The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

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“The Wine Menagerie” is a convoluted and disjointed attempt to describe the generative capacity of alcohol to spark creativity. It is divided into eleven stanzas of somewhat irregular rhyme; the final three form a kind of self-colloquy.

Hart Crane begins the poem on an almost fatalistic note coupled with an illusion about the redemptive quality of liquor (Crane was himself an alcoholic). When he gets drunk, the same things “invariably” happen. Wine gives him a fresh vision, he claims. He perceives an image of poetic feet in the line of mustard jars facing the bar, while a leopard of creativity hunts through his mind. The leopard image might also be a symbol of fraud; the poet’s creative visions, then, may be only an illusion.

The poet now fixes on the wine decanters and sees his image in their glittering bellies; they are a “glozening” glossary flowing into “liquid cynosures” that conscript him to the shadows and degrade him to a stupor. A fantasy of applause is attributed to the expansiveness of his wine-soaked visions.

He scrutinizes the onyx wainscoting and painted emulsions on the saloon wall. His revulsion is further expressed in the descriptions of the people who populate the speakeasy. He describes the “forceps” smile of a woman, her destructive, mallet eyes, and the fearful clatter of sweat on the man with whom she argues.

The poet fixes on a reptile image with octagon skin and transept eyes; he perceives both its fraud and its transforming guile and poison. His mind jumps irrationally to thoughts of arrows and the possibility of superhuman artistry that surpasses all moral limitations. He proposes shedding his skin while a new thought speeds arrowlike to feathered skies. He feels unskeined and transposed into a new identity.

A little boy, an urchin of guile, buys some beer in a canister as the characters in the saloon mutate into grotesques. The poet’s flight to creative ecstasy begins to turn back on itself. He perceives a set of black tusks embracing a bouquet of shining roses. The roses seem to promise new heights of creativity, but they are surrounded by an image of terror. Even so, he insists that his creative “talons” will seize vaguely described new purities; he will search out new thresholds and new entities; he yearns to travel in a tear and sparkle in martyrdom. He vows he will distill his competence in human weeping; his creative persona will snare new purities and transmit his energies so that he can become a poetic bird of prey.

Fear then overwhelms the poet. The wine has become a dangerous ally, and his illusory joys begin to dissolve. His wine-soaked visions have become a cage. His search for beauty capitulates to the grotesque and repulsive, and he feels stuck on the ruddy tooth of reality. His mind returns to the saloon and the relic inhabitants of the wine world. He rises from the bar stool to escape the speakeasy with its crumbs of emotional dissolution and fear, but his exile folds back on itself as he is forced to stumble over the remnants of a horrific vision beneath his feet: the severed heads of Holofernes (murdered by his wife Judith) and John the Baptist. The whispering of those Old and New Testament grotesques who were undone by passion floats by his stupefied mind and mocks his pretensions. As he enters the street, he spins drunkenly and pivots like “Petrushka’s valentine.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

The poem was first submitted to The Criterion, which was edited by T. S. Eliot. Eliot rejected it, so Crane then sent it to Marianne Moore, editor of The Dial. Moore revised the poem—so much so that Crane felt it was hardly recognizable—and published it under the title “Again.” It was not to appear in its original form as “The Wine Menagerie” until its 1926 publication in Crane’s own book, White Buildings.

The poem is divided into stanzas of mainly four-and five-line groups. The final three stanzas are set in quotation marks and constitute a kind of self-colloquy. The rhyming is somewhat irregular. There are some couplets, but most of the lines rhyme abcb. A few are abca. The poem has a number of off-rhymes, such as “snow/brow” and “eyes/gaze.”

The poem has a plodding rhythm and relatively little continuity between the stanzas. Lines within the stanzas are sometimes enjambed. The entire effect suggests a kind of arduous self-consciousness in which images and rhythms are both confused and concentrated.

Crane draws his imagery from the Old and New Testaments, ancient mythology, folklore, Freudian psychology, and even the graphic arts. He jumps sickeningly and carelessly from object to object, from saloon arguments to streaked bodies and stigmas, to the urchin, to black tusks and shining roses. When his hope of transcending earthly limits collapses into crumbs, he is left to stumble over the grotesque, relic inhabitants of his wine world. He spins dizzily out into the street like the pathetic marionette in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka (1911).


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

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

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