The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

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“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 stones and displaying bones, as in a museum, represent a desire to stop time. Xochipilli, often portrayed with flowers and butterflies, might be said to “drink the sun” as flowers do—another way of dealing with time, by living in the moment. The Aztec flower god, by celebrating the cycle of nature and by existing as a stone statue, may have it both ways.

The phrase “stumbling bones” refers directly to the remains of those sacrificed by the Aztecs (or—less likely—those killed by the Spaniards). “You” may be taken as a way of addressing the reader, but it may also be taken to mean that the speaker is addressing himself as “you” as he tries to enter imaginatively into the past. The stanza struggles somehow to see love as triumphant over time, but the diction is halting, the link to Xochipilli is tenuous, and the victory is, at best, tentative. The glittering crown at the beginning is paralleled by the winds possessed “in halo full” at the end. Xochipilli’s crown of gold or golden flowers parallels a Christian halo. Yet these parallels are not fully explored as variant answers to the questions that human mortality raises about time.

The third stanza gives the poem its central concluding statement, “You could stop time.” Xochipilli participated in the history of his time, but he also stood beyond it as a god. Xochipilli’s answer to the vastness of time is to be memorialized with monuments and statues that have endured “as they did—and have done.” But Xochipilli stands more prominently for the cycle of nature, the living and dying by which life continues on earth.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

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 “answer” is repeated three times in the concluding stanza.

The second stanza is a long sequence of phrases comprising two dependent clauses: “If you could buy the stones” and “If you/ Could drink the sun.” Crane does not resolve these conditional clauses with an independent clause until the final stanza, where he concludes the “if” sequence on the independent clause, “You could stop time.” In fact, syntactical resolution is played with, suspended, or delayed until that single independent clause around which the whole poem turns. The lines “as did and does/ Xochipilli,—as they who’ve/ Gone have done, as they/ Who’ve done” in stanza 2 prepare the reader for “As they did—and have done” at the very end. This repetition may be taken to represent the cycle of nature, words and phrases returning in slightly different contexts, as flowers return each spring.

Some passages resist paraphrase but carry clear sensuous and emotive force. “Desperate sweet eyepit-basins” manages to sound gory and tender at the same time. “If you could die, then starve, who live/ Thereafter” may seem confusing at first because it places death before starvation, but it clearly describes the fertility cycle. Seeds die, then “starve” all winter before being nourished by spring rain and warmth. Crane never exactly states who “Mercurially might add,” but the phrase refers to time, which defies logic by adding to life as it subtracts from and concentrates life.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

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