Stephen Crane Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Stephen Crane’s poetry, like his life and fiction, consists almost entirely of “enormous repudiations.” Filled with vivid animism, startling metaphors, strident naturalism, and bitter nihilism, the poetry repudiates the God of Crane’s father, the natural order seen as benevolent by the Romantics and transcendentalists, the brotherhood of humankind in any areas except sin and blind conformity, the rightness and glory of war, the possibility of justice, the grandeur of love, even humanity’s ability to perceive a modicum of truth clearly. Repudiation is fundamental to his poetry. He rejects rhyme, among other things, and in doing so he anticipates Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, and Wallace Stevens, whose poetry came to fruition only in the twentieth century. Crane often went further than these poets by eschewing the rhythms that had defined lyric and narrative verse for more than two thousand years.
Crane never referred to his work as “poetry”; he almost invariably referred to his “lines.” Once, however, he alluded to the didactic, nearly therapeutic, nature of his poems by calling them “pills.” Unlike the fiction, which is often hauntingly and ironically lyrical, the poetry consciously strives for what Crane called a “tongue of wood.” This tongue produced a sound that jarred against the ears of his contemporaries, and for the most part, as Crane himself observed, “in truth it was lamentable.” Although Crane managed to avoid writing in the rhymed and metered style that filled the poetry libraries of his day, the cost to the quality of his lines was great. For example, few poets with Crane’s credentials could write the following without knowing just how lamentable it was: “Now let me crunch you/ With the full weight of affrighted love.”
Although he was seldom this guilty of what Pound later called “emotional slither,” Crane nevertheless failed, most of the time, to re-create and liberate in his poetry the intensity of his thought and emotion. Love, for example, is sometimes a biological trap and sometimes a vehicle for defying the Protestant ethic that damned those caught in love’s sensuality. As a trap, love can even descend to a pathological fetishism, producing some of Crane’s most “lamentable” lines: “I weep and gnash/ And I love the little shoe/ The little, little shoe.” On the other hand, as a way of throwing down a gauntlet before accepted Protestant belief, it can produce some of Crane’s most beautiful lines. “Should the wide world roll away” depicts a love so enthralling and encompassing that the speaker denies any need for the other props that support humankind. The poem flies in the face of convention by adding sex to Huck Finn’s decision to “go to Hell” rather than betray Jim: “Neither God nor man nor place to stand/ Would be to me essential/ If thou and thy white arms were there/ And the fall to doom a long way.”
God and the church
Not always so summarily dismissed, God appears in a score or more of the poems as himself, nature, or some other metaphor. It could even be said that God manifests three different faces: as God the Father, he is malevolent and capricious; as God the Son, he is kindly and pitying; as the Holy Ghost, he is indifferent. “A man said to the universe,” Crane’s most anthologized poem, depicts a God who responds to humankind’s insistent cry for recognition (“Sir, I exist!”) by both acknowledging the “fact” and refusing to be bound by any “sense of obligation” as a result of it. God is similarly indifferent in “God fashioned the ship of the world carefully.” Only here the indifference is more clearly deistic: Once the world was made, God went bowling.
A kindly God appears in the second stanza of “The livid lightnings flashed in the clouds” as “whispers in the heart” and as “melodies,/ Distant, sighing, like faintest breath.” A pitying God appears obliquely as Christ in a Spanish-American War poem called “The Battle Hymn.” He is a sacrifice not only of God (the “Father of the Never-Ending Circles”) but also to God from the jingoistic war spirit of American patriots during that “splendid little war.” In “There was One I met upon the road,” where humankind is presented to God as a mass of sin, God’s response is to look “With kinder eyes” and say, “poor soul.” Conversely, if the poem is read ironically—that is, if God is taken as the creator of sin—then the God of this poem is not pitying but, rather, cruel and malevolent.
Most often, God is malevolent and unyielding, hateful and unworthy of worship. In many poems, man looks...
(The entire section is 1900 words.)