Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters
Edited by Langdon Hammer
The Library of America, $40 (cloth)

For Hart Crane’s first book of poems, the slender White Buildings (1926), there was a whole bouquet of reviews to die for. True, the owlish Edmund Wilson was not impressed: “almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was, not merely not applied to a great subject, but not, so far as one can see, applied to any subject at all.” But he was outnumbered by the reviewers who trumpeted Crane’s arrival: Waldo Frank, Yvor Winters, Mark Van Doren, Archibald MacLeish, Matthew Josephson, and still others—several of them already Crane’s friends.

It may not have been all to Crane’s good that his advent was greeted with so much rapture and so little circumspection. (“Not since Whitman,” intoned Frank in The New Republic, “has so original, so profound and . . . so important a poetic promise come to the American scene.”) Crane’s belief in himself, already huge, ballooned astronomically. In his next book, The Bridge, he exhumed the United States as a “mystic” topic and tried to make a go of it, though it was some 60 years too late for that; and before he committed suicide at the age of 32, he had still more immodestly moved on to “a poetic drama on Cortez and Montezuma.”

Crane didn’t know how to restrain himself (we find the same pattern in his drinking). For all one knows, he might have developed if he’d remained longer in the shadows; but he rooted out praise—for instance, excitedly sending his literary friends first drafts of mere beginnings of poems, like a child showing his mother the first strokes of a drawing—and finding it, not least in letters, incited him to still greater efforts.

But as to White Buildings: if half of it is just so much talented piano practice, some of it is downright astonishing. Witness the two opening stanzas of “Praise for an Urn,” and the fifth, quoted here:

Still, having in mind gold hair,
I cannot see that broken brow
And miss the dry sound of bees
Stretching across a lucid space.

Perhaps “dry” and “lucid” have never been more beautifully used. “Lucid” lyricizes the summer, while “dry” passes ominously through its air. Similarly, even as the sentence, with its extraordinarily distinct monosyllables, stretching long vowels, and stretching, buzzing s’s stretches through the four lines, the frequent line breaks parse it dryly. Here, elegy finds dignity in being dry-eyed.

Even the frequently anthologized six-part sequence “Voyages,” for all its banality about mortality and its sentimentality about love—barely disguised by Symbolist verse that, as Verlaine prescribed, is “plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air”—Crane struck off a few lines genuinely in the grand style, and this at a time when such a style was already all but antiquated. Of the sea: “her undinal vast belly moonward bends.” And how to resist “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise”? Not to overlook “Permit me voyage, love, into your hands,” which movingly resists being pulled out into an evenly measured pentameter, “voyage” and “into” being understandably in a hurry.

But it’s only an itty-bitty slip to pass from that “toward paradise” or that “your hands” into emotional twaddle, and Crane, far younger in his poetry than in his criticism, sometimes so slipped. At his worse, he’s cloying. Like Pound, he didn’t completely modernize his idiom, but he lacked Pound’s hard, clean carving, his annealing exactitude. His thees and thous are impossibly lofty, his diction and syntax occasionally puffed like a periwig. He could be mawkish: “Eyes tranquil with the blaze / of Love’s own diametric gaze, of love’s amaze!” And hammy: “let thy waves rear / More savage than the death of kings.” All too elevated: “distinctly praise the years.” (Yet beware: a steady diet of Crane can make the language of even some of his great contemporaries seem thin and easy. It’s all in what the ear gets used to.)

Not that Crane wasn’t, withal, modern. He belonged to the great sestet of American Modernist poets who, T. S. Eliot aside, sought to correct our puritanical leanings—the other four being Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein. But if Crane is the slenderest “classic” among them, it’s not only because he died young but also because of the distortions fostered by his too great trust in “emotional dynamics” and his inordinate ambition to synthesize, round and about America, space, time, and knowledge.

Before looking further into what went simultaneously grand and wrong with Crane—mostly wrong—we might note that much of his first book escaped the later desperate exaggeration. The subject Wilson failed to see in it is, often, pity, caritas, in variations on Eliot’s “infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing” (a phrase from “Preludes” that Crane echoes in his letters). Though Crane out-lunged the emotion in The Bridge, it forms much of the distinction of White Buildings.

True, it was held suspended in the second poem, the over-snappy anthology favorite “Black Tambourine,” whose “black man in a cellar” is hinged, as Crane hinted in a letter: he can be viewed as either racially backward or a social victim. A purer example is “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”: the letters are read in an attic to the sound of rain on the roof—“such a sound of gently pitying laughter.” “Chaplinesque” implies that it requires “meek adjustments” to “Have heard a kitten in the wilderness” or seen “The moon in lonely alleys make / A grail of laughter of an empty ash can.” And, not to exhaust all the examples, “Repose of Rivers” solemnly returns to what Crane notes might so easily have been bartered away, a landscape of “singular nestings,” the beavers’ “stitch and tooth.” In short, Crane wrote from and about an enabling humility, rich in sympathy and affection.

But then ambition struck. (In fact, it was announced already in the congested sequence “Faustus and Helen,” where Crane is effusive about classical beauty—Helen—and a dematerializing longing—Faustus—and takes on Eliot’s pessimism with a bardic “yes,” even anticipating the metaphor of the bridge in the line “The imagination spans beyond despair.” Of the six Modernists, Crane soon talked the biggest talk, after Stein: “I’m on a synthesis of America and its structural identity now, called The Bridge” (letter of February 20, 1923); “bound to be a magnificent thing” (letter of April 18, 1926). And indeed, he alone assumed all three of the huge American Modernist topics: American nature, American history (or culture), and American religion.

To that end, Crane’s long sequence The Bridge (1930) elevated Brooklyn Bridge and the Mississippi, steel and water, as equal and like emblems of God: on the one hand, God’s transcendence (for this, however, look chiefly to the bridge) and, on the other, God’s immanence (for this, look especially, but not too closely, to the river). The bridge necessitated that God be structurally sound and now, whereas the river equated God with the Gulf, as a destination. It was a lot to ask, this bridging of divine structure and a divine pooling. But Crane thought that the across and upward directions of the bridge justified the totalizing symbolism. Just empathize with them; follow your Western emotions, the Faustian souls’ love of infinity, of whence and whither in the world of light. Such was the telescope through which Oswald Spengler taught Crane to look in The Decline of the West.

In a letter to Waldo Frank (January 18, 1926), Crane boasted that “the bridge in becoming a ship, a world, a woman, a tremendous harp . . . seems to really have a career.” In fact it was anything his immediate religious impulse wanted it to be: at once process and product, a pre-, present- and post-becoming, a future-anterior summation, “arc synoptic of all tides below.” “Unto us lowliest sometime . . . descend,” he pled, humorlessly. “Cognizance” gave the bridge intelligence; “O Love” gave it heart; “Bridge of Fire”—well, it’s all too much. The bridge as a mere (and splendid) piece of engineering groans under the stress of Crane’s Faustian requirement that it become “the symbol of consciousness spanning time and space,” and then some (letter of March 18, 1926).

A dualist despite himself, Crane couldn’t see the world in a grain of sand or heaven in a wildflower; he had to hammer both into the bridge. Whitman (who is passionately apostrophized in The Bridge) made the rowdy American scene continuous with the unnamable, which, in German Romantic fashion, was always “still becoming”; but for Crane the combination was like walking on stilts with the two footholds at different heights: a lift up, clomp, a let down, clomp. The division shows itself in The Bridge’s vacillations between urban naturalism (“the toothpaste and the dandruff ads”) and, in antithesis, high symbolism, or metaphor cut loose from fact, though intended as an antidote to dualism. (There’s actually a range of styles, but this isn’t the place to detail them.) Whole poems in The Bridge are just the ordinary, dressed up. In other of the poems, by contrast, Crane’s “choiring” practice scatters the poetry’s intelligence into a mishmash of images and a splash of affects. At times the lines even hurt one’s body to read. Crane was especially hard on the eyes—for example, those “Slit by . . . fins of light” and “propelled” by them while they, the eyes, “Pick biting way up towering looms that press / Sidelong with flight of blade on tendon blade,” like no loom ever known before (“Atlantis”).

The Bridge is ardent in its tone, heartfelt in its metaphysics, and distant and heartless where Whitman was all humanity. Emptying out historical specificity, Crane’s “visionary company of love” floats in the remote-inane, distant from Whitman’s “breed of life.” Compared to what acceptable “Love” is a man’s bridge-facilitated suicide like a party (“shrill shirt ballooning, / A jest falls”)? Crane’s somewhat evangelistic Orphism looks as far forward as his election of Native America as our national “myth” looks to the past (“dance us back the tribal morn!”). Present humanity itself is a sort of excrescence. Even our religious men, hobos “riding the rods,” are “Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods.” Always already, life belongs up ahead, pouring into God. The Bridge? “Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge.”

Meanwhile, America’s actual, terrible history is occluded. For instance, to get the American past into “myth,” Crane identified the continent with Pocahontas, who was, let us recall, as Crane did not, a member of a trod-upon people: “whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?” is a statement of desire, not of guilt. In addition, the American seer (the model, of course, being Whitman) is to “merge” his “seed” with her. This is disastrous; it’s mythmaking as narcissism.

The amazing elegist, if minor poet, of White Buildings went on to write only one real contender for the triple crown of Nature/Culture/God, namely “The River,” by far the best poem in The Bridge. It’s flecked with sentimental falsities (“And hum Deep River with them while they go”) and pomposities (“And few evade full measure of their fate”), and like the rest of the sequence it barters the souls evoked in White Buildings for mere caricatures (“O Sheriff, Brakeman and Authority”), flattening the folk out in its ambition. But it’s Crane’s grandest Whitmanian anthem to the American continent and his best effort at uniting history with God:

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 in wide tongues, choked and slow,
Meeting the gulf, hosannas silently below.

In context, this conclusion to “The River” is magnificent: the complex orchestration of the actions—the lift, the hanging poised, the flow, the spreading, the meeting, the hosannas—all this is suitably dizzying. “Mustard” is the mot juste—as bitingly right as it is unexpected. Even the diapason of the rhyme works a magic. But just what the river is, if not in itself “history” (which tortures it) is a puzzle. If something is already transhistorical, perhaps it is only meeting more of itself at the gulf? In effect, all of itself? But ours is not to think about the matter at all; ours, says the verse, is simply to feel . . .

More convincing, because not in dreamy debt to religious terminology, is the fine description of the river’s mid-career:

You will not hear it as the sea; even stone
Is not more hushed by gravity . . . But slow,
As loth to take more tribute—sliding prone
Like one whose eyes were buried long ago

The River, spreading, flows—and spends your dream.

Crane’s inveterate anthropomorphism (easy source of pathos) creeps in: unconvincingly, with those buried “eyes.” But the writing is astonishingly beautiful.

Crane’s iambic pentameters could indeed “slide prone”—in fact, more smoothly than anyone else’s. And his tone could be stunningly hushed and hushing, as here and in his best poem, “Repose of Rivers,” and other poems in White Buildings, especially “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” and “At Melville’s Tomb”; and his rhyme deep-pulling, as, above, with “sea” and “gravity,” which answer each to each in the eighth syllable of their respective lines.

All in all, Crane’s reputation, like that of Shelley (an influence) and Dylan Thomas (influenced), seems destined to keep fluctuating, subject, as it is, to inevitable suspicions of the poet’s immaturity, his weakness for what Shelley called “high talk.” Crane’s ambition remains at once exemplary and a caution—on the one hand, a routing of the usual timid poetic gestures and, on the other, self-disassembled by a hardly-reflected-upon religious element, which made some of his lines moon-blind. “Reverence,” he wrote at age 20, is “the source of all light,” and he never changed his mind. His anti-intellectual enthusiasm encouraged the figurative hash and tonal disaster of parts of The Bridge. (Crane, by the way, foresaw that The Bridge might prove “distinguishedly bad”—letter of March 5, 1926).

The new Library of America edition of the poems, which handsomely re-consecrates Crane as part of the American canon, isn’t an altogether happy volume, because, through no fault of the editor, Langdon Hammer, there aren’t enough strong poems to counterbalance the great bulk of the correspondence (557 pages’ worth), and the reviews are few, and the essays fewer.

The letters themselves require some slogging through: as a quasi-narrative of Crane’s adult life, they form a slow, slow story. Crane could be full of himself, and his prose polysyllabically pretentious (though least so when addressed to some of his sharp-eared peers, for instance Yvor Winters and Allen Tate). Even so, he proves to have been an affectionate man and a remarkably astute, properly exacting literary critic (even if he called Yvor Winters’s line “your thighs that seethe interminably” a “beautiful dynamic metaphor”). He was somewhat given to lecturing his parents about their conduct and his literary correspondents about their work; but, as to this last, the great thing is that he cared: he served the arts. Though he never finished high school, he began to read extensively and deeply on his own while still something of a kid, and he precociously developed the highest standards—writing at 19, for instance, brilliant little essays on Nietzsche and Joyce; and in 1922, a year older than the century, he was an excited reader of the new-hatched Ulysses and The Waste Land.

In short, his critical prose is admirable, and his letters provide often good and occasionally first-rate company:

I’ve been toasting my feet at an electric stove, a kind of radio heater that I have in my room, and glancing first at the bay, then with another kind of satisfaction at my shelves of books and the writing table—for a long time unable to think of anything but a kind of keen sensual bliss, that is in itself something like action—it contains so much excitement and pleasure.

(Letter of October 21, 1924)

In the course of writing White Buildings, Crane set out to save the nation’s soul. Whitman had so set out, and perhaps the effort needs to be made again and again. But in his most relaxed moments, Crane forgot the collective afflatus, dropped the beaded and starry mantle of American bard, and stripped down to save his own.