Crane's development as a poet owed a good deal to the work of firstgeneration modernists such as Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and W. B. Yeats, under whose collective shadow he began his career. Of these, it was Eliot who had the most important influence on Crane's work. Crane's relationship to Eliot's poetry could be described as obsessive: he claimed to have read "Prufrock" at least twenty-five times, and after an initial disappointment with The Waste Land he went on to read it, too, over and over again. Both Crane's long poem "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" (1923) and his verse epic The Bridge were written at least in part as a response to The Waste Land.
While Crane was impressed by Eliot's undeniable poetic genius, he rejected what he considered the spirit of "pessimism" underlying the older poet's work. As he wrote in a 1923 letter to Gorham Munson:
There is no one writing in English who can command so much respect, in my mind, as Eliot. However, I take Eliot as a point of departure toward an almost complete reversal of direction ... I would apply as much of his erudition and technique as I can absorb and assemble toward a more positive, or (if I must put is so in a skeptical age) ecstatic goal.
Whether or not Crane succeeded in realizing this "ecstatic" goal is a matter of some dispute. Not all readers respond affirmatively to Crane's poetry, and while poets such as Allen Tate and Robert Lowell have praised Crane's accomplishments, a number of distinguished critics - including Yvor Winters and R. P. Blackmur - have found fault with one or more aspects of Crane's writing. There is no doubt that Crane was among the most naturally gifted of American poets: lacking the education and erudition of a Pound or an Eliot, he was to become the most purely Romantic poet of the modernist era, a visionary American poet in the tradition of Emerson and Whitman. Crane's "ecstatic goal" of achieving a "mystical synthesis of 'America'" is unrivalled in twentieth-century American poetry.
Crane was born in 1899, and spent most of his early years living in his grandparents' home in Cleveland, Ohio. He moved to New York City after high school and held a series of menial jobs before returning to Ohio to work in his father's candy store. After a violent quarrel with his father, Crane returned to New York, where he worked for several advertising firms while pursuing his career as a poet. It was during this period that Crane had the first of many homosexual love affairs. Some of these relationships were to take on a mystical dimension in Crane's mind, and they would serve as an inspiration for much of his poetic writing.
Crane also began a serious study of poetry in the late 1910s and early 1920s. In addition to American writers such as Whitman, Melville, Eliot, Pound, and Williams, Crane read deeply into the work of Elizabethan dramatists and poets - Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare, among others - as well as the French symbolists. From the eclectic mixture ofthese influences, Crane fashioned his densely packed lyric poems, the best of which would be published in the 1926 volume White Buildings. In the spring of 1924, Crane moved to an apartment building in Brooklyn which overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge: the sight of the bridge helped inspire the creation of The Bridge, which occupied most of his time and energy for the next six years. After the publication of the poem in 1930, Crane was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; he used the money to travel to Mexico, where he hoped to begin a new epic. On the return voyage in 1932, however, Crane jumped from the ship on which he was traveling and committed suicide.
Crane's poetic style depends heavily on what David Perkins calls his "alog-ical language of packed associations," a highly symbolic and often almost impenetrable language depending more on connotation and allusion than on rational meaning. As Crane himself put it in his essay "General Aims and Theories," the construction of his poems is guided by a "logic of metaphor," such that the "terms and expressions employed are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings." Crane gives as an example of this kind of writing the expression "adagios of islands" from the poem "Voyages." Rather than using a more literal phrase like "coasting slowly through the islands," Crane employs the associational term "adagios" to suggest a musical cadence (an adagio being a slow tempo in musical composition), thus capturing both the rhythm of the boat's motion and the aesthetic beauty of the islands themselves. At the same time, Crane exploits both the sound and the foreign derivation of the word "adagio," using its long vowels and soft consonants to suggest a fluid motion and a peaceful exoticism.
Crane's complex, enigmatic poems proved difficult for editors as well as general readers. In 1925, Marianne Moore accepted "The Wine Menagerie" for publication in The Dial only with the stipulation that she be allowed to rewrite the poem in the interests of clarity. The "clarified" result, however, was so different from the original that Crane "almost wept." When Crane submitted "At Melville's Tomb" to Poetry the following year, Harriet Monroe wrote back asking for an explanation of the poem's more elusive lines. Crane provided some clarification but refused to give a prose paraphrase, which he felt would be a "poor substitute for . . . the more essentialized form of the poem itself." As he went on to explain, he was more interested in "the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness," as well as their "combinations and interplay in metaphor," than in "the preservation of their logically rigid significations."
"At Melville's Tomb" is one of Crane's most famous lyrics, its tightly wound stanzas exhibiting both his penchant for linguistic density and his characteristic allusiveness. The poem begins with a reference to Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, whose "tomb" is imagined to be resting on the ocean floor:
Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath An embassy. Their numbers as he watched, Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
Crane explained the central image of the "dice of drowned men's bones" as the small pieces formed from sailors' bones by the repeated action of the sea and then washed up on shore, where they are mixed in with shells and sand. In a general sense, the dice symbolize "chance and circumstance" (the element of risk taken on a sea voyage, and more generally in life itself), but they can at the same time be seen as illegible records ofthe sailors, erased or hidden messages about their lives and uncompleted voyages. The drowned men's bones "bequeath an embassy" in the metaphorical sense that they pass on or communicate messages from one person or one life to another; yet at the same time these messages are "obscured," rendered impossible to read. Crane also alludes to Moby-Dick, in which men's lives are viewed as a game played with an unpitying fate and the sea is a destructive force beyond human control or understanding.
The poem continues with a more direct reference to ship-wrecks such as the one with which Melville's novel dramatically ends:
And wrecks passed without sound of bells, The calyx of death's bounty giving back A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph, The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Here Crane's arcane vocabulary contributes to the stanza's extreme difficulty, as does his often cryptically associative logic. But the difficulty of deriving sense from the poem's language is not intended merely to frustrate the reader; it is meant to suggest the virtual impossibility of our hearing the drowned men's messages, their "portents." There is no sound of bells to mark the sinking of the ship, no recognition by those still living of the sailors' deaths; all that remains is a "calyx," the whirlpool or funnel caused by the disappearing vessel. As the ship sinks, the rising wreckage gives back a "scattered chapter," an incomplete record of the ship and her crew. This "chapter" (also a reference to the chapters in Melville's novel) is identified in two other ways: as a "livid hieroglyph" and as some kind of "portent" or omen. The "hieroglyph" - a written marking used to convey a coded message - is described as "livid," suggesting its discoloration by the ocean, but also conveying a sense of the anger or rage associated with the wreck. The portent - like Melville's enigmatic masterwork and now Crane's poem - is inaccessible, "wound in the corridors of shells." As Crane explained in his 1926 letter to Monroe, "about as much definite knowledge might come from all this as anyone might gain from the roar of one's own veins, which is easily heard ... by holding a shell close to one's ear."
Despite the fundamental difficulty of the poem's language - which at times renders its meaning nearly impenetrable - "At Melville's Tomb" remains a strongly evocative poem, in large part because ofCrane's careful use ofsound and rhythm. The sound patterning includes alliteration (wave / wide; dice / drowned; bones / bequeath; bounty / back), assonance and consonance, and both internal and end rhyme. Crane's use of caesuras and enjambment is also highly effective in varying the basic pentameter rhythm.
It is the third stanza that constitutes the poem's climax in both narrative and lyric terms. Here Crane uses a more sustained rhythm, in keeping with the stanza's elevated rhetoric:
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
The calyx of the previous stanza has expanded into a "vast coil" as the poem moves from the immediate event of the shipwreck to a more cosmic perspective. In death, the drowned men are finally calm - all "malice reconciled" as their "frosted eyes" look toward the heavens - and they achieve at least the possibility of contact with the divine. The very action of lifting their eyes in search of some greater meaning (the "altars" of gods if not gods themselves) elicits the only "answers" mentioned in the poem: those "silent answers" which creep silently "across the stars." In the final stanza, Crane makes explicit the futility of man's attempt to find answers to his questions about the universe:
The compass, quadrant and sextant contrive No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps Monody shall not wake the mariner. This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
The instruments we have invented to measure space - the compass, quadrant, and sextant - cannot measure such eternities as death. Similarly, the poet himself cannot wake the mariners with his "monody" - the elegiac lament for their passing. All that remains of the shipwreck and its drowned sailors is a "fabulous shadow": they become a legend, myth, or fable whose truth is closely guarded by the sea. Crane's use ofrepeated sibyllants, especially in the final line, evokes the sea's ultimate withdrawal from the realm ofhuman understanding.
Crane's magnum opus, the work on which he was to stake his final reputation as a poet, was clearly The Bridge. Before writing The Bridge, however, Crane had experimented twice before with longer forms. "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" (1922-23) is a poem in three parts, an attempt to update the Faust myth in a contemporary setting. Crane's use ofthe imagery of the modern city in a highly symbolic and intellectual poem - the poem's "fusion of our time with the past," as he put it - was clearly indebted to Eliot, but the Romantic tendency to seek a transcendent reality beyond the chaos of the city departs from Eliot's more skeptically modernist vision. The figures of Faustus and Helen represent the artist and his quest for unchanging beauty; the modern world is represented by stenographers, baseball scores, stock quotations, the subway, a jazz dance, and warplanes. The poem ends with an affirmation of both past and present, as the poet attains "the height / The imagination spans beyond despair."
"Voyages" (completed in 1925) is a six-part poem about the journeys of a seagoing lover, and it contains some of Crane's most lyrically evocative writing. These sea poems, which are also love poems, represent a step beyond "The Marriage of Faustus and Helen" in Crane's poetic maturity. As Warner Berthoff suggests, each lyric within the sequence constitutes its own "imaginative-expressive voyage": linking "private experience" with the "grandeur and immensity of the created world," the lyrics enact "a venturing out into the seaswell of conscious existence and above all into the turbulence of love."9 In "Voyages I," written three years before the other sections, we find the speaker observing a group of children playing on the seashore. The section ends with a warning: the line that separates the sea from its shore is also that which divides childhood innocence from the erotic "caresses" of adult relationships. "The bottom of the sea is cruel," the speaker concludes.
In the famous opening of "Voyages II," Crane qualifies this last statement, suggesting that while "cruel," the sea is also sublimely beautiful and a source of inspiration for both poets and lovers:
- And yet this great wink of eternity, Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings, Samite sheeted and processioned where Her undinal vast belly moonward bends, Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;
Take this Sea, whose diapason knells On scrolls of silver snowy sentences, The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends As her demeanors motion well or ill, All but the pieties of lovers' hands.
The almost grandiose exuberance ofthe language is proclaimed by its imperative constructions - "Take the sea," "Mark how her turning shoulders...," "hasten while her penniless rich palms" - its exaggerated use of alliteration (lines 7 and 8), and its elongated syntactic structures. The sea is a "great wink of eternity," both "rimless" (extending out beyond the horizon) and "unfettered" (free of all bonds). As Lee Edelman notes in his careful reading of the poem, Crane abandons normal syntax in order to "proclaim the triumph of imagination over reality."10 A single sentence extends across the first two stanzas, which are both connected to and cut off from "Voyages I" by the syntactically broken "- And yet" with which "Voyages II" begins.
Similarly, the language of the poem suggests a break from normative speech or writing. The metaphoric "wink of eternity" which first describes the sea is an oxymoron: how can the eternal be expressed by a wink, a transitory motion of the eye? Is the wink meant to represent the sea as an eye, with the upper and lower lids meeting at the water's surface? Or is the "wink" some kind of private communication from eternity to the speaker?
Crane hardly allows us the time to ponder these questions before moving on to other images: the sea is "samite sheeted" and an "undinal belly" bending to the moon. The first of these images is fairly straightforward, once we know that "samite" is a heavy silk interwoven with gold or silver (anticipating the "silver snowy sentences" of stanza two). The second image operates on both a literal and a figurative level: the sea does "bend" moon-ward - toward the heavenly body that governs its tides - yet at the same time the image suggests the underlying erotic narrative of the poem, the joining of wave to moon figuring the meeting of the speaker and his lover. In the second stanza, the erotic subtext becomes clearer with the mention of "lovers' hands" and the call to his imaginary companion to "Take the sea."
In an earlier version of the poem, Crane had written that the sea "is our bed" and "enlist(s) us / to her body endlessly." Here the forbidden act of a sexual encounter with the sea is figured as a dangerous "voyage," the poet and his companion protected from the "sceptred terror" of the sea only by "the pieties of lovers' hands."
In the final three stanzas of the poem, Crane shifts to a softer register in describing the sea: the personified sea is no longer a terrifying monarch, but a nurturing muse who enables the speaker and his companion to experience beauty, love, and poetry. The dominant imagery of flowers signals this change: the lovers drift under "crocus lustres of the stars," they pass through "poinsettia meadows" of the sea's tides, and they finally reach a moment of ecstatic union - "sleep, death, desire, / Close round one instant in one floating flower." Having consummated their relationship with the sea in a moment where sleep, death, and sexual desire are joined, the lovers require no return to the "earthly shore" until they have experienced a total unification with natural forces. As in "At Melville's Tomb," where the sailors were pulled under by the "calyx of death's bounty," here the lovers will be dragged down to their deaths in a whirling vortex which will give them a final view of heaven: "The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise."
The Bridge is a far longer and more complex poem than either "The Marriage of Faustus and Helen" or "Voyages," and we can only touch on its structure and major themes here. That Crane considered the poem to be an important modern epic is made evident in a 1927 letter to his benefactor Otto Kahn which compares The Bridge to Virgil's Aeneid: "I feel justified in comparing the historic and cultural scope of The Bridge to this great work. It is at least a symphony with an epic theme, and a work of considerable profundity and inspiration." The poem has eight numbered sections and contains a total of fifteen connected lyrics, including a "proem" dedicated to the bridge itself ("To Brooklyn Bridge"). The Bridge encompasses a number of places, historical moments, and characters. The poem also moves through an astonishing array of literary styles, from free verse to blank verse to rhymed quatrains, from montage sequences to rhythms based on ballads, blues, and jazz. The unifying symbol of the poem is that of the bridge, which represents a connection of the present moment both to the past and to the future.
The bridge also evokes other themes that run as important motifs through the poem. In a letter, Crane described the bridge as "a ship, a world, a woman, a tremendous harp." The comparison to a ship suggests the theme ofspatial movement, a recurrent motiffirst established by the seagull's flight in "To Brooklyn Bridge," and found in the sea voyages of Columbus in "Ave Maria," the clipper ships in "Cutty Sark," the westward-moving pioneers of "Indiana," the trains of "The River," the spreading streets of "Van Winkle," the airplanes of "Cape Hatteras," and the subway of "The Tunnel." The bridge can also be seen as "a world" in the sense that it figuratively connects
North America both to Europe (through Columbus) and to other places reached by clipper ship: Cape Horn, Melbourne, Japan. The curving shape of the bridge suggests a feminine figure, later envisioned as Pocahontas in "The Dance" (who also stands for the "physical body of the continent"), as the pioneer widow in "Indiana," as a burlesque dancer in "National Winter Garden," as "blue-eyed Mary with the claret scarf" in "Virginia," as the unnamed "woman with us in the dawn," and as the various archtypal women named in "Southern Cross": Eve, Mary Magdalene, Venus, and the Holy Virgin.
Finally, the metaphor of the bridge as a harp is suggested by the visual presence of the long cables supporting its span. Music and dance are of central importance to the poem, and Crane himself indicated that certain sections corresponded to different musical forms: a "water-swell rhythm" for "Ave Maria," a "largo" for "The River," and a "fugue" for "Cutty Sark." Other kinds of music are contained in "The Dance," with its pounded tribal rhythms, "Three Songs" (the popular song and tom-tom music of the burlesque hall), and "Indiana," with its folksong or ballad structure. And throughout the poem, the presence ofmusic and sound function as a kind of orchestra for Crane's "symphonic" form. We hear the "nasal whine" of the modern industrial world; the gongs, sirens, and fog horns of the harbor; the ambient sounds ofthe hurdy-gurdy, pianola, radio, and phonograph; and the songs of hoboes, road gangs, gypsies, and steamboat men. In "Quaker Hill," we hear the whippoorwill song ("That triple-noted clause of moonlight"), and in "Cape Hatteras" we hear the bird note "a long time falling." The airplanes in "Cape Hatteras" are "choristers of their own speeding," and the bridge itself is a giant wind-harp, whose "choiring strings" accompany all the activities of the modern city.
As the proliferation of musical figures suggests, Crane's gifts were above all those ofa lyric poet, and his desire to construct an American epic out ofwhat were essentially lyric materials was, as he himself feared, "too impossible an ambition." Crane's goal was never that of Pound in The Cantos: to engage in a poetic project that would last a lifetime. In fact, Crane was not well suited - either poetically or temperamentally - to writing the kind of long and complex poem The Bridge would become in its seven-year gestation. If The Bridge is to be judged primarily as a modern epic celebrating the mythic and historical sweep of America ("a synthesis of America and its structural identity," as Crane himself put it), then it must be considered a failure, since the project of presenting a coherent rendering of the American experience from its origins to the present day is never accomplished. If, however, we read the poem less for its epic structure and more for the intensity of its vision and the accumulating power of its often brilliant lyric sections, the poem can be seen as at least a qualified success.
Some critics have seen the poem as Crane's private psychodrama, a work more concerned with his own search for personal and artistic fulfillment than with its overt subject. As Crane himself suggested in a 1923 letter to Louis Untermeyer about The Bridge, the challenge of such a poem would be in how to transform "history and fact, location, etc . . . into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter." Four years later, Crane expressed the tension between "the logical progression" of The Bridge and the need for an imaginative "temperature" or "fusion" that might disrupt its unity or logical coherence. The Bridge is a precarious attempt to balance the intensely personal and highly metaphorical style Crane had mastered in his shorter poems with the more expansive and "symphonic" form appropriate to his communal and historical subject.
This balancing act was more successful in some parts of the poem than in others, and at times we feel Crane's effort to finish the poem and "get the 5-year load of The Bridge off my shoulders." Much of "Cape Hatteras," a lengthy section originally conceived as "a kind of ode to [Walt] Whitman," seems both trite in its sentiment and forced in its language. "Quaker Hill" is another of the weaker sections. Composed of rhymed octaves, it attempts a satiric mode, contrasting the new suburban world of golf courses, antique auctions, and real estate deals with the vanished world of Quakers and Iroquois; but Crane clearly lacked Eliot's gift for satire, and his portraits do little to develop his overall themes. The most compelling parts of The Bridge are those in which the lyric voice and the presentation of contemporary or historical details form an imaginative synthesis that provides a new way of viewing the world. Clearly, the much-celebrated opening hymn "To Brooklyn Bridge" falls into this category, as does "The River" - with its concentrated voyage through both time and space - and "The Tunnel," with its gritty snapshots of a nightmarish urban environment.
At his very best, as in the final stanzas of "To Brooklyn Bridge," Crane is unparalleled in his ability to combine a precision oflanguage with a unique sense of lyric rapture:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused, (How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!) Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge, Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry, -
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars, Beading thy path - condense eternity: And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited; Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone, Already snow submerges an iron year . . .
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.
To analyze these stanzas in any kind of detail would require more space than we have here, but I will suggest a few directions such an analysis could take. In the previous seven stanzas, Crane has introduced the two major symbols of the proem: the seagull flying "with inviolate curve" over the New York harbor and the bridge itself, standing high above the river. The gull and the bridge are opposites - one a part of nature and the other a human creation - and yet they are closely associated in visual and symbolic terms: the shape of the bridge reproduces the curve of the seagull's flight, and like the bird the bridge serves as a mediating link between the mundane world of the city and the transcendent realm of artistic or imaginative freedom.
In the eighth stanza, the bridge is figured as both "harp" and "altar," and thus related both to music and to religious worship. These two functions are fused by a "fury": the fury of creative process which will bring the poem into being. The bridge, transformed into a sacred musical instrument (the "choiring strings" suggesting the choirs of heaven), becomes the "threshold" of a new era, one in which the poet is to play a central role. The poet is seen in his three guises: as prophet, pariah, and lover.
Much of the imagery Crane uses suggests the religious dimension he assigns to the bridge: in addition to the images oflight and darkness, Crane uses the word "immaculate" - usually applied to the Virgin Mary - and describes the bridge as lifting the night in its arms, an allusion to Mary lifting Jesus from the cross. Like the bridge under whose shadows he waits, the poet remains "sleepless" - filled with creative expectation - as he hyperbolically figures the bridge as connecting everything from the Atlantic Ocean to "the prairies' dreaming sod." The bridge is "vaulting the sea" in two senses: it is building a protective vault, or arched ceiling, over the sea (also suggesting the vaulted architecture of a church or cathedral), and it is more actively vaulting, or jumping, across both space and time. In the final and most dramatic formulation of the poem, Crane proposes that the bridge "Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God." Crane's invocation to the bridge - at once his muse and his primary symbol -has reached its climax. The word "curveship," Crane's own coinage, contains within it the shape of the bridge, building on the "inviolate curve" of the seagull and forming part of the circle ("white rings of tumult") delineated by the gull's wings. At the same time, the suffix "-ship" suggests both the majesty of the bridge ("lordship") and its sacredness ("worship"). The bridge becomes a kind of saviour, sweeping down to move among the "lowliest" of his folk but ultimately rising to the point of divinity.
The ambiguity created by the locution ofthe final line cannot be entirely resolved: how can a "curveship lend a myth to God"? In the most literal sense, myth gives a shape (a "curve") to God: it makes God visible through narrative. At the same time, the "curveship" of the bridge is its most sublime attribute, that which marks it as a work of art and an analogue for what Crane hopes to accomplish in his poem. As Lee Edelman suggests, the "godhead that Crane would fortify with myth" is less that of Christianity than "that of poetry itself."11 Like the poem, the bridge is a modern creation, a work constructed by a combination of inspiration and "mere toil" that can "condense eternity."
The proem also stands as Crane's response to Eliot, who at the end of The Waste Land uses London Bridge as a symbol for the decay of Western civilization: "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down." Crane's bridge, on the other hand, stands tall, vaults through space, and even, at the end of its curve, ascends to the sky, taking "the arching path / Upward" ("Atlantis"). While the depiction of urban alienation in the first stanzas of "To Brooklyn Bridge" echoes Eliot's "Unreal City" - the views of Wall Street, the bedlamite's suicide, and the cinemas where "multitudes" are "bent toward some flashing scene / Never disclosed, but hastened to again" all serving as analogues to Eliot's London - the ending of the proem shifts to a very different register of language. Here, Crane's concentrated lyricism moves toward an ecstatic expression of the Romantic sublime, one that becomes even more extreme in the "Atlantis" section which ends The Bridge.
Yet if The Bridge looks back to Whitman and the Romantics, it also looks forward to the poetry of the generation that followed Crane. Admired by such postwar poets as Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, Crane became a hero for the counterculture of the 1950s, and his hobos and sailors served as prototypes for the "angelheaded hipsters" of Ginberg's Howl. Crane's prophetic stance, his stylistic compression, and his surreal depictions ofurban life all left their mark on the poetic language of thirty years later. Crane's agonized and heroic speaker, "Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers . . . Tossed from the coil of ticking towers," is reborn in Ginsberg's Beats, "dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix . . . burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."
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