For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen Analysis

Hart Crane

The Poem

Hart Crane’s “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” is in three parts, with a total of 139 lines. Like much of Crane’s poetry, it gives the appearance of a rigid, formal structure on the page. Yet, the blank verse lines that he most often employs are seldom perfect pentameters; furthermore, Crane does not hesitate to yield to the pleasures of a rhymed couplet as the spirit moves him, and stanzas in the highly evocative middle section are clearly influenced by free-verse styles typical of the time in which Crane wrote.

The poem is typical of the literary modernism flourishing in the post-World War I era, when innovative young poets and novelists felt free to pick and choose and to mix and match styles from a rich literary tradition that seemed somehow to have failed them. Thus, Crane’s poem combines both the lyric and the narrative mode, telling a boy-meets-girl tale in a distinctly contemporary setting overlaid with a lyric vision that seeks to heal the wounds of warfare by combining myth and legend in modern moment.

It is also, then, as the title confirms, an epithalamium, or poem in honor of a marriage. The happy couple in this case are Faustus, the legendary Renaissance doctor who supposedly made a pact with the devil, and Helen, the mythical beauty and daughter of Zeus for whose alienated affections a ten-year war was fought and a fabulous city, Troy, utterly destroyed.

Crane adds a unique twist by setting the couple in a typical contemporary American city. Indeed, after an epigraph from Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), which, in its parody of alchemical spells, reminds the reader that magic always happens in the strangest ways and often in the strangest places; part 1 opens to find Faustus working as a stock clerk. It may be stocks and bonds; it may be socks and bonnets. In any case, Faustus recounts his story: He is bored—not, like his legendary namesake, with a surfeit of all human knowledge but with all the trivial details and data modern means of...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Forms and Devices

Detractors still speak of Crane’s density and obscurities, but he is very much, and quite intentionally, a poet of the word. To say that his poems are mere “word paintings,” however, cheapens both the concept and the execution. Rather, Crane seeks verbal equivalents for experience, and these equivalents transcend words’ descriptive powers by reaching instead for their incantatory and onomatopoeic qualities. The task of the poet is to manipulate words into images that lend a dimensionality to poetic language that cannot be approximated in any other mode of discourse.

Speaking of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” Crane in his essay “General Aims and Theories” proposed an “absolute” poetry free from his personality and from what he called “any chance evaluation on the reader’s though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate.”

Crane’s attempts at achieving an absolute control over both the denotative and connotative aspects of language account for his apparent obfuscations. The image “corymbulous formations of mechanics” in part 3 offers a convenient example. In this phrase, Crane is describing airborne formations of fighter aircraft. “Corymbulous” is a botanical term describing groupings of flowers that have clustered on the same horizontal plane. Very few readers would be familiar with this word, but it might remind a reader of or be confused with the words “cumulous” and “cumulus,” which refer to cloud formations. Connecting the destructiveness of deadly flying machines with objects as indicative of life and fruition as flowers and clouds is a wholly intentional aim on Crane’s part at a subliminal language effect. Careful scrutiny, with an unabridged dictionary nearby, will reveal that “Faustus and Helen” is a wellspring of such carefully wrought verbal formulations.


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