June 20, 2010
Hart Crane by Walker Evans
Hart Crane [USA]
Harold Hart Crane (Hart being his mother’s name) was born in Garrettsville, Ohio in 1899. His education was informal, and he never completed high school. At the age of 17 he convinced his recently divorced parents to let him move to New York City in preparation for college. During these years, 1917-1924, he traveled between Cleveland and New York, working as a beginning reporter in Cleveland and at his father’s candy factory. In New York is worked as a copywriter for mail order catalogues. His life might almost be described as vagrant, as he moved in and out of apartments and rooms in New York.
In 1919, while working in his father’s factory, he began a homosexual affair, and again in 1924, after meeting Emil Opffer, a ship’s purser, began an emotional and sexual relationship which would find its way into several of his poems, particularly Voyages. But none of his relationships were long-lasting, and Crane’s affairs throughout his life were mostly anonymous and sometimes violent. In the early 1930s Crane became involved in a heterosexual relationship with the former wife of Malcolm Cowley, Peggy Baird, and there was a discussion between them of marriage. But in April of 1932, aboard the deck of the S. S. Orizaba, off the coast of Florida, Crane apparently leaped to his death.
Crane’s first book of poetry, White Buildings, was published in 1926. The book represented a wide range of range of works of obviously talented writing. Crane was imitating the work of a great many writers of time, including E. E. Cummings, Jean Toomer, and William Carlos Williams, as well as T. S. Eliot in his longer work.
Some critics see his major work to be the symbolically unified paean to New York and to the modern experience represented in The Bridge of 1930. Others, including this editor, prefer the shorter poems, often described as the “Key West” poems he wrote from 1927 to 1931, published in The Collected Poems after his death.
BOOKS OF POETRY
White Buildings (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926); The Bridge (New York: Horace Liveright, 1930); The Collected Poems, ed. by Waldo Frank (New York: Liveright, 1933); Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose, ed. by Brom Weber (New York: Liveright, 1966); The Poems of Hart Crane, ed. by Marc Simon (New York: Liveright, 1986; new edition, 2000)
The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door.
Gnats toss in the shadow of a bottle,
And a roach spans a crevice in the floor.
Aesop, driven to pondering, found
Heaven with the tortoise and the hare;
Fox brush and sow ear top his grave
And mingling incantations on the air.
The black man, forlorn in the cellar,
Wanders in some mid-kingdom, dark, that lies,
Between his tambourine, stuck on the wall,
And, in Africa, a carcass quick with flies.
(1921 / from White Buildings, 1926)
Copyright (c) 1921 by Hart Crane.
“OUT OF THE SQUARE, THE CIRCLE”: VISION IN NIGHTMARE
by Douglas Messerli
Hart Crane Complete Poems of Hart Crane (New York: Liveright, 1989)
In his letter of August 23, 1926, Hart Crane wrote Waldo Frank that he had almost completed “The Tunnel” section of The Bridge, and asked him if he had noted “how throughout the poem motives and situations recur—under modifications of environment, etc? The organic substances of the poem are holding a great many surprises for me,” he concluded (The Letters of Hart Crane, pp 274-275).
That Crane should have been so acutely aware of the organic unity of The Bridge at a time when he was writing “The Tunnel,” the section which Yvor Winters asserted demonstrated clearly Crane’s inability to construct a unified myth in The Bridge (Winters, In Defense of Reason, pp 577-603), is noteworthy, and presents discrepancies which cannot simply be passed over. For while it may be easy to ignore Winters’ general criticism of The Bridge because it was merely a cover for his attacks on Whitman and Emerson, his specific criticisms of “The Tunnel” are more problematic. Winters believed that “The Tunnel” reflected a despair which arose because Crane had accepted the Whitmanian vision without perceiving its fallacies. The despair was, thus, personal: “It is as if the facts of Crane’s life had suddenly and for a moment rebelled against his faith” (IDF, 596). Accordingly, “The Tunnel,” because it was a personal “impression” of despair, was unjustified by the Whitmanian optimism of the poet, and therefore was disconnected structurally from the rest of the poem.*
Winter’s argument was rather well taken. There is a great deal of evidence to show that Crane was in a state of despair in the months preceding the unprecedented period of creative activity of August 1926 in which he wrote “The Tunnel.” And that that despair came about because of a loss of faith in a vision akin to Whitman’s, is almost certain. There is little doubt, moreover, that this personal despair was related to themes which “The Tunnel” was to explore. On June 20, 1926, Crane wrote Frank:
Emotionally I should like to write The Bridge; intellectually judged
the whole theme and project seems more and more absurd. A fear
of personal impotence in this matter wouldn’t affect me half so
much as the convictions that arise from other sources…. The form
of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present
with its worth and vision that I’m at a loss to explain my delusion that
there exist any real links between the past and a future destiny worthy
of it. (Letters, p. 261)
It does not necessarily follow that because the despair was personal it was unjustified by what Winters called the Whitmanian theme, or that it contributed to the disunity of the work. Indeed, critics since Winters are argued quite the opposite. As early as 1948 Brom Weber suggested that “The Tunnel” was one of Crane’s most successfully integrated pieces, and critics since Weber** have worked from this premise, all of them pointing to “The Tunnel’s” interrelationship with the other sections of The Bridge. Most of their evidence for the existence of these interrelationships is based on what together they see to be at least three patterns: a structural pattern in which “The Tunnel” can be seen as the direct inverse of “Atlantis,” an imagistic pattern in which images of the other sections of The Bridge can be seen to be repeated in “The Tunnel” but are inverted, and a thematic pattern in which the experience of “The Tunnel” can be interpreted as serving as a “harrowing of Hell” or a purgatory which permits the poet to ascend in “Atlantis” to his prophetic vision. Understandably, these critics have come to their conclusions through analyses of The Bridge, and, accordingly, they have focused their essays upon Crane rather than arguing against Winters. But in so doing they have unknowingly helped to confirm Winters’ final evaluation of “The Tunnel” rather than refuting it, and in the end they have weakened their own theses.
For in each of these three patterns “The Tunnel” is still perceived as a presentation of an experience which stands in opposition to and/or apart from the experience of which the Bridge serves as symbol. This was exactly Winters’ criticism. If the tunnel (or the subway) portrays only the despair and nightmare quality of present-day America, what does it have to do with the mythical experience achieved in “The Dance,” or with Crane’s visionary hope for myth in America’s future presented in “Atlantis”? To suggest, therefore, that the tunnel is a “metropolitan hell” to the “beatific vision” of the Bridge (Dembo), or to see the tunnel as “the absolute negation of the absolute good” (Leibowitz), only perpetuates the idea that “The Tunnel” speaks of something which is opposed to the Bridge, and which, consequently disunifies The Bridge as a whole. Even the attempt to link “The Tunnel” to the myth of The Bridge by interpreting the experience of the subway to be a purgatory through which the poet must pass in order to come to his vision (Paul), does little to refute Winters’ arguments, for while this interpretation does not claim that the tunnel is the antithesis of the Bridge, it portrays the tunnel still as something quite apart from it. If the tunnel is simply a purgatory, if it is only representative of the contemporary despair which the poet must suffer through in order to bring the mythic past into the future, then the past and future must be something entirely other than the present, and the present must logically be conceived as something separate from them, even it is not opposed. There is really no link in “The Tunnel,” then between past, present, and future; there is merely progression. And if that is true, “The Tunnel” presents a despair which, as Winters suggested, is not connected with the vision or the possibility of myth; as in Crane’s personal life it is a despair that can be eventually sloughed off and written about in a period of creative certainty. It is not inherent to the structure of the poem.
To agree with this would be to deny almost everything Crane was attempting to accomplish, and to admit that The Bridge was a complete failure. For to conceive of the past, present, and future merely as progression would be to deny any logical possibility of vision or hope for myth in The Bridge. If in “The Tunnel” Crane did not make the connections between “The Dance” and “Atlantis,” if he did not find the past in the present, and in the present find the future, then the myth of which he prophesizes in “Atlantis” is irrational; it can be spoken of only as a leap of faith. One of the “other sources” of despair which Crane described to Frank was most certainly his reading of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. In his letter of August 19, 1926 Crane admitted to Frank that he had read Spengler, and indeed, suggested that he had been reading The Decline of the West during the time of his despair. “I can now laugh,” Crane wrote Frank of Spengler, “But you know, alas, how little I could at the time” In the same letter Crane noted that he had begun the subway section of The Bridge. It would have been almost impossible, accordingly, for Crane not to perceive that just such an ordering of time into progression was one of the bases for Spengler’s belief that the Western world was in decline.***
Crane hardly needed Spengler, moreover, to make him aware of the problem. Just such concerns were at the heart of all of Crane’s poetry. As early as “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” Crane had noted the difficulty of bringing the past through the present in order to allow for vision:
Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?
As the letter of June 20th makes clear, at the time of The Bridge Crane was still asking this question, and had reached disillusionment in his search for “links” which would enable him to bring the past through the present to the future. But then suddenly at the end of July he was able to write. “I feel an absolute music in the air again,” he wrote Frank on July 24th. Either the writing that followed was merely an expression of that previous despair—which was Winters’ assertion—or Crane felt that he had found the “links.”
“The Tunnel,” I suggest, is both an expression of the despair and the new found “links.” This simultaneity was made possible by the fruition in Crane’s mind of a philosophical viewpoint which he had been working toward, especially in “Faustus and Helen,” but which had not fully made itself clear until he read Spengler. That reading crystallized for Crane a notion of time closely aligned to the writings of Henri Bergson which brought him to realize that, since time is not a progression, the past cannot be brought through the present, but must be found within it. Crane came to understand that time is inseparable from individual consciousness, that time is life itself moving forward in constant flux. To speak of a “past” or a “Future” separate from the present, accordingly, is to put them into space which is to make them dead. The only way one can conceive of a “past” is through memory in the present, and similarly, the only way one can conceive of a “future” is through vision brought about by memory and expressed by the ethical élan—the moral drive which flows with the present. Crane perceived finally that it is only when these two are conjoined that myth can occur and time and space can be transcended.
Crane had already begun to sense all this in a letter of June 20th, at the height of his despair:
The validity of a work of art is situated in contemporary reality
to the extent that the artist must honestly anticipate the realize-
tion of his vision in “action”…. The darkness is part of his
business. (Letters, p. 260).
And in two months time he had come to the full realization. In the same letter to Frank in which he mentioned having read Spengler, Crane wrote:
To handle the beautiful skeins of the myth of America—to realize
suddenly, as I seem to, how much of the past is living under only
slightly altered forms, even in machinery and such-like, is extremely
exiting. So I’m having the time of my life, just now, anyway. (Letters, p. 274)
In reading “The Tunnel,” then, one must not merely be content to interpret it as a presentation of contemporary despair, as a despair which is antithetical to the vision of “Atlantis,” or even as a despair which is necessary in order to come to the vision which promises myth. For the vision must be generated in the despair; the vision must exist in the present. The “links” must be sought out in “The Tunnel,” accordingly, as well as the inverted images. The reader must search with the poet in “The Tunnel” for images which stimulate his or her memory and permit him/her a moral vision. The vision must exist within the nightmare or the myth cannot be promised in the final section of The Bridge.
This idea of simultaneity is evidenced in the first few lines of “The Tunnel.” “Performances, assortments, résumés,” is clearly the informing image, for it represents the substance of the poem and depicts what Crane makes know is “the reader’s descent through Manhattan from the performances of the theater district near Times Square to the assortments of the garment district to the résumés of Wall Street toward the Brooklyn Bridge and home. The reader, however, is immediately aware of what seems to be a paradox, namely that be descending he can ascend. By moving downtown on the journey toward the Bridge and home, he moves uptown; by descending from Times Square, he is ascending to Columbus Circle:
Up Times Square to Columbus Circle lights
Channel the congresses, nightly sessions,
Refractions of the thousand theaters, faces—
Mysterious kitchens…. You shall record them all.
It is no paradox for the astute reader. For like Columbus, who Crane portrayed in “Ave Maria” as returning home from his second voyage with new discoveries, the reader is returning home with the discoveries which Crane has shown him in the previous sections of the poem, most notably the discovery that myth occurs when space is brought into time-present through memory and the ethical élan, an experience symbolized in “The Dance” by the “serpent with the eagle in the boughs.” With that discovery in mind the reader easily perceives what Crane means when he suggests the journey of “The Tunnel” will be concerned with a descent which will end in ascent. By “repeating” the descent (a few lines later Crane notes that the descent is made “as usual”) the reader brings the past through memory into the present just as Columbus, in repeating the voyage, brought “back Cathay” to the old world. And that, in turn, will permit the reader a vision, will allow him to uncover the secret of the “mysterious kitchens”—the rooms where families share in the warm community over which mother-love presides—so that he can bring the future through the ethics into the present, just as Columbus, through his visionary faith, brought the reality of God into his present. Only when these two are conjoined will space be vanquished, will the myth occur, and will the poet-visionary be able to “lie to us.” Then only will he be able to re-express the actual in a symbolic language which is more real because it is myth. Crane’s images here, accordingly, are not at all paradoxical, for they represent what he hopes will be the ultimate reality of “The Tunnel,” that the movement from Times Square downtown in the subway will end uptown in Columbus Circle, that the descent of the reader into the nightmare world of the present will permit him through memory (through Times Square[d]) a vision of a moral order akin to Columbus’ (Columbus’ Circle) which will make possible the myth. Crane repeats this idea in purely geometric images a few lines later: “Out of the Square, the Circle burning bright—.”
The poet’s hope is that the journey will lead the reader to the circle of vision just as the lights “channel the congresses,” just as the lights serve to direct human encounters, or—the use the word “channel” in the context of jazz—just as the lights “bridge” the encounters. In the “Refractions of the thousand theaters, faces—“Crane suggests the potentiality of the circle of bringing together the faces of Americans throughout the Country’s space (from “the thousand theaters”) for the sharing of love (another meaning of “congress”) made possible by the bringing of the past and future into the present just as the refraction of light passes form one medium into a second. The fact that Crane symbolizes this moral vision by the image of the “kitchens” reinforces the idea of time without progression, for mother-love, in its unconditionality, is as eternal and continuing as is the present in flux.
But the reader still has the nightmare journey ahead of him. If the kitchens where the harmonious circle of love exists are to be searched out and found, he must first find the past in the present; he must descend into the hellish tunnel which is also a “channel” which will transverse under the Bridge.**** The “nightly sessions,” the “refractions” of the “thousand theaters” and faces are yet a confusing collage of human and mechanical surfaces in a world where human lives are defined by theatrical and business terms (“performances, assortments, résumés”) and where moral élan is nonexistent because love, based upon appearances (“faces”) is defined by sexual encounters (“congresses”). The reader is still at Times Square in the vicinity of Hell’s Kitchen (that area west of Times Square notorious for its crime rate) which suggests that the kitchens of his vision may remain “mysterious” if he, who as voyager is yet a stranger and exile, cannot in the present find entrance to them, or if the remembered smile of the mother which in “Van Winkle” was lost at the doorway, cannot be brought into the kitchens of the present. The reader, nevertheless, makes the descent with hope, knowing that with Crane as his guide he will seek the possibilities, he will “search them all.”
In the next two lines this hope is further developed:
Someday by heart you’ll learn each famous sight
And watch the curtain lift in hell’s despite;
Perhaps through the experience of the nightmare journey the reader will come to learn that it is only “by heart,” that it is only through memory and love that the perspective of myth (“each famous sight”) can be attained and the transcendent reality revealed (“the curtain lift[ed]”) both “despite” Hell and through suffering Hell’s malice.
The danger of the nightmare journey, however, is that the “heart” will remain profane, that the reader will learn only by rote instead of through memory, and will be left with only the notorious (“famous”) sights of the city and of contemporary despair rather than looking forward into the future with the vision expressed by belief. The reader may watch the curtain lift as Hell’s “insult,” making him only more aware of his position as a passive voyeur of what he may only be able to see as the meaningless performances of the poem.
It is this which Crane most fears:
You’ll find the garden in the third act dead
Finger your knees—and wish yourself in bed
With tabloid crime-sheets perched in easy sight.
Crane is here referring to the garden of early America which was shown to be dead in “Cutty Sark,” the third section of The Bridge, where time had become “frozen” in space, broken up into a progression reflected by the cutter ships’ attempts to outrun time in space. The above passage suggests that Crane fears that behind the lifted curtain the reader will see only the cold, sterile, arctic-like world which has end the age of the whaler in “Cutty Sark.” Crane fears that the reader may sit out the performance of the poem drumming his knees impatiently, wishing himself home safe in bed reading the crime-sheets “perched in easy sight” instead of personally and imaginatively becoming involved with the crimes of the fallen world.
With these fears in mind the reader is told that the journey must begin:
Then let you reach your hat
As usual, let you—also
to twelve upward leaving
a subscription praise
for what time slays.
As the reader walks downtown he is told to greet the twelve people who pass him going uptown, even though he must recognize that the bond of community which the greeting symbolizes can only be an empty mouthing (“a subscription praise”) since that bond has been destroyed by the idea of time in space. As R.W.B. Lewis points out, the “twelve upward leaving” are suggestive of the twelve apostles who, through their visionary love of Christ, transcended time, and to whose upward journey the reader, not having yet come to that vision, can give only verbal assent.
Moreover, these “twelve” will be associated later in the poem with the prisoners in Plato’s Myth of the Cave who, seeing only shadows, are unbound and led by the poet to the light. In the context of “The Tunnel” both of these groups of visionaries naturally move uptown toward Columbus Circle.
Crane is not certain, however, that the reader is yet committed to ride the subway, to enter “the Grapes of Wrath”:
Or can’t you quite make up your mind to ride;
A walk is better underneath the L a brisk
Ten blocks or so before? But you find yourself
Preparing penguin flexions of the arms,—
As usual you will meet the scuttle yawn:
The subway yawns the quickest promise home.
The cold winter, like the arctic winter of the whaler in “Cutty Sark,” decides it for the reader. Moving his arms like the flapping of a penguin to keep warm, he will meet the short run of the subway. He will abandon (“scuttle”) himself to space (the “yawn). And when he does so he is told to retire into his most minimal state of being in order to swim against the dehumanizing inversion of the communal kitchen that the “hiving swarms” represent. But within this first real confrontation with the nightmare world the possibility of vision resides. As Crane had previously written in an early and unpublished poetic attempt entitle “The Hive”—a poem in which he describes his heart as the “hive of the world” up whose “chasm-walls” “humanity pecks, claws, sobs and climbs—”:
And of all the sowing, and all the tear-tendering
And reaping, have mercy and love issued forth.
Mercy, white milk, and honey, gold love—
And I watch, and say, “These the anguish are worth.”
In “The Tunnel” this is brilliantly reexpressed in the image of the next line. I have already discussed the implications of the geometric forms: the vision of the harmonious circle of love comes out of memory, the squaring of the past and present. The circle, like Columbus Circle with its lights, is “burning bright”; the fire which throughout The Bridge is both vitalizer and destroyer, is here as alive as the burning pyre of “The Dance.” Behind that image, finally, lies yet another image suggested by the “fearful symmetry” of Blake’s “Tyger,” in which both nightmare and vision are again evoked.
The pattern of simultaneity is thus established. The reader must continue to recognize the potentialities of nightmare and vision in every image. In the very next line, for example, the reader is warned that he must avoid the whirling of the revolving doors at his right in order to sidestep the “hiving swarms” exiting the tunnel. But in that warning the reader must also realize that he must avoid the door if he is to remain committed to the experience of the tunnel, for its circular motion would perhaps return him to the street without him having made the descent. Although those who exit are “boxed alone for a second,” they eyes “take[ing] fright,” they are, nonetheless, exiting from the descent. And although their boxed condition which resembles a coffin frightens them, they shall be freed from the rectangle, just as the circle comes out of the square, by the circular motion of the door. Moreover, their fear is grounded in their
“unpreparedness” for rushing back into the light. Like the escaping prisoners of Plato’s Cave rushing to the light, they are yet blinded to it. It is only a temporary blinding, however, and eventually they will be able to look upon actuality (the present) rather than at shadows (time in progression). With that growing ability, they will ascend, like the “twelve upward leaving,” to Columbus Circle and the vision, and perhaps eventually will partake of the myth of the Bridge.
The reader, on the other hand, immediately finds himself below, pressing a coin into the slot of the turnstile, a coin which, like Rip’s nickel in “Van Winkle,” is the magic token of a society moving in space. Even at the entrance to this nightmare ride, however, Crane again suggests that vision may be found in the experience. For in its movement, the turnstile, like the revolving door, creates a circle. The gongs which “rattle” are, obviously, the bells of the subway signifying that the journey will begin; yet they are also reminiscent of the gong buoys described in “The Harbor Dawn” as “gongs in white surplices,” which reminds the reader that he will be passing under the river, that he will be moving in space beneath time. At the same time, the “rattle of the gongs” heightens the awareness of the reader that the experience of the subway, which occurs between walking and sleeping, may not be so very different from the “Harbor Dawn” experience which, occurring as it did between sleeping and waking, permitted Crane to find meaning in “signals dispersed in veils.” In this case the signals are fragmentary words overheard in the subway car:
“Let’s have a pencil Jimmy—living now
at Floral Park
Flatbush—on the fourth of July—
like a pigeon’s muddy dream—potatoes
to dig in the field—travlin the town—too—
night after night—the Culver line—the
girls all shaping up—it used to be—″
These fragmentary words are like the world from which they come, left in space without temporal context. The world Columbus discovered has fallen. It is a world of Floral Park, Flatbush. Its present day celebration is of the white settlers’ final procurement of the land (“the fourth of July”), but the dream of those settlers has been corrupted into a “pigeon’s muddy dream,” and the Indians and early settlers’ intimate relationship with the soil has been inverted to an image of tawdry rape of the land (“digging potatoes in a field.”) The iron that “dealt cleavage” carries shabby commercialism across the land, and the women of the land have substituted appearances for love. It is just the world which Crane, in the early lines of the section, feared that the reader would find.
Yet this fallen world also carries with it the idea of the past, however shallow, in “it used to be.” Floral Park may be a fallen world, but its name suggests that it may bloom again. The celebration of the Fourth of July at least hints of some sort of connection with the dream of the fore-fathers. The dream may be “muddy,” but it is a dream, nonetheless. The potatoes that are dug from the land are, one must remember, an inheritance from the Indians. Although Jimmy, in his travels as salesman cleaves the land in a commercial endeavor, he may be—like the tramps who in “The River” were aware of the cycle of seasons if not of the simultaneity of time—closer to the land than Larry, who with the whaler of “Cutty Sark” completely forsakes the land and loses all contact with time. Finally, the girls and their love my be “shaping up” spiritually; they may be evolving toward a new moral vision which will permit the myth.
One logically asks, however, are these “links” sufficient for vision? The answer is a difficult one, and Crane joins the reader, like the philosopher in Plato’s Cave, to help lead him out of the labyrinthine implications:
Our tongues recant like beater weather vanes.
This answer lives like verdigris, like hair
Beyond extinction, surcease of the bone;
And repetition freezes—“What
The words of those who make the connections contradict themselves. On one hand, the poet and reader may hear the voices in the subway “sing back” (“recant” from the original recantare and contare) to the past, indicating “like beaten weather vanes” that which from the past has survived the storm, that which still exists in the fallen present. But simultaneously the fragmentary conversation may be said to disavow (“recant”) the world of the past; the indicator by which poet and reader can know if the past exists in the present my be “beaten” and no longer of use. The answer, Crane insists, is of the future: “like verdigris” the components of the present culture must be exposed to time; the pattern of the culture will be recognizable only after the society’s death, like hair which grows after the death of the body; the answer will be knowable only when the bones of the culture cease to live. Even then, however, they may be no meaning found in the bones. Like “the dice of drowned men’s bones” in “Melville’s Tomb,” the bones may be uninterpretable, just like the hair which continues to grow after death without reason. The whole process of connecting the past with the present is shown to be nearly impossible. The poet and reader are, indeed, getting “weak on the links.” They continue, nevertheless, knowing that the journey is more than half over (it is “half past six” and the journey will end at midnight) as they “swing” on the straps of the subway, faced with the potentiality of either becoming informed (“swing[ing]”) with a vision of love, or of only swinging sexually.
Crane has hinted at something in his line “And repetition freezes…,” moreover, that is crucial to the rest of the journey because it regenerates hope. It does not matter, he suggests, that there is no answer to the question of the strength of the links, for he is not interested in repeating the past as the sentimentality of “it used to be” infers these 20th century riders are. To do so would be to conceive again of time in space, for it time can be repeated it must be conceived of as existing in progression, and, as we now will know, that freezes time. In contrast, Crane is interested in finding the past in the present, to repeat time by remembering it in the present. It is the process which is of more importance than the actual links.
The process is impossible, however, if there are no links. And in this nightmare tunnel where despair echoes over and over again resounding within the tunnels of the brain like phonographs continually rewound, there seems to be no links. Love has no meaning; its creative fire has been snuffed out as it glided over the wasteland of contemporary American society:
The phonographs of hades in the brain
Are tunnels that re-wind themselves, and love
A burnt match skating in a urinal—
Even in these images of despair, however, the possibility of vision exists. Crane has once again borrowed from his own previous poetic output, in this case images from “Faustus and Helen II”:
The siren of the springs of guilty song—
Let us take her on the incandescent wax
Striated with nuances, nervosities
That we are heir to: she is still so young
We cannot frown upon her as she smiles
Dipping there in this cultivated storm
Among slim skaters in the gardened skies.
In that earlier poem Crane had accepted the “siren of the springs of guilty song,” and in so doing had accepted man’s fall; despite the moral taintedness of the world (the striations of the phonograph), the song and its dance countered “the groans of death”; the “slim skaters” found their paradise in the “gardened skies.” In “The Tunnel,” however, the striations on “incandescent wax” have become a “hades in the brain”; the dance of “slim skaters” has been corrupted to the dance of the burnt match skating in the urinal. It is clear that Crane’s previous acceptance of man’s fallen condition and the hope for vision derived from that acceptance is not sufficient to answer the questions which now bring him face to face with meaninglessness. But the very fact that he can look back to that previous acceptance, the fact that he can recall the hope generated in the past, does give hope to the present in that his memory has been brought into present time. In that act the present fallen condition has redeemed just as Christ redeemed all of future mankind. The tunnels “re-wind” themselves; they turn back upon the past and allow for repetition. Love may be “A burnt match skaing in a urinal,” but the very fact that it is skating gives hope. As long as one can look back and compare he is not yet frozen.
The following scraps of conversation, moreover, give rise to the hope that the previous redemption will be made available to the twentieth century world of “The Tunnel.”
“But I want service in this office SERVICE
the show she cried a little afterwards but— ”
Although the words concern a society which abuses love by demanding sex (“service”) from an office worker as if she were an animal, the words also imply that “Cathedral Mary,” the office worker of “Virginia,” might “let down her golden hair,” and in her tears after the sexual encounter, give birth to a new redeemer for society.
In the voyage of “The Tunnel” it is Crane who must become the redeemer. Accordingly, the poet takes the place of the reader on the journey, and in so doing frees the reader from “the new presentiment of pain.” Like Christ, Crane will suffer alone the confrontation with evil. Suddenly, a ghastly vision of Poe arises before him:
Whose head is swinging from the swollen strap?
Whose body smokes along the bitten rails,
Bursts from a smoldering bundle far behind
In back forks of the chasms of the brain,—
Puffs from a riven stump far out behind
In interborough fissures of the mind…?
On one level Crane here creates a frighteningly hallucinatory set of images in which Poe, his severed head swinging from a balancing strap, becomes the subway car itself throwing off electrical sparks (“smoking”) as he/it travels along the rails which are worn from use (“bitten”). For Crane recognizes that Poe more than any other American writer continually explores the nightmare world which the journey through the tunnel repeats. Thus, Poe as the subway car “bursts” forward through the tunnel, propelled (“puffs”) from the “smoldering” of the electric arm (the “riven stump”) at the back of the cars behind (the “bundle far behind”). All of these images clearly express what Crane sees to be Poe’s (and by extension, the poet’s) commitment to face the questions of despair.
This very perception—Crane’s recollection of Poe and his work, a work which, in its creative fire, explored the bitter rails (“bitter” suggested here by the word “bitten”) of meaninglessness, a work which so intensely examined love and destruction, Crane’s recollection of all of this—makes him aware that at least he is not completely alone, that once again the questions which he now faces have been faced in the past. As with the recollections of past love expressed in the images from “Faustus and Helen,” Crane’s remembrance of Poe and his work shows him that repetition in memory helps one to see into the future. As Poe, who metaphorically is the subway car, moves forward in space, so too does Poe’s work move forward in time as memory in the chasms of Crane’s mind. The memory of Poet “smokes” along the corroded (“bitten”) rails of Crane’s own “interborough” tunnel system; from the “back forks” of Crane’s brain the intensity of Poet’s work (the “smoldering bundle”) left behind at his death, suddenly “bursts” forward, is impelled (“puffs”) from the chasms (“fissures”) of Crane’s mind.
Yet at first Crane does not understand why he calls up Poe in hallucination:
And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
The answer lies within the lines themselves. By describing Poe’s eyes as “agate lanterns” Crane again restates the idea that the tunnel is a world where one can find both meaninglessness and vision. In his previous exploration of the tunnel world Poe too must have found meaninglessness (his eyes may have been clouded over like the milky coloring of agate), but concomitantly his eyes give vision to the journey (like lanterns) through the dark. Perhaps the memory of Poe, in turn, will help to give vision to the twentieth century nightmare celebrated in “the toothpaste and the dandruff ads.” Poe’s vision may help to answer the questions of the culture’s survival and meaning without the “surcease of the bone” or the “riven stumps” of the “hair beyond extinction.” The ads above Poe’s head sell the products to cleanse the teeth and hair.
Still, the question remains, was Poe’s vision sufficient? Did he withstand the nightmare of his isolation?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?
Crane’s interpretation here of Poe might be first re-expressed by William Carlos Williams from his essay on Poe in In the American Grain, an essay which, Crane wrote to Waldo Frank, “puts Poe in the same position as I had symbolized for him in “The Tunnel.” The following passages from Williams’ essay are certainly among those Crane had in mind:
He [Poe] is an American, understandable by a simple
exercise of reason, a light in the morass—which must
appear eerie, even to himself, by force of terrific contrast,
an isolation that would naturally lead to drunkenness and
death, logically and simply—by despair, as the very final
evidence of a too fine seriousness and devotion. (In the
American Grain, p. 222)
It is especially in the poetry where “death is looked gigantical-
ly down” that the horror of the formless resistance which
opposed, maddened, destroyed him has forced its character
into the air, the wind, the blessed galleries of paradise, above
a morose, dead world, peopled by shadows and silence, and
despair—it is the compelling force of isolation. (IAG, p. 231)
Had he lived in a world where love throve, his poems might
have grown differently. But the living where he did, surrounded
as he was by the world and unreality, a formless “population”—
drifting and feeding—a huge terror possessed him
His passion for the refrain is like an echo from a hollow. It is
his own voice returning—. (IAG, p. 233)
All of these statements are reflected in Crane’s work. For Crane also Poe is the isolated visionary in a hostile world, a man whose constant exploration of death drove him to drunkenness and despair. But Crane ponders whether through that exploration perhaps Poe found the vision in the present, and thus was able to redeem the society. Crane’s questions, accordingly, echoing as they do the questions Blake addressed to Milton, are extremely suggestive, for with Poe’s help Crane, like Milton, hopes to find a “new Jerusalem” in a world that has fallen.
Noting that his fellow travelers stare with unseeing eyes through the windows of the subway car which is Poe’s body in Crane’s twentieth century hallucination, Crane asks Poe if the tyrannical (“riding” eyes of the “formless ‘population’” of Poe’s day, eyes also without vision (like “unwashed platters”), were riven through his side like the spears pierced the body of St. Sebastian (suggested earlier in “The Dance”). Crane asks Poe if he too suffered the martyrdom of the visionary, the torture often encountered by society’s redeemers.
Paraphrasing Poe’s “City in the Sea,” Crane suddenly makes a connection: Poe’s exploration of meaninglessness, his “probing” of death, is by Crane’s memory brought through Poe to Crane himself. Crane perceives that he must now face not only the questions of the strength of the links between past, present, and future, but that he must face death. In entering into the poem in the first person Crane must accept the duties of the visionary, of the martyred redeemer. And in facing death he must accept his own isolation, for each man is separated from other men by his own death. Inverting Poe’s “Never-more!” Crane cries out in despair, “O evermore!” At the same time, the reader recognizes that Crane is no longer looking towards the past, but at the specter of his own destiny, towards the future.
Crane makes clear what he has previously hinted at, namely that the process is more important than the answer in this nightmare journey. It is one thing to find poetic links which give rise to hope, but it is quite another to face one’s actual death. That is, however, precisely what Crane makes clear that the poet must do; as he wrote in the letter of June 20th, “the artist must honestly anticipate the realization of his vision in ‘action.’” If Poe through Crane’s memory is to serve as the link between past and the present, accordingly, then it is important to know if Poe was able to put his own poetic vision into actuality. Crane recalls the reported incidents around Poe’s death, that according to biographers such as G. W. Woodberry (whose The Life of Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most popular biographies of Poe of the time) Poe was supposedly “captured by an election gang, drugged, and made to vote in several places” (Woodberry, vol. ii, p. 342), and Crane wonders how Poe reacted when faced with his own death. Did he who explored the idea of death through his works, deny the ticket for the actualization of the tunnel experience by accepting the voting ticket? Or did Poe deny the voting ticket, accepting the commitment to his fellow men and putting into actuality a vision to which he had come in his writing? The answer, again, is unknowable.
The very questions Crane asks, however, reassert the importance of the process. For through his memory Crane is connected with Poe; the flux of the present is connected with the past. Crane’s fellow subway travelers “probe” with eyes (no longer like “unwashed platters”) that, looking through the window of the subway car (Poe’s body) look toward Crane. Even in their separateness, accordingly, Poe, Crane, and the subway riders—the past and the present—are interconnected. Crane reaffirms the Romantic vision expressed, for example in Emerson’s essay “Circles.”
The realizations that Crane has made effects his way of perceiving and prepares him for the actualization of death, for the “dive under the river” beyond time. He watches as those who will not take the dive with him return to the street:
The intent escalator lifts a serenade
Of shoes, umbrellas, each eye attending its shoe, then
Bolting outright somewhere above where streets
Burst suddenly in rain…. The gongs recur:
Again Crane presents the reader with a nightmare image wherein lies the possibility of vision. The exiting passengers have not yet been redeemed, for they have “denied the ticket” for the dive under the river. In Eliotic language Crane describes them as intently ascending with downcast eyes, “stilly” as if they were corpses. Yet, the escalator “lifts a serenade,” and once they have reached the top these corpses come alive as they “bolt” into the streets which “burst suddenly in the revolving door, or like the blinded prisoners leaving Plato’s cave, these new escapees undergo their own death before they are resurrected and baptized into a new life by the rain. Because they have not undergone the whole journey of the tunnel none of them speeds like the “bedlamite” of the “Proem” to the parapets of the Bridge—only he who sees out the journey of the tunnel will be lunatic enough to attempt that feat—but each of them is somehow redeemed, for by sharing part of the journey their vision has expanded. By descending they ascend. While “attending” to their shoes they ascend to rush into life again.
But for Crane “the gongs recur” as he prepares for the rest of the journey in which he searches for “the signals dispersed in veils.”
Thunder is galvothermic here below…. The car
Wheels off. The train rounds, bending to a scream,
Taking the final level for the dive
Under the river—
And somewhat emptier than before,
Demented, for a hitching second, humps; then
Lets go…. Toward corners of the floor
Newspapers wing, revolve and wing.
Black windows gargle signals through the roar.
The thunder of the storm which baptizes those passengers who have returned to the street is ineffective below ground. The only thunder in the tunnel is the sound of the electric impulses above the subway car which moves the train. The tunnel, one is reminded, is a world of “Elbows and lever, guard and hissing door,” a world which confounds man with machine. Just as the subway car has been previously associated with Poe’s body, it continues to be identified with human movements. As the train pushes forward for the final descent Crane notes that the car “wheels off,” that the train “rounds,” “bending to a scream,” that “demented for a hitching second,” it “humps” only to “let go.” All of these images evoke a nightmarish description of torture by wheel which the machine outwardly undergoes, paralleling the inward sufferings of the riders’ minds. For the riders the subway is the torturer which takes them beyond time by taking them into space.
The descent however is also the beginning the ascent. The elbow curves (suggesting the upward movement in contrast to the downward direction of “penguin flexions”), the car curves (“wheels”), the train “rounds,” takes a end, curves again (“hitches”), and humps. The circle is being created even in the dive.
Both train and passengers “let go,” giving themselves up to death to be born anew. And almost immediately, “Toward corners of the floor” of the subway car, now their coffin, “newspapers”—papers announcing the news of the present which will effect their personal destinies and the destiny of America—“wing, revolve and wing” like seagulls winging to the Bridge in “Proem,” seagulls who create a circle in space. The windows are still blank and the signals are still garbled (which Crane suggests by “gargle”), but there are signals of meaning coming out of the roar.
Crane looks for the first indications of possible vision in the “Wop washerwoman”:
And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?
He asks this descendent of Columbus if she, too, is returning home via the nightmare world. Perhaps she who obviously experienced the suffering connected with the images of bone and hair (she has “bandaged hair”), she who cleanses the urban world (“the gaunt sky-barracks”) knows the secret of the “mysterious kitchens,” knows how to love despite the separateness, and brings that vision expressed in “mother eyes and hands” back home to her children who through her love have “golden hair,” are made healthy and whole. Perhaps this “Wop washerwoman” is Cathedral Mary brought down into actuality to give vision to the nightmare.
Once again there is no definite answer. For Crane cannot answer anything; the reader must. In the following passage Crane restates what must by this time be evident, that nightmare and vision exist simultaneously; the ability to distinguish between them depends upon perception:
Daemon, demurring and eventful yawn!
Whose hideous laughter is a bellow mirth
—Or the muffled slaughter of a day in birth—
O cruelly to inoculate the brinking dawn
With antennae toward worlds that glow and sink;—
To spoon us out more liquid than the dime
Locution of the eldest star, and pack
The conscience navelled in the plunging wind,
Umbilical to call—and straightway die!
As the subway travels up out of its dive towards the “yawn” of the street entrance and morning, its movement hesitation (“demurring”) yet “eventful,” Crane repeats this idea o simultaneity: the experience of the chasm is both objectionable (suggested by “demurring”) and “eventful.” The “hideous” sound of the train’s whistle, the air rushing out of it like a “bellows” (its “laughter”) may be a signal of nothing more than itself, the mirth of Hell’s kitchen, of Vulcan’s furnace, or it may a signal of the potentiality of the fire, a sign of the rising sun of a new day as in Blake’s “Morning.” But actually it is both which the whistle sounds calls forth. As the train begins to rise it signifies the “slaughter” of a day, but in killing the new day, it gives birth to a new type of man. With its electric arms to give it energy (its “antennae”) the subway and its journey act as a sensor (again “antennae”) which allows its passengers to experience the city in the sea (“The worlds that glow and sink”) while yet protecting them for the potential of the future (the “antennae” metaphorically becomes a needle which “inoculates” the riders). Like A. E. Housman’s Mithridates who slowly accumulated poison in order avoid death by his enemies, the voyagers of the tunnel are “spooned out” the nightmare experience of the subway like castor oil, making them more healthy, permitting them a clarity of vision (“liquid”). In the experience of the tunnel they are made to see more than the vague expression of the old ideals (“The dim / Locution of the eldest star”). For by facing the nightmare, by looking towards their own deaths they must put their ideals into actuality. They must bring the past into the present through memory in order to give meaning to their own destinies. In so doing they show the possibility of vision for every man, for while every man’s death makes him separate, death is every man’s destiny. With the vision, the conscience which has previously lost its center of meaning (has been “navelled in the plunging wind”) is pulled back like the umbilical cord into the navel and packed into place as it is filled (‘packed”) with the perceptions of that vision. As the subway rides comes to an end, accordingly, as its human captives leave it and return to the street with the knowledge, the machine dies; space is vanquished.
For those who have made the connections and come to the perceptions, the journey through the tunnel provides the vision:
O caught like pennies beneath soot and steam,
Kiss of our agony thou gatherest;
Condensed, thou takes all—shrill ganglia
Impassioned with some song we fail to keep.
And yet, like Lazarus, to feel the slope,
The sod and billow breaking,—lifting ground,
—A sound of waters bending astride the sky
Unceasing with some Word that will not die…!
The journey has held “condensed” all of suffering, and has demanded complete involvement of Crane’s and the readers’ minds. Both have survived the “high-pitched” experience only because they have been “Impassioned” with hope for a vision. Like “pennies beneath the soot and steam,” however, something of value hopefully has been found in the tunnel; the vision has been recaptured, expressed in the “mother love” of the “Wop washerwoman.” Eternity, moreover, is condensed with the vision, as past, present, and future are gathered, making possible the myth. Like Lazarus being resurrected Crane moves up the slope of the subway’s rise, and as we moves through water and then soil again poet and reader return to the profane world, mythically rejoined to the sod of Pocahontas beside the billow of Columbus’ sea.
The sounds are again familiar, the scene outwardly calm. A tugboat chugs past the pier where Crane stands and moves off up the East River, leaving behind it darkness. Yet, in the tugboat’s movement there are echoes of the tunnel: the tugboat “wheezing wreaths of steam,” “lunges” past, blaring with a “galvanic” roar like the subway’s “galvothermic thunder.” The tugboat’s journey is also one which must pass through the nightmare world in search for vision or purpose, and like all such searches the meaning of the search, its vision, lies for the passengers in the journey itself. Somewhere, or wherever there is a voyager, the darkness itself will chisel out a pattern through which he can see the vision. As through the “blank windows” of the subway, he hopefully will see and hear “the gargle” of signals through the roar.
It is from this awareness that Crane draws for his belief in “Atlantis” that the Bridge can become myth:
And this thy harbor, O my City, I have driven under,
Tossed from the coil of ticking towers…. Tomorrow,
And to be…. Here by the River that is East—
Here at the waters’ edge the hands drop memory;
Shadowless in that abyss they unaccounting lie.
How far away the star has pooled the sea—
Or shall the hands be drawn away, to die?
Kiss of our agony Thou gatherest,
O Hand of Fire
As the Bridge itself was built (the coils which hold it up were tossed from the towers) so is Crane’s hope for myth constructed from the process of descending from the tower into the subway. In building The Bridge, in writing the poem Crane has crossed under where the Bridge now stands. Crane is back home in Brooklyn, but he awaits for the reader to cross the Bridge and join him, which means that the reader must comprehend the Bridge as myth. Crane recognizes how far the reader has had to imaginatively travel to reach that myth, and he fears for the reader’s future. Quoting short phrases from Shakespeare, Crane suggests the possibilities of the reader’s future, of a future, because it is conceived of as in progression, is without vision (“Tomorrow and tomorrow”) or of a future, in which death is recognized and life seen as moving in the present flux, is open to vision (“To be or not to be”). Crane is afraid that now he has dropped the reader’s hand (just as Whitman had dropped Crane’s hand before the poet entered time-present in “The Tunnel”) that the reader will be unable to cross and Bridge and come to a transcendent awareness. Again Crane calls up the “hand of fire,” the hand of Elohim, the hand which calls forth form out of chaos, and hope and faith are gathered together again. The poet perceives that as long as there is one believer the Word will not die, the myth will survive.
For the reader unable to comprehend the myth, the optimistic prophesy which follows in “Atlantis” will have little meaning. The experience of “The Tunnel” will be seen only as an encounter with despair, just as Crane feared. In that sense, “The Tunnel” is the most crucial section of his long poem, for it is not only its own proof, but proof that the Bridge can stand. Only if the reader recognizes the vision within the “The Tunnel” can The Bridge survive. If he cannot, if he perceives “The Tunnel” only as a Hell or a portrait of despair, or even a purgatory, then Crane’s poem is a Romantic anomaly, and Winters’ criticism were just.
Later, Crane himself would again lose faith. It is interesting to note that in “O Crib Isle,” one of the most despairing of his last poems, Crane was to find the island to be “Without a turnstile.”
*Winters writes: “…‘The Tunnel’ offers a kind of ugliness which is not justified by the Whitmanian theme and so cannot be treated in terms of theme. It was an ugliness which Crane experienced, in part as a result of his acceptance of the theme and the fallacies of the theme, but to treat it in these terms he would have had to understand the fallacies and what had happened to him as a result of them. He did not understand, and the poem is an assortment of impressions without meaning. He abandons the particular impressions in… “Atlantis,” but a few years later they or others like them destroyed him” (IDF, pp. 596-597).
**The critics I am concerned with are: L. S. Dembo, Hart Crane’s Sanskrit Charge: A Study of The Bridge (1960); Thomas a Vogler, “A New View of Hart Crane’s Bridge,” Sewanee Review (1965); R.W.B. Lewis, The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study (1967); Herbert A. Leibowitz, Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry (1968); and Sherman Paul, Hart’s Bridge (1972).
***Spengler especially discuses this problem in section II of the chapter entitled “The Problem of World-History.” Spengler insists that the spacialization of time destroys the realization that we ourselves are time; but putting time into space, time is destroyed and thus, man himself becomes spacialized, which is to destroy his perception. (Decline of the West, pp. 117-160)
****In his essay “Hart Crane’s Platonic Myth: The Brooklyn Bridge,” American Literature (March 1967), Joseph Arpad reports that when The Bridge was written the subway still transversed the Brooklyn Bridge.
College Park, Maryland, 1976
Reprinted from Four Decades of Poetry 1890-1930 [Canada], I, no. 3 (January 1977).
Copyright (c) 1976 by Douglas Messerli. No part of this work can be used without permission from the author.