Richard W. Amero

Hart Crane, prominent poet of the twenties, combined the optimistic outlook of Walt Whitman and the pessimistic outlook of Edgar Allan Poe in his poem The Bridge. These were not the only people to influence Crane. Other writers contributed to the formation of his views, but Whitman and Poe were his primary American poetic parents.

In analyzing The Bridge, critics have emphasized the biographical aspects of Crane's life or his mystical yearnings. This essay will focus on the thematic, narrative, lyrical and poetic qualities of The Bridge with reference to the biographical details of Crane's life as they contributed to the success or failure of these qualities.

The Bridge fails in many ways, but it also succeeds in parts and as a whole. The structure is clear. A beginning and end balance one another with a more or less chronological succession between. The poet describes the mythical history of the United States and speculates on its physical and metaphysical meanings as he looks at the Brooklyn Bridge from an apartment window in Brooklyn.

The manner in which thoughts and images come together in the poet's mind resembles the stream of consciousness focus in Ulysses by James Joyce and in Gerontion by T. S. Eliot. It may be difficult for readers to find their places amid a series of reflections that float on, but for anyone who pays attention, it is not an obstacle.

Crane wanted to create an epic of American consciousness. In this sense the I (eye) of the poem is the land itself and its people. The theme is simple. America was at one time a pristine continent filled with healthy and exuberant natives. Invading Europeans tarnished the beautiful and happy continent as they swept over it. Though the two cultures fought one another and the weaker suffered the most, the greater was also affected. Despite the wreckage civilized and industrialized Europeans have afflicted on the land and its peoples, the future is not dismal. The virginal land and its first people can teach Europeans how to respect the beauty and purity of the continent, which is still there, however begrimed it may appear to be.

There is nothing obscure about the idea of America undergoing transformations, threatened by hardships, and capable of grandeur. The theme is not that different from themes in school history books that glorify the United States by showing how ideals of freedom grew from tentative beginnings into the flourishing democracy that exists today.

For the purposes of his poem, Crane accepted the notion that some ideal or glory implicit in its soil and in its symbols made America. His fervent feeling has much in common with the rapture of a patriot who salutes the flag and stands for the National Anthem.

People who think The Bridge fails because it is obscure are wrong. If anything, the poem's purpose is so clear that the method in which it is demonstrated can be praised or dispraised as being adequate or inadequate for the task in hand.

The first section of the poem is rich in musical sounds and exciting imagery. Stanzas can be as grandiose and sonorous as:

White toil of heaven's cordons, mustering
In holy rings, all sails charged to the far
Hushed gleaming fields and pendent seething wheat
Of knowledge, ---round thy brows unhooded now
---The kindled Crown! acceded of the poles
And blessed by full sails, meridians reel
Thy purpose --- still one shore beyond desire!
The sea's green crying towers a-sway, Beyond

as even-paced and moderate as:

Insistently through sleep --- a tide of voices ---
They meet you listening midway in your dream,
The long, tired sounds, fog-insulated noises:
Gongs in white surplices, beshrouded wails,
Far strum of fog horns ... signals dispersed in veils.

as delicately cadenced as:

The River lifts itself from its long bed.
Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow
Tortured with history, its one will --- flow!
--- The Passion spreads its wide tongues, choked and slow,
Meeting the Gulf, hosannas silently below.

As rough and expressive as:

Stick your patent name on a signboard
brother --- all over --- going west --- young man
Tintex --- Japalac --- Certain-teed Overall ads
and land sakes! under the new playbill ripped
in the guaranteed corner --- see Bert Williams what?
Minstrels when you steal a chicken just
save me the wing for if it isn't
Erie it ain't for miles around a
Mazda ---

or as dynamic as:

Dance, Maquokeeta! snake that lives before,
That casts his pelt, and lives beyond! Sprout, horn!
Spark, tooth! Medicine-man, relent, restore ---
Lie to us, --- dance us back the tribal morn!

Images flow by delightfully. They contrast, uphold, maintain, and blend with the sound. Notice the following superb examples:

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn ---
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

. . . . . . .

And if they take your sleep away sometimes
They give it back again. Soft sleeves of sound
Attend the darkling harbor, the pillowed bay;
Somewhere out there in blankness stream
Spills into steam, and wanders, washed away
--- Flurried by keen fifings, eddied
Among distant chiming buoys --- adrift. The sky,
Cool feathery fold, suspends, distills
This wavering slumber ... Slowly ---
Immemorially the window, the half-covered chair,
Ask nothing but this sheath of pallid air.

. . . . . . .

My father's cannery works I used to see
Rail-squatters ranged in nomad raillery,
The ancient men --- wifeless or runaway
Hobo-trekkers that forever search
An empire wilderness of freight and rails.
Each seemed a child, like me, on a loose perch,
Holding to childhood, like some termless play.
John, Jake or Charley, hopping the slow freight
--- Memphis to Tallahassee --- riding the rods.
Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods.

. . . . . . .

Papooses crying on the wind's long mane
Screamed of redskin dynasties that fled the brain,
--- Dead echoes! But I knew her body there,
Time like a serpent down her shoulder, dark,
And space, an eaglet's wing, laid on her hair.

. . . . . . .

Bright skysails ticketing the Line, wink round the Horn
to Frisco, Melbourne ...
Pennants, parabolas,
clipper dreams indelible and ranging,
baronial white on lucky blue!

The first section shoots along with fervor. Ecstasy subdues clarity, meaning and purpose. See how the following grandiloquent prayer by Christopher Columbus flies high but arrives nowhere:

O Thou who sleepest on Thyself, apart
Like ocean athwart lanes of death and birth,
And all the eddying breath between dost search
Cruelly with love thy parable of man, ---
Inquisitor! Incognizable Word
Of Eden and the enchained Sepulchre,
Into they steep savannahs, burning blue,
Utter to loneliness the sail is true.

Images and rhythms in The Bridge are tumultuous. They do not communicate meanings as much as they display the confused emotions of a sputtering and struggling man. Another poet might discipline his emotions in the interest of art or of comprehension, but Crane gives his emotions free rein. Though describing myths and hopes, he is, unconsciously, laying bare his own breast. His lacerations are not pleasant to see.

The phonographs of hades in the brain
Are tunnels that re-wind themselves, and love
A burnt match skating in a urinal -

At times, lines in The Bridge are over-encumbered. They take too much of a charge, too brilliant a beam, or too forceful a cluster of metaphors. Language ceases to communicate and becomes hot. The following inflated passage celebrates the power of dynamos in terms of ecstasy a Communist Commissar might find appropriate, but not an American worker sweating over machinery:

The nasal whine of power whips a new universe ...
Where spouting pillars spoor the evening sky,
Under the looming stacks of the gigantic power house
Stars prick the eyes with sharp ammoniac proverbs,
New verities, new inklings in the velvet hummed
Of dynamos, where hearing's leash is strummed ...
Power's script, - wound, bobbin-bound, refined -
Is stropped to the slap of belts on booming spools,
Into the bulging bouillon, harnessed jelly or the stars.
Towards what? The forked crash of split thunder parts
Our hearing momentwise; but fast in whirling armatures,
As bright as frog's eyes, giggling in the girth
Of steely gizzards - axle-bound, confined
In coiled precision, bunched in mutual glee
The bearings glint, --- O murmurless and shined
In oilrinsed circles of blind ecstasy!

Some passages are clear and sharp and convey vivid impressions:

- Till elevators drop us from our day ...

. . . . . .

I left the village for dogwood. By the canoe
Tugging below the mill-race, I could see
Your hair's keen crescent running and the blue
First moth of evening take wing stealthily.

. . . . . . .

A distant cloud, a thunder-bud - it grew,
That blanket of the skies: the padded foot
Within, - I heard it: til its rhythm drew,
- Siphoned the black pool from the heart's hot root!

. . . . . . . .

The subway yawns the quickest promise home.

. . . . . . . .

The muffled slaughter of a day in birth -

. . . . . . .

But such quickening passages occur sporadically. They are scattered as gems in crowded fields of bathos and bombast.

After he is through rhapsodizing over Christopher Columbus, Rip Van Winkle, Francisco Pizzaro, Hernando Cortes, John Smith, the Indian, prairie mothers, and the Mississippi River, Crane grapples with the present in "Cape Hatteras." While America's past evoked a boyish feeling for historical legend and an infatuation with tramps, the present is harder to deal with. Crane is tired, his rhythms are sluggish and his meter forced. He counters a double-edged salute to the Wright Brothers and the airplane with a homage to Walt Whitman, who also wrote a poem using the Brooklyn Ferry as the source for a mystical experience in which time and space are transcended.

It avails not, neither time nor place - distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
I project myself also I return - I am with you, and know how it is.

Crane contrasted the horrors of Civil War destruction as seen by Whitman with the ravages of modern war as these are inflicted by airplanes. As Whitman was buoyant enough not to let the Civil War destroy his faith in America so Crane shared his hopes for America's future. As with the Brooklyn Bridge and the dynamo, the airplane heralds a new age of achievement:

Remember, Falcon-Ace,
Thou hast there in thy wrist a Sanskrit charge
To conjugate infinity's dim marge -
Anew ...!

Referring to Walt Whitman as Panis Angelicus (that is to say "Heavenly Bread") Crane takes his hand and declares he will accompany him beyond death.

Yes Walt,
Afoot again, and onward without halt-
Not soon, not suddenly, - no never to let go
My hand
in yours,
Walt Whitman -
so -

"Three Songs" that follow -- "Southern Cross," "National Winter Garden," and "Virginia" experiment with language. They deal with sex more than other parts of the poem with the exception of the treatment of Pocahontas, goddess of the continent and symbol of agricultural fertility. The amorous attractions of Eve, Venus and Mary Magdalene are presented in the form of burlesque. Eve and Venus are compared with the Southern Cross, a constellation seen by sailors in the southern seas. Ominously the poet links death with maternity and fertility, the embodiments of life.

Whatever calls - falls vainly on the wave.
O simian Venus, homeless Eve,
Unwedded, stumbling gardenless to grieve
Windswept guitars on lonely decks forever;
Finally to answer all within one grave!

A burlesque queen at the National Winter Garden who is paid to awaken lust is compared to Mary Magdalene. Most ludicrous of all, the Virgin Mary (or Virgin Queen) has as her counterpart a pay-check girl in a "high wheat tower" (or is it a "nickel-dime tower" . . . Woolworths?) who may or may not be in love with a crap-shooter . . . "Gone seven---gone eleven."

By comparing Eve, the Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary with unlikely avatars, Crane intended to show contradictory facets of modern life, in the manner of T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land. Aside from the fact that they are part of a stream of consciousness, "The Three Songs" serve as transition to succeeding sections in which Crane delves into painful aspects of modern experience.

"Quaker Hill" focuses on the mercantile corruption of modern life by describing the conversion of an old Quaker Meeting House into a summer hotel for blase New Yorkers. Crane thus continues the idea of contemporary ugliness prefigured in "The Three Songs." The people who patronize the hotel are pleasant and stupid.

Here three hours from the semaphores, the Czars
Of golf, by twos and threes in plaid plusfours
Alight with sticks abristle and cigars.
Crane concludes "Quaker Hill" by sounding the theme of "sundered parentage" to show how far modern Americans have strayed from spiritual sources.
The resigned factions of the dead preside,
Dead rangers bled their comfort on the snow;
But I must ask slain Iroquois to guide
Me farther than scalped Yankees knew to go:
Shoulder the curse of sundered parentage,
Wait for the postman driving from Birch Hill
With birthright by black-mail, the arrant page
That unfolds a new destiny to fulfill ...
So, must we from the hawk's far stemming view,
Must we descend as worm's eye to construe
Our love of all we touch, and take it to the Gate
As humbly as a guest who knows himself too late,
His news already told? Yes, while the heart is wrung,
Arise - yes, take this sheaf of dust upon your tongue:
In one last angelus lift throbbing throat -
Listen, transmuting silence with that stilly note
Of pain that Emily, that Isadora knew:
While high from dim elm-chancels hung with dew,
That triple-noted clause of moonlight -
Yes, whip-poor-will, unhusks the heart of fright,
Breaks us and saves, yes, breaks the heart, yet yields
That patience that is armour and that shields
Love from despair - when love foresees the end -
Leaf after autumnal leaf
break off,
descend -
descend -

Moving from hawk to worm or from eagle to serpent, Crane has braced himself for a descent into "The Tunnel." As Whitman was the champion of the companionable open road in "Cape Hatteras" so Edgar Allen Poe becomes the victim of isolated subterranean life. Crane does not give readers a synopsis of Poe's works nor stress the values of his message as he did with Whitman. Rather he shows Poe looking at him with a harrowing stare.

Whose head is swinging from the swollen strap?
Whose body smokes along the bitten rails,
Bursts from a smoldering bundle far behind
In back forks of the chasms of the brain,
Puffs from a riven stump far out behind
In interborough fissures of the mind ...?
And, why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns - on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
- And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed plasters ride?
And Death, aloft, - gigantically down
Probing through you - toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore -
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

From the depths of the subway, Crane emerges into light in "Atlantis," the concluding section of The Bridge. Crane, never an apostle of Apollo, god of classic restraint, abandons himself to the claims of Dionysus, god of excess. His emotions are overpowering as he, like the eagle he has used as a symbol of aspiration, soars heavenward. The cables of Brooklyn Bridge become "orphic strings" through which the poet approaches a place of spiritual beauty and wholeness.

So to thine Everpresence, beyond time,
Like spears ensanguined of one tolling star
That bleeds infinity - the orphic strings,
Sideral phalanxes, leap and converge;
- One Song, one Bridge of Fire! Is it Cathay,
Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring
The serpent with the eagle in the leaves ...?
Whispers antiphonal in azure swing.

The serpent and eagle allude to the finding of a serpent in the mouth of an eagle in Aztec legend, which was a prelude to the Aztec founding of Tenochitlan. Crane has referred to the serpent and the eagle throughout The Bridge. In an elusive passage in "The River" the serpent is equated with time and the eagle with space, time supposedly being the earth and the eagle the air. Aside from the euphony of the names, the meaning of the symbols is obscure. The serpent could be the underground man represented by Edgar Allen Poe or the symbol of materialism represented by Christopher Columbus and the eagle the symbol of adventure represented by Walt Whitman or of love represented by Pocahontas if Crane had wanted to write an easy poem in which mysteries are explained and doubts resolved, which he did not..

Any poetic conclusion that dissolves into mystic experience must leave readers gasping and grasping for explanation. Crane, like Dante, Bunyan, and the late Whitman, has decided that an encompassing whole (read God) can absorb everything. Is the Brooklyn Bridge then a sort of heavenly harp?

The ending has the earmarks of the deus ex machina that appears from time to time in Greek and Roman dramas Neither the heavenly nor the earthly bridge succeed in reconciling the antithetical symbols of Columbus and Pocahontas. As he has done throughout the poem, Crane has substituted white heat for logic. Is the purpose of history to go beyond life and death and to find refuge in a vaporous heaven? Whitman thought so in Passage to India and Crane has used the same solution in The Bridge.

Crane was so caught up in his paradoxes and predicaments in The Bridge, that he was unable to shape his account of American history with precision and objectivity. His desire to experience moments of extreme (superior?) consciousness placed him with those latter-day romantics who enjoyed or endured intensified and deranged sensations . . . Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry. The vertigo Crane experienced on the bridge is the dizziness of a man possessed by uncontrollable impulses and divisions. He surrendered to pounding rhythms and ecstatic metaphors that transfigured realities within and around him.

At the end of Faustus and Helen, Crane wrote of his feeling of estrangement from life:

The earth may glide diaphanous to death;
But if I lift my arms it is to bend
To you who turned away once, Helen, know in
The press of troubled hands, too alternate
With steel and soil to hold you endlessly.
I meet you, therefore, in that eventual flame
You found in final chains, no captive then -
Beyond their million brittle, bloodshot eyes;
White, through white cities passed on to assume
That world which comes to each of us alone.

In a letter written in 1920, ten years before the completion of The Bridge, Crane described how the gratification of his sexual desires and the shame that followed provided an incubus for him to create poetry he considered beautiful:

I don't believe in the "sublimation theory" at all so far as it applies to my own experience. Beauty has often appeared to me in moments of penitence and even sometimes distraction and worry. Lately my continence has brought me nothing in the creative way, - it has only tended to create a confidence in me along lines of action, - business, execution, etc. There is not love enough in me at present to do a thing. This sounds romantic and silly, - you understand that I mean and refer to the strongest incentive to the imagination, or, at least, the strongest in my particular case.

(Hart Crane to Gorham Munson, November 23, 1920, The Letters of Hart Crane, 1916-1932. Edited by Brom Weber, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1965, p. 46)

Crane did not exult in being at odds with his family, his surroundings, and his friends, a clumsy misfit who could not keep a job. He was a masochist whose acts of self-degradation expressed themselves in squalid homosexual settings. Alcoholism was the effect not the cause of his difficulties, which stemmed from financial insecurities and from his alternating sense of success and failure in love and in writing poems. For every peak there was a valley. In one of these valleys of desperation, he wrote:

I think the artist more and more licks his own vomit, mistaking it for the common diet. He amuses himself that way in a culture without faith and convictions - but he might as well be in elf-land with a hop-pipe in his mouth.

(Hart Crane to Waldo Frank, June 19, 1926, O My land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. Langdon Hammer & Brom Weber: New York & London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997, p. 255)

People bent on advocating messianic social schemes sometimes criticize writers for being individualistic and selfish because they do not spend their time promoting these schemes. Crane was so immured in isolation, he was unable to achieve satisfying and lasting contact with other human beings. He believed, with Montaigne, that the only truth he could know, was the singular and not-easy-to-live-with truth of himself Unwilling to accept any one explanation (even his homosexuality or his proclaimed belief in the extra-logical power of poetry) he exemplified the poet John Keat's concept of "negative capability." In other words, he would not force his experiences into a dogmatic ideology, but would extract whatever meaning he could from them as they came to him in the flux of daily happenings and daily crises. If he had not swung from inspiration to stupor, from love to disappointment, from self-confidence to self-abjection, from sobriety to drunkenness he might not have committed suicide. On the other hand, he would have written poems less taut, lyrical and thrilling than those he wrote.

How one wishes Crane had found the redemption in suffering he wished for so poignantly in these verses from "Quaker Hill":

So, must we from the hawk's far stemming view,
Must we descend as worm's eye to construe
Our love of all we touch, and take it to the Gate
As humbly as a guest who knows himself too late,
His news already told? Yes, while the heart is wrung,
Arise - yes, take this sheaf of dust upon your tongue:
In one last angelus lift throbbing throat -
Listen, transmuting silence with that stilly note
Of pain that Emily, that Isadora knew:
While high from dim elm-chancels hung with dew,
That triple-noted clause of moonlight -
Yes, whip-poor-will, unhusks the heart of fright,
Breaks us and saves, yes, breaks the heart, yet yields
That patience that is armour and that shields
Love from despair - when love foresees the end -
Leaf after autumnal leaf
break off,
descend -
descend -

To criticize should not be too condemn. Romantic (read self-destructive) poets contribute to society by being themselves, particularly at times when group conformity is stressed and deviance of any kind is punished. Not all romantic poets find sexual masochism, drunkenness and suicide to be the means to absolve their weaknesses and solve their conflicts, but Crane was one of those who did. (No way out, but through!) For those who assume a high stance by claiming Crane deserved what he got (Quando tremor est futurus, quando Judex est venturus, cuncta stricte discussurus), the words of Publius Terentius Terence (190 B.C.-158 B.C.) serve as a stinging rebuke: "I am a man; nothing human is alien to me."

The Bridge was written by a tormented but honest man who wanted his readers to profit from his uplifting tribute to the history of the United States, even though he realized as he was writing his great national epic that it had been tarnished by his experiences of futility and nihilism. Contrasts between the spiritual and the material, as demonstrated by the eagle and the serpent and by Pocahontas and Columbus, or between a life-affirming poet like Walt Whitman and a death-desiring poet like Edgar Allen Poe have occupied philosophers and poets from Plato onward. While it may not be convincing in its union of opposites so that they "leap and converge" into "One Song, one Bridge of Fire!," The Bridge is superior to many works that are better made, simpler in meaning, and less ambitious. Hart Crane was, as Herman Melville said of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of those who dived, figuratively as well as literally..

Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs, five miles or more; and if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena, can't fashion the plummet that will.

(Leon Howard, Herman Melville, A Biography, University of California Press, 1967, 138)

On April 27, 1932 Harold "Hart" Crane, at the age of 33, took his last dive from the stern of the steamship Orizaba into the Gulf of Mexico and found the release or surcease he had long desired.

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
At Melville's Tomb by Hart Crane

NOTE: All references to the poems of Hart Crane are taken from Complete Poems of Hart Crane. Edited by Marc Simon, Liveright Publishing, New York, 1986).

May 14, 2003

For more articles by Richard Amero see: