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...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)