The road to Lethe's goblet (I).
Hart Crane's final gesture, his dramatic suicide by drowning should be reconsidered as an act possibly meant as a final desperate solution for an extremely complex equation. In the context of his writing poems as a fight for survival, and his writing letters revealing the richness of his thought, Crane swang between the past and the present, finally deciding against the desolateness of T. S. Eliot's Wastelanders. His own poetry launched an over-arching attack against such pessimism by creating a neo-romantic poetics of the "crystal Word" and the tropical sea. The best rendition of this poetics of the "crystal Word" is to be found in his last poem which reads like a farewell note, but which paradoxically announced the birth of a great poet: in The Broken Tower Crane bemoans his fate and the earthly condition of man as a broken slave thrown into the world, who still has a mystic hope lying deeply buried in "the matryx of the heart":
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower; And swing I know not where. [...] [...] And I, their sexton slave! [...] And so it was I entered the broken world To trace the visionary company of love, its voice An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) But not for long to hold each desperate choice. My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored Of that tribunal monarch of the air Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word In wounds pledged once to hope,--cleft to despair ? [...]--visible wings of silence sown In azure circles, widening as they dip The matrix of the heart, lift down the eye That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower ... [...]. (Crane 2006: 106-107)
Crane strove to build revolutionary bridges, as it were, between the cultural past of America and its present, to poetically see history as a whole, past-present-future being fused into one intelligible whole--as was done previously by William Blake who had tried to create a system by which to holistically understand reality as a whole.
Yet, this poetic philosophy of life and history did not anticipate Crane's tragic end, although some elements thereof may be seen as quasi-predicting his death by suicide, and we refer here mainly to certain ideas in his poetry and letters. An example is provided in the poem Enrich my resignation, where Crane wishes time to end, as a return to the peace of the fathers, possibly conceived of by him as a Lethean ethereal realm of pure rest-like a kind of Nirvana; or as a Goethean complementary reflex of the primordial "mothers," Goethe's "Urmutter," who were supposed by Goethe to have created all of reality:
Die, Oh, centuries, die, as Dionysius said, Yet live in all my resignation-- It is the moment, now, when all The heartstrings spring, unlaced-- Oh thou fiend and Here is the peace of the fathers. (Enrich my resignation, dated 1929; Crane 2006: 138)
Such an idea might remind us of Eminescu's poetic purpose of reaching eternal peace in eternal extinction, but this time, in Crane, this extinction is a Nirvana of sorts, where all of time's floods are present in a state of absolute rest (see infra, "Lethe's waves" in Keats's Fill for me a brimming Bowl), the peace of the fathers. This looks so much more similar to Goethe's ideal in Faust: let time be captured in its entirety in a moment, let it stop, let it reach Crane's peace of the fathers in the infinitesimal moment. Indeed we have here an anticipation of Crane's absolutist poetics, with roots in William Blake's notion that time in its three dimentions of past, present and future, is irresistibly and infinitely contained in the fugitive infinitesimal present moment.
Poetry for Crane stood under the sign of eternity, as he noted in his essay Modern poetry:
The poet's concern must be, as always, self-discipline toward a formal integration of experience. For poetry is an architectural art, based not on Evolution or the idea of progress, but on the articulation of the contemporary human consciousness sub specie aeternitatis, and inclusive of all readjustments incident to science and other shifting factors related to that consciousness. (Crane 1946:175-176)
That he includes science in the poetic equation seems to indicate that Crane was advocating a poetics derivable in the last analysis from John Keats's notion that beauty and truth were two facets of the same reality, poetry being a path towards existential and essential truths. Crane explains the absolute poetic phenomenon further:
It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader's consciousness henceforward. (General aims and theories, apud Spears 1965: 21)
This is the essence of Crane's "absolutist" poetics, whose purpose was the "conquest of consciousness."
Now known as the "poet of the Depression," and as "the Pindar of the Machine Age," as he used to call himself, Hart Crane has gradually become an iconic figure of American letters, the "American Orpheus," "the American Marlowe" (Bloom 2003: 11-12), "the Shelley of [the] age," "Catullus redivivus" (Robert Lowell, apud Spears 1965: 5), the "twentieth-century poet as hero" or "the modern Whitman" who did poetic battle to prove that this age was not a hopeless Waste Land, but a Bridge triumphant. (cf. Allen Tate, apud Spears 1965: 6)
Crane came to be ranked on a par with the great American poets of genius Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Bloom 2003: 28), and his poetic influence is far-reaching, as can be felt in authors like Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas (Spears 1965: 6), Tennessee Williams, Robert Creeley, Jasper Johns, Fred Chappell, Samuel Delany (Reed 2006: 4), Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, etc.
In a sense, he became an alternative to the modernist models represented by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (cf. L. Hammer 2009: 34), just as earlier for the romantics George Berkeley's system had become an alternative to neo-classic philosophy.
Crane's ascent on the literary scene is itself a fascinating literary topic, especially because his poetry is among the most difficult in world literature and the most erudite. No doubt, however, that his literary ascent has complex reasons, among them chief being the intrinsic value of the poetry, the novelty of his creative attempts, his poetics, his biography, and not least of all his extraordinary letters. These elements represent major puzzle pieces in a maze that make up the integral iconic image of Hart Crane.
His suicide occurred on 27 April 1932. Crane drowned in the Caribbean Sea, either by willingly leaping or accidentally falling from the ship S.S. Orizaba, on which he had set sail, with his fiancee, on 24 April 1932, leaving Vera Cruz and having as destination New York. He had arrived in Havana, Cuba, on 26 April, and then he sent a postcard to T. W. Simpson, in which he announced her his return to Cleveland and his future permanent address at Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His body was never recovered from the waters ("he either jumped or fell into the Caribbean Sea"; cf. Weber 1952: XVI).
Spears (1965: 13) comments this way:
[H]e leaped from the stern of the ship taking him from Mexico to the United States, acting out the symbolism of many of his poems by drowning in the Caribbean.
Spears also mentioned a detail:
A final symbolic touch was added to the story when his mother died in 1947 and her ashes were scattered, according to her directions, from Brooklyn Bridge.
Even though we do not know in the end whether Crane's death was an accident or an act of suicide, what is certain is that his death was perceived as the tragedy of a generation, which inspired the composition of many poetic lamentations that raised him to the rank of martyr-poet, a sort of king of bohemians, for ever associated with the Caribbean Sea, his tropical water tomb (Reed 2006: 2-3).
This final dramatic gesture is put in perspective when one reads Crane's letters, where his life is described in minute and brilliant details.
From these letters we learn that his childhood was a "bloody battleground" (as he later qualified it) for his parents' sex lives. A veritable "Oedipal" triangle existed in Crane's family, out of which Crane emerged as a young man with homosexual tendencies (Spears 1965: 7) and so deeply disturbed psychically that by the age of sixteen he made two suicide attempts, and afterwards often threatened to commit suicide (also in his Mexican period), one time attempting to do so by swallowing iodine (cf. Bloom 2003: 28, 30, 119).
With Hart Crane we are dealing with one of the most learned authors in world literature, a genuine autodidact. He started to write poetry at thirteen, and soon noticed that states of "higher consciousness" were necessary for writing poetry and that these could be achieved or extended either by alcohol or by "blaring music" (Bloom 2003: 29).
Like John Keats, he is now acknowledged as one of the best letter-writers in world literature; like Keats, he at one time confessed (in a letter to Gorham Munson, dated 18 June 1922) that "I live for work,- for poetry," since "[t]he imagination is the only thing worth a damn." (Crane 1952: 92) This important aspect justifies the comparison between Keats and Crane as innate poets, living and breathing through poetry--in a sense, both being the "poet for poets."
In a letter to his mother (dated 21 December 1923), Crane confessed that poetry was his "intensest and deepest component in life" (Crane 1952: 164). With Crane therefore we are dealing with an artist who saw in poetic art a way of living, a passion to die for, just as is the case with Keats. This is a fundamental feature that qualifies Crane as a modern romantic visionary.
Crane was raised in a medium of Christian Science, his mother and maternal grandmother holding that belief, but he himself being only half-hearted towards it, as becomes clear from the words used in a letter addressed to William Wright (dated 2 May 1919):
What it says in regard to mental and nervous ailments is absolutely true. It is only the total denial of the animal and organic world which I cannot swallow. (Crane 1952: 16)
In a letter to his mother (dated 21 December 1923), he explained more clearly the core of his conflict with this belief:
Suffering is a real purification, and the worst thing I have always had against Christian Science is that it wilfully avoided suffering, without a certain measure of which any true happiness cannot be fully realized. (Crane 1952: 164)
No doubt this thought is something that Keats would have wholeheartedly agreed with, pain being for the British poet a universal element necessary in forging a human soul, as we shall see in detail. Nevertheless, Christian Science deeply influenced Crane's mystical side as expressed in writing poetry--when he later left home, for instance, he took with him a book by Mary Baker Eddy, Science and health with key to the Scriptures (cf. Spears 1965: 8).
From this doctrine Crane probably learned that matter is illusory, that only conscience is real, and that causation, as in William Blake's system of thought, is mental-spiritual; hence his later tendency towards optimism and mystique, founded in the quest for higher states of consciousness. (cf. Spears 1965: 9)
Crucial influences in Crane's intellectual evolution were, besides Christian Science, the following:
1) Plato: the idea that madness is necessary in a true poet; the notion that from earthly beauty (Aphrodite Pandemos) one needs to aspire after reaching celestial, absolute beauty (Aphrodite Urania). In Keats, we encounter these two fundamental principles in Cynthia (the celestial-spiritual) and the Indian Maid (the earthly-material) in the poem Endymion, which is the first major literary masterpiece he created.
2) William Blake: the concept of the poet as visionary; the psychological cosmology based on the idea that "without contraries is no progression," the opposites needing to be held in a state of harmonious synthetic unity; the teaching that past, present and future form one unity that exists in eternity; and the crucial idea that material phenomena have spiritual causes.
3) Arthur Rimbaud: the notion of the poet as seer, capable of divine madness. In this sense, as Blake earlier openly declared himself the disciple of Paracelsus and Jakob Bohme, so Crane declared himself Rimbaud's disciple and heir (cf. Spears 1965: 9, 20).
4) Friedrich Nietzsche: the exaltation of artists and the celebration of Dionysian joy.
5) Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky: Tertium Organum: the third canon of thought--a key to the enigmas of the world, 1920 : the concept of "higher consciousness," adopted by Ouspensky from C. H. Hinton; the advocation of a Dionysian mystique; the idea that the artist is a spiritual guide to truth (this is implied in all of Keats's works). From Ouspensky, whose works he intensely read (as he confessed in a letter to Allen Tate, dated 15 February 1923; Crane 1952: 124), and from Hermes Trismegistus, Crane probably derived most of his gnosticism, which again is an element connecting Crane with Keats, who is known to have imbued his writings with hermetic lore (cf. Wunder 2008)--see infra for instance Keats calling Hermes (= Thoth/Mercury) "the star of Lethe" in Lamia I.81. What is more, if we look at Ouspensky's first book, The fourth dimension, published in 1909, which Crane surely read and which was included in Ouspensky's most important writing, published in 1931, entitled A new model of the universe, we find the following consideration, that must have caught Crane's attention (here Ouspensky is trying to understand what vision in the fourth dimension looks like, and so he makes a few conjectures):
Probably it [vision in the fourth dimension] will be something analogous to the "vision" by which a bird flying over Northern Russia "sees" Egypt, where it migrates for the winter; or to the vision of a carrier pigeon which "sees," hundreds of miles away, its loft, from which it has been taken in a closed basket; or to the vision of an engineer making the first calculations and first rough drawings of a bridge, who "sees" the bridge and the trains passing over it; or to the vision of a man who, consulting a time-table, "sees" himself arriving at the station of departure and his train arriving at its destination. (Ouspensky 1997: 92)
This passage may be a principal source for Crane's use of the bridge metaphor as a way to describe a higher connective reality, by whose agency man is bound to reach the higher consciousness that is innate with him as a potential. Through the mediation of poetry that higher potential reality becomes actualized in the present, so much so that the future (which is always potential) becomes visible in man's actualized higher consciousness.
6) Rabindranath Tagore: Crane met him in Cleveland in 1916.
Crane's fascination with Brooklyn Bridge, therefore, may have originated,
at least partly, in this analogy: entering the fourth dimension as associated with tapping a projective power to see into the future as if the future were happening in the present.
Because in Crane there is much of gnosis, derived from Ouspensky and Hermes, Bloom came to call Crane the "prophet of American Orphism" and the "great modern poet of thresholds" (Bloom 2003: 11, 16). Since romanticism has been recently defined as a "doctrine of thresholds" (see details in Stroe 2004), it follows that Bloom's view of Crane as a neo-romantic poet is indeed justified, even if Crane himself resisted the idea when he was confronted with it by Allen Tate, who qualified his poem The Bridge as being a romantic creation:
The fact that you posit The Bridge at the end of a tradition of romanticism may prove to have been an accurate prophecy, but I don't yet feel that such a statement can be taken as a foregone conclusion. A great deal of romanticism may persist--of the sort to deserve serious consideration, I mean. (Letter to Allen Tate, dated 13 July 1930; Crane 1952: 352-353)
This being the case, a comparison with Keats is the more so justified. According to Harold Bloom (2007), Crane had the romantic gift of "feeling the heart of words," of creating meaning by cadence and rhythm, as before poets like William Blake (The Tyger) or Gerard Manly Hopkins (The Windhover) masterfully succeeded. Thus, Harold Bloom asserted Crane's romanticism without reservations, and explained why Crane came to choose that poetic road:
The older contemporary antagonist and shaper for Crane was certainly Eliot, whose anti-Romantic polemic provoked in Crane an answering fury of High Romanticism, absurdly undervalued by Crane's critical contemporaries, but returning to its mainstream status in the generation that receives the recent abundance of poetic maturation in Ashbery, Merrill, Ammons, Hollander and others. (Bloom 2003: 12)
In a letter to Otto H. Kahn (dated 18 March 1926), he explained the nature of the language he used in The Bridge:
The first and last sections are composed of blank verse with occasional rhyme for accentuation. The verbal dynamics used and the spacious periodicity of the rhythm result in an unusually symphonic form. (Crane 1952: 241)
In a letter to Waldo Frank (dated 26 July 1926), he talks of a "water-swell rhythm" (Crane 1952: 268) in a section of The Bridge that ends with "the Palos reference," in a context in which he confesses that his "plans are soaring again, the conception swells."
His very own creative energies are therefore described in terms of aerial and aquatic rhythms. In another letter, he makes reference to a "sees-well crescendo" of his Bridge verses, and in this context he admits that the erratic temporal patterns present here are similar to those created by E. E. Cummings by a free use of time (Letter to Otto H. Kahn, 12 September 1927; Crane 1952: 306-307).
Such use of mercurial time shifts indeed adds epic force to the poetic rhythms thus achieved, and is consistent with the disorderly structure of the times themselves that he defined as "the chaos of our age," in which "one of the most discouraging symptoms" was the "unmitigated concern with the Future":
It seems as though the imagination had ceased all attempts at any creative activity--and had become simply a great bulging eye ogling the foetus of the next century. ... I find nothing in Blake that seems outdated, and for him the present was always eternity. (Letter to Isidor Schneider, dated 28 March 1928; Crane 1952: 322)
In the memorable image of the "great bulging eye ogling" the germinating foetus of the future one can perhaps sense a surrealistic metaphor reminding one of Odilon Redon's (1840-1916) oneiric universe populated by Cyclopean eyes looking dreamily at each other and beyond, through time and space, into the unknown realms of eternity (the surreal).
That Crane sketched the image of such an eye and in the same context mentioned Blake's idea about time and eternity being conflated, indicates he may well have suggested a solution for the modern human imagination: it should not strive to see into the future, but into eternity, as Blake continuously tried, thus fusing the present with the eternal, the finite with the infinite, thus creating what Emily Dickinson called "finite infinity," the fusion of the two incommensurate orders that reality is grounded in.
By reaching such a state, where present and eternity were one, he hoped to have "more nerve to continue my efforts on The Bridge." (Letter to Isidor Schneider, dated 28 March 1928; Crane 1952: 322) This is how Crane most likely attempted to build a time bridge, as it were, by writing The Bridge--this attempt is perhaps similar in purpose to Blake's Jerusalem and Keats's Endymion (in the latter the unification between the earthly and the heavenly/spiritual in the hieros gamos, the union between an earthling and a goddess).
L. S. Dembo, in his Hart Crane S Sanskrit charge: a study of The Bridge (1960), asserted that the theme in this poem is the following:
[T]he exiled poet's quest for a logos in which the Absolute that he has known in his imagination will be made intelligible to the world. [...] The narrator in The Bridge thus journeys to a mythic Indian past that represents "the childhood of the continent," becomes an Indian himself, and marries Pocahontas in a ritual fire dance. Having thus learned the Word, attained the guerdon of the goddess, he returns to his own time ... Although he now sees Pocahontas not as a fertile goddess, but as a sterile prostitute, the poet keeps his faith and concludes the poem with a hymn celebrating the Bridge as a modern embodiment of the Word. (apud Spears 1965: 34)
Writing such poetry as The Bridge for Crane was the same as experiencing Ouspensky's "higher consciousness," or vision (Spears 1965: 23), by which time and eternity were married as in Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Crane's work on The Bridge was started in 1923. It is a visionary epic, meant to be concerned with "a mystical synthesis of 'America,'" whereby its history, geography, etc., were planned to be "transfigured into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter." The first impulses of the American people were thus intended to do the following:
[To] be gathered up toward the climax of the bridge, symbol of our constructive future, our unique identity, in which is included also our scientific hopes and achievements of the future. (Letter to Gorham Munson, 18 February 1923; Crane 1952: 124)
Later, Crane realized that the house in which he first had the vision of the Brooklyn Bridge poem, and in which the poem was finished (in December 1929), had once been in the possession of Washington Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge architect/engineer: in the very room inside the apartment building at 110 Columbia Heights where Crane lived, Roebling, paralysed, had used to watch the building of the great suspension bridge as from an observation tower (Frank 1946: XVIII; Hammer 2009: 35). This very much seems to be in keeping with Ouspensky's metaphor of the fourth dimension as "the vision of an engineer making the first calculations and first rough drawings of a bridge, who 'sees' the bridge and the trains passing over it" (Ouspensky 1997: 92) a long time before that reality comes into being.
In The Bridge we are dealing with a poem on America's "structural identity" rendered in synthesis (Letter no. 136, 20 February 1923; Crane 1952: 127), which gravitates around the central symbol of Brooklyn Bridge that he considered to be "the most superb piece of construction in the modern world" (Letter to his mother, dated 11 May 1924; Crane 1952: 183).
In short, this poem aimed "to enunciate a new cultural synthesis of values in terms of our America" (Letter to Otto H. Kahn, dated 3 December 1925; Crane 1952: 223), and it was the "structure of my dreams" (Letter to his mother, dated 7 January 1926; Crane 1952: 232).
He synthetically commented on it in a letter to Waldo Frank (dated 18 January 1926):
The bridge in becoming a ship, a world, a woman, a tremendous harp (as it does finally) seems to really have a career. I have attempted to induce the same feelings of elation, etc.--like being carried forward and upward simultaneously--both in imagery, rhythm and repetition, that one experiences in walking across my beloved Brooklyn Bridge. (Crane 1952: 232)
The foundation of this poem was thus "the conquest of space and knowledge," and Brooklyn Bridge itself as a major element in the poem came to symbolize "consciousness spanning time and space" (Letter to Otto H. Kahn, dated 18 March 1926; Crane 1952: 241; this letter was projected as Section VI of the poem, which in fact had been written first), therefore by writing it Crane indeed aspired to reach a "conquest of consciousness" in Ouspensky's sense of "higher consciousness." This programme is very much in keeping with Keats's idea that art/poetry must be a quest after the truth, after true knowledge.
In a letter to Otto H. Kahn (dated 12 September 1927), Crane explains that Part II of the poem (Powhatan's daughter) elaborated on Pocahontas's image as "the mythological nature-symbol chosen to represent the physical body of the continent, or the soul." He explained:
"She here takes on much the same role as the traditional Hertha of ancient Teutonic mythology." (Crane 1952: 305)
His purpose was thus "a gradual exploration of this 'body,' whose first possessor was the Indian," and this exploration is not chronological, but undertaken in such a way as to enable "an assimilation of this experience," by creating "a more organic panorama," in order to show "the continuous and living evidence of the past in the inmost vital substance of the present" (Crane 1952: 305).
He detailed his "architectural" method thus:
I jump from the monologue of Columbus in Ave Maria--right across the four intervening centuries into the harbor of 20th-century Manhattan. And from that point in time and place I begin to work backward through the pioneer period, always in terms of the present--finally to the very core of the nature-world of the Indian. What I am really handling, you see, is the Myth of America. (Letter to Otto H. Kahn, dated 12 September 1927; Crane 1952: 305)
The poem itself thus threw an overarching linking bridge over time, in order to show that the past is always with us, and the way to heal the apparent breach between the past and the present is not the "great bulging eye ogling the foetus of the next century," but the new poetic Logos, freely emerging from the deepest recesses of the human heart where the peace of the fathers is felt to reside, and which Crane might have attempted to reach by his final tragic gesture. It should be noted in passing that such a purpose of evidencing how the past exists in the present is the foundation of Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance, extended for example in The presence of the past: morphic resonance and the habits of nature (2011)--this should be yet another piece of evidence for the inexhaustible modernity of this poet and his theme in The Bridge, the most important legacy we have from him.
Crane's rise to fame: the ladder of despair
Hart Crane was born on 21 July 1899 in P Garrettsville, Ohio, as an only child of Clarence Arthur Crane (a tycoon in the candy manufacturing business, a tough man dedicated to the "gods of Commerce," who kept his distance from his son) and Grace Hart (who desired to work in show-business, and was a domineering mother). In 1909, after spending a few years in Warren, Ohio, he moved with his parents (who this year separated for the first time) to Cleveland, Ohio. Although he grew in a household in which, as mentioned, the prevalent religious belief was that of Christian Science, Crane later converted to Roman catholicism, while all of his friends became Marxists (cf. Bloom 2007). Like Stevens, Yeats and Lawrence, he was a 20th century romantic, organically connected with the late 19th century romantics John Ruskin and Walter Pater (from the latter he borrowed his idea of the "visionary company").
He began to publish while very young, in 1916, when, aged only seventeen and deciding to abandon high school, he moved alone to New York to live by himself: the poem C 33 (this was Oscar Wilde's designation in Reading Gaol) was accepted by Bruno's Weekly, and a letter by him appeared in The Pagan; from that point on he devoted himself to writing poetry.
The period between 1916 and 1917 was traumatic for him, because then his parents' legal separation was completed; his father was thus rejecting him. That he suffered much, probably feeling rootless all alone in New York, is clearly shown by his adoption of his mother's maiden name, Hart, as his very forename. He now became more attached to his mother and more distant with his father, the latter having tried to drive him away from poetry (Clarence Crane came even to use his workers to spy on him and see to it that he did not read "poetry books"; cf Frank 1946: XII). But the young poet managed finally to get away from this "paternal yoke" and battleground by finding jobs in advertising agencies, first in the vicinity of his home, then in New York.
In the winter of 1916 he spent some time with his mother in the Isle of Pines (Cuba), on this occasion seeing the sea for the first time--an experience which proved crucial later on in the constitution of the aesthetic-poetic rhythm, cadence and substance of his works (see for instance the Voyages, the six final parts in the sequence White Buildings).
He stayed in New York until 1919, when, deciding not to go to college, he moved back to Cleveland to be with his mother. First, probably because he was fond of machines, he worked in a munition plant and a shipyard on the Lake (cf. Frank 1946: XII). Then he tried to work for his father in the candy manufacturing business (as clerk in one of his father's stores in Akron; cf. Bloom 2003: 28), in order to have more personal time and also to not lose contact with the world of industry. But that proved eventually also unsatisfactory, so that in 1923 he got back to New York, this time for good, having decided to break definitively with Cleveland and his father, who, although rich, did not offer him any financial support after he left Cleveland (only much later did Clarence Crane consider this, because he was impressed by his son's fame as a poet; cf. Frank 1946: XVIII).
The reason for which he chose to stay permanently at New York and nowhere else may have been his realization that this city "in almost every way" was "getting to be a really stupendous place," "crowded with life, packed with movement and drama, children, kind and drab-looking women," having "[l]ife [...] at greater intensity than probably any other place in the world today"--verily "the center of the world today, as Alexandria became the nucleus of another older civilization" (Letter to William Sommer, dated 9 May 1923; Crane 1952: 134).
In short, New York became for him "a blazing furnace" (his choice of words seems no doubt Blakean) that irresistibly attracted him to stay (Letter to Charlotte and Richard Rychtarik, dated 5 June 1923; Crane 1952: 135).
Yet, he was aware that "[t]he city is a place of 'brokenness,' of drama," which could well be transferred onto his own life, burdening his mind and heart. Still, in this equation for him it was more important that New York had intensity, which made creation or destruction equally possible: a certain evolution, when here reached, could either create "a new stage," or sink into loss and "premature disintegration of experience." (Letter to Alfred Stieglitz, 4 July 1923; Crane 1952: 138)
Even so, he came to soon disparage this place, as he did in a letter to Charlotte Rychtarik (dated 23 September 1923):
New York offers nothing to anyone but a circle of friendly and understanding brothers,- beyond that it is one of the most stupid places in the world to live in. (Crane 1952: 148)
This antipodal statement about New York was made in the context in which his despair deepened regarding the fate of art in general and his own condition (his endemic lack of time to devote to writing The Bridge):
The situation for the artist in America seems to me to be getting harder and harder all the time. Most of my friends are worn out with the struggle here in New York. If you make enough to live decently on, you have no time left for your real work,- and otherwise you are constantly liable to starve. (Letter to Charlotte Rychtarik, 23 September 1923; Crane 1952:148)
This dilemma, starvation or the unfolding of creative genius, seems to be a common element in the life of many great creators, Chatterton and Keats being in this sense among the most representative in the history of world literature.
Later for Crane this city seems to have become a cause for deep distress and anxiety, the reason being the generalized state of urban unhappiness:
New York is full of the unemployed, more every day, and the tension evident in thousands of faces isn't cheerful to contemplate. It is a little strange to see the city so 'grim about the mouth,' as Melville might say. Yours truly has been having his grim moments, too; in fact I'm pretty well convinced that unmitigated anxiety has a highly corrosive effect on the resillience of the imagination. [...] I am appalled at the degree of paralysis that worry can impose on the functioning of one's natural faculties. (Letter to William Wright, dated 21 November 1930; Crane 1952:357)
Stress, in other words, had a very negative influence on him. Crane's constant need for more, more time, resulted in a chronic state of insomnia and anxiety (see Keats' insomnia, which, however, may have been related to his mercury poisoning, not only the stress), and the anticipation of an impending mental breakdown:
[M]y state of nerves and insomnia here due to the mad rush of things, and the noisy nights around the place I am obliged to live in, makes it imperative that I get away before I have a real breakdown. I feel that this is certain to happen before the winter is over unless I get some relief. (Letter to his mother, dated 20 October 1923; Crane 1952: 151)
Only six days later, Crane was writing to Alfred Stieglitz (26 October 1923; Crane 1952: 153) that he decided to quit his job at the advertising agency in order to save his mind. In a letter dated 10 March 1925, he discloses to his mother his thoughts about leaving America at least during summertime (he was still at New York):
I certainly resent going around and around feeling as though my legs as well as nerves would give out at any moment. I dread to think of the summer and all that it means--and it's not so far away. I have pretty definitely made up my mind to take a job on a boat for S. America during that season, at any rate, and avoid the otherwise exhausted state of mind and body that the city, heat and my hay fever always cause. (Crane 1952: 201)
This became his "plans for sea roving" (Letter to Waldo Frank, dated Friday, ca. July 1925; Crane 1952: 212). (Keats at one time had similar ideas to embark on an Indiaman and work as surgeon). His financial situation was no better by 3 December 1925, when he wrote (from Brooklyn, New York) a letter to his father, in which he revealed his pecuniary dire straits and his possible desperate
"sea roving" solution, but also another possibility of moving to the countryside in Connecticut:
For the last six weeks I've been tramping the streets and being questioned, smelled and refused in various offices. [...] I've stepped even out of my line as advertising copywriter, down to jobs as low as twenty-five per week, but to no avail. My shoes are leaky, and my pockets are empty; I have helped to empty several other pockets, also. In fact, I am a little discouraged. [...] I shall either ask Eugene O'Neill who is now writing the Foreword to my book and won't refuse me for some [financial] help to that end, or I'll take to the sea for awhile--for I'm certainly tired of the desolating mechanics of this office business, and it's only a matter of time, anyway, until I finish with it for good. I can live for ten dollars a week in the country and have decent sleep, sound health and a clear mind. I have already bought ten acres near here in Connecticut and it's j'ust a matter of time until I have a cabin on it and have a garden and chickens. You see I have a plan for my life, after all. (Crane 1952: 221) [In the end, the Foreword for White Buildings was not written by O'Neill, but by Allen Tate, the reason being that O'Neill had never written in that vein and could not do the job.]
By 22 December 1926 his insomnia had become an entrenched psychic problem, as he explains to his mother in a letter (he was at Patterson, N.Y.), underlining that his mind was reeling with images:
Insomnia seems now to have settled on me permanently--and when I do 'sleep' my mind is plagued by an endless reel of pictures, startling and unhappy--like some endless cinematograph. (Crane 1952:280)
Bitterness now arises on account of his inability to finish The Bridge:
Am making as much effort as possible to free my imagination and work the little time that is now left me on my Bridge poem. So much is expected of me via that poem--that if I fail on it I shall become a laughing stock and my career closed. (Crane 1952: 280)
His insomnia drives him to use barbiturates in order to be able to sleep:
I took enough veronal powders on the Island during those mad last days to convince me that there's nothing worse. And they didn't even give me sound sleep! The feelings next day were weird in the extreme. (Letter to his mother, dated 19 March 1927; Crane 1952:292)
In a letter to Waldo Frank (dated 16 March 1930), he comes to speak of insomnia in the most desperate terms possible:
Insomnia has got me on the rack--and I really can't envisage just what is in store [...]. Meanwhile the disintegrating forces of N.Y. strike me as pretty severe! (Crane 1952: 349)
In another, psychologically very important, letter to Charlotte and Richard Rychtarik (dated 26 February 1929), he mentions again his mental breakdown problem, this time described as being caused or augmented by the behaviour of his mother, who seems to have tried to interfere with his receiving the inheritance left him by his maternal grandfather, when she asked him to stay with her in California and he refused. He saw in the whole inheritance affair a good reason to leave the United States for the way in which his mother treated him; feelings of bitterness towards both his parents and the conflicts they caused in his life now emerge with full power, the conclusion being that he needs to withdraw from it all:
During my sojourn with the millionaire in California last winter my mother made life so miserable for me with incessant hysterical fits and interminable nagging that I had to steal off east again, like a thief in the night, in order to save my sanity or health from a complete breakdown. I went back to Patterson and tried to pull myself together, without money or prospects of any kind. Then in September , after I had secured a good job with an advertising agency, my Grandmother died, leaving me the inheritance which my grandfather bequeathed me over fifteen years ago. Of course there had been a coolness between my mother and me ever since I left California. The net result of this was that (being co-executor of the estate with the Guardian Trust Co.) she held back her signature to the papers for weeks, pretending to be too ill to sign her name. And finally she threatened to do all sorts of things if I did not come at once to California and spend it with her [...] I can't begin to tell you about all the underground and harrowing tactics she employed. [...] She had, through abuse, destroyed all the affection I had for her before I left the west; but now she made me actually hate her. [...] Since my mother has made it impossible for me to live in my own country I feel perfectly justified in my indifference [about what was going on in California with his mother]. I have had no particular quarrel with my father, and shall write him sometime after The Bridge is done and I don't fear mental complications. Meanwhile I'm so sure that she has carried out her threat and written him certain things that I'd rather keep out of it all. Twenty-five years of such exhausting quibbling is enough, and I feel I owe myself a good long vacation from it all. Neither one of them really cares a rap for me anyway. (Crane 1952: 337-338)
On the other hand, while at New York, in February 1923, he started his poetic labour on The Bridge, which appeared in 1930 (he finished writing the last version of Quaker Hill in December 1929; cf. Letter to Caresse Crosby, dated 26 December 1929; Crane 1952: 347). His first volume of poetry was published in 1926, White Buildings. In 1926 (between May and September) he spent time in the Isle of Pines, in the south of Cuba (at his maternal grandmother's and grandfather's fruit ranch; he left when a hurricane destroyed the plantation) and in 1927 and 1928 in California (Altadena: November 1927; Santa Monica: December 1927; Hollywood: March-April 1928).
He had obtained a loan of two thousand dollars from Otto Kahn, who thus supported his creative poetic activity (viz. his work on The Bridge; see the request in a letter to Otto H. Kahn, dated 3 December 1925; Crane 1952: 222-224; and the confirmation that he got the money, in a letter to his mother, dated 9 December 1925; Crane 1952: 225).
He also traveled to England (in December 1928) and to France (he stayed there between January and July, 1929), after inheriting money from his grandmother who died in Hollywood in 1928 (he mentions the event in a letter to Charlotte and Richard Rychtarik, dated 16 September 1928; Crane 1952: 328).
In March 1931 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. (Letter dated 16 March 1931, addressed to the Secretary, Henry Allen Moe--Crane 1952: 367) In his application, he had asserted his interest for European classical and romantic culture and for "the emergent features of a distinctive American poetic consciousness" (Letter to Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, dated 29 August 1930; Crane 1952: 354). He thus left for Mexico in April 1931, later in November planning to write a poetic drama on Cortes and Montezuma--the conquest of Mexico (Letter no. 381, dated 30 November 1931; Crane 1952: 390).
He returned to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in July 1931 for the burial of his father (Letter to Lorna Dietz, dated 15 July 1931; Crane 1952: 378). Then he went back to Mexico, this time being keen on doing the following:
[G]et[ting] out more into the smaller cities and pueblos, to get as thoroughly acquainted with the native Indian population as possible. (Letter to William Wright, dated 21 September 1931; Crane 1952:380)
Even in the context of his father's death, he seems to have had a great time in Mexico (this, however, might have been just a mask): "From cock-crow to sunset, here in Mixcoac, my life is extremely jolly." (Letter to Slater Brown, dated 22 October 1931; Crane 1952: 384) The reason is captured well in a letter to Eda Lou Walton (dated 27 November 1931):
[...] I am--penetrating to a new kind of world in the psychology of the Indians, hereabouts [...]. The infinite variety of climate, vegetation, and the distraction of a new language as well as thousands of fascinating sights and speculations, all combine to uproot one and hold one in a strange suspension. At least I feel that I am living fully and absorbing a great deal, whatever else. [...] I like Mexico and the Mexicans (Indians) so much that I'd like to remain here permanently. I'm even thinking of attempting some work like teaching (English Lit.) in one of the many private colleges if I can locate such work before my Guggenheim fellowship expires. (Crane 1952: 389)
In his Mexican period he also seemingly fell in love for the first time with a woman, Peggy Baird (Malcolm Cowley's former wife) (cf. Letter no. 385, ca. January 1932; Crane 1952: 394ff). He comments on this situation in a letter to Solomon Grunberg (dated 8 February 1932):
I can't say that I'm sorry. It has given me new perspectives, and after many tears and groans something of a reason for living. (Crane 1952: 396)
One may wonder whether this statement implies he had had suicidal thoughts before this affair; as Bloom reports, he indeed had (Bloom 2003: 28, 30, 119). It would seem that she brought him great relief indeed:
[W]e are now living together, and I must admit that I find conjugal life, however unofficial, a great consolation to a loneliness that had about eaten me up. (Letter to Samuel Loveman, dated 10 March 1932; Crane 1952: 403)
In a letter (no. 386) dated 15 January 1932, written from Mexico, he describes a revelation he had when reading D. H. Lawrence's "The man who died," which he qualifies as the greatest story by that writer:
In all honesty--it has more to tell me--at least in my present state of mind--than any book in the Bible. It was originally published by the same people in Paris who brought out my Bridge [...]. (Crane 1952: 395)
His feelings about Mexico, however, soon became mixed, doubts stealing into his heart as to the plan of his permanent stay there; this shows that his psychic oscillations were a chronical constant in his life:
Don't know how long I'm going to remain here, etc. Hate it and love it alternately, but am not, as you surmise, in a constant Bacchic state. Not by any means. However, I happen to be in something approximating it at this present moment, since I've got to work on the first impressive poem I've started on in the last two years. I feel the old confidence again. (Letter to Solomon Grunberg, dated 8 February 1932; Crane 1952: 396)
This unbalanced state was described by Spears (1965: 13) as alternation "between manic exhilaration and suicidal depression [...] frequently on, and sometimes across, the border of insanity"; Bloom (2003: 30) called it an alternation "between manic and depressive states."
The poem he is talking about in the letter cited above (to Solomon Grunberg, dated 8 February 1932) is his last, The Broken Tower, whose manuscript he had sent in March to Morton Dauwen Zabel for possible publication in Poetry (Letter no. 402, dated 20 April 1932; Crane 1952: 410). Unfortunately, Morton Zabel seems to never have gotten the document, as he clearly stated in a letter addressed to Crane (dated 24 April 1932) in reply to the above-mentioned short letter (cf. Weber's note in Crane 1952: 410; Crane's copy of the poem is dated 25 March 1932). Harold Bloom, who came to love poetry by first reading Crane (and then Blake), is of the opinion that if this poem had had a better fate, Crane might not have committed suicide (Bloom 2007).
Crane's oscillations and indecision go gradually to extremes, and a situation with no exit seems more and more to arise (the Great
Depression doubtlessly played a crucial part in this sense), whereby he anticipated future steps that might lead him to regret having taken those steps, a reason for which the steps are not taken in the first place; this lack of options, this suffocating condition may have led him to his final suicidal thoughts:
I get so aggravated at times that I swear I'll pack up and leave for the States on the first available boat. Then the next clear and glorious morning comes around, with fresh flowers in the garden, good coffee on the stove--and the renewed vision that sleep brings. ... Then I change my mind all over again. For I know that as soon as I go back I'll regret it--and long and long for Mexico again. Not that I plan on staying here forever; but for the time being the business situation in the States is zero. There's nothing I can really do there. (Letter to his stepmother, "Bess," dated 17 February 1932; Crane 1952: 402)
In a letter to Solomon Grunberg (dated 20 March 1932), in the context of describing his unofficial conjugal happy life with Peggy Baird, he reiterates his former ideas:
Am even thinking of making my permanent home here. Mexico gets into your veins. Beautiful people, manners, scenery, speech and climate. (Crane 1952: 404)
But even if he had constant financial problems, in a letter to Solomon Grunberg (dated 12 April 1932) Crane's tone suggests he was not suicidal at all, nay, he and Peggy Baird were making solid plans for the future with a ray of hope directed towards success:
Peggy and I shall probably stay here at least until next fall, and maybe longer. We like our isolation from mutual friends there in the north and our domestic life here with a house, servants, garden, pets, etc., proves more satisfying every day. If I can avoid drinking too much I'm expecting to get nearer solid earth than I have for several years. Sheer loneliness had nearly eaten me up. Peggy has sufficient sportsmanship, mentality, taste and sensuality to meet me on practically every level. (Crane 1952: 407)
What caused him to change those plans is explained in a letter to Solomon Grunberg, dated 20 April 1932:
Just a hasty note in the fever of packing and final arrangements. ... My plans for staying in Mexico have been completely reversed by a suit against the estate which may cut me off from any income for years. Since I'm having to depend even now entirely on loans from
my stepmother's salary the only thing possible to do is return to Chagrin Falls and try to work some of it out in service to the organization, several branches of which are approaching bankruptcy. Not a very happy prospect. ... Am sailing for NY on the Orizaba from Vera Cruz on the 24th. Shall probably land in NY without a penny. Could you send me a small loan of some kind [...]? (Crane 1952: 409-410)
His condition just before leaving Mexico was bad, as is evident from a letter addressed to his stepmother (dated 22 April 1932), but from it no real reason for committing suicide transpires in the least; he had been dealing with such petty, but tiresome, troubles most of the time in the United States as well--at best one can assume that some incremental accumulation may have taken place, but not necessarily one to trigger a definitive death wish:
[S]o many difficulties came to a head at once here, and with myself weak from fever and dysentery I had to use every way of impressing on you the urgency of my immediate needs. [...] Altogether I've had a terrible time lately. [...] It certainly has about made a nervous wreck of me. But I'll rest up on the boat. (Crane 1952: 411-412)
As mentioned, on 24 April 1932 he left Vera Cruz going onboard the S.S. Orizaba, having as destination New York. Arriving in Havana, Cuba, on 26 April, he sent a postcard to T. W. Simpson, in which he let her know about his return to Cleveland and about the address he was to have permanently at Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Yet, on 27 April 1932 he drowned in the Caribbean Sea, either by jumping willingly or by falling accidentally from the ship, his body never being found (cf. Weber 1952: XVI).
According to another account, on this fateful day, a little before noon, the following took place:
[H]e walked to the stern of the Orizaba. The boat was about three hundred miles north of Havana, leaving the warm waters which fifteen years before he had first known. He took off his coat, quietly, and leaped. (Frank 1946: XXI)
The same was held by Spears (1965: 13) (see supra). The same conclusion is noted in Harold Bloom's critical edition:
On April 27, after a night of drinking, he climbed over the ship's railing and jumped off the stern to his death. (Bloom 2003: 30)
Reed adds a few more pieces of crucial information which make the situation around April 26 and 27 somewhat clearer:
Hart Crane spent the night of 26 April 1932 as he did many other nights in his short life. He drank compulsively, and then he sought out sailors who might be interested in quick, no-consequences sex. This time, he chose badly. He received a thorough thrashing. [...] He had previously been beaten, robbed, and otherwise humiliated during his nocturnal escapades. [...] The next day he greeted his fiancee Peggy Baird with a typically melodramatic declaration: "I'm not going to make it, dear. I've utterly disgraced myself" (Fisher 2002: 500). [...] Crane and Baird were aboard the cruise ship Orizaba, sailing north from Veracruz to New York City. Worse, Baird had suffered a freak accident--an exploding cigarette lighter--that left her burned, bandaged, and temporarily sedated. As noon approached on 27 April, she was still too thoroughly muddled to be much help. Drunk, disoriented, shamed, and cut off from the friends, relatives, and lovers that had sustained him through earlier, comparable crises, Crane impulsively decided to kill himself. The Orizaba was 275 miles out of Havana and following the Tropic of Cancer. (Reed 2006: 1-2)
The tableau of Crane's probable suicide which took place in a context in which he had lost "his fathers" (Clarence Crane had recently died, in 1931, his maternal grandmother had passed away in 1928, and his maternal grandfather over fifteen years before that) and was planning to get married with Peggy Baird--is memorably described by his biographer, Philip Horton:
Heedless of the curious glances that followed his progress along the deck, Crane walked quickly to the stern of the ship, and scarcely pausing to slip his coat from his shoulders, vaulted over the rail into the boiling wake. The alarm was general and immediate. There was a clangor of bells as the ship's engines ground into reverse; life preservers were thrown overboard; a lifeboat was lowered. Some claimed they saw an arm raised from the water and others that a life preserver turned over as though gripped by an unseen hand. But the officer in charge of the bridge maintained they had only seen the white disc lifted on a sudden wave. For more than an hour the steamer circled round and round in the quiet blue morning, crossing and recrossing its broad white wake, while the lifeboat crew, resting on their oars or rowing aimlessly, scanned the inscrutable water. (Horton 1937: 302; apud Reed 2006: 1-2)
Yet, with all these reports, we may never know the ultimate truth about Crane's death--accident or suicide--but, as shown in this study, there are many elements pointing in both directions. Although he encountered countless difficulties in life, and he indeed attempted before to end his life, he still had many reasons to live, yet he had also numerous reasons to want to terminate his life, and the state of drunkenness may have decisively blurred his judgment or may have led to an accidental death.
But what is beyond doubt is that Crane's death was perceived, as we have already shown, as the tragedy of a whole generation that inspired the creation of many poetic threnodies contributing to the rise of Crane's fame as a literary martyr, a poetic "king of bohemians," whose spirit fatefully resides in the Caribbean Sea, the one he himself apparently chose to be his eternal "tropical water tomb" (Reed 2006: 2-3).
His gravestone, erected in Garrettsville, Ohio, has the following inscription:
Harold Hart Crane / 1899-1932 / Lost At Sea.
This suggests that he did not commit suicide, but was a sailor caught in a storm and thrown overboard; it also underlines that he had no burial, and so no resting place. (Hammer 2009: 36)
The way of solitude and estrangement
Crane's sense of alienation, of romantic loneliness amid people, can be observed very early: in a letter addressed to his father (dated 31 December 1916), written while in New York, he stated:
It is a great shock, but a good tonic, to come down here as I have and view the countless multitudes. It seems sometimes almost as though you had lost yourself, and were trying vainly to find somewhere in this sea of humanity, your lost identity. (Crane 1952: 4-5)
Loneliness amidst people is a feature we meet in Keats also, who preferred to be lonely in the midst of crowds of men, but not women, whom he had adored as goddesses when he was a child, but then, when he grew up, he changed his mind about them, feeling they did not deserve his time, because they were to him like children--of course, there was one exception at least, Fanny Brawne, who literally enslaved him (see infra).
In a letter to Gorham Munson (dated 24 September 1920, written in Washington) Crane otherwise speaks about "my lost soul," a situation which he interprets as being so by observing the following:
I haven't had a creative impulse for so long that I am even getting not to miss it. [...] The streets are beautiful with many parks, etc., but it is all rather dead. (Crane 1952: 43)
Lack of creativity is thus the same as lack of life, which is a normal condition in a dead city, where "modern life" spreads "its vacuity" (Letter to Gorham Munson, 1 October 1920; Crane 1952: 44). This state of the city is remedied by looking for "more life" in literature (an idea later identified by Harold Bloom as being one of the crucial functions of literature itself: "Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read [literature] in search of more life"; Bloom 2002: 4), as he states in another letter to Gorham Munson (dated 9 November 1920, written in Cleveland):
Dostoievsky is a stranger to me beyond Crime and Punishment which caught me by the throat. He does give one more life than my mundane world supplies,- and stimulates. He makes you forget yourself (should I better say, lose) in the life of his characters for days at a time. And how few writers can do that! (Crane 1952: 46)
This is one of the reasons why Crane did not enjoy at all T. S. Eliot's Waste Land:
What do you think of Eliot's The Wasteland? I was rather disappointed. It was good, of course, but so damned dead. (Letter to Gorham Munson, 20 November 1922; Crane 1952: 105)
In other words, too much of death simply does not go along with literature, whose main function is helping you reach "more life"; this conception of literature is a strong indicator that comes against a profile predicting Crane would finally commit suicide. Creativity, however, is largely connected in Crane's view with a sort of romantic infinite abundence of words, of the kind John Keats had advocated when the latter confessed he never attempted to write poetry if not enough ideas were floating in his mind, since only such a condition was apt to produce the "rich-ore" poetry that was to him the ideal. Crane, in a similar vein, confesses to Gorham Munson (26 November 1921) the following:
One must be drenched in words, literally soaked with them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. When they come, as they did in "Pastorale" (thin, but rather good), they come as things in themselves; it is a matter of felicitous juggling!; and no amount of will or emotion can help the thing a bit. So you see I believe with Sommer that the "Ding an Sich" method is ultimately the only satisfactory creative principle to follow. (Crane 1952: 71)
It is remarkable that here Crane talks of abundance of words in aquatic terms, being consistent with his (unfolding, soon to be) "poetics" of the (tropical) sea.
In another letter, addressed to his mother (22 February 1917), he puts it bluntly: "I get terribly lonesome often when I am through working." (Crane 1952: 7) However, this is soon augmented into feelings of grandeur (slightly reminding one of young Chatterton's "Satanic pride"), as is readily visible in another letter, addressed to his mother (1 October 1917):
[...] I am fearless [...] I am determined on a valorous future and something of a realization of life. [...] I am beginning to see the hope of standing entirely alone and to fathom Ibsen's statement [...] "The strongest man in the world is he who stands entirely alone." (Crane 1952: 9)
In this, the influence of Fr. Nietzsche seems to become perceptible. He thus becomes reconciled with the situation:
I am alone a good deal of the time and am glad of it. My work will always demand solitude to a great extent in creative effort. (Letter to his mother, 3 October 1917; Crane 1952: 10)
However, there are also signs of increasing alarm related to this state: "Lately I have grown terribly isolated, and very egoist." (Letter to Gorham Munson, dated 18 June 1922; Crane 1952: 92) Such comments about himself Keats made quite often, at one point stating that he lived like a "hermit." But resignation in Crane's case seems to be a dominant, as the following fragment proves from a letter to William Wright written in Cleveland on 24 December 1922, in which the city and the age itself emerge as guilty for the ills in man's life (see Keats calling his age a "barbarous" one):
Nothing happens here, either. I am grateful only for wine. I have neither women or song. Cleveland street car rides twice a day take out all hope of these latter elements. I think of New York and next summer when the present is too sharp (or is it dull!). But the main faults are not of our city, alone. They are of the age. A period that is loose at all ends, without apparent direction of any sort. In some ways the most amazing age there ever was. Appalling and dull at the same time. (Crane 1952: 110)
It should also be noted that this formative period is one in which Crane assimilated much information; in a letter to Gorham Munson (dated 22 November 1919), he even suggested almost that knowledge became a common permanent companion: "New theories are filling my head every day." (Crane 1952: 25) This is yet again a fundament Crane shares with Keats, who, as he grew older, became more and more interested in books, at times moving in certain locations precisely in order to be closest to some public libray or other, and so have time to pursue his favourite studies.
However, as a chronic loneliness becomes nested with Crane, he gradually becomes disenchanted with the world, as he unmistakeably confessed in a letter to William Wright (dated 17 June 1919, written in New York City):
I wish I could be in Cleveland [...] The commercial aspect is the most prominent characteristic of America and we all must bow to it sooner or later. I do not think, though, that this of necessity involves our complete surrender of everything else nobler and better in our aspirations. Illusions are falling away from everything I look at lately. At present the world takes on the look of a desert,--a devastation to my eyes, and I am finding it rather hard at best. (Crane 1952:19)
The same happened to Keats, who came to consider that "the world is too brutal for me." (Letter to Fanny Brawne, dated August 1820)
It would appear that Eliot's Waste-Land model that consecrated the view of the world as spiritual-intellectual desert, was from the future, as it were, catching up with Crane, since the famous poem by Eliot was to be published only in 1922.
In a letter to Gorham Munson (6 march 1920), Crane does not forget to mention the loneliness in his life like some casual, common fact, which, however, wins him increasingly more, becoming a second nature that is irresistibly more and more desired to become permanent:
Of course I am utterly alone,- want to be,- and am beginning to rather enjoy the slippery scales-of-the-fish, continual escape, attitude. (Crane 1952: 35)
Again it is remarkable that Crane more and more constantly and consistently thinks in aquatic terms, unfolding his adaptive philosophy of life that may remind one of John Keats's epitaph, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," that is founded in the English poet's Lethe mystique (Lethe as the "watery labyrinth"). Later Crane's poetic philosophy will "distill" the essence of the aquatic metaphor, as in To the Cloud Juggler--In Memoriam: Harry Crosby (in the sequence Key West: An island sheaf, see infra) water emerges as unconquerable: life must be "[l]ike water, undestroyed,- like mist, unburned."
As time passes, however, he shows signs of sudden oscillations in his moods, pointing in the direction of a manic-depressive ailment: being in financial desperate straits, for instance, he meditates on 5 December 1920 (in a letter to Gorham Munson, written in Cleveland):
I have practically no money [...] About the only course I see is to save for all I am worth for two years or so, and then embark once and for all for foreign lands, Italy or Russia or Paris, and not come back until I want to. Literature and art be hanged!--even ordinary existence isn't worth the candle in these States now. (Crane 1952: 48)
This reminds one again of the plans to go abroad (destination: the African shores) that young Thomas Chatterton nurtured, but were impossible to put into practice. Only a few days later, on 22 December 1920, Crane wrote the following in a letter written in Cleveland:
I have so much now to reverence, discovering more and more beauty every day,- beauty of character, manner, and body, that I am for the time, completely changed. (Crane 1952: 50)
On 22 July 1921, in a totally contrary mood, he wrote to Gorham Munson, after seeing a parade in Cleveland:
I spent two hours of painful rumination ending with such disgust at America and everything in it, that I more than ever envy you your egress to foreign parts. No place but America could relish & applaud anything so stupid & drab as that parade [...]. Our people have no atom of a conception of beauty--and don't want it. [...] If ever I felt alone it has been today. (Crane 1952: 62)
Such disgust seems frequent in Crane's life (as it was in Keats's, who came at one time to say: "I am quite disgusted with literary men"; while at another time he put it more generally: "Upon the whole I dislike mankind"), and he expressed wishes to hide this plaintive side of his emotional life:
There is nothing but gall and disgust in me,- and there is nothing more for me to tell you but familiar, all-too-familiar complaints. I wish I could cultivate a more graceful mask against all this. (Letter to Gorham Munson, 21 November 1921; Crane 1952: 71)
By 27 November 1931 he came to believe that his times could be described only in the worst of terms; in a letter to Eda Lou Walton written on that day from Mixcoac (Mexico), he thus stated:
These are dull times for poetry, even as Mr. Mencken says [...]. A beautiful environment and economic security are far from compensating for a world of chaotic values and frightful spiritual depression." (Crane 1952: 389)
Crane's feelings of loneliness got, in time, mixed with feelings of futility, as he makes clear in a letter to Gorham Munson (dated 6 October 1921), in which he explains his emotions behind the poem entitled Chaplinesque:
I feel that, from my standpoint, the pantomime of Charlie represents fairly well the futile gesture of the poet in U.S.A. today, perhaps elsewhere too. And yet, the heart lives on. ... Maybe this is because I myself feel so particularly futile just now that I feel this pathos, (or is it bathos?). Je ne sais pas. (Crane 1952: 66)
[In the poem Chaplinesque, as he confessed in another letter to Gorham Munson, dated 1 October 1921, he had attempted to "put in words some of the Chaplin pantomime, so beautiful, and so full of eloquence, and so modern." (Crane 1952: 65)]
Pathos or bathos, all the same to him; ecstacy or agony--the two merge to become dangerously indistinguishable. Aloneness and futility become thus gradually associated with a tendency to like fragile existences, darkness, gloom, sensual spirituality (in the manner of E. A. Poe) and experience over innocence (no doubt in a Blakean manner):
I am fond of things of great fragility, and also and especially of the kind of poetry John Donne represents, a dark musky, brooding, speculative vintage, at once sensual and spiritual, and singing rather the beauty of experience than innocence. (Letter to William Wright, 17 October 1921; Crane 1952: 67-68)
Oscillations in mood are triggered also by his myriad readings. James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, causes him to feel ecstatic, to experience a "Eureka" effect (cf. Letter dated 27 July 1922, where he describes his first encounter with that novel which he compared with Goethe's Faust, and defined it as "the epic of the age"; Crane 1952: 94):
Since Munson brought me my copy of Ulysses I have been having high times. A book that in many ways surpasses anything I have ever read. 800 pgs! You must read E. E. Cummings' Enormous Room for a real inspiration in language and humanity. (Letter to Charmion Wiegand, 15 August 1922; Crane 1952: 97)
His first documented non-fictional (probably metaphorical) reference to suicide appears in a context where he makes reference to Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, in a letter to William Wright (dated 16 July 1926; he was then at his maternal grandmother's house in the Isle of Pines, Cuba):
[...] [M]aybe Spengler is right. Have you read his Untergang des Abendlandes--now translated (Knopf?) I envy people like Wheeler Lovell--who have intensive work to do without having to wrestle with either angels or devils to continue with it. I get awfully exhausted sometimes, trying to achieve some kind of consistent vision of things. But I don't seem to be able to relax--and knowing quite well all the time that most of my energy is wasted in a kind of inward combustion that is sheer nonsense. All else seems boresome, however,--so I must continue to kill myself in my own way. (Crane 1952: 267)
Crane seems thus to have been aware that his constant intellectual struggle to understand reality, to make sense of the world's existence, the "inward combustion" that kept his psyche in a permanent state of tension with no possibility of relaxation whatsoever, was an idiosyncratic kind of suicide, a "soft," yet certain, kill. This tension, however, becoming as chronic as it did, tended to gradually blunt his capacity to feel it anymore:
These are bewildering times for everyone, I suppose. I can't muster much of anything to say to anyone. I seem to have lost the faculty to even feel tension. A bad sign, I'm sure. When they all get it decided, Capitalism or Communism, then I'll probably be able to resume a few intensities; meanwhile there seems to be no sap in anything. I'd love to fight for almost anything, but there seems to be no longer any real resistance. Maybe I'm only a disappointed romantic, after all. Or perhaps I've made too many affable compromises. (Letter to Waldo Frank, dated 19 February 1931; Crane 1952: 366)
Keats was all too aware of such poetic-philosophic combustions, which is why he constantly searched for a way out, by embracing the cult of indolence, idleness, carelessness, passiveness, because in such Lethean states (which to him were natural) the fibres of the brain were relaxed.
The sense of resignation in Crane's letter above, in which he halfway admits that he is after all a "disappointed romantic," is obvious enough (it seems a slight anticipation, not necessarily evident, of his suicide), so he adds his fatalistic conclusion that underlines America's steady advance towards final ruin:
Present day America seems a long way off from the destiny I fancied when I wrote that poem [The Bridge]. In some ways Spengler must have been right. (Crane 1952: 366)
There is also in Crane an awareness of life's fragmentariness, which makes it impossible for him to enjoy it:
Life is too scattered for me to savor it any more. Probably this is only on account of my present work which demands the most frequent jerks of the imagination from one thing to another. (Letter to Gorham Munson, 24 March 1922; Crane 1952: 82)
This state of affairs, taken to extremes, gradually helped him understand the following:
The true idea of God is the only thing that can give happiness,- and that is the identification of yourself with all of life. It is a fierce and humble happiness, both at the same time, [...] such happiness, glorious sorrow, or whatever you want to call it. (Letter to Charlotte Rychtarik, 21 July 1923; Crane 1952:140)
This is indeed a neo-romantic principle: uniting with the whole of life in the paradox of awsome pain-joy or joy-pain--see in this sense Keats's Lethean "Joy of Grief," in his poem Fill for me a brimming Bowl, and William Wordsworth's "aching joys" in Tintern Abbey. This is a psychological impossibility that can give rise to an unbalance such as the bipolar, manic depressive disease, which fragments the psyche, because a unification with "all of life" points to an emptying of the self and its evaporation into the Other with the attainment of the extremes of joy and pain, simultaneously.
Yet, about life in general, Crane stated the following:
[S]een completely, from end to end [...] I think it [life in general] is a great happiness. (Letter to his mother, dated 12 October 1923; Crane 1952: 151)
In this, Keats differs from Crane fundamentally, because Keats's Lethean notion of "Joy of Grief" implies that pain can never really disappear: in the after-life, so after the soul's passage through "Lethe's waves," Suffering/Grief only becomes married with Joy, being sublimated, but never dissipating into nothingness. In this, Keats is much closer to Blake (the latter's notion of eternal life as an infinite oscillation or interplay or vibration between infinitesimal lives and deaths).
Also, in a letter to Yvor Winters (dated 29 May 1927) he outlines his romantic idea that man needs intellectually to move in the direction of the Renaissance homo universalis:
The image of "the complete man" is a good idealistic antidote for the hysteria for specialization that inhabits the modern world. (Crane 1952: 298)
Nevertheless, the constant difficulties inherent in urban life drew him to alcoholism (the same seems to have been the case with Keats, whose letters are full of references to his drinking habits); he confessed to his mother in a letter dated 10 July 1925 (written at Patterson, New York):
The desire for booze in the city comes from frayed nerves and repressions of the office, I'm sure. (Crane 1952:212)
The now famous poem Chaplinesque on the celebrated American actor (about whom Crane believed that he was "the greatest living actor," "the prime interpreter of the soul imposed upon by modern society"; Letter to Charmion Wiegand, 6 May 1922; Crane 1952: 85) is a revealing poetic experiment, whereby Crane's message pointed to the difficulty of human existence faced permanently in the city with total (emotional / physical) obliteration. The American poet explained the meaning of the poem, thereby presenting his understanding of what poetry is in its essence, namely the expression of "the human feelings":
I am moved to put Chaplin with the poets (of today); hence the "we." In other words, he, especially in The Kid, made me feel myself, as a poet, as being "in the same boat" with him. Poetry, the human feelings, "the kitten," is so crowded out of the humdrum, rushing, mechanical scramble of today that the man who would preserve them must duck and camouflage for dear life to keep them or keep himself from annihilation. I have since learned that I am by no means alone in seeing these things in the buffooneries of the tragedian, Chaplin, [...] and in the poem I have tried to express these "social sympathies" in words corresponding somewhat to the antics of the actor. (Letter to William Wright, 17 October 1921; Crane 1952: 68)
This poetics Keats would have surely agreed upon. For Crane, Chaplin was primarily the man who by his presence and gestures made possible in the spectator, if the latter was honest in his reception, the emergence of an "intense clarity of spirit" (Letter to his mother, dated 5 October 1923; Crane 1952: 150). Poetry for Crane was thus distinctly different from reason and the exact sciences:
Science (ergo all exact knowledge and its instruments of operation) is in perfect antithesis to poetry. (Letter to Gorham Munson, 17 March 1926; Crane 1952: 238)
Moreover, the ways of reason were the cause for much of the social problems of contemporary man:
The tragic quandary (or agon) of the modern world derives from the paradoxes that an inadequate system of rationality forces on the living consciousness. (Crane 1952: 238)
In other words, Crane seems to renew the romantic revolution with its attack on reason as a factor limiting free life and will. Related to this, according to Harold Bloom (2007), Crane had, as mentioned, the romantic gift of "feeling the heart of words," of creating meaning by cadence and rhythm. One reads in a letter addressed to his mother (dated 23 September 1924) the following comment on his work on The Bridge:
(There are days when I simply have to "sit on myself" at my desk to shut out rhythms and melodies that belong to that poem and have never been written because I have succeeded only too well during the course of the day's work in excluding and stifling such a train of thoughts.) And then there are periods again when the whole world couldn't shut out the plans and beauties of that work--and I get a little of it on paper. (Crane 1952: 191)
In a letter to Otto H. Kahn (dated 18 March 1926), as mentioned, he clarified that the language he used in this poem was characterized by "spacious periodicity" of rhythm and an "unusually symphonic" force (Crane 1952: 241).
A poetic purpose was, in his own words (Letter to Gorham Munson, dated 6 March 1920), capturing "an extreme freshness," a "kind of patent leather gloss," not to be confused with "the traditional 'dew-on-the-grass' variety" of freshness, but the kind attained often by T. S. Eliot and Sherwood Anderson (for instance in the latter's "I Want to Know Why," a story from The Smart Set, considered by Crane to be one of the greatest he would ever read) (Crane 1952: 34).
Another purpose was to attain a "Promethean mood" in his poem entitled Faustus and Helen (Letter no. 108, addressed to Gorham Munson, dated Friday night, ca. August 1922; Crane 1952: 98), this speaking in favour of Harold Bloom's identifying him as a modern romantic (see also Hammer, 2009: 35, who described Crane writing on The Bridge as being "the poet of New York, of epic ambition, of erotic idealization and intensity, the modern romantic par excellence").
This is indeed the more so, since Faustus and Helen contains the tendencies that will be continued in The Bridge (Letter to Allen Tate, 6 February 1923; Crane 1952: 120), with Helen the symbol of an abstract "sense of beauty," and Faustus "the symbol of myself, the poetic or imaginative man of all times"--poetry itself being conceived of as being necessarily "packed with crosscurrents and multiple suggestions" (Letter to Waldo Frank, 7 February 1923; Crane 1952: 120-121). This latter quality makes Crane's poetic view come close to William Blake's concept of poetry as "Sublime [multi-stratified] Allegory," to John Keats's rich-ore poetics, and to E. A. Poe's arabesque lyricism iridescent with multiple meanings that become activated depending on perspective.
Moreover, Faustus and Helen was written soon after his chemically induced (ether) mystical revelation in the dentist's chair, when he had already decided to move in the direction of (Blakean/romantic) visionary poetics, based also on Rimbaud's "program of intoxication" of the senses (through drinking mainly) (Spears 1965: 33).
He detailed his illumination in a letter to Gorham Munson (dated ca. 18 June 1922):
Did I tell you of that thrilling experience this last winter in the dentist's chair when under the influence of aether [sic] and amnesia my mind spiraled to a kind of seventh heaven of consciousness and egoistic dance among the seven spheres--and something like an objective voice kept saying to me--"You have the higher consciousness--you have the higher consciousness. This is something that very few have. This is what is called genius."? A happiness, ecstatic such as I have known only twice in "inspirations" came over me. I felt the two worlds. And at once. As the bore went into my tooth I was able to follow its every revolution as detached as a spectator at a funeral. O Gorham, I have known moments in eternity. (Crane 1952:91-92)
Crane sensed that works such as Faustus and Helen revealed, by the way in which his friends genuinely recognized his poetic intentions, a "community of interest," "a consciousness of something more vital than stylistic questions and 'taste'":
[I]t is vision, a vision alone that not only America needs, but the whole world. [...] [After the complete renunciation symbolized in The Wasteland and, though less, in Ulysses we have sensed some new vitality. (Letter to Waldo Frank, dated 27 February 1923; Crane 1952: 127)
In other words, Crane's poetry is about asserting a new energy, a new boldness, a time-eternity fusion, in short--a neo-romantic visionariness expressed in a "natural idiom" (Crane 1952: 128) in modernistic context. This new romantic modern artist for Crane needed the following:
[G]igantic assimilative capacities, emotion,- and the greatest of all--vision [...]. And then--structure! [...] Potentially I feel myself quite fit to become a suitable Pindar for the dawn of the machine age [...]. I have lost the last shreds of philosophical pessimism [...]. (Crane 1952: 129)
In short, the modern poet needed "the 'background of life.'" Crane concluded thus:
It is to the pulse of a greater dynamism that my work must revolve. Something terribly fierce and yet gentle. (Letter to Gorham Munson, dated 2 March 1923; Crane 1952: 129)
The idea of something "fierce and yet gentle" reminds one of Keats's "Miltonic stationing":
huge power that lies there unused, half slumbering and sublime in its magnificence, although never pushed into action to its full potential. This aesthetic vitalistic view appears also to move in the direction of Blake's "fearful symmetry," with its two opposites, the lamb and the tyger, the synthesis of which is the realization that "without contraries is no progression," light and darkness need each other to constitute the eternal beauty of reality. The reason for this state of affairs is specified in another letter, addressed to Alfred Stieglitz (dated 4 July 1923; Crane 1952: 138-139): the artist centers in "a kind of timeless vision"; "in the absolute sense the artist identifies himself with life."
By invoking (Crane 1952: 138) William Blake's saying, "What is now proved was once only imagined," Crane strives to point out the "superior logic of metaphor," the superiority of visionary imagination, which in the end will be proven to express truths too deep for science to probe at present. In this sense, Waldo Frank may be right when he concludes that if Crane was to master his poetic art which captures the life, culture and passions of the machine age, he had to "form his Word unaided." Indeed this can be defined perhaps as Crane's aesthetics of the "crystal Word," the only capable to gain insights into this complex new age, poetically described in The Broken Tower, his last poem, as "the broken world." The bells ringing are in this poem said to break their own tower--poetic words have shattering powers, making the poet himself break down under their "fierce and yet gentle" force, causing the whole world to shake and break. Frank believes in this sense the following:
In his lack of valid terms to express his relationship with life, Crane was a true culture-child; more completely than either Emily Dickinson or Blake, he was a child of modern man [...] a poet innocent of culture-words. (Frank 1946: X, XXIII)
This means that, being among the most cultivated poets in the history of world literature, in his art Crane tended to assimilate the whole of modern life, thereby creating the key metaphors, the key poetic words apt to utter, and by uttering also decoding, the deep realities of modern man: as a child, he stands on modernity as on the shoulders of giants, and in this condition he becomes a myth-maker creating order out of chaos. That he was among the most erudite of poets, his Letters: 1916-1932 stand proof, having been first collected in the brilliant 1952 edition of Brom Weber, which was evaluated by Spears (1965: 13) as follows:
The most impressive since Keats's, and fully worthy of comparison to them [...] [Crane's collected letters are] profoundly moving human documents, colorful, penetrating, often humorous, and rich in moral insight.
In his essay entitled Modern poetry (1929), Crane shows that poetry, even in a machine age, retains its function--the synthesis of values:
The function of poetry in a Machine Age is identical to its function in any other age; and its capacities for presenting the most complete synthesis of human values remain essentially immune from any of the so-called inroads of science. (Crane 1946: 177)
There was only one possible problem with this age:
[The machine's] only menace lies in its capacities for facile entertainment, so easily accessible as to arrest the development of any but the most negligible esthetic responses. (Crane 1946: 177)
In other words, the machine made everything easier for man, not only regarding physical matters, but also related to aesthetic perception: it may tempt us to go for the easy and superficial, and avoid the more difficult and complex beauties of the world. He explains his thought:
[U]nless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function. (Crane 1946: 177)
This function can well be activated precisely by "feeling the heart of words," which is, according to Harold Bloom (2007), the most important quality of Crane's poetic art, his art of the word, marked primarily by his allusive force (which points to high ranking complexity and difficult aesthetic pleasure, as in Blake's and Keats's "hermetic" aesthetics), and which he himself defined as belonging not to an impressionist, but to an "absolutist," who follows Blake's following suggestion:
We are led to believe in a lie / When we see with not through the eye. (William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 126; cf. Crane's essay entitled General aims and theories, apud Spears 1965: 20)
This signifies that Crane looked through the machine age, with all its endless web of mechanical gadgets and gimmicks and whatnots, into some eternal underlying reality which made the very physical, material structure of his present possible; through poetry he thus strove to reveal absolute truths--much like Keats -, and for this the poet needed reality as a "spring-board," giving the poem "as a whole" an "orbit," a destiny, "a predetermined direction of its own." Thus, poetry was to tend towards a "state of consciousness, an 'innocence' (Blake) or absolute beauty," unburying in the reader's mind "spiritual illuminations, shining with a morality essentialized from experience directly, and not from previous precepts or preconceptions." (General aims and theories, Crane 2006: 163; cf. also Spears 1965: 21)
In this sense, Voyages II (in White Buildings) is a text in which, according to Bloom (2007), Crane reached "absolute poetry," "pure poetry," similar to Coleridge's Kubla Khan or Keats's Ode to a Nightingale. (In fact, all of Crane's Voyages are filled with the majestic voice of P. B. Shelley's Allastor; or, The spirit of solitude).
As a consequence, as mentioned, for Crane poetry stands under the sign of eternity, being the expression of "contemporary human consciousness sub specie aeternitatis" (Modern poetry; Crane 2006: 170), and providing the reader, once he read a poem, with "a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident" (General aims and theories, Crane 2006: 163). This is what we today would call the poem as holophrasis, or a holophrastic expression; by definition, such a structure condenses in itself a huge semantic context which is impossible to describe in a few words. A concept such as samsara, for instance, embeds in itself a whole multi-millenary tradition --likewise, for Crane, a poem is a holophrastic expression embedding in itself an entire (poetic, intellectual, spiritual, etc.) universe.
To write poetry for Crane, therefore, was the same as experiencing "higher consciousness," or vision (Spears 1965: 23). In a sense, this is the same idea as expressed by Blake: engaging in an intellectual quest mysteriously means "building Jerusalem." Thus, human creativity had a secret access code, so to speak; Crane alludes to it in his essay on Modern poetry by referring to the arch-romantic S. T. Coleridge:
The key to the process of free creative activity which Coleridge gave us in his "Lectures on Shakespeare," exposes the responsibilities of every poet, modern or ancient, and cannot be improved upon. [...] "As it must not, so genius cannot, be lawless: for it is even this that constitutes its genius -the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination." (Modern poetry; Crane 1946: 176)
In other words, the supreme joy of the creator is that he has the freedom to create fictional, imaginary worlds where he decides upon what laws will be sovereign--but no world is possible in a lawless reality, be that fictional or otherwise, and valid complex sets of laws (i.e. laws that can create viable worlds) can only be found by gaining access to the higher realms of conscieusness. Keats, in this sense, was likewise looking for deep truths when he engaged his mind in poetic quests --poetry-making meant for him unburying deep invisible eternal truths.
Roots of the above-mentioned romantic quality of Crane's feeling the "heart of words" may be associated with his more permanent poetic interests, among whom William Blake was foremost:
While I am always interested in the latest developments in poetry I am inveterately devoted to certain English old fellows that are a constant challenge. I refer to Donne, Webster, Jonson, Marlowe, Vaughan, Blake, etc. More "modernly," have you read and admired Yeats (later poems), Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Edward Thomas, Wallace Stevens? I am missing a few, but I like all these people. (Letter to Allen Tate, 16 May 1922; Crane 1952: 88)
Moreover, Donne, Blake and Vaughn are shortlisted as the influences in which he delighted most (he wished to write like them):
If I am metaphysical I'm content to continue so. Since I have been 'located' in this category by a number of people, I may as well go on alluding to certain [...] metaphysical passages in Donne, Blake, Vaughn, etc., as being of particular appeal to me on a basis of common characteristics with what I like to do in my own poems, however little scientific knowledge of the subject I may have." (Letter to Yvor Winters, dated 29 May 1927; Crane 1952: 301)
Among the three, Blake uses the most material imagery (see the vision of iron forges, of furnaces, hammers, tongs, bellows, chains, anvils, clinkers, and many other metallurgical elements). Evolving in this direction, Crane created a "corporeal poetics" which attempted to heal the Cartesian mind-body division (Tapper 2006: 5-6)--as is normal for a romantic poet to do--and was apt to express the machine age and industrial America with its many industrial hells reminding one of Blake's Satanic Mills.
Just as for William Carlos Williams poems were "machine[s] made of words," likewise for Crane--in love with factories, technology and architecture--poems were like "white buildings," their language being itself a power that "has built towers and bridges" (apud Tapper 2006: 11), just as for Blake intellectual quests built the walls of the city of Jerusalem, a spiritual universal city, made of human souls; Blake thus suggested that we see through the core of the earthly Jerusalem into the very heart of eternity, in order to breach the gap between Matter and Spirit.
Later, a crucial addition to the list of main influences seems to have been G. M. Hopkins (Letter to Samuel Loveman, dated 5 February 1928; Crane 1952: 317), as well as Shakespeare's The tempest, qualified by him as "that crown of all the Western World" (Letter to Slater Brown, dated 22 February 1928; Crane 1952: 317).
A poetic purpose mentioned in the letter cited above addressed to Allen Tate (16 May 1922) was formulated in terms of a word-music fusion, as follows:
Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive! (Crane 1952: 89)
A revolution whereby poetry was "married" to music had been triggered by Thomas Chatterton, the boy-poet who died at 17 either by suicide or in an attempt to cure himself of an incurable disease. The reaching of perfect musicality in poetry may have been suggested to Crane thus by reading some of Blake's poetry. He confessed in a letter to Gorham Munson (no. 111, dated Tuesday, ca. August 1922), in the context of exploring a book by S. Foster Damon on the British romantic poet, the following:
You know how much Blake has always interested me. (Crane 1952: 100)
This points in the direction of Bloom's statement that Crane was indeed a romantic. The interest in Blake, furthermore, points to the fact that Crane was considering it was possible for poetry to utter scientific truths, even if it was entirely different from science: in a letter to Gorham Munson (dated 17 April 1928), he came to state the following:
[S]ome of Blake's poems and Emily Dickinson's seem more incontrovertible than ever since Relativity and a host of other ideologies, since evolved, have come into recognition. (Crane 1952: 324)
Therefore, it was possible to reach through poetry truths towards which also science will converge, whether the latter wants it or not. As we have seen, L. S. Dembo suggested that in The Bridge Crane tried to reach through poetry "a logos" that should make manifest and intelligible in this physical world "the Absolute" which he had experienced in his imagination--in other words he tried, like Keats, to bring to the surface eternal absolute truths that otherwise lie buried deep inside the consciousness of living beings. We are in this sense of the opinion that nowhere in Crane's entire poetry was this Word/Logos better embodied than in his last poem, The Broken Tower (1932), which may have announced the actual birth of Hart Crane as a poet of unequalled power in world literature. Harold Bloom (2007) in this sense believes that if somebody had appreciated the poem in good time, Crane might have not committed suicide--this because, as for William Empson, for him the writing of a poem was equivalent with a battle for survival.
It should be noted that Crane had already experienced serious disappointment when his close friends and critics Allen Tate and Yvor Winters, writing harsh reviews on his poem The Bridge, attacked mainly his romanticism and his praise for Walt Whitman (cf. Hammer 2009: 35).
In The Broken Tower we witness the disincarnation of the poetic principle or character; Emily Dickinson's description of the Lord as the "Word made flesh" is thus echoed in Crane's The Broken Tower, a staggering poem, in which the tower becomes a metaphor of the poet's own body, of his own consciousness as a metaphysical being (Bloom 2007). William Collins had written an ode entitled The bell of Arragon, his latest, which was never recovered (Gosse 1889: 232), but of which four lines survive--preserved in a letter written by T. Warton, addressed to a Mr. Hymers that may strangely anticipate Crane's poem:
He also showed us another ode, of two or three four-lined stanzas, called The Bell of Arragon; on a tradition that, anciently, just before a king of Spain died, the great bell of the cathedral of Sarragossa, in Arragon, tolled spontaneously. It began thus:--"The bell of Arragon, they say, / Spontaneous speaks the fatal day," &c. Soon afterwards were these lines: "Whatever dark aerial power, / Commissioned, haunts the gloomy tower." (Thomas 1866: XLII)
The crucial tower-references for Crane, however, came from P. B. Shelley, Robert Browning and W. B. Yeats. It would appear Crane was aware that the Greek term for "word," logos, meant "gathering" (a translation of the Hebrew davar = something held far back in oneself and projected into the exterior; cf. logein = to gather). Bloom (2007) singles out as the most powerful line in the poetry of the 20th century the following verses from The Broken Tower:
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower; And swing I know not where.
An awesome prediction--maybe--of his tragic end in suicide.
His body, the tower, broken down by the bells of his poetic voice ringing loud transcendental leaps of faith towards the unknown. The tower is the point of epiphany, from which he looks, and where his poetic gift becomes most manifest. The tower is everything that he is, his whole being, physical and psychic (Bloom 2007). For this reason maybe it is right to call this last poem Crane's "poetic testament," as suggested by Spears (1965: 43), or his farewell note to the world.
As far as the project of writing The Bridge, Crane knew that it was huge, and he even came to believe that he was "playing Don Quixote in an immorally conscious way," and that "intellectually judged the whole theme and project seem[ed] more and more absurd." (Letter to Waldo Frank, dated 20 June 1926; Crane 1952: 261)
He had added, however, some three years before, also a note of potential grandeur:
[...] [I]t may be too impossible an ambition. But if I do succeed, such a waving of banners, such ascent of towers, such dancing, etc., will never before have been put down on paper! The form will be symphonic, something like 'F and H' [Faustus and Helen]. (Letter to Gorham Munson, 18 February 1923; Crane 1952: 125)
His oscillations regarding the feasibility of this project ended in sheer desperate abandonment in July 1926:
I've lost all faith in my material--"human nature." (Letter no. 250; Crane 1952: 264)
This reaction emerged in a context in which he had got fed up with gossip about his wasting away Otto Kahn's money:
It has been so disgusting to note the sudden turns and antics of my "friends" since I had the one little bit help I ever had toward my work in the money from Kahn. Everytime I came into N.Y. from the country I'd hear new monstrosities of fables going about town as to how I was squandering money on pate de foi gras, etc. And worse whisperings. It's all been very tiresome and I'd rather lose such elite for the old society of vagabonds and sailors--who don't enjoy chitchat. (Letter no. 250; Crane 1952: 264)
Only one month later he wrote in a letter to Waldo Frank (dated 3 August 1926) that he was having a "little neurosis," probably on account of his difficulties with the project of The Bridge (Crane 1952: 270). But this time he seems to have won back some confidence, tinged with traces of grandeur given the dangers of his poetic enterprise:
I feel as though I were dancing on dynamite these days--so absolute and elaborated has become the conception. All sections moving forward now at once! (Crane 1952: 270)
As mentioned before, the final part of The Bridge was written first, and so Crane now came to see that the construction of his Bridge was started from both ends:
I didn't realize that a bridge is begun from the two ends at once. (Crane 1952: 270)
The writing of this poem had its ups and downs, and the very process seems to have been one of self-discovery and discovery of reality which filled him with enthusiasm and exuberance. He came to assert, in another letter to Waldo Frank (dated 23 August 1926), related to his composition of The Tunnel section:
The organic substances of the poem are holding a great many surprises for me. ... Greatest joys of creation. (Crane 1952: 275)
About the state of mind in which he wrote it, he had stated the following:
It is sheer ecstasy [...]. It was written verse by verse in the most tremendous emotional exaltations I have ever felt. (Letter to Charlotte Rychtarik, 21 July 1923; Crane 1952: 141)
This seems to indicate the manic side of his creative personality, probably activated/ stimulated by a secret realization (taking place probably in general when an author comes to learn how valuable his creative work is) that his poem will be read by many thousands of people from the future--the generation of such ecstacy can be understood as the pure joy of anticipation of future glory: in the mind and soul of the author perhaps a sort of retro-causal connection (from the future of the audience to the past of the author) takes place between himself/herself and the minds and souls of all his future audience, converging all in the birth moment of a masterpiece.
A few lines later in the letter cited above, Crane invokes the other, depressive, side:
You see, I, too, have my moments of despair,- for there is so little time for me to think about such things. I am succeeding in my position with the advertising agency quite well,- but all that means more work there, and even less time for what I want to do. I am forced to be ambitious in two directions, you see, and in many ways it is like being put up on a cross and divided. (Crane 1952: 141-142)
Consequently, as Waldo Frank summarized, Crane's life was divided between two extreme poles of experience:
[He] lived exacerbated in a constant swing between ecstasy and exhaustion. Therefore, he needed the tangent release of excess drink and sexual indulgence. The poet was clearer and shrewder than the man. His mind, grown strong, sought a poetic principle to integrate the exuberant flood of his impressions. (Frank 1946: XIV)
The poetic principle he was searching for he indeed found in the (tropical) Sea as a romantic symbol of unity--the primordial Mother ("unity of immersion and of dissolution")--and liberation from contradictions of individual life, in a way reminding one of D. H. Lawrence's use of the romantic "symbol of perfect sexual union" (Frank 1946: XVII, XIX), reminiscent of what Mircea Eliade called the hieros gamos.
According to Bloom (2007), Crane is thus a religious-mystical poet who, like Marlowe before him, "unfolds"--he does not develop (Shakespeare in this sense is "developmental," as can be seen in a comparison between Romeo and Juliet and Perdita and Florizel). His rhetoric is thus Marlovian, while his perception is Rimbauldian, i.e. synesthetic: like Blake before him, Crane sees the sounds--he has the vision of "Creation's blithe and petalled word" (Voyages VI, White Buildings) unfolding lotus-like in the rhythms of a cosmic symphony. These elements, of course, have strong affinities with Hindu mystique, where the chakra system is regarded as formed of energetic centers in the shape of petalled lotus flowers bearing on them mystical syllables of spiritual power.
However, in a letter to Herbert Weinstock (dated 22 April 1930), he expressed his gratitude for the enthusiastic review of The Bridge, in which Weinstock, among other things, stressed out "the essential religious motive throughout" his work; he answered on this issue the following:
I have never consciously approached any subject in a religious mood; it is only afterward that I, or someone else generally, have noticed a prevalent piety. God save me from a Messianic predisposition! (Crane 1952:350)
So Crane's purpose was not consciously religious, but by writing The Bridge he indeed had as a purpose a liberation, namely exploding "the fashionable pessimism of the hour so well established by T. S. Eliot":
I tried to break loose from that particular straitjacket. (Letter to Selden Rodman, dated 22 May 1930; Crane 1952: 351)
Brooklyn Bridge in Southern Manhattan, a miracle of engineering, was considered by Crane to be a living creature--almost like God, a religious emblem, an art work, which gave you the extraordinary sense of (transcendental) leaping, vaulting, surging, of transcendental structure. Walking the bridge had this vaulting/ leaping effect, which may be a psychological explanation as to why so many suicides in New York occurred by leaping from Brooklyn Bridge, a fact mentioned by Crane in a context in which he alluded to the known public cruelty: people are reported to have shouted to the suicides: "Jump! Jump!" (Bloom 2007)
This is thus a location having strong connections with death and suicide, as a liberation of sorts. Crane's interest in Brooklyn Bridge might therefore have been justified in its multiple symbolic powers, as a binding medium between heaven and earth and hell. That he paid much heed to the constellation of themes around the notion of death and its relation with life can be observed by briefly examining his poetry.
The poetics of the petalled crystal word and tropical sea
1) In the sequence White Buildings: he mentions "the lover's death" (in the poem Stark Major); he speaks of "the groans of death" and of "metallic paradises," and "cities of the air" (For the marriage of Faustus and Helen). He is fascinated by "[t]he calyx of death's bounty," implicitly envisaging death as a lotus-like unfolding (At Melville s tomb). He complains that "[t]he bottom of the sea is cruel" (Voyages I). He ecstatically calls:
Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe. / O minstrel galleons of Carib fire, / Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise. (Voyages II)
He rhetorically askes "I / Must first be lost in fatal tides to tell?"--as if poetically searching whether his fate is death by water in order to be reborn to tell what truth is (Voyages IV).
2) In The Bridge: he is disenchanted with man's modern condition as an insignificant dead-living being turned automaton: "Seeing himself an atom in a shroud--/ Man hears himself an engine in a cloud!"
3) In the sequence Key West: An island sheaf:
3.1) In O Carib Isle: he explores the mysteries of the origin and end of tropical forms: "And yet suppose / I count these nacreous frames of tropic death, / Brutal necklaces of shells around each grave / Squared off so carefully." He wants to "gainsay death's brittle crypt." He complains that "[t]he wind that knots itself in one great death--/ Coils and withdraws." And he also laments his condition:
Slagged on the hurricane--I, cast within its flow,
Congeal by afternoons here, satin and vacant.
You have given me the shell, Satan,- carbonic amulet
Sere of the sun exploded in the sea.
3.2) In A Name for All: he analyzes the condition of man--only death can ever hope to bring the final understandings and illuminations:
[...] [W]e are usurpers, and chagrined--[...] But we must die, as you, to understand. // I dreamed that all men dropped their names [...].
3.3) In Royal Palm: he meditates on man's direction in life, ever towards death: "[...] till our deathward breath is sealed -."
3.4) In To the Cloud Juggler--In memoriam: Harry Crosby: he is caught in an ecstatic vision, with man floating like a feather, beaten like water, and like water indomitable, yet in unutterable pain (the latter is a Keatsian image of Lethean water bringing to the soul the "Joy of Grief"):
[...] [D]istricts where cliff, sea and palm advance / The falling wonder of a rainbow's trance. [...] Assert the ripened dawn / As you have yielded balcony and room / Or tempests--in a silver, floating plume. // Wrap us and lift us; drop us then, returned / Like water, undestroyed,- like mist, unburned ... / But do not claim a friend like him again, / Whose arrow must have pierced you beyond pain.
4) In the sequence Key West (Folder Subsection):
4.1) In By Nilus once I knew ...: he speaks of the impenetrable complexities of the buried past where our origins are to be found, in the triangle formed by Egypt, the Indus Valley and the Andean hights, their secrets being found all inscribed in all too intelligible hieroglyphs which we unfortunately no longer fully understand (this Keats alludes to also, in Hyperion):
Decisive grammar given unto queens,--/ An able text, more motion than machines / Have levers for,--stampede it with fresh type / From twenty alphabets --we're still unripe! [...] This hieroglyph is no dumb, deaf mistake. / It knows it's way through India--tropic shake! / It's Titicaca till we've trod it through / And then it pleads again, 'I wish I knew.'
5) In The Broken Tower: he bemoans his fate and the earthly condition of man as a broken slave, who still has a mystic hope lying buried in "the matryx of the heart":
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower; / And swing I know not where. [...] And I, their sexton slave! [...] And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, its voice / An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) / But not for long to hold each desperate choice. // My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored / Of that tribunal monarch of the air / Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word / In wounds pledged once to hope--cleft to despair ? [...] visible wings of silence sown / In azure circles, widening as they dip // The matrix of the heart, lift down the eye / That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower ...
The last verses may speak of the silence of celestial tears uniting heaven and earth in man's heart, thus leading the soul ("the eye") in a paradoxical descensive ascent ("lift down the eye"): the consciousness descends from the brain (the spaces of reason) to the spaces of the heart (of emotion, the Uranian), uniting in man's heart the human with the divine, the natural with the supernatural. Pain, suffering, is thus a mystic descensive ascent; a building of towers; a building of Jerusalem.
6) In The phantom bark (also known as So dream thy sails...): he seems to prophetically dream his death by drowning:
So dream thy sails, O phantom bark / That I thy drowned man may speak again / Perhaps as once Will Collins spoke the lark, / And leave me half a-dream upon the main. [...] and dream no land in vain.
7) In Enrich my resignation: he wishes time to end, as a return to the fathers (a Goethean complementary reflex here, maybe, of the primordial "mothers" who created all of reality, as mentioned):
Die, oh, centuries, die, as Dionysus said, / Yet live in all my resignation. / It is the moment, now, when all / The heartstrings spring, unlaced--/ Here is the peace of the fathers.
8) In The circumstance: to Xochipilli: he meditates again on the end of time, by imagining man becoming more powerful than "flowering" stones:
If you could die, then starve, who live / Thereafter, stronger than death smiles in flowering stone;--/ You could stop time, give florescent / Time a longer answer back [...].
9) In The visible the untrue: he observes his own condition as an automaton of wishes and illusions: "Yes, I being / the terrible puppet of my dreams [...]."
10) In Reliquary: he questions the nature of life and death:
What is our life without a sudden pillow, / What is death without a ditch ? // The harvest laugh of bright Apollo / And the flint tooth of Sagittarius [...].
11) In A postscript: he is depressed for being finally left friendless, feeling (romantic) nostalgia for far distances, perhaps considering death a key for reaching them:
Friendship agony! [...] My only final friends--/ the wren and thrush, made solid print for me / across dawn's broken arc. No; yes ... or were they / the audible ransom, ensign of my faith / towards something far, now farther than ever away?
This image somehow resembles that Keats had of his beloved Fanny Brawne, an icon of love, going further and further away, eternally becoming more distant as he was getting sicker and sicker.
12) In Eternity: he laments death without proper burials: "Bodies were rushed into graves / Without ceremony, while hammers pattered in town."
13) In The return: he meditates on the sea and its demiurgic powers over man:
The sea raised up a campanile... The wind I heard / Of brine partaking, whirling spout in shower / Of column kiss--that breakers spouted, sheared / Back into bosom--me--her, into natal power...
In view of the portrait above, it is certain that Crane was a great poet in the making, who suffered much, had an adventurous bohemian life full of incidents, parents who did not care enough for him to stay together and build a stable home for his sake at least; and a genius who may have drawn him to his final gesture of ending the pain and chaos that lashed his conscience with intermittent power. His writings, the poetry and the letters, reveal an explosively creative personality, but one tinged by permanent oscillations, that with time tended to excell into paroxysms. One such paroxysm was his probable suicide, by which he possibly aimed at poetically ending his life by a return, like a broken tower collapsing, to the motherly vast tropical sea, now his tomb. By doing that he may have hoped to return to "the peace of the fathers," which was so thoroughly refused him in his short life.
The essence of the peace he had searched for seems to have been best captured in a memorable poem by Lord Byron--one of the most beautiful in world poetry--which was written in a letter to Thomas Moore, dated 28 February 1817, so more than a century before Crane's tragic death by drowning, and referring to the Venetian carnival, but also reflecting Byron's melancholy longing for his London nightly escapades with close male friends (McGann 2000: 1039):
So, we'll go no more a roving So late into the night, Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright. For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest. Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we'll go no more a roving By the light of the moon. (Byron 2000: 315)
Crane's poetic feverish mind, constantly oscillating between agony and ecstacy, sunk wildly in melancholy on the fateful day of 27 April 1932, may have made the final effort to build, by this dramatic gesture, a poetic bridge between his own personal heaven and hell and the world at large, to reconcile his higher conscience with his earthly guilt: his death may have been felt by him in a flash as a poetic noble expiation for his mistakes, a desperate final solution to stop the suffering caused by his perpetual fight for sanity in a world gone mad, and a soothing reunion with the vast water kingdom, and so with the heart of his very poetry that to him was ever accessible through the very pulsing rhythms and cadences of his "sea roving" adventure through life. The return to "the peace of the fathers" can thus for Crane have meant also a Lethean return to innocence--suicide as the ultimate swift battle for Lethean katharsis, by which he may have hoped to crown his soul with his beloved poetic "petalled words" of unique power, with the ever-living "crystal Word."
Mihai A. Stroe
University of Bucharest
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Title Annotation:||Ars poetica, ars moriendi|
|Author:||Stroe, Mihai A.|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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