Analysis

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Last Updated on March 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

This poem relies heavily on allusion—indirect references to another text, character, or setting—in order to poignantly affect the reader's feelings and to make a point. The title refers to a British silent movie era actor named Charlie Chaplin. His most famous role was that of "The Tramp" or "the little tramp," a homeless man who acts like a high-born gentleman. The discrepancy between his very low social status and his upper-class manners creates a humorous irony. The Tramp is a lovable character, with his baggy clothes, bendy cane, and big heart. The title of the poem seems to suggest that there is an entire class of people who are Chaplinesque in terms of their similarity to this character: society's outcasts who must make their own way in a community that is judgmental of them and hostile to them. The Tramp's clothes are too baggy in places and he is rather hapless, but he possesses an innocence that those people who are more materialistic and mainstream lack.

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The Chaplinesque people are the ones who can find a "grail of laughter" in an empty garbage can or some other mundane and everyday object. They do not value something based on how much money it is worth or how much it might benefit them; they value the "random consolations" they find, the things that accidentally make them happy. They also value their hearts and their humanity, and—no matter what else is going on around them, no matter what they or other people are doing—they can always hear the "kitten in the wilderness." Though they have been shown so little love or appreciation, they know how to "love the world" and the starving kitten anyway, just as the Tramp does. With the poem's multiple allusions to Chaplin's most famous character, the poet succeeds in borrowing the comedy and pathos of the Tramp and impressing upon readers the beauty and poignancy of such a life and such a person.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque” is a poem in five stanzas, the first two containing four lines each, the last three with five lines each. The title introduces the central metaphor of the poem, the film actor and comedian Charlie Chaplin. The poem is a striking dramatization of the tenuous position in modern society of those who are, for whatever reason, excluded from the establishment. The persona, the “we” of the poem, represents all outsiders, not only poets and other artists—although they are central to Crane’s vision—but also all sensitive and feeling people who do not fit into the structured society. Although Crane sees the human condition as rather bleak and tragic, he finds brief but welcome consolation in elements of everyday life as well as in kindness, imagination, and humor.

The first stanza states in simple terms what compromises (“meek adjustments”) human beings must make in order to survive in a hostile environment. The world Crane portrays is naturalistic, materialistic, judgmental, and insensitive to the feeling, caring person. No matter what one’s expectations, he or she must learn to be satisfied with whatever occasional benefits are supplied, unexpectedly and without rational pattern, by nature or fate.

Both stanza 1 and stanza 2 refer to Charlie Chaplin in his most famous role, that of the “Little Tramp” in his baggy and tattered costume. In the first stanza, Crane describes the large pockets of the tramp’s trousers and the oversize elbows of his sleeves. In both stanzas, the “random consolations” derive from the simple, even homely pleasures that come to one unexpectedly, for example, the starving kitten on the doorstep as in need of love as is the poet or, indeed, any other person.

The third stanza describes the tactics necessary for the outsider who wishes to survive against society’s hostility. Crane’s distrust of business and of businessmen is represented by the traditional gesture of a rather frightening figure counting money between thumb and index finger. The stanza also refers obliquely to the inevitability of death and the amazement with which a person may face it, all the while endeavoring to preserve life.

In stanza 4, Crane employs Chaplin’s trick of leaning on or twirling his bendable cane to symbolize human vulnerability. The “obsequies,” or funeral rites, which might seem to some false, are, at least to a degree, true, since the heart will endure even beyond death. In other words, feeling endures, even when the physical being fails.

The final stanza offers the best hope for the sensitive human being in a hostile environment, the existence of some sort of ideal beyond the harsh reality of life. Smirk if you will, the persona says to the enemy (authority, the establishment, the law, Puritanism) but one can still hope: There may be no Holy Grail, but imagination can create “a grail of laughter” from a trash can, and there is the kitten, crying, waiting to be saved. The rescue of the kitten embodies humanistic feeling, the existence of which, for Crane, provides the best hope. These “adjustments” make life worth the effort for the persona.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The lines in “Chaplinesque” are uneven in length, and there is no predominant meter, although some are in iambic pentameter. There is only one full rhyme (“lies”/“enterprise”), but Crane uses three examples of assonance (“deposits”/“pockets”; “know”/ “coverts”; “quest”/“wilderness”). The tone is conversational and understated, the feelings carefully controlled, even though the subject matter is intensely emotional, concerning pains and disappointments and the difficulty of surviving in an unfriendly world. The way in which Crane employs some words is startling and unique, for example, “coverts,” “obsequies,” and “grail.”

The point of view is that of a first-person plural narrator who seems to speak not only for poets but also for all those excluded from conventional society. In the first four lines he introduces the major metaphor, a comparison of the human dilemma to an easily recognized cultural icon, the “Little Tramp” portrayed by Charlie Chaplin. Several lines refer to specific scenes in the Chaplin film entitled The Kid, released the year Crane wrote the poem.

Chaplin’s actions in the role are stylized, like pantomime, with jerky exaggerated movements similar to those of a puppet. Chaplin was always identified with his distinctive costume and props, including the cane that contributed, through its flexibility, to the well-choreographed pratfalls or near-falls (“these fine collapses”) that were a standard device of his performance. The look on the actor’s face, which rarely changes, is a puzzled one, like that of a child or some other innocent creature surprised by the experiences he confronts. Crane endeavored to represent in words the distinctive movements of the actor, the alternate jerky motion and frozen stances. (After reading the poem, Chaplin wrote Crane a letter of appreciation, and later the two of them met.)

In identifying with the “Little Tramp,” the poet underscores the Everyman message of the poem—that all sensitive “little” people suffer, that they find hope wherever they can, and that they must ultimately face the same fate, although there is hope in the endurance of the human heart. Further, although Chaplin as the tramp indulged unabashedly in sentimentality, he converted it, the poet felt, into a particularly modern tragedy in his depiction of a poor man shut out of the banquet of American life.

Other figures in the poem include the starving kitten, which represents the sympathetic feelings Crane believed to be an essential part of human nature; the concept of life as a game, frustrating but inevitable; the businessman in the classic pose of the money counter; the moon as imaginaton; and the ash can, which, through the alchemy of laughter is converted into a modern representation of the Holy Grail.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

Berthoff, Warner. Hart Crane: A Re-introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hart Crane: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cole, Merrill. The Other Orpheus: A Poetics of Modern Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Fisher, Clive. Hart Crane. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Hammer, Langdon. Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Leibowitz, Herbert A. Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Mariani, Paul L. The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rehder, Robert. Stevens, Williams, Crane, and the Motive for Metaphor. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Unterecker, John. Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

“Chaplinesque” is in many ways Crane’s most personal poem, in which he presents a cogent statement of the plight of the poet in modern society. As such, it is one of his major works, for here he combines his fascination with the craft of poetry with distinctive American aspects, with popular culture, and with his own life. Crane’s use of intensely personal elements places him in the tradition established by Walt Whitman, whose best-known poem was entitled “Song of Myself.” Indeed, Crane was the “most American” poet since Whitman, and he wrote in much the same vein, using American images—the Brooklyn Bridge, the elevated train, motion pictures—although in a quite original way.

Crane admired the contemporary American poet who influenced him most, T. S. Eliot, but he rejected Eliot’s belief that poetry should be a vehicle not for displaying personal emotions but for freeing oneself from them. The ash can that is transformed into a “grail of laughter” in the final stanza of “Chaplinesque” is an allusion to Eliot’s most famous work, “The Waste Land” (1922), in which the search for the Holy Grail figures as a major symbol. However, Eliot’s philosophy of impersonality ran contrary to Crane’s belief that the American poet should employ his own personal vision of the American experience to create a new kind of art, and that emotion was of the essence.

There are decidedly individual references in “Chaplinesque”—the kitten Crane himself had adopted and the pun on his own name in the line “the heart lives on”—but more important, the personal elements of the poem center around the fact that Crane always felt in his maturity separated from the mainstream of American life. First of all, as a poet, he did not fit into the corporate system represented by his father, the owner of a candy factory. Not long before the composition of “Chaplinesque,” Crane had become permanently estranged from his father, a condition that provided the poet with yet another sense of being among outsiders. Second, in an era in which his homosexuality was not only considered immoral but was also a crime punishable by imprisonment, Crane felt even further alienated from the majority. By extension, however, it should be noted that although Crane is directly concerned with poets and other outcasts, in a sense he sees all human beings as hapless victims of a naturalistic universe, a political and social world, and a fate over which most of them finally have no control. The motif of exclusion and the suffering of the poet and others would ultimately blossom again in the works of the playwright Tennessee Williams, Hart Crane’s most devoted disciple.

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