yet there was a deeper cause for the dis-equilibrium which, when Crane was thirty-two, was finally to break him from his love of life and destroy him.
Crane was a mystic. The mystic is a man who knows, by immediate experience, the organic continuity between his self and the cosmos. This experience, which is the normal fruit of sensitivity, becomes intense in a man whose native energy is great; and lest it turn into an overwhelming, shattering burden, it must be ruthlessly disciplined and ordered. The easiest defense from this mystic burden is of course the common one of denying the mystic experience altogether. An anti-mystical age like ours is simply one so innerly resourceless that it solves, by negation and aggressive repression, the problem of organic continuity between the self and a seemingly chaotic world—thus perpetuating the inward-and-outward chaos. The true solution is too arduous for most men: by self-knowledge and self-discipline, it is to achieve within one's self a stable nucleus to bear and finally transfigure the world's impinging chaos. For the nucleus within the self, as it is gradually revealed, is impersonal and cosmic; is indeed the dynamic key to order in the "outward" world. By this synthesis of his own burden, the mystic escapes from destruction and becomes a master. Crane did not personally achieve it. Yet he was too virile to deny the experience of continuity; he let the world pour in; and since his nuclear self was not disciplined to detachment from his nerves and passions, he lived exacerbated in a constant swing between ecstasy and exhaustion. Therefore, he needed the tangent release of excess drink and sexual indulgence.
The poet was clearer and shrewder than the man. His mind, grown strong, sought a poetic principle to integrate the exuberant flood of his impressions. The important poems, anterior to The Bridge, and written between his nineteenth and his twenty-fifth year, reveal this quest but not the finding. As Allen Tate points out in his Introduction to White Buildings (1926), "a suitable theme" is lacking. The themes of these poems are high enough. But, to quote Mr. Tate again: "A series of Imagist poems is a series of worlds. The poems of Hart Crane arefacets of a single vision; they refer to a central imagination, a single evaluating power, which is at once the motive of the poetry and the form of its realisation." This central imagination, wanting the unitary principle or theme, wavers and breaks; turns back upon itself instead of mastering the envisaged substance of the poem. That is why, in this first group, a fragmentary part of a poem is sometimes greater than the whole. And that is why it is at times impossible to transpose a series of images into the sense- and thought-sequence that originally moved the poet and that must be perceived in order to move the reader. The mediate principle, conterminous with both the absolute image-logic of the poem and the thought-logic of the poet, and illumining the latter in the former, is imperfect. The first lines of his White Buildings
As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by .. .
are a superb expression of chaos, and of the poet's need to integrate this chaos within the active mirror of self. Page after page, "realities plunge by," only ephemerally framed in a mirroring mood which alas! at once melts, itself, into the turbulent procession. Objective reality exists in these poems only as an oblique moving-inward to the poet's mood. But the mood is never, as in imagist or romantic verse, given for and as itself. It is given only as a moving-outward toward the objective world. Each lyric is a diapason between two integers of a continuous one. But the integers (subjective and objective) are almost never clear; the sole clarity is the balance of antithetical movements. This makes of the poem an abstract, wavering, æsthetic body. There is not yet, as in the later work, a conscious,...
(The entire section is 5598 words.)