Horace Liveright published Crane's The Bridge, the poet's second book, a month after the limited edition was published in Paris by the Black Sun Press. The critical response was mixed, and Crane was especially disappointed by the reservations of some critics whom he considered friends, such as Allen Tate. But most reviewers, whatever their final assessment of Crane's achievement in the poem, acknowledged the ambitious scope of its lyric and thematic intent, and treated Crane as an important inheritor of a Romantic and visionary tradition that set itself to answer the T. S. Eliot of The Waste Land. Crane's poem has important modernist features, but its forebears in the claims it makes for poetry, its language of incantation, and its theme of spatial and spiritual quest are Christopher Marlowe and the English Elizabethan poets, as well as Blake, Shelley, Emily Dickinson, and a poet directly addressed in the poem - Walt Whitman.
Crane began working on The Bridge in 1923, and, working in fits and starts, had composed most of its sections by 1927, although he was still completing the poem in 1929. Critics have usually considered the sections composed later to be the weakest parts of the poem, "Cape Hatteras," "Quaker Hill," and, especially, "Indiana." By the late 1920s Crane's life had entered the self-destructive cycle of alcoholism and self-doubt that would lead to his suicide by drowning at sea in 1932, three months before his thirty-third birthday. He was returning from Mexico to help settle his father's estate, his trip and residence in Mexico having been made possible by a Guggenheim award in 1931 that Crane saw as a vindication of his achievement in The Bridge.
Crane described his ambitious theme in a 1923 letter. The poem would concern:
a mystical synthesis of "America." History and fact, location, etc. all have to be transfigured into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter. The initial impulse of our people will have to be gathered up toward the climax of the bridge, symbol of our constructive future, our unique identity, in which is included also our scientific hopes and achievements of the future.
As the poem is usually read, its eight sections break into two halves - these sections following the opening prologue poem, "To Brooklyn Bridge," that sets up the famous New York City landmark as a symbol for the potential synthesis of time, space, spirit, and language:
O Sleepless as the river under thee, Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod, Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
The first of the two halves covers the sections "Ave Maria," "Powhatan's Daughter," and "Cutty Sark," and in this half the poem reaches across history to the earliest colonists and traces the passing of the land from its Native American inhabitants to the pioneer generation. The second half of the poem, encompassing "Cape Hatteras," "Three Songs," "Quaker Hill," "The Tunnel," and "Atlantis," brings the poem into the modern, machine world, and seeks a way for the early promise of the continent to be recovered and celebrated within the contemporary world. The power of language and lyric ("some Word that will not die," as the poem puts it) has a large part to play, for Crane, in such a recovery, and to that end The Bridge uses symbol, archaic diction, song, and rapid transitions and transformations that short-circuit reason and the rational, to articulate the search for the synthesizing myth. The word "curveship" in the last line of the opening poem, quoted above, begins the poem's reiteration of ideas of sweep, curve, and connection - the qualities that Crane saw embodied in John Roebling's design for Brooklyn Bridge, and that find their counterpart in Crane's visionary theme.
Different parts of the poem are spoken in different voices, some historical and some contemporary, although a common theme is that of quest. This spirit of exploration and discovery - spatial, physical and imaginative - is a vital part of the vision that Crane wants to restore to the modern nation. The first historical voice recovered, in "Ave Maria," is that of Columbus looking for new frontiers. His arrival is signaled by "The Harbor Dawn," which begins the next, "Powhatan's Daughter," section. The narrative of two lovers incorporates the story and spirit of Pocahontas, the daughter of the title, although it is set more than 400 years after Columbus's voyage. Next "Van Winkle" invokes the hero of Irving's story as an example of the bridging of past and present that the juxtaposition of Columbus and the contemporary lovers had suggested. The poem sets Crane's childhood memories alongside the experience of the figure who vaulted time with his famous long sleep. "The River" of the section's next poem is the Mississippi, the long journey south along its banks imagined as a train journey on the "Twentieth Century Limited." Some tramps gathered alongside the tracks also represent explorers, free spirits whose experience wandering from town to town the poem incorporates through their dialogue. The river itself functions as a traditional symbol of time in this section, as well as of space.
The voice of a tribal chief, Maquokeeta, speaks the next poem" The Dance," invoking the spirit of the now dead Pocahontas, who "rose with maize - to die." In "Indiana" - the last poem of the "Powhatan's Daughter" section - a pioneer mother pleads with her son, who is about to abandon the family farm, and her monologue covers a life of searching, love, and hardship as she speaks to the son about to begin his own life of discovery at sea. This part of the poem has sometimes been criticized for descending to the sentimental. The first half of The Bridge ends with "Cutty Sark," and a drunken sailor's half-remembered, fragmentary reminiscences of his adventures and travels.
The second half of The Bridge takes up the discontinuities between the American past and present, and seeks ways to rediscover and reaffirm a unity. Walt Whitman is quoted in the epigram to the first section, "Cape Hatteras," and is subsequently directly addressed. Whitman's transcendental vision and his affirmation of the power of the poem and poet to help achieve it make the earlier poet a central figure behind The Bridge. For Crane, the power of imagination represented by the poet must transform technological achievements - here symbolized by the Wright Brothers' discovery of flight in Kitty Hawk - into a force for progress rather than destruction.
The "Three Songs" that follow have been seen by some critics as having little thematic justification for their place in the poem, but the three women, a prostitute, a striptease dancer, and a secretary fighting off the advances of her employer, have also been read as degraded, and infertile, versions of Pocahontas in the modern world. The central theme of "Quaker Hill," which follows the "Three Songs," is announced in the quotation from dancer Isadora Duncan - whose performances Crane greatly admired - that serves as one of this section's two epigrams: "I see only the ideal. But no ideals have ever been fully successful on this earth." While acknowledging this split between the actual and the ideal, the poem seeks to bring them together through its visionary reach.
The last two sections of the poem, "The Tunnel" and "Atlantis," have generally been much admired. "The Tunnel" functions as a narrative of spiritual purgation, a journey through "the Gates of Wrath" of the Blake quotation that functions as an epigram. The poet travels beneath New York's East River on the city's subway. Among the voices he hears and faces, he sees - "Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads" - that of another visionary poet, Edgar Allen Poe, whom the poet questions about his last desperate hours.
An epigram from Plato begins the last section. The poem's searching reaches a vision of Atlantis, the heavenly city. In this section, written early in the poem's composition, in 1925, Brooklyn Bridge becomes a kind of harp, a musical instrument of the ideal - "Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings." The bridge, directly addressed in this section, incorporates the spatial, spiritual, and temporal distances that the poem has explored, and the sequence ends with continuing movement and song: "Whispers antiphonal in azure swing."
This dense and complex poem has been read many ways, and many have commented upon the unevenness resulting from its composition history and Crane's physical deterioration from chronic alcoholism. Discussion also centers upon the form as well as the meaning of the poem, whether, within its swift transitions and transformations and the multiple levels of its symbols, and despite there being no clear narrative line and no consistent hero, its various sections cohere, and in what way. Some readers note that the final stanzas of the poem's two halves introduce questions, questions which may be qualifications of the poem's final visionary celebration. The poem has also been read, somewhat reductively, as a paean to the machine age represented by the bridge. But seeing the bridge as a testament to man's attempt to turn the machine world to his own larger imaginative purposes, and as a symbol of his drive to unify on all levels what is otherwise separated, takes much fuller account of the large ambition of Crane's poem.
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