The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The Bridge belongs to the tradition of the long poem in America—they are works that ask philosophical and religious questions about life and the fate of nations. Walt Whitman was the originator of this mode of lyrical epic Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. Others who followed Whitman’s techniques in the long poem include Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot; William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Olson wrote long poems in the post-World War II era. Hart Crane’s effort to write his own sequential work found a rich context from which to draw for ideas, allusions, echoes, and conscious reference.

Other classics of the modernist era had their influence on Crane’s poem. In particular, Crane was influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, a novel of modern Dublin life in which two characters are followed closely by the narrator as they go about their affairs over a single twenty-four-hour period. This absorption with a city and the emotional lives of its citizens gave Crane the basis for the organization of his poem about modern New York City. Joyce’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is based on himself, as is Crane’s speaker in The Bridge, a sensitive young man who yearns for visionary enlightenment.

The Bridge is the last great poem of the modernist era, a period crowded with experiments in which Western culture and ideology underwent close scrutiny and sweeping revision. In essence, modernism was the rediscovery of the primitive world, where nature dominated human affairs, and myth, magic, and ritual were the principal forms of expression. Modernist writers rejected the artificiality of urban industrialism and celebrated the natural bonds between humans and wild nature as the more healthful and spiritually satisfying way. Most of these works responded to the religious crises of the early twentieth century by seeking alternative forms of vision and belief in non-Western traditions.

Crane’s poem begins with a paean, or hymn of praise, to the Brooklyn Bridge, John Augustus Roebling’s engineering wonder that spans the East River between Long Island and Manhattan. While composing this poem, Crane rented the apartment at 110 Columbia Heights from which Roebling had overseen the completion of his project. The section entitled “Proem” takes the angle of vision of that apartment window, which looked down at the bridge, and follows a sea gull as it rises up over the top of the bridge and disappears—a metaphor for imaginative flight. The reader contemplates the bridge at early dawn, at noon (when a suicide leaps from its parapets), then in the evening, when the poet admires its looming shadow against the snow falling on a cold December night, the end of the “iron year.”

What follows are eight sections of varying lengths and poetic forms, each with a thematic title. The longest section, part II, entitled “Powhatan’s Daughter,” contains five poems (the section runs to sixteen pages in most editions). Part IV, “Cape Hatteras,” has the longest poem of the group, an eight-page ode on the airplane as the...

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Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The poem employs a welter of poetic forms, stanzaic patterns, and figures of speech. Its chief forms are the dramatic monologue, as used by Eliot, and the ode, an irregular, open form, as developed by John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and raised to ecstatic meditation in Whitman. Monologues occur in “Ave Maria,” where Columbus speaks, and in “Indiana,” where a pioneer woman remembers her hard life; a dialogue poem occurs in “Cutty Sark,” interwoven with lyrics of various songs. “The Tunnel” uses several voices to enrich the meditation. The principal odes occur in “Cape Hatteras” and “Atlantis.” Though much of the language is based on iambic pentameter, the poems are essentially irregular and use a variety of rhythms to control shifting tones and moods in the work, as in an orchestral suite. The “Proem” uses “heroic couplets,” an epic convention that rhymes two lines of iambic pentameter; Crane’s rhymes are “slant,” or partial rhymes. Crane also favors the stately eight-line stanza for sombre subjects, as in “Ave Maria,” “Quaker Hill,” and “Atlantis,” and quatrains for lighter subjects, such as “The Harbor Dawn” and “The Dance.” Irregular stanzas of greater length indicate complex thinking and dense meditative structures, as in “Cape Hatteras” and “The Tunnel.”

Crane’s diction is notable for its lush, compacted phrases and for its range—from mannered eloquence and fragile images to...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Brooklyn Bridge

*Brooklyn Bridge. Steel suspension bridge connecting New York City’s boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn that opened in 1883. Considered a masterpiece of modern architecture and engineering, it serves Crane’s poem as a symbol of unimaginable, divinelike power, as well as a bridge to the past, the America of Crane’s time, and to the future. Crane opens with a paean, or hymn of praise, to the bridge, While composing this poem, Crane rented the apartment in Columbia Heights from which the bridge’s designer, John Augustus Roebling, had overseen its construction. The section titled “Proem” takes the angle of vision of that apartment window, which looked down at the bridge, and follows a sea gull as it rises up over the top of the bridge and disappears—a metaphor for imaginative flight.

*New York City

*New York City. Crane’s vision of America’s largest city is ambiguous. On one hand, “Proem” and “The Tunnel” depict a city resembling London in T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” which contrasts a sordid contemporary urban environment with an idealized past. In Crane’s poem, many of New York’s famous streets exemplify a similar contrast: Avenue A, Broadway, Fourteenth Street, Chambers Street, Bleeker Street, and Prince Street. On the other hand, in “Proem” and “Atlantis,” New York’s Brooklyn Bridge represents the greatest achievement of modern man.


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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brunner, Edward. Splendid Failure: Hart Crane and the Making of “The Bridge.” Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Despite its title, this work sets out to disprove the conventional wisdom that Crane’s was a largely undisciplined and reckless talent. The Bridge is the culmination of Crane’s continuing effort to hone his craft.

Clark, David R., ed. Studies in “The Bridge.” Westerville, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. A compilation of fourteen essays, providing a road map of critical responses to the poem virtually from the time of its publication to the 1960’s. Most of the major commentators are represented.

Crane, Hart. The Letters of Hart Crane, 1916-1932. Edited by Brom Weber. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952. Crane was an astute critic of his own work and that of others. Offers many insights into The Bridge.

Horton, Phillip. Hart Crane: The Life of an American Poet. New York: Viking Press, 1957. Written with the cooperation of Crane’s mother, this biography is like a novel in its sense of drama. It does not stint on insightful analyses of Crane’s poetry.

Paul, Sherman. Hart’s Bridge. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1972. The first book-length treatment of Crane’s masterwork. The Bridge required Crane to achieve the maturity of vision and technique required of epic poetry.