ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 13

 - Hart Crane


The early poetry of Hart Crane is presented and analyzed. Crane’s self-characterization as a visionary, Romantic, and erotic poet, as well as the unique nature of his poetic project are considered as responses to Eliot’s Waste Land and in particular the section “Death by Water.” The poems “Legend,” “Voyages,” and “At Melville’s Tomb” are read with particular attention to Crane’s idiosyncratic use of language and neologism.  

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 13 - Hart Crane

Chapter 1. Hart Crane Poem: “Legend” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Crane is a challenge. He’s a challenge for you; he’s a challenge for me as a teacher. He’s a challenging poet. He challenges his reader. He challenges us and he makes invitations to us. He calls to us in various ways, places demands on us.

I’d like to talk about a text I’m not, in fact, holding. Does somebody have an RIS packet handy that I could have in my hands? Thank you, Jean. And that is the poem “Legend,” which is the poem placed first in Crane’s first and only book of lyrics called White Buildings. It’s a poem that he used to introduce himself to the reader, as it were. So, why don’t we use it to begin thinking about his work:

As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by…

The poem begins with a kind of riddle or enigma, and then the first person comes forward:

I am not ready for repentance;
Nor to match regrets. For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame.

It’s a wonderful idea: “I’m not going to repent of anything; I’m not going to regret anything. I have not bent any more, I have nothing more to regret than the flame which has drawn me, which bent as well.”

For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame. And tremorous
In the white falling flakes
Kisses are, – [comma, dash]
The only worth all granting.

Characteristically here, for Crane, there’s a compressed set of images. Those “tremorous white falling flakes” there; well, they’re almost images, aren’t they, of a burnt moth, a moth that’s been drawn to the flame. And then those come to be seen as, here, kisses. Kisses, if we unpack Crane’s odd syntax, it would seem – the sentence would seem to read – although it’s maybe available to other constructions – “kisses are tremorous in the white falling flakes.” But these kisses, these kisses that are also emblems of flame and of extinction even, are “the only worth all granting”; that is, the only value that seems to grant all, I think. Again those words, “all granting,” might be construed in a couple of different ways. Crane says:

It is to be learned [what is to be learned?] –
This cleaving and this burning [the kind I’m talking about]…

We must learn to be drawn to the flame and we must learn to recover from the flame and renew our desires and renew our quests.

It is to be learned –
This cleaving and this burning,
But only by the one who
Spends out himself again.

In order to do this, you’ve got to spend yourself repeatedly, over and over again. And then he gives us other images of this kind of repeated burning:

Twice and twice
(Again the smoking souvenir,
Bleeding eidolon! [“eidolon” is a Greek word for “image”]) and yet again.

This activity is repeated and repeated:

Until the bright logic is won
Unwhispering [he returns to that initial enigmatic image] as a mirror
Is believed.
Then, drop by caustic drop, a perfect cry
Shall string some constant harmony, –
Relentless caper for all those [and here we are challenged and invited to
meet him and join him] who step
The legend of their youth into the noon.

Well, it’s a hard poem and yet there are a few, I think, simple, basic ideas that it projects that are important to the poet that Crane saw himself as, and the one he wants us to receive and in a sense join. He presents himself as an unrepentant visionary, Romantic, and lover – since, after all, these roles are all held in some association here. He talks about here a willingness that’s erotic, that’s aesthetic, that’s spiritual; to exhaust oneself in the pursuit of one’s desires; to “spend out” yourself again and repeatedly. There is in this the promise that by doing it repeatedly, “drop by caustic drop,” a kind of lyric voice will emerge that will be “a perfect cry.” And despite this destruction and pain and blood, “bleeding eidolon”, a “constant [that is, sustained] harmony “will be achieved, “harmony” invoking, of course, more than one voice.

And what is this? This is a poetic project, and it’s a project that he describes as a “relentless caper,” a “relentless caper.” “Caper” comes from Latin, in the sense of the goat that leaps. It’s also a word that suggests, well, some kind of minor mischief: a “relentless caper for all those who step / the legend of their youth into the noon.” And here, Crane presents himself as a young person who would project all of the youthful vitality of his vision and desire into this symbolically pregnant moment that he calls “the noon.” It’s a time very important in Crane’s imagination, I think: idiosyncratically, individually, but also in a way that alludes to noon in Emily Dickinson’s poems; Dickinson being a poet that Crane shares a great deal with. The poetry of Hart Crane – it proposes to approach what he calls “noon,” which is an experience of fullness and absolute presence.

Now, what does he mean, he’s “not ready for repentance”? Who after all has told him to repent? Who has told him he has something to regret? “Repent” is something that Crane heard from the culture at large in important ways. Crane is writing in the mid-twenties, or at this point. I think this is a poem from 1924 or so. It is post-war America. Crane sees himself as a member of a new youthful world, centered in places like Greenwich Village. He sees himself as part of a young America, bound together across place by a kind of common dedication to art and to their will to free themselves from the sexual and economic disciplines that he calls in this letter that I have quoted other sentences from, calls “Puritanism.” Crane is writing in an era, the era of the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition is in effect. There is a range of kinds of censorship that are a real and present threat. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has been banned from the United States shores for its obscenity. There’s a way in which modernist art is mixed up with questions of sexuality. Crane got his copy of Ulysses smuggled from France, which a friend then stole. Crane is living, too, in a vital and nascent gay culture, in New York in particular, and yet within a nation, then as now, that is strongly homophobic and anti-gay in all sorts of ways. Crane’s insistence on, his refusal to repent, his refusal to regret, are assertions of his will towards forms of sexual and imaginative freedom. They’re also affirmations of a Romantic poetics, essential to him.

Chapter 2. Hart Crane’s Reading of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” [00:12:59]

There’s also a literary historical context for this that’s important and that I think you can probably already start to guess at. Crane is a deep and a deeply ambivalent reader of The Waste Land and T. S. Eliot. He says in this letter to Gorham Munson in January 1923:

There’s no one writing in English who can command so much respect, to my mind, as Eliot. However, I take Eliot as a point of departure towards an almost complete reverse of direction. His pessimism is amply justified in his own case. [Why? I don’t know. Well, Crane had his fantasies about Eliot’s sexual life, I think.] But 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 it so in a skeptical age, ecstatic goal. I should not think of this if a kind of rhythm and ecstasy were not at odd moments and rare a very real thing to me. I feel that Eliot ignores certain spiritual events and possibilities, as real and powerful now as, say, in the time of Blake. [Blake is very important to Crane.] Certainly the man has dug the ground and buried hope as deep and direfully as it can ever be done. After this perfection of death [which is what Crane is – this is how he’s reading The Waste Land] nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind [he says].

Crane is reading The Waste Land and he’s reading Eliot’s criticism. He’s responding to – well, he’s responding to a series of texts, and I’ll just show you some of what he’s reading here. This is The Criterion, the first place Eliot’s poetry, The Waste Land, appeared. That’s in October 1922, Eliot’s own magazine. The first American publication of the poem was in The Dial in November 1922, and then the poem appeared in – I don’t know if you can see that very well – the poem appeared in a New York publication in book form as its own discreet text. When the Liveright edition of the poem was being prepared, as I mentioned last time, Eliot was asked to make the poem a little longer, because after all it was a little too short, and, or so the story goes, this was in part one of his motives for producing the notes to the poem. As I said last time, this is the way the poem looked in America when it first appeared, and of course with just a few lines per page. Last time I called it the shortest long poem in the language. You can see the way in which it’s sort of drawn out. Here’s the little section I ended by talking about, “Death by Water.”

Well, as I suggested last time, Eliot’s notes suggested and created a kind of role for the poet where the poet was not only the creative lyric presence at the center of the poem but was also a kind of scholar and critic of his own work: framing it, mastering bodies of knowledge, and arranging meaning in ways that the notes emblematize. In the process, Eliot’s doing a couple of things that Crane is responding to. He is establishing himself in what I described as a new role, and that’s very much the role you see Eliot embodying here; that is, the poet as a kind of scholar poet, a figure backed by institutional authority of various kinds.

And this figure’s created specifically in The Waste Land through the poem’s turning away from and turning against, in complicated ways, its own forms of Romanticism, which last time I suggested were emblematized by that drowned Phoenician sailor, Phlebas, who is a kind of figure for what the poem sacrifices or, you might say, a kind of version of the self that Eliot is willing to give up. Crane, encountering the poem, I think, must have been obsessed with the section, “Death by Water” – must have seen, must have heard Eliot talking to him when Eliot says, “Consider Phlebas who was once handsome and tall as you.” Crane means to reassert the power of youth, reassert the potential for Romantic vision, and to do so in a way that he imagines as a kind of resurrection and, specifically, as a kind of passage through and beyond “Death by Water.”

Chapter 3. Hart Crane Poem: “Voyages” [00:20:55]

Drowning is an important imaginative motif in Crane’s work. The poems that I’ll concentrate on now to explore this idea all have images of romance quest and drowning at their center. And I mean, first of all, the very great love poem called “Voyages” on page 609, which Eliot or – excuse me, which Crane began in the spring of 1924, about a year after he’s read The Waste Land. And the poem is, I think, his first sort of developed reply, and it centers, as I say, on images of drowning. The poem arises from a love affair with, as it happens, a Danish sailor who was part of the Bohemian crowd around the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. Crane’s letters are full of both reflections on Eliot and also ecstatic and very moving accounts of his love affair with Emil Opffer. I’ll read you just a few sentences from one letter to his friend, Waldo Frank. He says – Crane does:

It will take many letters to let you know what I mean, for myself at least, when I say in this relationship that I have seen the Word made flesh. I mean nothing less. And I know now that there is such a thing as indestructibility, in the deepest sense where flesh became transformed through intensity of response to counter-response, where sex was beaten out, where a purity of joy was reached that included tears.

Now, imagery from this and other letters that Crane wrote during the period emerge in “Voyages.” The very first section of “Voyages” had been, in fact, sitting on Crane’s desk for three years:

Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
Gaily digging and scattering. And in answer to their treble interjections
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
The waves fold thunder in the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them: O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.

The poem begins on shore, begins with kids playing. Their play in all its innocence seems to imply and gesture towards ferocious energies that are emblematized by the sea in all of its thunder and lightning and power. They fondle, they flay. The shoreline is a place where there are fragments of debris, proof of the sea’s force. The poem begins with a simple moral injunction or, really, a practical warning. To give yourself over to the sea would be to enter a field of unbounded energy, to risk your identity, to risk being overwhelmed. Think of Prufrock, on the shore, “shall I wear my trousers rolled?” Crane is there, in the same place, and having issued this warning, having acknowledged the cruelty of the bottom of the sea, he throws it off and throws it behind, and enters the water:

– And yet [that important piece of Cranian punctuation, the dash – a bit
of punctuation that separates and connects elements – pushes that
warning away and takes us into the sea] this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, become borderless space, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly…

Crane images the sea here as a woman’s body and as a kind of belly that bends towards the moon. It’s a kind of vision of the open horizon of the sea as, you know, it seems to project the curve of the earth in it.

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

That’s a wonderful Cranian word, “wrapt.” It would seem to mean both “wrapped,” in the sense of “wrapped up,” and “rapt,” in the sense of “held in rapture.” He’s kind of combined, possibly through error, these two forms. Crane makes errors. He’s unlike the scholarly Eliot. He continues, and now gives us instructions:

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose session rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

Here, being in the space of the sea is like being in love or in the act of love, as Crane imagines it. It’s also like being in a fabulous rhetorical world: a space of gorgeous extravagant language, which Crane unleashes here in all of its terrific force. Its language, which is iambic pentameter, unlike Eliot, is a language as rich and ornate as on the English Renaissance stage. Marlowe would have liked this. It is also a kind of Romantic diction, and there are elements of a sort of late nineteenth-century British and French poetry that Crane is combining here. He says:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides, –
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell. Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave, –
Hasten, while they are true [because they will not be true forever], – sleep, death desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.

Crane understands that love, like rhetoric, casts a spell, and that love and poetry create illusions. He does not therefore despise them; different from Eliot, in a basic way. He acknowledges, as it were, the temporariness of his desire. In fact he says:

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,

What are “minstrel galleons of Carib fire”? Well, maybe they’re actual ships that he’s imagining passing among. Maybe they are the lights of the moon or sun on the sea. He says to the sea:

Bequeath us [I know we’re going to die] to no earthly shore [in other
words, “don’t bury us”] until [and as in legend, Crane produces a funny,
syntactic reversal here]
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

There the subject of the sentence comes last. The sentence is: “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze is answered in the vortex of our grave.” What Crane has done there is: he’s reversed the syntactic order of subject and verb. By doing so, he’s introduced first the image of death by drowning – that is, the vortex of our grave – and he’s put that up first; and then, he’s followed it with the image of the seal’s gaze, which comes and emerges after drowning. The seal is here a figure of a kind of consciousness and desire expressed through the eyes that survives death.

Look back to the poem preceding, called “At Melville’s Tomb.” Here this is an elegy for Melville which seems to presume, falsely, that Melville was drowned, and is not buried on shore, as he is. And there’s an image again of drowning in lines 11 and 12, and again an image of a vortex:

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil [after the storm that has wrecked
the ship],
Its lashings charmed [and those lashings remind you of the flayings of
the kids in “Voyages”] and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

How do eyes lift altars? In Crane’s letter to Harriet Munroe, in defense of this poem and what he calls “the logic of metaphor,” Crane says, well, eyes lift altars in the sense that they bring the object of their desire into being through their desire; that is, you raise the altar, you create the object of worship through your yearning for it. This is, again, a kind of visionary act, and it’s a version of the one that we find at the end of the second section of “Voyages” where we see the seagull’s – excuse me, “the seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” “Wide.” “Wide” because it’s a gaze that is large and takes in much space; “wide” because the sea is a kind of space in which we have latitude of action. “Spindrift”: it’s a word that Crane took from Moby Dick, from Melville, replacing another word – not such a good word – which also came from Moby Dick: “finrinny.” It’s good he got rid of that.

“Spindrift” is important. When you are in the sea, it is like being in a Crane poem. You don’t have the ground under your feet. You spin and you drift; you spin and you drift and words mix and match and create words like “spindrift.” This is a condition that Crane calls, in the next poem, “infinite consanguinity,” where there’s a kind of sharing of elements, a kind of transformation through exchange that goes on. This is understood as what happens in love. It’s also understood as a kind of model for poetic process. It’s imaged here in this poem in triumphant language as a kind of transcendence of death. Here, describing a moment of climactic intensity, Crane writes:

And so, admitted through black swollen gates
That must arrest all distance otherwise, –
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
Light wresting there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
and where death, if shed [like a skin],
Presumes no carnage [no final death of the body], but [rather] this single
change, –
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of song; Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…

“The silken skilled transmemberment of song”: this is Crane’s final, fantastic line of iambic pentameter, where he proclaims a kind of transformation that is at once erotic and rhetorical, where elements between two parties have been exchanged and reversed just as the “silk” and “skill” give us phonemes that are held in almost a kind of mirror relationship and alliteration: the i-l-k, k-i-l. And then Crane introduces us to another word that he coins: “transmemberment.” “Transmemberment”: what does “transmemberment” mean? It seems to be made out of – what? Remember, dismember, transformation. He’s talking about a kind of activity that involves all these things at once, and through it achieves a kind of vision of union, which is again, as I say, both linguistic and interpersonal.

Well, that seems like a good place to stop for now. We’ll carry these poems on as a way to read his long poem in reply to The Waste LandThe Bridge.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]