The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“At Melville’s Tomb” is written in four four-line stanzas that follow an irregular rhyme scheme. The reader is placed at the gravesite of the noted nineteenth century American novelist, Herman Melville, whose tales of the sea—most notably Moby Dick (1851)—are generally regarded as commentaries on humans coping with one another and nature in a vast, often inimical, and ultimately destructive universe. The speaker, while he may be inspired by Melville, shares with the reader his own personal feelings and observations as he stands “at Melville’s tomb.”

There is not the expected use of the first person. Rather, one is told what Melville, identified only by the third-person pronoun “he,” must have felt and observed when he had stood apparently at the same spot where he is now buried—“wide from this ledge”—and, considering the flotsam and jetsam washing up onto the Atlantic shore, had reflected on the relationship not only between man and the sea but also between man and eternity.

The images are difficult, but not impenetrable. The reader is told that amid the wreckage, and hence the apparent waste, that the sea washes up exist records of human passings, “The dice of drowned men’s bones bequeath[ing]/ An embassy”—that is, imparting some message from the past. What are ostensibly tokens of destruction and loss can in fact be constructive elements if one can read them effectively.

Melville, too, is a messenger from the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An examination of something as simple as Hart Crane’s rhyme scheme gives insight into the complex technical virtuosities for which he is both renowned and criticized. The four-line stanzas combine blank verse and rhymed couplets virtually at will, with no attempt at creating a pattern, let alone repeating it from one stanza to the next.

This creation of anticipations that are then either discarded or confounded is in keeping both with Crane’s poetry and with the period in which he wrote. The ultimate modernist poet, Crane worked with words the way a painter works with pigments, combining them into larger and larger blends of imagery and detail until even the most trivial subject-verb combinations—“he sawhe watched”—become entangled in complexities: “The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath/ An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,/ Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.”

In a famous exchange of letters, Harriet Monroe, then editor of Poetry magazine, challenged Crane to clarify the apparent obscurity of this particular imagery. He was easily able to do so precisely because every word and its associations had been chosen and then constructed with great care toward both lexical and figurative meaning.

By using ambiguous syntactical elements as well, such as verbs that could be nouns—“portent wound,” for example—Crane is able to make each image cluster serve double and often triple duty....

(The entire section is 442 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.