Hart Crane American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4112

If his late poems, brilliant but few in number, are set aside, Crane’s poetry can be divided into two phases. The first is that of apprenticeship, when he was composing the poems to go into the volume White Buildings. “Apprenticeship” should not be taken in this case to denote any immaturity or lack of mastery but rather that in the individual short lyrics of this book he developed a language and outlook and worked with a variety of poetic forms that in his second period he would weld into one vast, multifaceted commentary on the United States in his long poem The Bridge.

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In his first phase, he tried many forms: epithalamions, elegies, and love cycles as well as many types of versification, such as free verse, quatrains, and heroic couplets. He could work within highly constricted metrical structures naturally, never showing off this aspect of his poetry, never using this formal mastery for attention-getting effects. The most outstanding of his technical skills was his command of rhythm. Paralleling the content of his poems, which generally would describe a persona moving from a flaccid, uninspired, ordinary moment to one of heaven-sent revelation and uplift, the rhythmic movement would begin sluggishly, bogged down with caesuras (pauses in the middle of lines) and multiple uses of parataxis (clauses arranged with no apparent subordination), but the pace would gradually increase, building to an impassioned forward flow at the close.

What many readers experienced as the difficulty of entering a Crane poem is not only attributable, however, to the purposely stumbling meter at the beginning but also to both the poem’s language and manner of linking concepts. Crane had a voracious love of words from all levels of discourse, and he mixed into his poems such things as racy slang, scientific terms, everyday speech, and advertising slogans. Such combinations were common in the poetry of the day, but Crane’s approach was unusual. Where poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound juxtaposed high and low vocabulary to make a comment on modern vulgarity, Crane was trying to create a fused compound, almost a new tongue, where many lexical fields would blend together for a unified effect. His usage here paralleled his belief that the United States was, or rather would be, great because of its ability to meld together all the world’s races.

What caused even greater difficulties for readers was his presentation of a startling, allusive sequence of concepts. Many serious readers could not follow the leaps of this argument and imagined that his writing was the product of some sort of poetic frenzy. In actuality, his texts exhibited incredibly compressed and subtle trains of thought that recall the lightning-like logical discussions appearing in poems of John Donne and other seventeenth century British metaphysical poets, whom Crane much admired.

To illustrate the uncomprehending reception accorded his works, one could consider the response of Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, one of the most prestigious magazines of the period, who chided him about a submission: “Your poem reeks with brains. . . . [T]he beauty which it seems entitled to is tortured and lost.” She consented to publish the poem only with Crane’s explanation appended. In his clarification, Crane outlined his doctrine of the “logic of metaphor.” He argued that “emotional dynamics are not to be confused with any absolute order of rationalized definitions.” He went on to ask: “Isn’t there a terminology something like shorthand as compared to usual description . . . which the artist ought to be right in trusting as a reasonable connective agent toward fresh concepts, more inclusive evaluations?” That is, in order to depict accurately the flickering play of emotions as they intersect with intellection and the objects of feelings, what is needed is a style of writing that moves associatively and quickly inside language.

As mentioned, the theme of these shorter poems is transcendence. More specifically, and in keeping with his youth, Crane’s poems centered on such adolescent themes as appreciation of other writers or artists from whom the poet had learned, in pieces such as “Chaplinesque” (1921) and “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926), or of longing for experience, in such poems as “Repose of Rivers” (1926). The writer may (for example, in “Chaplinesque”) begin by meditating disconsolately on the nature of life but then see suddenly how great art finds and gives importance to the small victories that are still possible.

In his monumental The Bridge, Crane again must work his way from despair to hope, but in this work his melancholy turns on the sorry state of the crass, materialistic United States—a country which the writer eventually sees revealed, in an apotheosis, as the center of light and democracy that it could be, symbolized in the image of a bridge. His final poems, darker and yet still as lyrically intense—poems such as “The Broken Tower” (1932)—portray a bid for elevation that fails as the poet’s own force seems insufficient for renewing vision.

“At Melville’s Tomb”

First published: 1926 (collected in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

The poet visualizes nineteenth century American novelist Herman Melville sadly meditating on the destructive force of the ocean but then rising toward acceptance.

“At Melville’s Tomb” is the poem that caused Poetry editor Harriet Monroe such trouble in interpretation and called forth Crane’s famous reply in which he expounded his theory of composition. The sixteen-line poem pays homage to the nineteenth century American novelist Herman Melville. In the manner of many poems by young writers addressing their forebears, it manages both to praise the older writer and to suggest that he shares the younger writer’s outlook.

Crane pictures Melville as meditating on one of Crane’s favored themes, the dual nature of the sea, beginning the lyric with the imaginative depiction of the novelist watching breakers roll onto a beach. Certainly Melville, a sailor, wrote knowingly about the sea, but his major novel, Moby Dick (1851), to which Crane alludes, is little concerned with this topic and centers on fraternal and hierarchical relations in a small community of men on a whaling ship.

As Crane depicts the ocean that Melville is observing, it is a place both of death and of eventual resurrection as men overcome their fears and create a faith in something higher. Water has traditionally been viewed as connected to rebirth in baptism and other rituals. As Melville looks into the surf, he sees “the dice of drowned men’s bones” and thinks of the wrecks and lost lives in the depths. His thought rises up, though, to a vision of men at sea finding a spiritual solace in the sky as “silent answers crept across the stars.”

The poem is written in four-line stanzas in iambic pentameter. The strict meter and stanzaic form play against an irregular rhyme scheme that is used to reinforce the argument. The only heroic couplet (consecutive rhyming lines), for example, occurs in the climactic lines at the end of the third stanza, where Melville finds metaphysical rest.

The terrific condensation of image and argument make the poem difficult to read easily, and this difficulty starts with the title. “At Melville’s Tomb” suggests that the piece to be presented will describe the poet pondering the novelist’s tombstone. Yet from the first line, setting the poem on a deserted beach, it becomes evident that the “tomb” denoted by the title is not one in which Melville is buried but the place where many of his characters, such as the crew of the Pequod in Moby Dick, are buried—that is, the bottom of the sea. This redirection of the reader from an individual grave to broader resting place can be seen as symbolizing the way an artist redirects a reader’s gaze from his or her own personal problems to the universality of the human condition.

“For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”

First published: 1926 (collected in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

Crane presents mythic characters from the Trojan War as embodiments of human energies that can still be unearthed in humankind’s midst by the poet-seer.

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.

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.

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.

“Voyages”

First published: 1926 (collected in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

In a dual movement, the poet describes his deep, conflicting feelings toward a friend and the sea.

The six-part poem “Voyages” holds the last place, a position considered most important by Crane, in his first volume, White Buildings. In many of his shorter lyrics and in sections of The Bridge, the central figure is scarcely individuated, a near anonymous observer who undergoes a visionary experience rooted in the coming to a deeper appreciation of language and the human lot but not involving any biographical self-exposure. In “Voyages,” however, Crane strikes a more intimate note, dealing with the pain of parting and being apart from someone loved.

Given the scandal that would have accompanied a writer’s admission of homosexuality in this period, Crane’s reticence about given intimate details of his life in his works and his indirection in speaking about the objects of his affection are understandable. In this piece, two stylistic traits compound the difficulty of comprehending, while adding to the originality of the description of, his relation to his friend on which the poem is centered.

It is expected that a poem of friendship will be addressed to the friend, but Crane adds to such addresses numerous apostrophes. The literary use of apostrophe occurs when a poet speaks to an inanimate object as if it were a human interlocutor. Thus Crane writes, “O rivers mingling toward the sky// . . . let thy waves rear/ More savage than the death of kings.” The reader may notice in this passage the ascription of a personal pronoun, “thy,” to the water. The poet also grants the rivers a human will, indicating that he believes they can alter the height of their waves to answer his entreaties. By this apostrophizing practice, the love for his friend and his feeling for the sea are mingled in a complex web.

Not only are the sea and other bodies of water put into a human dialogue, but water is humanized with anthropomorphic descriptions as well. Crane depicts the Caribbean Sea by saying, “Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours.” The “shoulders” are the waves that move in predictable tides.

It is in the many passages of description in the poem that the second stylistic feature mentioned occurs (a feature that is even more prominent in The Bridge). This involves the presenting of a number of adjectival clauses, ambiguous in reference, before the noun they modify in such a way that until that noun appears it is difficult to identify the description’s object. The first stanza of the second section, for example, speaks of “this great wink of eternity” and “her undinal vast belly” before identifying that it is the ocean that these clauses are describing.

One effect of this usage is that, combined with the apostrophes and anthropomorphic references, the water and the poet’s missing friend are easily confused, which suggests there is some equivalence between the two. Crane is not arguing that the sea is actually partially human but rather the profound point that one’s feelings toward nature and one’s fellows may hold similar depths of emotion.

It has already been suggested that Crane’s poems characteristically move from a feeling of disconnectedness and melancholy to a realization of underlying integration. In this piece, by adopting almost a pantheistic position—that is, the belief that the world as a whole has a single soul and so is necessarily one—Crane seems to be prejudging his case. If the world is united in substance with the human, then it is easy to find resemblances between the two. The poet is not writing a philosophical argument, and it is not necessary for him to prove anything, but it might seem that the reason for his stress on this unifying underpinning is so that he can shift attention to another disturbing disharmony, not between humanity and nature but within each.

In plumbing his feelings, he finds that he has a love/hate relationship with both his friend and the ocean. His friend, after all, has left him; the sea, after all, is what separates him from this friend, who is pictured watching the receding waters on a ship. The very first section of the poem presents this duality. The narrator is observing children playing and feels it necessary to warn them that the “bottom of the sea is cruel.”

This simple contrast between two features of the sea is expanded through the rest of the poem. Crane, for example, explores how the ocean is more than a place for children to swim; it is freighted with a symbolic and linguistic history that has played a part in the narrator’s life and friendships. The movement of the poem is through a continual deepening of material. The narrator’s social and psychic connections to water are uncovered until the ending note, which affirms poetry as the one vehicle that can convey such a complex emotional and intellectual intertwining.

The Bridge

First published: 1930

Type of work: Long poem

The poet finds that the United States, if it will be nourished on its own myth and history, can overcome its contemporary doldrums.

The book-length poem The Bridge far surpasses in scope anything else Crane attempted. In “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” he had indicated how the energies of ancient mythic symbols still exist in modern times. In this larger work, he attempts to explain how primary American myths are embedded in current consciousness and, further, how these myths are basically emancipatory, pointing the United States to a future of ethnic harmony and a valuing of artistic achievement.

One thing that spurred Crane to the creation of this work was his reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In looking at the work, Crane was both awed by Eliot’s technical mastery and irritated by his hopelessness. Eliot, too, drew on mythology to create his work, turning to agrarian cultures for his theme. In those cultures, there was often a myth of a king or hero who died in the autumn but who was reborn in spring with the new crops. Eliot, as his title suggests, stopped the unfolding of this story halfway, depicting modern society as one that had lost all of its legitimate authorities and was stuck in a winter without hope of resurrection.

A look at the manner in which Crane treated the story of Rip Van Winkle in the second part of his poem will indicate his contrasted approach. The folktale is presented in a way that is both wittily irreverent and personal. It is not called up in a portentous meditation but by recalling how it first was learned by the author in a primary school lesson, where the pupil “walked with Pizarro in a copybook.” The story is interpreted positively, as charting the capacities of the human mind.

Rip Van Winkle woke up in a confused state, in which events that for him occurred yesterday had actually taken place twenty years before. Crane presents his mature narrator effortlessly, vividly recalling his school days, and so indexes Van Winkle’s juxtaposition of time periods to the human ability to recapture the past. This point validates, in turn, the broader project of the poem, which argues for the centrality of memory. If, the poem argues, the United States’ historical and mythic apprehension were fully used, the nation would be regenerated.

It should not be thought that Crane’s fervent optimism meant that he underestimated the problems of America. Two of its major defects, as he diagnosed them, propelled his work. The country had lost touch with its past, he says, and this is shown in a number of ways. For one, the omnipresent clamor of advertising and other distractions, as described in the opening of “The River” section, tricks the people into a pointless immersion in contemporary ephemera.

A related point is that the lack of historical circumspection has undercut an appreciation of who really built the country. “The River” section casts light on the lives of transient workers, roustabouts, and ne’er-do-wells who worked the farms and factories. He speaks of “hobo-trekkers that forever search/ An empire wilderness of freight and rails” as the true elders of the country. This group has come to know the physical terrain of the nation in a way the comfortable never could—by their daily harsh contact with it.

A second fault that Crane spies is the United States’ mistreatment and ignorance of the American Indian. This represents another loss of the country’s past, for, in conceiving of America, Crane is thinking not primarily of the history of the United States since the thirteen colonies but of the history of the geographical land mass. His sensitivity in examining the symbolic, personal, and interpersonal connotations of the Caribbean Sea in “Voyages” had prepared him for the similar examination he carries out in this work of his own country’s topography. In studying this terrain, he repeatedly finds evidence of a layer of history and myth left by the Indians. The section “The Dance” focuses on Indian ceremonials and beliefs, which he reveals need to be acknowledged and integrated into his country’s awareness.

With themes as powerful as these handled with such boldness and lyricism, it is not surprising (or pretentious on Crane’s part) that he was to compare his poem to the Roman epic poem by Vergil, The Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). In the most elementary of ways, The Bridge is not an epic, as it lacks both a straightforward narrative and an epic hero, but it does employ a number of epic devices and is guided by an epic theme.

A standard epic poem begins with an invocation of the muse, the goddess of poetry who the writer hopes will provide inspiration on this high venture. Crane, believing in no gods, calls on the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he could see close at hand from his window during some of the time he was writing this work. He calls to it, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend.” The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and so reveals to the poet that America can, on rare occasions, use its mechanical, pragmatic genius for the construction of lovely objects.

A second important device Crane reemploys is the epic guide. In Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), for example, the poet narrator is led through hell by the ghost of his predecessor, Vergil. In the “Cape Hatteras” section of Crane’s poem, the shade of Walt Whitman, nineteenth century American poet, appears. Whitman also had seen his country on the rack, having served as a male nurse in the Civil War, and yet had felt the country’s promise, as Crane does. The poet of The Bridge feels his vigor renewed by contact with this earlier giant.

Finally, epic poems are often concerned with the founding of cultures or countries. The Aeneid ends with the founding of Rome. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) concludes with the origins of the Christian world in the Garden of Eden. The Bridge sets out to reform America by pondering its origins. The first section of the poem, “Ave Maria,” concerns Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America for the Europeans. The next section, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” however, undercuts the finality of Columbus’s so-called discovery, both by discussing the Indians, who came to the land long before Columbus, and by noting that it was anonymous workers and farmers, not the well-known, who did most of the work of discovery.

The following sections develop the narrator’s own sense of the past and explore how the past is sedimented in every landscape. In “Quaker Hill,” for example, Crane’s visit to the New Avalon Hotel, a building that had once been a Quaker meeting house, leads to reflections on the political and spiritual changes one area of New England has undergone in its history. The last section, “Atlantis,” returns to the Brooklyn Bridge, playing off the multiple associations of its architecture to dream of what happiness the future will hold if only the nation can follow the lead of its poets in grasping hold of its own myth and life history.

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