A serious student of poetry during the 1920’s, Hart Crane saw himself as one whose poetry would celebrate rather than denigrate the modern experience. His was to be a poetry of hope in the future and in the poet’s ability to transcend shortcomings. He sought to counteract the cultural despair that was typified, particularly, in T. S. Eliot’s influential The Waste Land (1922), a poem that Crane described as “good, but so damned dead.”
Crane consciously intended The Bridge to provide an antidote to the spiritual despair of modern life by holding up to its readers, as the emblem of the modern world’s own inspiriting accomplishments, John Augustus Roebling’s great technical achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883. Crane had first essayed the long poem form in the three-part “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” (1923), which utilizes jazz rhythms and a wide range of classical, biblical, and historical allusions in its exhortation to his contemporaries to “unbind our throats of fear and pity.”
The initial idea for The Bridge was the direct result of Crane’s insight that the contemporary world was the product, and therefore more likely the fulfillment rather than the negation, of the world’s previous effort toward understanding. By 1924, Crane had, for inspiration, taken up residence in the same Columbia Heights apartment that Roebling had occupied during the bridge’s construction. By then, too, Crane’s circle of literary friends, among them fellow poets and critics Gorham Munson, Waldo Frank, and Allen Tate, anticipated the completion of Crane’s great modernist epic with much the same excitement as he continuously shared its progress with them.
A sudden spurt of productivity occurred when the banker and art patron Otto Kahn advanced Crane one thousand dollars, with the promise of an additional one thousand dollars, so that he might leave his job as an advertising copywriter to devote his full attention to The Bridge. During the summer of 1926, on the Isle of Pines, off Cuba, Crane composed nearly half of the fifteen individual pieces that constitute the completed poem, including, along with the first three sections, “Cutty Sark,” “Three Songs,” and the final section, “Atlantis”—in sum, much of the poem’s most lyrical passages as well as its visionary heart.
The work then became bogged down as a result of Crane’s philosophical doubts after his having read Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918, 1922; The Decline of the West, 1926, 1928). Crane joined the American expatriate scene in Paris from December, 1928, to July, 1929, but rather than the experience serving as a source of renewed inspiration, he gained a considerable notoriety by indulging in assorted debaucheries. Back in New York, he finally completed The Bridge, which was published in a limited edition in Paris by the Black Sun Press in January, 1930, and by Liveright in New York in March.
The finished work might appear at first to be no more than a series of loosely connected individual poems, disparate in tone, voice, and style from one another. In fact, however, The Bridge is orchestrated much like a symphony, in which a progressive series of interrelated lyrics creates a narrative sequence that achieves greater intensity of vision as history and common experience give way to the mythic quest for an overarching identity and purpose—hence Crane’s ruling metaphor of a bridge.
In the opening poem “To Brooklyn...
(The entire section is 1470 words.)