Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4510
Hart Crane’s characteristic mode of poetry is visionary transformation. His language is that of transformation aimed at a reality beyond the surface of consciousness. Crane called the technique that subtly converts one image into another the “logic of metaphor.” Like that of the French Symbolist poets—Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, and Paul Verlaine—Crane’s language is often vivid and obscure, a “jeweled” style that juxtaposes apparently alien entities. It is a poetry of indirection, not naming but suggesting objects or using them for an evocation of mood, for their magic suggestiveness. Sometimes choosing words for their music or texture, Crane employs the technique of synaesthesia, the correspondence between different sense modalities. Symbolists such as Crane, intuiting a correspondence between the material world and spiritual realities, aim to elicit a response beyond the level of ordinary consciousness.
Influenced by T. S. Eliot (but wanting to counteract the pessimism of the early Eliot), Crane used ironic mythological, religious, and literary echoes interspersed with snatches of banal conversation and lines from popular songs and slang. His method of achieving various perspectives almost simultaneously by the juxtaposition of such unlikely elements has been called cubist. The tension between his cubist and Symbolist methods and his Whitmanian sentiments accounts for the unique quality of Crane’s style.
Crane’s poetry uses visionary transformations in an attempt to encompass the modern experience. In The Bridge, historical figures such as Christopher Columbus, legendary characters such as Rip Van Winkle, and mythic figures such as Maquokeeta (the consort of Pocahontas) are made part of the poet’s consciousness, associated with personal memories of his childhood and with scenes of modern urban soullessness. The modern scene is transmuted by the elements, which provide a standard of value and a range of alternatives. In “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” the classic figure of Helen of Troy is brought together with the Renaissance figure of Dr. Faustus, and the two figures with their complex contexts bring a new perspective to the streetcar, the nightclub, and the aerial battle they visit in Crane’s poem. Crane learned from the Symbolists that an image can become symbolic within a private context, calling up a dense network of meanings, emotions, and associations. Such images, unlike traditional symbols, draw on the cumulative force of the poet’s personal associations—his personal “language”—rather than on the common cultural heritage. Crane’s poetry fuses such personal symbols with traditional symbols from the sweep of Western culture.
“For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”
“For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” a poem of almost 140 lines, is Crane’s first long poem. It is a marriage song for Faustus, the poet in search of spiritual fulfillment, and Helen, a figure of ideal beauty. The poem begins, however, in the tawdry modern world with the mind fettered by artificial distinctions and smothered with the trivial: stock quotations, baseball scores, and office memos. “Smutty wings” in the first stanza becomes “sparrow wings” in the second as evening brings freedom from the strictures of the office.
The poet enters his experience by getting lost, forgetting his streetcar fare and forgetting to get a transfer. Between green and pink advertisements, he sees Helen’s eyes across the aisle from him, half laughing. The poet wants to touch her hands as a sign of love. Helen offers him words, inspiring his poetry. The poet’s promise of love makes Helen ecstatic, and like a Romantic poet, the modern poet dedicates his vision to her praise.
The setting of the next section is a rooftop nightclub with dancers cavorting to jazz played by black musicians. The scene of wild revelry is Dionysian. The abandon of the dancers is contrasted with the passivity of relatives, sitting home in rocking chairs. The poet invites the reader to experience a fortunate fall “downstairs” into sensual abandon. (“National Winter Garden” in The Bridge presents a much more somber and sordid version of the Fall.) Here the scene is a fallen world where people titter at death. The flapper who is the incarnation of Helen in the fallen realm should not be frowned on, however; even though it is “guilty song,” sensual love, that she inspires, she is young and still retains some of the innocence of the ideal Helen.
The scene changes again in the third section, with the poet addressing a fighter pilot as an emissary of death (a problem that Crane would explore again in The Bridge). Crane treats war and the desecration of the heavens as the ultimate problem for the poet who would love the world and see beauty in it. It is not only eternity and abstract beauty that the poet praises but also the years, and beauty in and out of time, to which the bleeding hands of the poet pray. More advanced than business or religion, the imagination of the poet reaches beyond despair.
The Bridge, a poem of more than twelve hundred lines, is Crane’s masterwork, comparable to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958). Although it is not a classical epic because it is not a narrative, the poem’s seriousness and magnitude are reflected in its theme: The poet tries to find in himself and in the United States the possibility of the redemption of love and vision. Crane wanted the poem to be not an expression of narrow nationalism but a synthesis of the spiritual reality of the United States.
The central symbol of the poem is the Brooklyn Bridge, a product of contemporary technology that seemed in its beauty to embody humanity’s aspirations for transcendence. In the poem, the bridge is seen as a musical instrument, a harp; as the whitest flower, the anemone; as a ship, a woman, a world. In a letter to Otto Kahn, his patron, Crane said that the bridge symbolizes “consciousness spanning time and space.” It is a figure of power in repose, a quality that Crane ascribes in the poem to God. The bridge also symbolizes all that joins and unifies, as the bridge unites the material and the spiritual in its existence.
“To Brooklyn Bridge”
“To Brooklyn Bridge,” the proem, is an invocation to the bridge, in which the central opposition of the poem is sketched out—the life-giving spirituality of the bridge versus the deadening influence of the materialistic, commercial city. The freedom of the soaring seagull in the sky is contrasted with the destructive compulsion of the “bedlamite” who jumps from the bridge, amid the jeering onlookers. The poet asks the bridge to “lend a myth to God,” to be the means of belief and transcendence in the city that seems to have no ideals and nothing in which to believe.
In the next section, “Ave Maria,” Crane goes back to the beginnings of America and to an age of faith, to Columbus after his discovery. Journeying back to Spain, Columbus meditates that he will tell the queen and her court that he is bringing back “Cathay.” He will announce his discovery of a new reality, something that the poet accomplishes in his journey into history and myth. (In this section the sea acts as a bridge between the two continents.) Columbus’s dedication has its counterweight, however, in Fernando, Isabella’s husband, who anticipates a “delirium of jewels.” Even in the discovery of America, the motive for its exploitation was present.
The next section of the poem, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” includes five sections. The first part, “The Harbor Dawn,” is set in the present, with the sounds of fog horns, trucks passing, and stevedores yelling—back by the Brooklyn Bridge but enshrouded in fog. The blurring of sights and sounds by fog and water is in preparation for a blurring of time and space for a visionary journey with the poet. In the sanctuary of his room by the bridge or in his dream, the poet has an experience of love, in which his beloved is portrayed in mythic terms. Her eyes drink the dawn, and there is a forest in her hair. The mythic past lives in the present or at least in the love of the poet.
The next section, “Van Winkle,” shifts abruptly with the mention of macadam roads that leap across the country and seem to take the poet back to his childhood as well as to figures in American history that he learned about in school: Francisco Pizarro, Hernán Cortés, Priscilla Alden, Captain John Smith, and Rip Van Winkle. Van Winkle, who was legendary rather than historical, was a man out of time, displaced, because he refused to grow up. Here Van Winkle forgets the office hours and the pay and so ends up sweeping a tenement. He can get only menial work in a commercial society that demands a dedication to materialistic values. Van Winkle has a different, uncommercial vision. He looks at Broadway and sees a springtime daisy chain. Instead of the lifeless city, he sees a beautiful natural world.
Lines about Van Winkle are interspersed with memories of the poet’s own childhood. The memories pick up equivalents for recurring symbols of the poem—the eagle for space and the snake for time. The poet remembers stoning garter snakes that “flashed back” at him. Instead of eagles, his space figures were paper airplanes, launched into the air.
Mythic journeys often involve the search for the father or the mother as a part of the search for identity. Crane introduces a possible need for that search in recounting two memories of disjunction from his parents: a glimpse of his father whipping him with a lilac switch and a more subtle denial by his mother, who once “almost” brought him a smile from church and then withheld it. Together with the smile, the mother seems to be withholding her approval and love. The final image of the section is of Van Winkle, ready for a streetcar ride, warned that it is getting late. It is time for the journey to continue.
“The River” begins with a jumble of sounds, fragments of conversations—perhaps on the streetcar—mention of commercial products such as Tintex and Japalac, and slogans from advertising, with fragments slapped against one another, making no sense. A misplaced faith links “SCIENCE—COMMERCE and the HOLY GHOST.” Unlike the sermons in stones that William Shakespeare’s world could find, the slogans and jingles are meaningless.
From the streetcar, the scene switches to a magnificent train, the Twentieth Century Limited, roaring cross-country. The poem focuses on the hoboes who ride the rails and who, like Van Winkle, refuse to grow up. The men who did grow up, however, killed the last bear in the Dakotas and strung telegraph wires across the mountain streams. Those who want progress and a world of “whistles, wire, and steam” have a different time-sense from that of the wanderers. Although people like the poet’s father would call the hoboes useless clods, the wanderers sense some truth and know the body of the land as alive and beautiful. In that knowledge, they are like the poet who knows the land “bare”—intimately—and loves it. The eagle of space and the serpent of time appear, adorning the body of the beloved land, but the old gods need to be propitiated because the iron of modern civilization (and especially of the railroad) has split and broken the land and the mythic faith.
The train seems now to follow the river or to become the river. Everyone becomes part of the river, which is timeless because eternal; lost in the river, each one becomes his father’s father. The poet and the poem are not only traveling across the country but are journeying back into time as well. Affirming again the possibility of love, the river whose one will is to flow is united with the gulf in passion.
In “The Dance,” the poet returns to the time of Native American greatness, the time of Pocahontas. The poet imagines himself a Native American, initiated into the worldview of the brave, at home in nature, speeding over streams in his canoe. He salutes Maquokeeta, the medicine man and priest. He commands Maquokeeta to dance humankind back to the tribal morning, to a time of harmony between humankind and nature when he had power even over rainbows, sky bridges. Maquokeeta is named the snake that lives before and beyond, the serpent Time itself. The time that he creates in his dance is the time of mythic wholeness. Pocahontas, the earth, is his eternal bride, and in the dance he possesses her; time and space are made one. The poet has become one with Maquokeeta by calling him up and participating imaginatively in the dance.
The next section, “Indiana,” a transitional one, is a letdown of poetic energy and drama. The verse is more prosaic and the rhymes seem strained. The explicit function of the piece is to have the national spirit passed from the Native American to the white settlers in a continuation of American history. It also chronicles the parting of a mother from a son, who is now to be independent (an important struggle in Crane’s own life). The mother’s pleas and clinging continue to the end of the section and almost beyond, binding the son by his pledge. Unwilling to let go, she begs for remembrance, naming the young man “stranger,” “son,” and finally“my friend.” The relationship of friend, however, seems more request than fact, and nothing is related from the son’s point of view.
Once the poet has succeeded in getting away, in the “Cutty Sark” section, his verse returns to the energy and style of “The River” and earlier sections. The narrator is again the poet, introducing a tall, eerie sailor he has met in a South Street bar. Like the hoboes and perhaps like the poet, the sailor is an outcast. (In various ways he resembles Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.) Like the hoboes in “The River,” this sailor has a different sense of time from that of the commercial city. Instead of being tuned to the cycles of nature, the sailor’s time-sense has been disturbed by the expanse of Arctic white, eternity itself. The sailor, who says he cannot live on land any more, is almost run down by a truck as he tries to cross the street, a sign of the break between the inarticulate, prophetic sailor and the cynical city.
The poet starts walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to get home, and his thoughts are still filled with memories of the clipper ships, related to the bridge in shape by being called parabolas. Just as Fernando’s greed was part of Columbus’s discovery of America, part of the motive for the sailing ships was “sweet opium” and the tea the imperial British sought. The poet’s experience and the American experience are still a mixture of the ideal and the sordid.
“Cape Hatteras” is a substantial section of almost 250 lines. It begins with a primitive setting, with a dinosaur sinking into the ground and coastal mountains rising out of the land. In contrast to the impersonal geological processes, the poet, who has been wandering through time and space, tells the reader that he has returned home to eat an apple and to read Walt Whitman. From Marseille and Bombay, he is going home to the United States, to the body of Pocahontas and the sweetness of the land under the “derricks, chimneys,” and “tunnels.” He is returning to try to get a perspective on the exotic experiences he has had.
Next, the poet contemplates the infinity of space that is not subjugated by time and the actions of humanity, even though modern humanity can know space by “an engine in a cloud.” The poet invokes Whitman and asks if infinity was the same when Whitman walked on the beach in communion with the sea. The poet’s answer is that Whitman’s vision lives even in the stock-market society of the present and in the free paths into the future. Opposed to Whitman’s vision, however, is the fallen world of the machine, a demoniac world of unleashed power. The din and the violence of slapping belts and frogs’s eyes that suddenly appear, vulnerable in the midst of such uncontrolled machinery, make the world a nightmare, an apocalyptic vision. The dance of the machines is a devilish parody of the heavenly, creative dance of the poet as the Native American priest, and America as Pocahontas.
The poet presents the scene of Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk with their silver biplane, praising their daring but deploring the use of the invention for war. A demoniac image that is parallel to the later image of the bridge as an anemone is the grenade as a flower with “screaming petals.” Such terrible power is rationalized with theories as destructive as hail to the fertile earth. Imaginative vision cannot control the machines that have splintered space, even as the iron railroad split the land. The poet reminds the pilot that at the great speed of the airplane, the pilot has no time to consider what doom he is causing: He is intoxicated with space. The pilot’s real mission is to join the edges of infinity, to bring them together in a loving union, to conjugate them. The poet follows his warning with a scene of the fighter pilot’s destruction. Hit by a shell, the plane spirals down in a dance of death, and all that bravery becomes “mashed and shapeless debris.”
If the fighter pilot represents a false relationship with space and infinity, Whitman is a figure with the right relationship, one whose vision of the earth and its renewal makes possible a new brotherhood. Whitman makes himself a living bridge between the sky and humanity through song. Whitman is also chief mourner of the men lost in wars, from the Civil War to Crane’s time.
The next part of “Cape Hatteras” reads like a Romantic poet’s declaration of his awakening to the beauty and inspiration of nature in its rhapsodic description of flowers and of heights that the poet has climbed. The declaration is followed by an apostrophe to Whitman as the awakener of the poet. Whitman is named his poetic master, the bread of angels in a eucharistic sense, and the one who began work on the bridge, the myth or imaginative construction that the poet is here creating. In Whitman, the poet seems to have claimed his poetic father: He says that Whitman’s vision has passed into his hands.
In the next section, “Three Songs,” the poet tries to work through his relationship with the feminine. In the first song, “Southern Cross,” he says that he yearns for a relationship that would be heavenly, ideal, and also real. (He pictures night and the constellation of the Southern Cross.) What he has found, however, is not woman, nameless and ideal, but Eve and Magdalene, fallen women, and a Venus who is subhuman and apelike. All the women lead to one grave, to death. The poet seems to feel disgust at the physical being of woman. He next pictures woman as a ship. Like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, he is revolted by the generative (physical-sexual) nature of the sea. In Crane’s poem, however, it is the feminine ship that is pictured as promiscuous, defiled by the masculine sea. The feminine also has qualities of a sea monster that can sting man. The Southern Cross, the poet’s idealization of the feminine, drops below the horizon at dawn, and what is left is woman’s innumerable spawn, evidence of her indiscriminate sexuality.
The next song, “National Winter Garden,” may seem to be a continuation of the poet’s disgust with women, but it is different in being given an actual, rather than an archetypal, setting. The scene is a striptease in a burlesque show. The stripper’s dance is a vulgar parody of sexuality and another parody of the creative, ecstatic dance of the Indian priest-poet and Pocahontas. The burlesque queen awakens sexual appetite, but she is only pretending to have youth and beauty. Her pearls and snake ring are also fake, and the poet, who is waiting for someone else, runs away from the final “spasm.” Here, however, the poet can make a reconciliation with Magdalene, with feminine sexuality, admitting its finality. Both men and women are physical and sexual; their natures are inescapable. If a woman is an agent of death, she is also an agent of birth. If each man dies alone in sexual union with her, he is also somehow born back into life, into his own sexual nature.
A third song for woman is “Virginia.” The woman, Mary, is young, childlike, and possibly innocent. The poet seems to be using echoes of a popular song. Mary is working on Saturday at an office tower. She is described in chivalric terms; the poet is serenading her, and she is at least temporarily inaccessible. Flowers are blooming and bells are ringing, even if they are “popcorn bells.” Like Rapunzel in the fairy tale, Mary is asked to let down her golden hair. All seems light and graceful (even though in the fairy tale the prince pays for his courtship with Rapunzel with a period of wandering in the forest, blinded). At the end of the song, the poet calls the girl “Cathedral Mary,” sanctifying her, perhaps ironically.
In “Quaker Hill,” the tone changes from the light, playful tone of the previous song. The section begins with a diatribe against weekenders descending on the countryside. Self-absorbed, they are out of tune with nature. They also have a distorted relation with time, being eager to buy as an expensive antique a cheap old deal table whose finish is being eaten by woodlice. The poet says that time will make strange neighbors.
Meditating on time as a destroyer, the poet asks where his kinsmen, his spiritual fathers are. To find his heritage, he has to look past the “scalped Yankees” to the mythic world of the Native Americans and accept his “sundered parentage.” The poet says that men must come down from the hawk’s viewpoint to that of the worm and take on their tongues not the Eucharist but the dust of mortality.
This humiliation is associated with the artist’s abject position in modern society. Emily Dickinson and Isadora Duncan are introduced as examples of artists scorned in their day, and the only consolation the poet offers is that pain teaches patience. He asserts that patience will keep the artist from despair, implying that time will vindicate him. The section closes with a motif that is parallel to the fall of the fighter pilot to shapeless debris. Like the plane spiraling down, a leaf breaks off from a tree and descends in a whirling motion, but the leaf is part of a natural cycle, and the poet has put his faith in time and nature.
The scene shifts back to the city in the next section, “The Tunnel.” The natural world is left behind, and the poet is in the center of the gawdy theater district. References to hell, death, and “tabloid crime-sheets” make the area a wasteland. The subway, the fastest way home, is a descent into hell. The traveler cannot look himself in the eye without being startled and afraid. The sound of the subway is a monotone, but fragments of conversation are lewdly suggestive. The subway riders are the walking dead, living on like hair and fingernails on a corpse, yet “swinging” goes on persistently “somehow anyhow.” The sounds of the subway make a phonograph of hell that plays within the poet’s brain. This labyrinth of sound even rewinds itself; from this hell there is no exit. Love is a “burnt match.” In “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” the flapper, the modern embodiment of beauty, was like a skater in the skies. Here the discarded match is skating in the pool of a urinal.
Suddenly the poet sees a disembodied head swinging from a subway strap. The apparition, figure of the artist scorned and destroyed by his society, is Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s eyes are seen below the dandruff and the toothpaste ads. In this banal setting, death reaches out through Poe to the poet. At this point, the subway comes to a dead stop. A sight of escape is momentary, and then the train descends for the final dive under the river.
As the train lurches forward again, the poet sees a “wop washerwoman.” In the midst of the inferno, there is a positive figure of a woman. Although she is not a discoverer like Columbus, her work has dignity: She cleans the city at night. A maternal figure, she brings home to her children her eyes and hands, Crane’s symbols of vision and love. A victim like Poe and the poet, the cleaning woman is bandaged. Other birth imagery here is demoniac: A day being born is immediately slaughtered. The poet’s greatest agony is that in this nightmare, he failed to preserve a song.
In his great agony, the poet feels the train start to ascend. Both the poet and the train are, like Lazarus, resurrected. They are returning to the natural world above ground. His vocation renewed, the poet can affirm the everlasting word. Once above ground again, the poet is at the river bank, ready to turn to the bridge.
With the poet resurrected, “Atlantis”—the final section of the poem—is a song of deliverance. It is an ecstatic paean to the bridge, seen as music, light, love, joy, and inspiration. More dynamic than the music of the spheres, the music of the bridge creates a divinity. It is a myth that kills death: It gives death its utter wound, just by its light, its lack of shadow. By the myth of the bridge, the cities are endowed with ripe fields. They have become natural, organic, and fruitful. The bridge is the city’s “glittering pledge” forever. It is the answerer of all questions. In the poet’s vision and in the poem, it is unutterably beautiful.
“Atlantis” acts as a synthesis, subsuming earlier motifs such as stars, seagulls, cities, the river, the flower, grass, history and myth, and circles and spirals. The question “Is it Cathay?” links the end of The Bridge with Columbus’s discovery of America in the beginning, not in a mood of anxiety but in wonder at an America transfigured. The final two lines bring together time and space—the serpent and the eagle— with the music and radiance and energy of the bridge transcendent.
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