Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1900
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 at him with “grim hatred,” as a capricious dealer of death, a denier of man’s suffering, a bully, and a firm upholder of the Darwinian belief in the survival of the fittest. In “To the Maiden” and “The Ocean said to me once,” God is nature, but still basically malevolent, instructing the seeker in the latter poem to tell a nearby woman that her lover has been “laid/ In a cool hall” with a “wealth of golden sand.” In the next stanza, she is also to be told that her lover’s hand will be heaped with corpses “Until he stands like a child/ With surplus of toys.”
Since Crane also heaps bitter abuse on the Church, it sometimes remains unclear as to whether the God that Crane depicts as malevolent is Crane’s God or whether it is God as seen by the Church. In a number of poems, the Church is viewed as the betrayer of the New Testament God of compassion. Everywhere, “figures robed in black” are revealed as hypocritical and evil: “You say you are holy,” “With eye and with gesture,” “There was a great cathedral,” “Walking in the sky,” “Two or three angels,” “A row of thick pillars,” “If you would seek a friend among men,” and a host of others bitterly accuse the Church of irrelevance. As Crane sees it, the Church not only fails to help man live on this planet, this “space-lost bulb,” as he calls it in “The Blue Hotel,” but also actively makes life more difficult.
The myth of brotherhood
Another of humankind’s beliefs pilloried by Crane is brotherhood. The “subtle battle brotherhood” that fails to keep Henry Fleming from running away in The Red Badge of Courage becomes a banal and damnable conformity in the poetry. “’Think as I think,’ said a man” is a short piece in which the speaker chooses instead to “be a toad.” Patriotism is a collective “falsity,” a “godly vice” that “makes us slaves.” The rather good poem “When a people reach the top of a hill” is one long irony against “the blue battalions” of collective action. Responding to a question about mob courage, Crane once wrote in a letter: “The mob? The mob has no courage. That is the chatter of clubs and writers.” In his poetry, as elsewhere, Crane shared the nineteenth century’s fear of the mob. The only brotherhood that exists in Crane’s poetry is a brotherhood of sin, as shown in “I stood upon a high place.”
Although the most obviously insane use of the mob occurs in war, and although Crane made his reputation on war fiction, war as a theme does not loom very large in his poetry. “I suppose I ought to be thankful to ’The Red Badge,’” Crane wrote, “But I am much fonder of my little book of poems, ’The Black Riders.’” The Black Riders, and Other Lines, Crane thought, was “about life in general,” while The Red Badge of Courage is a “mere episode in life.” Aside from a few poems that allude to the Spanish-American War, war is more generalized, as in the poem beginning “There exists the eternal face of conflict.”
The theme of injustice ranges among the poems from the yellow journalism of American newspapers in Crane’s day to the cosmic injustice of God to humankind. In all cases, Crane is bitterly insistent that justice simply does not exist. One particular injustice, however, overshadows all others: the injustice of wealth. Wealth as wealth is not questioned, but rather what it seems to do to people who have it and to those who do not. Charity, for example, is “a lie.” It is given by “bigoted men of a moment” as food that “turns into a yoke.” The recipients are expected “to vanish/ Grateful because of full mouths.” However, the poem warns the charitable that their turn will come: “—Wait—/ Await your turn.” Only once in the ten volumes of his collected works does Crane complain about his poverty, and even then he does so in self-mockery, choosing a Chaucerian “complaint to his purse.” The wealthy are “fat asses,” “too well-dressed to protest against infamy.” Successful people are “complacent, smiling,” and “stand heavily on the dead.”
The major theme of Crane’s poetry, as Milne Holton’s Cylinder of Vision (1972) has shown about the fiction, is humanity’s utter inability to perceive the truth and its amazing willingness to believe that it does indeed see it. For Crane, the world is chaotic, and all humankind’s beliefs about God and nations, about religions and history, are almost entirely delusory. He never resolves, for example, the conflict between the malevolent and the pitying God, choosing instead to let it stand in several two-stanza poems in which one stanza describes God the beast and the other the God of compassion. “When a people reach the top of a hill” is read by Daniel Hoffman as praise of the American nation and the triumph of humanity over fate, but it may also be read ironically as an exposure of utter delusion. Everywhere in the poetry, there are “gardens lying at impossible distances.” In one poem, “A man saw a ball of gold in the sky,” Crane uses his characteristic cosmic point of view to allow the man to climb into the sky only to find the gold ball made of clay. When he returns, the man finds the ball again made of gold: “By the heavens, it was a ball of gold.” Misperception can involve delusion, as in “I saw a man pursuing the horizon,” and monumental egotism, as in “I looked here,” which takesWilliam Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” another step by saying that her real beauty is irrelevant since he perceives her as beautiful. In another poem, Crane says it more directly. In the thirteen lines of “If you would seek a friend among men,” the speaker notes seven times that all one needs to know about people is that they are “crying their wares.” As with most of Crane’s poetry, this theme can be traced to the Bible: All is vanity.
Ultimately, Crane’s poetry is a protest against the conditions of life and against the lies humans tell themselves to make life tolerable. That protest sustained his brief poetic career, although in time, he did become less angry with God for not existing or at least for not paying attention. Crane is modern in the sense that, like most modern poets, he rejected both the theism and the humanism of the nineteenth century, but he lived too early to benefit from the experiments of others who were also soon to reject them.