The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Hart Crane’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” consists of six stanzas, three of which are fairly traditional quatrains, three of which deviate from that established pattern. The “story” of the event that triggered the poem is relatively simple: The speaker discovers his grandmother’s letters tucked into a corner of the attic and contemplates reading them. The story of the poem itself, however, is far more complicated. Crane chooses to focus on the process of decision rather than on the act of reading.

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“My Grandmother’s Love Letters” is one of Crane’s most straightforward poems, appearing early in Crane’s first book, White Buildings. It begins with a simple statement of fact: There are no stars to be seen because it is raining. Yet, even when they are covered with clouds, one knows the stars are there; memory serves as a way to interpret the universe. There is also room for human memory—the letters—which might open doors of human understanding. These letters are old—faded, fragile, friable—and they carry the weight of a personal history. Thus the speaker is acutely aware of the delicacy one needs to enter another person’s private terrain: “Over the greatness of such space/ Steps must be gentle.”

It is at this point that the reader is made aware that something larger is at stake. The poem suddenly contains a rhymed couplet, each line end-stopped, as though to give the reader time to pause: “It is all hung by an invisible white hair./ It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.”

The speaker is having second thoughts. The letters were not sent to the “grandmother” of the title, nor to his mother’s mother, as he has identified her, but to “Elizabeth”—a woman he has never known because she existed before she had taken on the other roles in which he would recognize her. It is significant that her given name occupies a line all by itself in the second stanza.

At the center of the poem a one-line stanza—“And I ask myself:”—is linked by the colon to a complex question set off in quotation marks. The speaker is literally speaking to himself, doubting his ability to read the letters in the spirit in which they were written. He also begins to question his emotional capacity to enter his grandmother’s experience.

The final quatrain begins with what also looks like a traditional rhymed couplet, but the second line turns on a semicolon, altering and qualifying the meaning. The speaker would like to lead his grandmother into his own private life but knows there is much she would be unable to comprehend. What makes him think he would be capable of penetrating her private world? And so he “stumble[s].” The caesura stops the reader cold. Will he read the letters or not? The question remains unanswered as “the rain continues on the roof/ With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.” The poem ends where it began: rain in the night, the letters with their promise of memory and understanding.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

“My Grandmother’s Love Letters” is a poem that does not become dated. It might as easily have been written at the end of the twentieth century as at its beginning. Part of this is because Crane, along with T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, was experimenting with free verse. The lines have been “freed,” so that they resemble a more contemporary poem. From its opening lines with their strong iambic beat, there is a kind of ghost meter that dominates the poem. It comes out strongly in the iambic pentameter of “Through much of what she would not understand” and the broken pentameter of “And back to you again/ As though to her.” It is muted in the anapests and trochees of other lines. Nevertheless, the poem plays itself out against the recognized music of traditional English verse.

Aside from the two rhymed pairs (“hair,” “air” and “hand,” “understand”), there is a series of slant rhymes that thrusts the poem toward its compelling question: “soft,” “enough,” “mother,” “Elizabeth,” “roof,” “soft,” “myself.” The word “enough” is echoed twice, further heightening the issue of capacity. “Long enough” and “strong enough” qualify the question and underscore the speaker’s growing uncertainty. Their sound reverberates as the poem concludes with the repetition of “roof” and the finality of “laughter.”

The poem rings the changes not only with rhyme and meter but also with assonance and consonance. Crane’s subtle ear weaves a given sound through several lines: the l in “loose,” “girdle,” “letters,” “long,” and “liable” and the o in “long,” “old,” “echoes,” “strong,” “source,” “you,” and “though.” At one point, Crane couples assonance with pacing. The long a forces the reader to stretch the quantitative value of the line “Over the greatness of such space,” slowing down the pace while the space itself widens, then the poem quickens again with the short e of “Steps must be gentle.” That same e is echoed almost immediately in “trembles” and “webbing,” suggesting a web of sound that permeates the poem, culminating in the word “gently.” Thus Crane is able to orchestrate the poem and to make of it the “music” that he imagines at the source of the letters.

“My Grandmother’s Love Letters” may, in fact, illustrate Crane’s break with Imagism. Although the poem unfolds in images, it also contains a syntactical necessity; the lines open with the sound of logic: “There are,” “But,” “Yet,” “Over,” “Through,” “And so.” However, the poem does not add up to its rhetorical moves; instead it relies on the intuition and the nuances that arise from its peculiar combination of image and discourse.

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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