The Poem

“The Circumstance” exists in draft versions that Hart Crane composed before his death in 1932. It was not published in Crane’s lifetime and might best be regarded as a complete draft rather than as a poem the poet considered finished. Dedicated to Xochipilli, the Aztec flower god referred to in the poem, its twenty-four lines are divided into three stanzas of uneven length.

The poem is the speaker’s effort to find, in pre-Columbian America, a better way of responding to time than he has found in his own culture. The first stanza describes the ruined site of a ritual sacrifice. The remains of a throne and a stone basin where sacrifices were performed remind the speaker of the bloody history of the Aztecs, including their fatal conflicts with the exploring Spaniards. The stanza may be interpreted as a description of the clash of the Aztecs with the Spaniards, each of whom saw the other as “a bloody foreign clown.” On one hand, the Aztecs, who had not seen horses before, “dismounted” the Spaniards from their horses in battle. On the other hand, the Spaniards “dismounted” the Aztec rulers. It might be the blood and bones of either group floating in the stone basins. The history of conquest is bloody, no matter who wins, but Crane’s sympathy seems to lie with the Aztecs.

The second stanza proposes ways to absorb, or at least take intellectual possession of, history, “more and more of Time,” as the Aztec god has. Buying...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Forms and Devices

Repetition and rhyme create parallelism and contribute to the hammering rhythm and insistent tone of the poem. These devices also take the place of consistent meter, though iambic pentameter is still the basis for the poem. The opening line is metrically regular, as are other lines in the poem, including line 18, which begins the last stanza. Iambic trimeter lines, such as lines 6 and 7, as well as more unusual lines, such as the single trochee “Shins, sus-,” contribute to the poem’s tonal variety while not violating the regular underlying rhythm.

The poem is rich in rhyme. The rhyme “crown/clown” in lines 1 and 3 in the first stanza leads to an off-rhyme with “bone” at the end of the fourth line. “Bone” also concludes the first stanza’s sequence of internal rhyme, “stone/throne.” The rhyme and repetition resume in the second stanza with “stones/bones.” The phrases “stumbling bones” and “unsuspecting shins” evoke an image of a person being led to a sacrifice, where one-third of the syllables in “sustaining” will be lopped off like a head. Difficult though the poem is, its rhythms are insistent. In the second stanza, the series of present participles, “urging,” “unsuspecting,” and “sustaining,” creates a rhythm and a parallelism enhanced by the rhymes and consonant rhymes on “nothing,” “shins,” and “in.” As the speaker struggles to find meaning in the figure of the flower god, the word...

(The entire section is 470 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.