For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen

by Hart Crane

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

It would be appropriate to begin the analysis of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” with its title. The reader will search in vain for any mention of a marriage or of Faustus in the three-part piece; however, a study of the title leads directly into an understanding of Crane’s ideas about historical correspondence. He wrote that in this poem he was trying to find “a contemporary approximation to an ancient human culture.” In the case of Helen, considered the most beautiful woman in the classical world, Crane sought to reconstruct in “modern terms . . . the basic emotional attitude toward beauty that the Greeks had.” Thus, in the poem’s first part, the narrator sees Helen in modern garb stuck in rush-hour traffic.

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This attitude toward the past offers a strong rebuff to the outlook of Crane’s pessimistic contemporaries. An example of this more prevalent, darker attitude is to be found in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970). In this work, the poet, disavowing the present, imaginatively envisions previous times in history, in Renaissance Italy or feudal China, for example, when one could combine writing verse with living a socially and politically active life. Crane refuses to follow Pound in entering the past as a refuge but insists that every possibility for heroic life that could be found in other periods is still to be found.

As if to prove this assertion, his poem finds modern equivalents for specific events in the life of the mythological Helen of Troy, mentioned in the poem’s title. In the original myth, Helen had been kidnapped from her Greek husband, Menelaus, by Paris, son of the king of Troy, which precipitated a war between the two countries. In the first section of Crane’s poem, the narrator locates the modern Helen in a streetcar: “some evening,” he muses, “I might find your eyes across an aisle.” In the next part, he finds the contemporary version of the revels at Menelaus’s court in a hot jazz club. Then, in the last part, he depicts a modern version of the Trojan War in the bombings and dogfights of World War I.

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Even after all of this, however, the reference in the title to Helen marrying Faustus remains to be explained. The poem’s epigraph is from an Elizabethan playwright, which suggests that the story Crane is recalling is not the Homeric epic but this tale as it is refracted through Christopher Marlowe, who wrote Doctor Faustus (c. 1588). If Helen is the ideal of beauty, Faustus, in this play, is the ideal of learning and scholarship, who, though he has to sell his soul to the devil to obtain his desires, is able to call up Helen of Troy from hell to be his paramour.

In Crane’s poem, Faustus is never clearly identified, or even mentioned, but it is implied that he is represented by the narrator, who has drawn Helen out of the hell of a modern traffic jam. The narrator’s ability to recognize the woman who embodies beauty and offer her “one inconspicuous, glowing orb of praise” indicates that he, a poet, is the modern equivalent of Doctor Faustus, who should be rewarded with the highest prize, her hand, and that the world owes him gratitude for his ability to perceive something valuable—her beauty—that is unrecognized.

In its view of the poet’s function, then, this piece can be seen as an extension of themes in Crane’s earlier Melville poem. There the writer wrested meaning from drowned men’s bones, here from a tarnished modern world where “The mind has shown itself at times too much the baked and labeled dough,” too willing to accept pat answers rather than seeking truth for itself. Crane’s use of words from different levels of language parallels his work on myths. The poet shows both that a woman as beautiful as Helen is in our midst and that modern American English, even the vulgarized words of advertising copy, if properly combined with other words, can yield delightful harmonies.

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