To Brooklyn Bridge

by Hart Crane

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Last Updated on August 30, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

“To Brooklyn Bridge” is a forty-four-line poem consisting of eleven quatrains. The meter is iambic pentameter, with a few slight departures, though no more than one might find in Shakespeare or Milton’s blank verse. The use of rhyme is irregular. Some quatrains have no end rhymes at all, others end in a couplet, while others (including the final two) use the conventional abcb rhyme scheme. The diction is elevated and the imagery complex, showing the influence of Romantic lyricism and of religious invocation. The Brooklyn Bridge is directly invoked several times in the language of prayer, using such words as “thee” and “thou” and the vocative “O.”

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The poem begins with a bird, a seagull, with the repeated “i” sounds in the first stanza echoing its shrill cries. Shelley or Wordsworth would have made the bird the subject of the lyric. In a Romantic poem, the great grim silhouette of the bridge would have remained part of the background or gone altogether unremarked. For Hart Crane, however, the bird is transient and fleeting, disappearing from view in the second stanza, never to return. It is the man-made object that is the poet’s focus. Although there are intensely Romantic phrases in the description of the bridge, nothing could be less Romantic and more Modernist than the simile with which the seagull is dispatched. He is like a “page of figures to be filed away.” Crane’s poem celebrates the city, and specifically the City of New York, in all its squalor and splendor. A tally of figures in a New York office is, for him, just as poetic a subject as a bird in flight.

The poetry of New York is sometimes beautiful but never pretty. The sheer numbers of people, and the desperation of many of their lives, ensure that this is the case. Huge crowds seek oblivion “bent toward some flashing scene” in the cinema, which repeats its “panoramic sleights” again and again for “other eyes on the same screen.” In such an atmosphere, it is scarcely surprising that some men will choose to jump from the bridge. Crane, who was to commit suicide by jumping into the sea two years after this poem was published, describes the death of the “bedlamite” unemotionally, as part of the tapestry of life in the city, which the speaker of the poem generally observes at a distance. He is interested in exteriors for their own sake, another indication of Modernism which is diametrically opposed to Romanticism.

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The poem abounds in descriptions of light. As with the seagull that disappears like a sheet of figures filed away, Crane mixes the natural and the artificial, and often describes the former by analogy with the latter, as though asserting the primacy of the man-made object in his poem of the city, which addresses one of these man-made objects as a substitute for God. The sun is an acetylene torch, and the shards of light on the sidewalk have been torn off by a “rip-tooth” saw.

The Brooklyn Bridge itself is a mystical object of contemplation and even worship, persistently addressed in religious terms. The prize it has the power to award is “obscure as that heaven of the Jews.” It can give “reprieve and pardon” to the weary, sinful city-dweller. It is both “harp and altar,” promised by the prophets. The stars sigh over it, and it lifts the night up effortlessly in its arms. The speaker concludes by asking the bridge which vaults the sea and joins America together to “descend” and “lend a myth to God,” taking the place of a traditional deity and conferring its divinity upon the life of the teeming city.

In T. S. Eliot’s Modernist epic, The Waste Land, a crowd of the dead flows over London Bridge, which later falls down, in accordance with the nursery rhyme Eliot used as his source. Eliot and Crane, writing within a decade of one another, describe similar cities, in which hordes of people are dwarfed by vast monuments. In The Bridge, however, the focus is not on the people living drab squalid lives. Such people, the cinema-goers and the madman, appear in the poem, but the focus is always on the bridge, which for Eliot is nothing but a backdrop.

Crane and Eliot are both Modernists but have quite different attitudes to modernity. Eliot sees the modern age as one of decay and degeneration. Crane sees it as one which offers unparalleled opportunities to the poet who is prepared to see and celebrate a new species of beauty. There is squalor and misery in his depiction of New York City, but the city is endlessly varied and contains much that is heroic and sublime. Soaring out of the city is a work of art so beautiful and exceptional that it is worthy of being celebrated in another work of art, a man-made object that surpasses nature and may even be able to fill the void left by the death of God.

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