The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Voyages” is a lyric sequence composed of six love poems that the poet wrote to his absent lover, a merchant seaman named Emil Opffer. The shortest of the lyrics, part 1, runs a mere sixteen lines; the longest, part 4, thirty-two lines. The majority of the 146 lines that constitute the entire sequence are in blank verse, but there seems to be no sustained effort at any measure of formal consistency. For example, lines yield to free-verse rhythms, and the five five-line stanzas of part 2 employ occasional rhymes. The eight four-line stanzas of part 6, meanwhile, follow an irregular rhyme scheme.

Part 1 describes children playing at the seashore, “[g]aily digging and scattering” while “[t]he sun beats lightning on the waves.” For all the elevated use of language—“contrived a conquest,” “treble interjections”—there is nothing unusual going on here. It is a typical, childhood day at the beach, but the speaker says that if the children could hear him over the sound of the “waves [that] fold thunder on the sand,” he would impart a dire warning to them: Play as you might on the safety of the shore, “there is a line/ You must not cross,” for “The bottom of the sea is cruel.”

Part 2 continues in the spirit of the observation with which part 1 ended, but now the sea is like a woman whose “undinal vast belly moonward bends,/ Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love.” If she is a jolly and motherly figure in the first stanza, in the second she appears more like a tauntingly pitiless queen or judge—“scrolls of silver snowy sentences,/ The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends”—whose cold vastnesses sunder all things except the “pieties of lovers’ hands.”

Now the scene changes to the Caribbean, to images of tropical flowers and wandering seafarers—“O my Prodigal”—and the reader learns why the speaker sees the sea as cruel—his lover is the voyager who is away at sea....

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Hart Crane was convinced that language is the cornerstone of both approximating and explicating human experience. It is no accident that his poetry employs a heightened language as it explores intense states of awareness, emotion, and thought. Certain of his devices are not difficult for the reader to understand, and the innovations that he and his contemporaries advanced are now familiar.

When in part 1 the “brilliant kids” on the shore “fondle [their] shells and [their] sticks,” an interpretation that sees phallic and masturbation imagery in such an apparently innocuous statement does not sound farfetched, because readers expect poets to work layers of textured meanings into the surface. Crane can fall victim to such textures. “Adagios of islands,” for example, with its musical connotation of a slow, graceful movement, borders on mere verbal adornment; this is a risk that Crane is willing to take.

An extreme devotion to an intricate architecture of words is no vice in a poet, but in Crane’s case it did occasionally lead to verbal excesses. Even then Crane was eventually vindicated. “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise,” an image of the ultimate blankness with which any living being confronts the abyss of eternity, was originally described as “spindrinny” until a friend, Malcolm Cowley, convinced Crane that no such word existed. Crane substituted the also somewhat obscure “spindrift.” Years later, Cowley discovered the word “spindrinny” in Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick (1851).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Berthoff, Warner. Hart Crane: A Re-introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hart Crane: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cole, Merrill. The Other Orpheus: A Poetics of Modern Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Fisher, Clive. Hart Crane. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Hammer, Langdon. Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Leibowitz, Herbert A. Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Mariani, Paul L. The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rehder, Robert. Stevens, Williams, Crane, and the Motive for Metaphor. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Unterecker, John. Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.