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Hart Crane and the Private Judgment
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Hart Crane and the Private Judgment

In the July 1932 issue of Poetry there is an essay by Allen Tate called "Hart Crane and the American Mind." Hart Crane had committed suicide on April 28, 1932. Tate's judgment certainly was affected by the fact, and by the friendship he had held for Crane, and yet the matter of his comments on Crane's life and value as a poet continues very much the same as what we deal with today, facing a like problem of judgment.

What Tate there gives to Crane is this:

Sometime in May, 1922, I received a letter from Hart Crane saying he liked a poem of mine which he had seen in the May number of The Double Dealer . It was my first printed poem, and Hart's letter was not only an introduction to him; it was the first communication I ever received from another writer.[1] In that same issue of The Double Dealer appeared some translations by him of Laforgue, which seemed to me very fine; I looked up previous numbers of the magazine, and found "Black Tambourine," an early poem that contained some of the characteristic features of this later and mature style. I had seen nothing like it in Anglo-American poetry. From that time until his death one could trace the development of a poetry which, though similar in some technical respects to French Symbolism, is now a distinct contribution to American literature. It is a poetry that could have been written only in this country and in this age.

The Free Lance , vol. 5, no. 1, 1960 (Wilberforce University).


Hart Crane has now become a kind of 'symbol,' for many, of the irresponsible in poetry, the disordered intelligence that creates a chaos only as a refuge from its own inabilities. Grover Smith, for example, calls him "that pitiable anarch . . . ," continuing, "It should be patent to the student of both [Crane's life and work], however, that Crane as man and poet was grievously disordered, that the neurotic irresponsibility of his private life and loves was directly synchronous with the undisciplined fancy manifest in his poetic images. Crane's inner world was a fluxion in which neither personal relations nor traditional thought and utterance were coherent enough to form laws even for themselves."[2] This is, of course, a very personal judgment, and one made completely as a contention—the only quotations from the book in question are taken from Brom Weber's introduction to The Letters of Hart Crane . Smith says, of the letters themselves: "There is no concentration of alert feelings; there is no style." But Tate had felt them to be "always written in a pure and lucid prose." Whatever our own opinion may arrive at, at least we must see that we can accept neither of these two as given, until we have found our own proof.

The 'failures,' 'mistakes,' 'flaws,' etc., of Hart Crane's poetry have seemed to me intimate with the successes equally demonstrable. I think that a reader must judge for himself, at last, which quality is the more sustained. Crane was 'disordered' to the extent that he conceived his responsibility as a poet to transcend even the obligations he felt as a man. Perhaps there is no direct proof of this fact, i.e., a statement unequivocally supporting it. But—"It is a new feeling, and a glorious one, to have one's inmost delicate intentions so fully recognized as your last letter to me attested. I can feel a calmness on the sidewalk—where before I felt a defiance only. And better than all—I am certain that a number of us at last have some kind of community of interest. And with this communion will come something better than a mere clique. It is a consciousness of something more vital than stylistic questions and 'taste,' it is vision, and a vision alone that not only America needs, but the whole world. . . . What delights me almost beyond words is that my natu-


ral idiom . . . has reached and carried to you so completely the very blood and bone of me."[3]

The nature of this "vision" concerned an alternative to the negativistic position which Eliot, and to a lesser degree (though ultimately even more final) Joyce, had provided for their work. The genius of both men made the position attractive almost 'per se'—at least the question of its implications does not seem to have been recognized at first by very many. But one of those who did, William Carlos Williams, speaks of it (in retrospect) as follows: "These were the years just before the great catastrophe to our letters—the appearance of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land . There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot's genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him."[4]

Hart Crane's answer was The Bridge —now discredited as a total poem, which is to say, a failure in terms of its literal writing, and the problems involved in that writing. But the conception? We know that the 'failure' in some sense caused Crane to doubt all of his abilities as a poet. Tate writes, "I think he knew that the framework of The Bridge was finally incoherent, and for that reason—as I have said—he could no longer believe in even his lyrical powers; he could not return to the early work and take it up from where he had left off." But Crane himself had written to Tate: "Perhaps it can serve as at least the function of a link connecting certain chains of the past to certain chains and tendencies of the future. In other words, a diagram or 'process.'"[5] It is here, I think, that the conception of the poem is most significantly stated, and since it has to do with problems of the 'scientific method,' there is that reason for a brief digression.

Attitudes in the 'social sciences,' even as late as the twenties, con-


tinued to maintain that world view which held that a system of knowledge was extensible to a point where the world's ills might, reasonably, be done away with. Perhaps the attitudes were never quite so barely expressed, or even realized, but their content was nonetheless predicated on such a system of thought. Moreover, this way of thinking was involved in many of the other sciences, and was also, very clearly, the base idea or opinion held by many, many laymen.

A recent book, Modern Science and Modern Man , by James B. Conant,[6] reviews these attitudes, and, more particularly, shows why they can no longer be quite so easily held. But the most interesting thing, in connection with Crane's comment on The Bridge , is Conant's discussion of "the philosophic implications of the new physics," wherein he quotes from J. J. Thomson's The Corpuscular Theory of Matter (1907)[7] as follows: "From the point of view of the physicist, a theory of matter is a policy rather than a creed; its object is to connect or coordinate apparently diverse phenomena and above all to suggest, stimulate, and direct experiment."[8]The Waste Land was a 'creed' (how much of a creed we can now show, by


means of Eliot's later work), depending on the finality of knowledge. But The Bridge , 'failure' though it was and still may seem to us, was a 'process' or 'policy,' an attempt to direct attention to a significant content in the American corpus, both historical and mythic, and to posit juxtapositions and methods of dealing with this material which might prove fruitful.

Perhaps that is all too simply opinion, mainly my own.[9] But we have damned The Bridge much too simply on the grounds of its having failed as a poem. Certainly we are allowed to do that, and finally we must. And yet it seems to me wasteful to ignore the other implications involved. It is not even a question of giving credit where credit is due, though I should like to consider that part of it. The several questions remaining are: (1) who has answered Eliot? (2) isn't that answer even more called for now , than it was then? (3) doesn't the present 'picture' of our world (again 'now') have a great, great deal to do with it?

Let me leave those as questions only. Crane's position as 'prophet,' if you will, is one which I cannot discuss very competently here. Moreover, until he is again read, as he deserves to be, any discussion must, of necessity, be meaningless. But to suggest, as Smith has done, that Crane was committed to "rebellion for its own sake" is neither helpful nor true. Further, his sense of the poems as a "jumble of images thrown up by the poet's unconscious" which leave the reader to perform "the 'plastic' task proper to the poet himself" does not strike me as very adequate—granted that there are reasonable alternatives to his opinion.[10]

As his critics have remarked, Crane learned a great deal from the French Symbolists, and much of his early work is dominated by what he learned. For example, Tate (speaking "logically") notes that Crane "became so dissatisfied, not only with the style of the poem ["For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen"], which is heavily influenced by Eliot and Laforgue, but with the 'literary' character of the symbolism, that he set about the greater task of writing The Bridge ." The point is that Crane had become at first a poet by way of a poetry dependent on irony, on the dissociations possible in the very surfaces of language, on a quick and nonpassive verbalism


which was in direct opposition to anything then evident in English or American poetry. His 'style,' if you will, was developed in great part from this source. And this will explain much of the surface character of Crane's poetry, i.e., the rapidity of image, the disparateness, the whole sense of 'words' being used almost for their own, single character. Certainly both Eliot and Pound (as well as Stevens, Williams, et al., at home) had begun to use these same things.

But it is Crane's development away from the Symbolists, and their dependence on irony in particular, that leads to the later style, and of course to the character of language usage which Grover Smith dislikes. In fairness to both him and myself—not to mention Crane—it should be stated that a poem is an asserted unit of meaning, among other things. And that our appreciation of it, or disapproval of it, depends, again partially, on whether or not we can allow that the means used to effect that end provide a meaning apprehensible by us. Once having allowed that, we then take upon ourselves the act of judging whether or not the means used seem the most effective possible, i.e., the most proper, etc. Smith, then, is suggesting that Crane's "jumble of images" does not properly provide for an effect of meaning —and that it depends on our sympathy for resolution. In any case (because a poem will be given shortly) a few lines, here, may show the nature of the difficulty, at least insofar as Smith has been thinking of it.

    Yes, tall, inseparably our days
Pass sunward. We have walked the kindled skies
Inexorable and girded with your praise,

By the dove filled, and bees of Paradise.

Briefly the line of the sense can be given as this: that Crane and the one he speaks to share a time together which is passing, and that this time has been, to put it very simply, happy. I don't think that belies the base meaning involved, insofar as its 'action' character is concerned. So—the images, etc. The first, "our days pass[ing] sunward" with the further sense of "tall, inseparably," engenders in my mind an effect of dignity (from the "tall"), of a close love (from the whole complex of "our days pass sunward," with the echo of "sun" as life-giving, high, a source of nobility and godhead). To bypass, the next sentence comes to me as a statement of fulfillment, that they have, together, come to a sense of complete fulfillment. And that, in any case, can serve as a description, if nothing else, of how the lines begin to attain to an effect of meaning for me.


Now one might argue, how can he talk about walking up in the sky if he has just said that his days (an apparent possession) pass sunward? How can they do that, if he is up there, etc.? And—who is "inexorable" and "girded," etc.? But doesn't that really come to quibbling—if an effect is achieved and sustained in rereading? And isn't this latter just what each reader must decide for himself? I suggest that Crane's use of language (i.e., such words as "inexorable," "tall," and such image complexes as in the first three lines) will invariably be attached to an emotion which can and will sustain them in a total pattern of meaning . That line of meaning can be determined in all of his active poems (which will serve, for a beginning, to belie Smith's "jumble of images"), and that this line will depend, precisely, on the assumedly disconnected images which some readers have balked at. Remember that an association existing between images need not be 'logical.' That term is most usually an a priori designation for an assumptional rationality of progression. The fact is that we do not know what we know before we know it. And a poem's line, or what to call it, of meaning need not be 'logical,' if it can effect its meaning by virtue of another sense of possible sequence. And, at that, Crane is really no great instance of the uses of theoretic dissociation in sequence. One might argue, in fact, that an apparent 'excess' in language was the only irony that Crane finally permitted himself.

To allow discussion to end there, however, ignores all of Crane's metrics, and all of his sense of structure in the shorter poems—particularly the latter. I have seen no comment on Crane's sense of rhythm, although it is, for me, one of the most dominant aspects of his work.[11] But the reader can judge both that, and the "jumbled images," for himself:

Island Quarry

Square sheets—they saw the marble into
Flat slabs there at the marble quarry
At the turning of the road around the roots of the mountain
Where the straight road would seem to ply below the stone,
    that fierce
Profile of marble spiked with yonder
Palms against the sunset's towering sea, and maybe
Against mankind. It is at times—


In dusk it is at times as though this island lifted, floated
In Indian baths. At Cuban dusk the eyes
Walking the straight road toward thunder—
This dry road silvering toward the shadow of the quarry
—It is at times as though the eyes burned hard and glad
And did not take the goat path quivering to the right,
Wide of the mountain—thence to tears and sleep—
But went on into marble that does not weep.

It is very possible to argue that this is an almost perfect instance of form—technically. Actually, our own ears have arrived at that conclusion upon hearing it, and our perception of the content involved makes it not at all necessary to revert to questions purely of sentiment. The poem is a good one because of its very skillful alteration and development of the two rhythms involved (i.e., those contained in words like "marble," "mountain," "maybe," etc., and those contained in "sheets," "fierce," "dusk," "weep," etc.). The hard opening of the poem, like a double stroke, falls then off to the softer rhythms, then reasserts itself in the opening of the second line—and so on to the final, broken close. This, of course, is the usual method of 'analysis.' We may also point out that the vowel leadings in this poem are quite equal to anything done by Yeats—although we have never heard of them being mentioned either in this poem, or any other by Crane. Nor has there been comment on the very effective handling of line—as this poem, again, shows it, with the undulation of the lines, almost opening and closing like actual breathing, to end with the line pulling in, stumbling, unmistakable in its emphases.

All that can be said, defended—and much more can be said and defended, concerning both this one poem and at least a dozen others. My own preferences in the first book, White Buildings , are: "Praise for an Urn," "Lachrymae Christi," "The Wine Menagerie," "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," "At Melville's Tomb," and perhaps one or two others, i.e., these are only evidences of my own taste, and what I think I could defend as 'good poetry.' In the later book, Key West: the quoted poem, "The Mermen," "A Name for All," "Imperator Victus," "The Hurricane," "And Bees of Paradise," "Moment Fugue," "The Broken Tower," "The Phantom Bark," and, again, perhaps a few more, because my taste is hardly invariable.[12] But do people still read these poems, and, if they don't—how can we discuss them all so glibly, or say, so glibly, that they are this thing or that?


For an ending: the reader who saw Crane survive Weber's first book on him may have noticed this particular account, in Weber's preface to The Letters , concerning the death of Hart Crane's mother:

The last chapter in the Crane biography occurred in 1947. On July 30th of that year, Mrs. Grace Hart Crane, the poet's mother, died in Teaneck, New Jersey. Before her death, she told Samuel Loveman that she wished to be cremated and her ashes to be cast into the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge. The necessary arrangements were made, and the editor was one of a small party which proceeded along Brooklyn Bridge on a windy, sunlit afternoon in Fall 1947. At intervals on the Bridge, there are signs warning pedestrians not to throw anything from the structure. By the time the party reached the center of the Bridge, considerable trepidation existed about the feasibility of respecting Mrs. Crane's last wishes. It remained at last for the editor to grasp the small, undecorated tin can and shake the ashes into the air, where they swirled about for a few moments and then fell mistily into the water below. Thus Crane's mother joined him in the element which had claimed him fifteen years earlier.

But this is Smith's hero, not mine. The reader who can trust a 'character analysis' of Hart Crane coming from the same source is welcome to, but he has no reason, here, to read further.

The men who knew Hart Crane, with the authority of friendship, have said many things about him, each from the particulars of their own life. Allen Tate ends his essay, written that short time after Crane's death, by saying: "After he had lost the instinct for self-definition, and later, after the exploration of his symbol of the will had brought him back upon himself, he might have continued to breathe, but he would no longer have been alive." That whole question of will, of "the will gone all teeth" (as Charles Olson has called it in another reference), will, someday, have to be examined, and closely. Poetry, the whole art of it, had failed Crane, and that is why he could not live—even if it is not why he died.

Other men speak of him as the friend which no other man has ever quite taken the place of. Against the public that sees him as homosexual, drunkard, and all the rest, for them he was an incredible man, whom they knew. For Robert Graves, he was a "lovely man," however much he seemed a tragic one. For Slater Brown, the best friend he ever had.

What else is there to be said. Except that we can read the poems, and see what they are, for ourselves.



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Hart Crane and the Private Judgment
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