For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen

by Hart Crane
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827

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.

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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 communication can dish out, like “Smutty wings flash[ing] out equivocations.”

The mind is also “brushed by sparrow wings,” however, for humans can day-dream, and so as he leaves the office or shop one evening and gets on the streetcar for home, Faustus imagines what might happen if “I forgot/ The fare and transfer” and, stuck on the wrong line as it were, “might find [Helen’s] eyes across an aisle/uncontested now.” Part 1 ends with Faustus promising that if such a thing were to happen he would be both up to and willing to make himself worthy of the task.

In part 2, the chance meeting has already occurred, for Faustus is taking Helen out for a night on the town. They dance together in a penthouse jazz club, where amid “snarling hails of melody,/ White shadows slip across the floor/ Splayed like cards from a loose hand.” There, “Among slim skaters of the gardened skies,” he woos and apparently wins her. Yet there have already been hints that the course of true love will not be an easy one. In part 1, Faustus had to remind himself that Helen has known and been known to countless males, “their million brittle, bloodshot eyes,” many of whom died on her behalf. Also, in the middle of their good time in part 2, the semblance of a war memory merges with the music in “the deft catastrophe of drums” and “the groans of death.”

In this context, the sudden shift to the potential for violence as part 3 opens is not merely understandable but also necessary: Faustus must be willing to accept the destructive quality of Helen’s beauty. The “capped arbiter of beauty in this street” may be some thief lurking in the shadows, a rival who thinks that he can win Helen for himself, or simply someone who intends to do them both harm. This ambiguous figure may be Helen herself, who has seen “intricate slain numbers” both in her bed and on the plains beyond Troy’s walls.

Whoever the “religious gunman” is, Faustus asserts that he is a match for the man. Indeed, Faustus is fresh from the war, in which as an aviator he “drove speediest destruction.” “We did not ask for that,” he reminds both himself and her, “but have survived.” In Faustus, Helen has met her match, her male equivalent at last, and so: “Let us unbind our throats of fear and pity,” that is, end any remorse about death and destruction, which is all behind them now.

Those “Who dare not share with us the breath released,” who dare not rejoice in what is, rather than despair over what has been lost, can “Laugh out the meager penance of their days,” but as for Faustus, a modern, Industrial Age man, and his newfound love, Helen, the eternal female, they will “praise the years.” For “The imagination spans beyond despair.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

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 part.as 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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

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.

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