A Divided Self: The Poetic Responsibility of Hart Crane with Respect to 'The Bridge'

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Author: Joseph Schwartz
Editor: Jennifer Baise
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,072 words

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[In the following essay, Schwartz explains the fragmentation of The Bridge by discussing the ways in which Crane's temperament and training were actually unsuitable to the writing of such a poem.]

I would like to consider the question of how Hart Crane came to think of himself as the kind of poet who could undertake the composition of The Bridge. By temperament, education, and heritage Crane was the worst equipped of poets to undertake an exhaustive meditation upon the nature of the modern with its implications of a maturing technological culture. Constitutionally unable to apprehend the world as a whole, he had no enthusiasm for cosmic poetic designs or programs. He was expressive not topical by nature. Yet he found himself gradually being cast (and casting himself) in the role of Walt Whitman's successor. How this came to happen remains an essential question for the reader of his enormous, fragmented poem. Considering this question will make us better able to appreciate the essential indecision of the poet, and it may help explain the vacillation between poetic and rhetoric in the poem itself. Largely because of the strength of its parts, The Bridge remains one of the most significant literary efforts thus far to come to terms with modernism; it stands as a magnificent and instructive wreck on the path of one's progress toward an understanding of our age.

My concern, however, is directly with Crane's divided self rather than with the poem. My effort will be to trace how the divided self came about. My thesis is simply that Crane was essentially one kind of poet and that he tried, because of a variety of pressures, to become another kind of poet. He did not slowly evolve or mature or change— all words conventionally used to describe the development of writers. He undertook a willful arbitrary shift; he was uncomfortable with it, and he did not persist in it.1 It will be necessary first of all to sketch briefly the essential poetic sensibility of Crane, a point easily documented. Then, at more length, I would like to come to grips directly with the question of how he came to think of himself as Whitman's heir.

Allen Tate has perceptively particularized the essential character of Crane's poetic sensibility, and it is a good place to begin: “locked-in sensibility” and “insulated egoism.” Crane's derangement and disorder, in contrast to that of Rimbaud, was original and fundamental. It is Tate's view that Rimbaud cultivated derangement, working at achieving disorder within the context of a milieu in which an implicit order still existed. He struggled against the intellectual order he inherited. By Crane's time, the derangement of the intellectual systems of modernism had already taken place, and he had to struggle with the problem of finding some principle of order. For Crane, disorder was natural and fundamental; his poetic perception of this condition marks “the special quality of his mind that belongs particularly to our time.” 2 Although the romantic cosmology of The...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420012479