To Brooklyn Bridge

by Hart Crane

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To Brooklyn Bridge Themes

The main themes in “To Brooklyn Bridge” discuss the beauty of man-made objects, the life of the city, and light and darkness.

  • The beauty of man-made objects: Crane inverts general expectations of Romantic poetry, as the Brooklyn Bridge, made by man, links humanity with the divine.
  • The life of the city: The poet relays the beauty of the city and all its parts as a unique entity separate from human life.
  • Light and darkness: The bridge is a place of light when the city lies in darkness, and holds the darkness itself throughout the night.

Themes

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Last Updated on August 30, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

The Beauty of Man-Made Objects

“To Brooklyn Bridge” is a poem of the city, in which nature, the central subject of Romantic poetry, exists on the margins. The few natural objects that enter the poem are promptly compared to man-made objects. A seagull disappears over the horizon like a piece of paper put away in a file. Even the sun is a great acetylene torch in the sky. The stars above reflect the headlights of the cars below. The landscape is a gigantic, dynamic, bleakly splendid one of girders, turning derricks, and streams of traffic, a sight that no former century or civilization could have provided.

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In the great city, the people are incidental and subordinate. The function of the Brooklyn Bridge is not merely to allow human beings to cross a river. Its beauty and grandeur demand a more important mission, expressed in the last stanza as nothing less than uniting the American continent and providing a substitute for God.

It is the beauty of the bridge that makes it divine. It draws energy from the sun, like a living thing, and has a spiritual dimension, the ability to “reprieve and pardon” sin. The madman merely sees the bridge as a utilitarian object from which to jump to his death, but the poet stands far off and contemplates its beauty, finding something unique and mystical in this gigantic feat of engineering.

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The Life of the City

The poem presents the reader with a teeming city full of crowds, lights, traffic, and tall buildings in which “elevators drop us from our day.” The city is a complex machine, in which people are just one of the components. The poet avoids introspection, or insight into the emotions of the people he describes. Only the “bedlamite” stands out from the crowd as he jumps from the bridge, and he is as motiveless as the seagull flying to nowhere. The “multitudes bent forward” toward the cinema screen have no more emotional or intellectual life than the derricks and cables.

For the poet, the life of the city, like the beauty of the bridge, is an object for contemplation, in which beauty may be discovered without the need for moralizing or even human sympathy. The effect of this attitude appears most vividly in an image from the penultimate stanza:

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Latest answer posted August 31, 2021, 8:59 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The City’s fiery parcels all undone . . .

This is a line that teeters on the brink of sentimentality and would probably fail in a poem which relied to any extent on human sympathy, rather than remaining focused on the life of the city as a whole. The image of a window lit from inside by electric light is a compelling one. Even the bars of the window replicate the ribbon wrapping the parcel. The light goes out, and the parcel is undone. Something alive has been extinguished, but it is not a human life. The city itself has a pulse and vitality all its own.

Light and Darkness

“To Brooklyn Bridge” is a poem that begins at dawn and ends in darkness. Even in the daytime, people sit in darkness in the cinema, looking at “some flashing screen” while, across the harbor, the sun casts light on the Brooklyn Bridge, filling it with potential energy. The bridge contrasts with the city, soaring into light, while the streets are darkened by the shadows of high buildings and girders, which promise that the built environment will rise still higher. Even at noon, only a few shards of light fall to earth, as though cut from the sun with a “rip-tooth” saw.

The bridge gleams silver in daylight, but, for the poet, its presence is even stronger at night. Its path across the river is traced by “the traffic lights that skim” swiftly across it and by the stars that shine down upon it. The structure of the bridge is so immense and strong that it seems to lift the night itself in its arms. In the penultimate verse, just before his final invocation to the bridge, the speaker says:

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

Throughout the poem, the speaker watches the bridge from far off, in daylight and starlight, appreciating it far more than those who are on it or too close to see its majesty. Only at the end of the poem, in darkness, can he approach the object of his admiration and see its shadow clearly at last, after watching it flickering in light on the water. It is as though the dazzling lights kept him at a distance, and only the dark gives him permission to approach.

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