The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)