The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

“O Carib Isle!” is a lyric poem of thirty-four lines divided into seven irregular stanzas with intermittent rhyme. The stanzas are further grouped into two sections followed by a concluding four-line stanza. The poem presents a beach scene in which a Caribbean island teeming with nonhuman life is associated with death in the mind of the speaker, the poet Hart Crane himself rather than an imaginary persona. In the first stanza, the poem describes the foot end of a grave in white sand where lilies have been laid and a tarantula rustles among the dry flower stalks. Crabs scuttling sideways seem to rearrange the letters of the name of the dead written in the sand. However, nothing in nature seems to mourn except a partly withered eucalyptus plant.

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In the second and third stanzas, the speaker sees the seashells littering the sand as mother-of-pearl “frames of tropic death.” Empty of the bodies that once gave them life, the shells themselves are reminders of death. The shells also seem to the speaker to mark off graves in squared patterns in the sand. If the speaker can count these shells, then he may “speak a name” that the names of the living and dying trees and flowers near the beach contradict. The name may be death, or it may be God. The “brittle crypt” suggests shells and bones in which the dead are encrypted. A wind mounting toward hurricane force also suggests the poet’s withdrawn breath. The breathless silence evokes the atmosphere before a storm begins and represents the speaker’s emotional and creative deadness.

The second major section, subdivided into two parts, asks who is in charge of this deserted island where a pirate captain may have buried gold doubloons. The island is “Without a turnstile” such as one might find at an airport or a train station because no one wants to be there, and there is no obvious escape. Only the crabs occupy the land, patrolling the infertile underbrush. The absent captain or commissioner has created the complexity of what the speaker sees through sun-baked eyes. Called into question, this captain stands for a God whose “Carib mathematics” reminds readers of the shell count in the first stanza. The second subdivision of the second part of the poem represents a prayer to let the speaker’s ghost be “Sieved upward” until it meets the “comedian” who “hosts” the blue sky. This ascension is preferable to being left on earth where he can look around on the beach and see the “slow evisceration” of his body, dying like terrapins turned on their backs and helpless to return to their element, the sea. The final stanza is a four-line coda. Left in the wake of the hurricane hinted at earlier, the speaker admits that he has only the dry fragments of shell rather than the soul he hoped for, his own mortal body the “carbonic amulet” on the necklace of shells littering the beach.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

“O Carib Isle!” comprises two groupings of fifteen lines, each ending with a rhymed couplet. (Metrically, the seventh line is a single line that is divided to indicate a paragraph break.) These two groupings are followed by a four-line concluding stanza. Crane uses rhyme sparingly to define the poem’s overall structure and to emphasize key points. In spite of the loose and, at first glance, haphazard placement of rhyme, a careful reading reveals that the poem actually falls neatly into three parts with its major division marked by rhymed couplets as well as spaces on the page.

“O Carib Isle!” is characterized by complex meter rather than free verse. Iambic pentameter and end rhyme provide a foundation for the lines that depart from the regular pattern. For example, the divided line “In wrinkled shadows—mourns./ And yet suppose” is perfectly even metrically: ten syllables with stresses on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables. The opening line further illustrates the poem’s metrical complexity. The first line has twelve syllables rather than the ten expected in a perfect iambic pentameter line. After the definite article, an unstressed syllable, Crane begins boldly with a four-syllable word (“tarantula”), which is two iambs, then finishes the line with four iambs starting with the accented first syllable of “rattling.” The effect of the very word “tarantula” is to make the line heavy with syllables like the big spider’s legs moving slowly at the stalk of the lily. The line is at once busy and slow moving, very much the effect a tarantula might have on an observer.

Throughout the poem, Crane plays longer and shorter lines against the basic five-stress line. For example, line 20 (“Is Commissioner of mildew throughout the ambushed senses”) has fifteen syllables but only five strong accents (on the third, tenth, twelfth, and fourteenth syllables). That long line comes right after a line of only four syllables (“What man, or What”) that has two strong accents (on “man” and on the second “What”). The fact that this is the shortest line in the poem calls attention to it. Inside the line, the repetition of “What” further focuses the reader’s attention on that syllable. The first “What” does not receive a stress; the second does. The repetition and the end stress arguably make the second “What” the central note of the poem—the unknown force that created the grim scene the speaker surveys.

Crane tries to force his inspiration with a visual rhyme: “senses” and “lenses.” However, the sound is not quite right. Should readers trust their eyes or their ears, their “ambushed senses” or the “baked lenses” of their eyes? The end couplet of the second grouping of fifteen lines again offers a visual rhyme, “strain” and “again,” which may or may not be a sound rhyme depending on how one pronounces “again.” At the end of the first fifteen-line section of the poem, “Death” and “breath” is an easy and tired rhyme, at first glance surprisingly amateurish in the work of a poet as skillful as Crane. “Death” also ends line 8. However, the technically lazy rhyme suggests the very thing the poet is describing: a failure of inspiration and a spiritual weariness. A lack of inspiration is both a lack of breath and a lack of spirit.

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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Themes