The Poets Hart Crane (1899-1933)


About the Poet

An ecstatic, visionary jazz lover and verse talent eclipsed by self-induced angst and silenced by suicide, Harold Hart Crane is a literary enigma. His brief show of vitality raises conjecture about his true artistic promise, which flickered to extinction in the last months of his life. Obviously adept at imagery, yet willfully obscure, he allowed profusion to mount into a hopeless tangle, thus ruining his verse. In the evaluation of critic Allen Tate, Crane was a flawed genius, a lyric poet who reached too far for epic grandeur.

Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, on July 21, 1899. He was an only child whose father, Life Saver candy inventor Clarence Arthur Crane, was too fond of business to nurture art in a precocious son. His parents' marriage ended when his mother, Grace Hart, suffered a breakdown in 1908. Family tensions and outbursts presaged Crane's complex battles with manic depression, psychosomatic seizures, and insecurity. In boyhood, he shut out the uproar by retreating to a tower room in the family home and cranking up his Victrola. In his teens, he made two suicide attempts.

Crane began writing in his teens while living with his grandparents in Cleveland and attending East High School; but later he dropped out of school. His first experience with the sea had set him off in his mid-teens to roam the streets in search of spiritual solace outdoors. In New York, he steamrolled friends with a manic gregariousness that approached hysteria. He played the role of poet in an effort to escape his troubled past.

Crane admired sea verse, the metrics of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde's exotic diction, and Walt Whitman's urban romanticism, but he lacked the control of his first idol and the richness and forthright expression of the other two. He published "C-33" in Bruno's Weekly and "October-November" in The Pagan by age 18. Because he was dependent on handouts from family members, he returned to Ohio in despair to work as a riveter, advertising copywriter, candy store clerk, reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and laborer in a munitions plant while he edited The Pagan. Following his first homosexual affair, he alternated between flights of joy and confrontations with blackmailers.

At age 21, Crane made his first cash sale ($10) with "My Grandmother's Love Letters." Artistically, he distanced his writing from the precise logic of T. S. Eliot to emulate the ecstatic symbolism of Wallace Stevens. In the postwar era, he rejected his father's attempts to force him into business. He was his own man at last; he began writing copy for New York's J. Walter Thompson Agency and continued submitting to Dial. In 1922, he first described the wonders of technology in "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," a preface to the themes of his loftiest poems. Editor Marianne Moore brought him back to earth by rejecting "Passage" and suggesting improvements in "The Wine Menagerie." Her criticism hurt his feelings and precipitated an infantile tantrum.

In 1925, Crane was still unable to support himself and lived at the New York farm of poet Allen Tate and novelist Caroline Gordon while he worked on The Bridge. With their help, he acquired a patron who advanced $1,000 so that Crane could travel and compose in leisurely fashion. Because he lacked self-discipline and mismanaged money, he drank himself into the gutter, brawled with sailors, and was arrested for fighting.

From 1927 to 1928, Crane lived in Pasadena, California, where he worked as a personal secretary. His advancement suffered from self-indulgence in alcohol and sex followed by bouts of self-pity and abusive language. He changed his residence frequently, which took him all over Manhattan, particularly Greenwich Village and along the East River overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. Crane completed two symbolic poetry suites: White Buildings (1926), introduced by admirer Allen Tate, and The Bridge (1930), a mystical American epic. These works earned Crane Poetry magazine's Helen Haire Levinson Prize, a 1931 Guggenheim Fellowship, and lasting tribute as a major American poet.

Crane's surge of critical acclaim came too late to rescue him from ruinous debauchery and fistfights, exacerbated by the disapproval of his family and friends. A failed love affair with Peggy Baird Cowley ended Crane's illusion of a heterosexual lifestyle. With the collapse of his plans for an Indian epic, Montezuma, he sank into exaggerated paranoia and made a show of suicide by drinking iodine and mercurochrome. Released from jail for disturbing the peace, he returned from a sojourn in Mexico in low spirits, the result of a quickening of intermittent manias.

With a loan of $200 from his uncle for a subsequent journey, Crane set sail for New York with Cowley on the steamboat Orizaba in April 1932. He leaped into the Gulf of Mexico 300 miles north of Havana at noon on April 27. Whether he was frenzied or truly suicidal, no one could determine. His body was not recovered. A comprehensive anthology, Collected Poems, was issued in 1933, followed in 1972 by Ten Unpublished Poems and in 1986 by The Poems of Hart Crane.

Chief Works

From his youthful surge of the early 1920s, Crane composed "Black Tambourine," an outgrowth of a warehouse job he obtained after a black worker was fired. The twelve-line verse, similar in style and tone to works of the Harlem Renaissance, criticizes society's degradation of blacks and, by extension, of poets. The outcast, who resides in a physical and emotional cellar, sits amid the squalor of gnats and roaches. In the middle stanza, the poet moves back in time to Aesop, the Greek fable writer who earned "mingling incantations" by writing about lowly beasts. With much regret, Crane envisions the wandering tambourine player in "some mid-kingdom," his art "stuck on the wall," and his heart far from the ancient world that echoes in his soul.

Written in 1921, the optimistic "Chaplinesque," composed in five five-line stanzas, reprises the exuberance of comic Charlie Chaplin's film The Kid. Like "Black Tambourine," the poem studies the lowly state of the poet, this time from a "we"-centered point of view. To honor the silent screen's "little tramp," Crane's poetic devices turn young writers into fragile kittens and encode with a pun on his first name a promise that "the heart [lives] on." The poet's intent is obvious in line 7, which seeks rescue "from the fury of the street."

The poet's overstated slap at critics depicts them as smirking while thumbing a "puckered index" before turning a "dull squint" on the naive writer. With the beginner's idealism, he declares, "We can evade you." In the concluding lines, an emotional upsweep lifts his sights to the moon and transforms the ash can to a holy goblet brimming with laughter. Truly appreciative of Charlie Chaplin, Crane sent him a copy of the poem and delighted in a thank-you note from the comic.

With Voyages (1926), Crane reached a lyric maturity, inspired by his passionate love for sailor Emil Opffer. A six-part adoration of the sea, the complex suite mirrors, in the restless, resplendent wave and tide, the shifts in the poet's life. In five-line stanzas composed in classic iambic pentameter, he mimics turbulence. Moving lightly in stave I, he begins with a child's sensations — the feel of surf, sand, and shell — before proposing a paradox in line 16: "The bottom of the sea is cruel." This tension between the power to delight and the power to kill relieves the poem of mere nature worship and invests it with a mystic synthesis of positive and negative energies.

In stave II, Crane bathes his five stanzas in generous sibilance, as in "bells off San Salvador / Salute the crocus lustres of the stars." His choice of "rimless" and "unfettered" captures a tyrannic force that refuses to be contained or tamed. He balances the sea's willfulness with a divinity enhanced by "processioned," "diapason knells," and "scrolls of silver," which set a liturgical scene of advancing worshippers, organ swells, and scriptural readings. He takes heart in the timeless motion of the deep, which he equates with paradise. The third stave whirls images in a technique peculiar to Crane. With a brief nod to Shakespeare's "sea change," a phrase from The Tempest, the poet, like a suppliant before majesty, makes his formal request, "Permit me voyage."

The notion of the petitioner persists in the sixth stave, a prayer to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty born of sea foam. The poet depicts his limitation as sightlessness, which contrasts the dazzling sun. As though feeding on nature, he awaits, "afire" for inspiration. Resonating oh sounds [unspoke/rose/repose/holds/glow/know] enhance a deep reverence. Implicit in the artist's voyage is the potential for death on the mighty waves, which may give back "Some splintered garland for the seer." In the sixth stanza, the goddess herself arises on the surf. Like an empress, she "[concedes] dialogue" and offers "the imaged Word," a gift only to those willing to challenge the sea.

Water stabilizes the remainder of Crane's canon as a mystic symbol of steady motion and permanence. Written primarily in one summer, The Bridge (1930), a fifteen-part epic, thrives on a tangible man-made structure, a symbol of the American myth. Less rhapsodic than Voyages, the panoramic suite is equally dependent on kaleidoscopic impressions, notably sight, sound, and touch. Multiple references to American history create a grand procession dotted with familiar faces. The totality owes much to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which Crane studied with a critical eye and determined to outdistance by producing a more esthetic whole. Vast in scope and noble of purpose, like Virgil's Aeneid, the epic survives in a tenuous, unrefined state, having been published before the poet had made final adjustments.

Looking out from the very room that served bridge-builder Washington Roebling as an observation post, the poet opens with an introduction, "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge," a symbol of permanence set against an unpredictable world. For structure, he chooses a blank verse apostrophe and admits occasional rhymed couplets and alternate rhymes [clear/year] as well as assonance [parapets/caravan, stars/arms]. Throughout, meter and rhyme shepherd an urgency that threatens to break into chaos. To maintain contact with land, Crane stresses a subjective response to the visual glory of the bay, where sea birds wheel above the Statue of Liberty. The pageantry of people crossing the bridge halts momentarily as a mocker ridicules a potential suicide clinging to the parapets. The ever-shifting human scene yields an "anonymity time cannot raise." With mythic splendor, the bridge, a triumph of human artistry, dwarfs the cityscape below and prevails like great arms supporting the night sky.

Through sections celebrating Christopher Columbus, the Cutty Sark, Pocahontas, and the legendary Rip Van Winkle, Crane allies the bridge with landmarks of American history. In stave I, "Ave Maria," he elevates the tone to an anthem. The epic invocation "Be with me, Luis de San Angel, now" initiates the traditions of the post-Homeric literary epic. Allusions to Columbus's ship on the way to the New World discoveries inject a first-person immediacy. With a piety appropriate to the era, he concludes with the resonant cathedral hymn, "Te Deum laudamus" (We praise thee, God).

In "The River," glimpses of human figures juxtapose "hobo-trekkers" alongside trains and "redskin dynasties." The rhythm, overtly jazzy, settles into what Crane called "a steady pedestrian gait" as the poet moves back in time to plodding pioneers. Awed by the power of "iron, iron — always the iron," the poet reveres technology and forgives it for robbing nature of its quiet grace. The speeding Pullman bears "pilgrims" across the Mississippi, which the poet depicts as a gulping giant outlasting transient human life. Crane's ecstasy in the passionate tide swells into a hymn to the mingling of fresh water with the Gulf of Mexico.

Subsequent passages traverse the United States in a poetic tour. The least polished segment, "Cape Hatteras," places the reader at the threshold of discovery. In view of the flashing horizon, the poet addresses his ode to Walt Whitman, New York's famed poet and mythmaker. As though consumed by the thrum of a dynamo, Crane states new truths derived from the industrial age. Revisiting the concept of blindness, he exalts sensation over sight in an exaltation of flight, which the Wright brothers pioneered on North Carolina's outer banks at Kitty Hawk in sight of the Hatteras lighthouse.

The staves "Three Songs," "Quaker Hill," "The Tunnel," and "Atlantis" are the weakest elements of The Bridge. Crane's reliance on verbal music has forced critics to use such Italian terms as agitato, lento, and crescendo to describe the pure sounds that gush from his ecstacy. In "Southern Cross," he puns on the name of a constellation and the blazing symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. With "Virginia," he draws on street slang from a Bleecker Street crap game. The three-stanza praise hymn transposes Mary into a secular figure, a blue-eyed woman marked by "claret scarf." In the final refrain, Mary rises once more to the cathedral tower to beam a holy light.

Stave VI balances an ebullient divinity with the earth-bound acts of dancer Isadora Duncan and poet Emily Dickinson. Composed in octaves formed of iambic pentameter couplets, the rhythm slows as the eye drops from heaven to earthly heroines. Still church-centered, the whippoorwill's solo echoes from "dim elm-chancels," a liturgical call that "Breaks us and saves, yes, breaks the heart" before crumbling into an autumn of descending leaves and mortal despair.

The remainder of The Bridge epitomizes the unbridled mental gymnastics that turned readers away from imagism. Set on New York streets, stave VII breaks free once more from classic stanza forms with irregularly rhymed iambic pentameter interspersed with free verse and conversational style. Modern figures seek guidance, calling "IS THIS / FOURTEENTH?" A flip miss retorts, "if / you don't like my gate why did you / swing on it, why didja."

The tunnel becomes a pulsing underworld inchoate in active verbs, yet still vital, "Unceasing with some Word that will not die." In the eighteenth stanza, the poet reins in his ecstatic musings with the toot of a tugboat horn. The echoes search the harbor and "the oily tympanum of waters." Freed from the tunnel, the poet cries "O my City" in rapture to commune once more with the East River. Like a worshipper bathing in sanctified waters, he anticipates the finale.

The conclusion, "Atlantis," returns to the bridge with a tactile adoration of wires, granite, steel, and mesh. In steady iambic pentameter, ships at sea call to the massive bridge, "Make thy love sure." Crane links the quest to Jason, the Greek sailor, "Still wrapping harness to the swarming air." Sibilant lines extend the classic allusions to Aeolus, the god who provided winds to return the wandering Odysseus to Ithaca. Swelling to an oratorio, Crane declares that his verse "chimes from deathless strings." With orphic majesty, he sweeps the focus upward once more to the bridge, an "Everpresence" that anchors Columbus's New World to eternity.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare how poets are treated in "The Black Tambourine" and "Chaplinesque." How are outcasts treated in each poem?

2. Analyze evidence of emotional discordance in the congested images of Crane's "Lachrymae Christi."

3. Assess the interplay of euphony and cacophony that dominates Crane's "At Melville's Tomb," "The Dance," and "The Tunnel."

4. How does Crane create pageantry in The Bridge? What role does this grand parade serve in the work?