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Last Updated on August 30, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

Introduction

In 1930, Hart Crane published his only long poem, The Bridge, regarded by some critics as a Modernist form of epic and by others as a sequence of lyrics. The proem to The Bridge is the introductory or dedicatory poem “To Brooklyn Bridge,” a poem which also stands alone as a celebration of a great New York landmark. The Brooklyn Bridge has been regarded not only as a feat of engineering, but also as an important work of art since it opened in 1883, when Montgomery Schuyler called it “the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity.” Crane intended his poem partly as a positive response to the damning vision of twentieth-century urban life depicted in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, in which London Bridge features prominently.

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Summary

The poem begins by remarking how often, at dawn, the cold seagull rises from rest, and his wings send him soaring over waters that reflect the chains of the Brooklyn Bridge, toward the Statue of Liberty.

Then the seagull flies out of sight, disappearing from view like boats that sail out to sea, or like a page of figures that has been filed away, when everyone leaves the office and takes the elevator down to the street.

The speaker of the poem thinks of cinemas, which deceptively promise to show the world in panorama. Large crowds gather to watch images flicker on the screen. As soon as they have dispersed, new crowds form to watch the same prophecies.

The speaker addresses the Brooklyn Bridge, across the harbor, directly in the second person. The sun shines on the bridge, turning it to silver. It is as though the sun had stepped on the bridge and left some of its power there. It is the bridge’s freedom and this latent energy, rather than inertia, that keeps it in place.

Out of some small dwelling place, a “subway scuttle,” a cell or a loft, a madman rushes up to the summit of the bridge. He stays there for a moment, his shirt ballooning out in the wind, then falls in silence to the water, as others pass by.

Down on Wall Street, sunlight falls onto the street through the girders of high buildings, in small shards, as though ripped by a saw from the light of an acetylene torch. Tall derricks turn, with their tops hidden amid the clouds, and the North Atlantic winds blow across the cables of the bridge.

The reward the bridge promises to those who look at it is as uncertain and mysterious as the concept of heaven in the Jewish scriptures. The bridge bestows the prize of anonymity like a monarch, as the passage of time does, but more powerfully. The bridge shows that it has the ability to forgive sins and pardon crimes.

The bridge is invoked like a god, as a harp (symbol of art) and an altar (symbol of religion) fused together in furious heat. The poet asks rhetorically how mere hard work could “align thy choiring strings.” It is the threshold of what has been promised in prophecy, the refuge of pariahs and lovers.

The lights of the traffic skim swiftly over the bridge as night falls. The pure stars sigh above it, casting down beads of light and condensing eternity into a moment. Those who look upon the bridge have seen the night lifted up in its arms.

The speaker has waited under the shadow of the bridge, beside the piers. Its shadow is only clear in the dark. In the city, around the bridge, the parcels of light that shone in the windows have all gone out, and the snow shows that it is the end of the year.

The bridge is as sleepless as the river that flows under it. It soars over the sea and connects the land of America, making it a dreamland. The speaker asks the bridge to descend to lowly humanity sometime and, with its sweeping curve, fulfill the myth of divinity that the death of God has left empty.

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Themes