While in Mexico in September, 1931, Crane went with an archaeologist on a five-day trip to an Aztec village called Tepoztlan. By accident, Crane and the archaeologist arrived during the yearly festival honoring Tepozteco, the Aztec god of pulque, a native alcoholic beverage. Crane drank with village leaders and was encouraged to participate in the festival, including being invited to beat an ancient drum in a ceremony at dawn. In his letters, Crane expressed pleasure at joining uninhibitedly in the festival and winning the goodwill of the villagers. It was apparently after this experience that he wrote “The Circumstance.”
Xochipilli was associated with pleasure—feasting, dancing, games, and frivolity—as well as with love. His mate was Xochiquetzalli, goddess of domestic labor and the harvest. It is easy to see why Crane, who led a short and reckless life, would find this Native American Dionysus appealing among the grim gods of the Aztec pantheon. Compared to the human sacrifices in other Aztec rituals, sacrifices to Xochipilli were relatively humane: The Aztecs used obsidian knives to draw blood from earlobes. The blood was then touched to plants to ensure their continuing fertility. Xochipilli, however, appears not to have been completely benign. Small doves were also sacrificed. He is frequently portrayed carrying a staff on which a human heart is impaled. Both the joyous and the bloody aspects of Xochipilli seem to have suited Crane’s mood. Crane refers to “A god of flowers in statued/ Stone,” but in a parallel phrase also describes Xochipilli as “deathin flowering stone.”
“The Circumstance” is a difficult poem made more difficult by the knowledge that it may be incomplete. Critics have seen the poem as an echo, even a repetition, of “The Dance” from The Bridge (1930). “The Dance” is also a poem in which the poet tries to imagine himself into a primeval Native American world, violent but in harmony with the life and death that are inevitable in nature. Similarly, the central effort of “The Circumstance” is to respond to the dilemma of the brevity of human life in the vastness of time, but its imagery, though vivid and disturbing, is sometimes obscure. Art and religion, as represented by the ruins of Aztec culture, seem to both participate in and endure beyond (if not triumph over) the bloody events of history. The focus of the poem is more on the poet’s subjective desire to overcome time, to live imaginatively in the past while recognizing the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.
By “the circumstance” Crane seems to mean the opposition between cultures, such as the Aztec and the Spanish, and, in a larger sense, between the cycle of nature and time, in which mortality finds itself. “The Circumstance” expresses both empathy for the Aztecs and envy that the poet cannot actually enter the pre-Columbian world. Crane seems to see Xochipilli, intimate with the blood and beauty of life, as a “more enduring answer” than rationalism (and perhaps than Christianity) to the problem of the hugeness of time and the smallness and brevity of life.
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