On The Bridge

Yvor Winters (1930)

"The Progress of Hart Crane"

[This is an excerpt from the book review in Poetry to which Crane objected in his letter to Winters. It is a surprisingly impressionistic review, bearing marks of hasty composing. These excerpts are from the opening and concluding paragraphs. See above, Crane’s reply to Winters.]

It is necessary, before attempting to criticize Mr. Crane’s new book, to place it in the proper genre and to give as accurate an account as one is able of its theme. The book cannot be called an epic, in spite of its endeavor to create and embody a national myth, because it has no narrative framework and so lacks the formal unity of an epic. It is not didactic, because there is no logical exposition of ideas; neither Homer nor Dante will supply a standard of comparison. The structure we shall find is lyrical; but the poem is not a single lyric, it is rather a collection of lyrics on themes more or less related and loosely following out of each other. The model, in so far as there is one, is obviously Whitman, whom the author proclaims in this book as his master.

… These poems illustrate the dangers inherent in Mr. Crane’s almost blind faith in his moment-to-moment inspiration, the danger that the author may turn himself into a kind of stylistic automaton, the danger that he may develop a sentimental leniency toward his vices and become wholly their victim, instead of understanding them and eliminating them.

Mr. Crane is not alone in this danger; it is one of the greatest dangers of the entire body of anti-intellectualist literature of our time. It can be seen in Miss [Elizabeth] Roberts’ latest novel, The Great Medusa, a book in which the dangers potential in the style of her first two novels have become actual and almost smother a good plot. It can be seen in a good deal of the latest work of Mr. [James] Joyce, who, while revolutionizing the word, spends an appalling lot of detailed revolution telling us how little clouds commit suicide and the like. It can be seen, I regret above all to add, in the last three or four years’ work of Dr. [William Carlos] Williams, whose experiments in perpetual motion are becoming so repetitious as to appear very nearly mechanical or even static. Dr. Williams, though a writer of greater range and mastery, in all likelihood, than any of these others, is a bigot and is bound to be the victim of his own bigotry just as are the intellectual bigots whom he damns. Mr. [Robert] Frost, at the age of fifty-odd, can continue to grow amazingly. Mr. Joyce and Dr. Williams appear to be disintegrating in their forties, Miss Roberts and Mr. Crane in their thirties. …

It is possible that Mr. Crane may recover himself. In any event, he has given us, in his first book, several lyrics that one is tempted to call great, and in both books several charming minor lyrics and many magnificent fragments. And one thing he has demonstrated, the impossibility of getting anywhere with the Whitmanian inspiration. No writer of comparable ability has struggled with it before, and, with Mr. Crane’s wreckage in view, it seems highly unlikely that any writer of comparable genius will struggle with it again.

From Yvor Winter, "The Progress of Hart Crane," Poetry 36 (June 1930), 153, 164-65.

Cudworth Flint (1930)

"Metaphor in Contemporary Poetry"

[Flint’s piece was published at the same time as the review by Winters, but Crane never mentions it, and it is possible, though improbable, that he never knew of it (it is never mentioned in his published correspondence). The Symposium was a new intellectual journal, publishing twice a year, which was begun in 1930 – the Flint review is in its second issue – and which would end in 1934. The essay by Flint is perhaps the single most obscure piece of writing on Crane’s work, never reprinted in book form and omitted from the discussion of commentators. It is also, by any standard, the most thoughtful examination of Crane’s work written during Crane’s lifetime. It opens with a full report of the discussion of metaphor that Harriet Monroe had published in Poetry over "At Melville’s Tomb," it pauses over a complete poem from White Buildings ("Recitative"), and it cites Allen Tate’s "Death of Little Boys" before turning, in this excerpt, to question the usefulness of Benet’s parodies of Crane. Flint also proceeds to give an astute paraphrase of the sections of The Bridge, suggesting their interconnections, though the poem had been published only a few months before. Though he concludes the poem is a "failure," he carefully and thoughtfully qualifies that finding, in the last paragraphs, which are also excerpted here.]


… I wish by way of interlude to glance at the suspicions of those who think contemporary poetry of the sort discussed in this essay [Allen Tate’s "Death of Little Boys," Hart Crane’s "Recitative" and "At Melville’s Tomb"] to be either a deliberate hoax, or a product of unwitting self-deception. In either event, it is supposed that such poems can be manufactured in quantities by any versifier with a little technical skill and his tongue in his cheek. In the Saturday Review of Literature for March 10th, 1928, Mr. William Rose Benét made merry in this fashion at the expense of Mr. Hart Crane. Mr. Benet produced a few specimens of his own, dashed off light-heartedly within a few minutes, and asked his readers whether these were not quite as good as anything of Mr. Crane’s. Of these effusions, one was


Let us by apples be believed;
No rainy crow
Jangling a heaven sparked with light
Can murk the orchard more;
For apples now relate, remind,
Vertumnian …

The neighing night
Falls to flat peace, lays gold on gray;
The rose and violet shower …
And this is past.
Your eyes immediacies
Apples incredulous of heaven.

Another specimen:

Rhetorical Question

A dromedary dreams all neck
Peered round but patient wax impressed the die of steel …
Poised on a pin-point. Dark
Riddling said Paracelsus is the illusion yet
Magammon will not miss the way,
His house being bright.

It is of course possible that Mr. Benet was not serious in his criticism, yet this is the sort of test which is sometimes soberly proposed in proof of the insincerity of contemporary verse; and the specimens produced by Mr. Benet are at least as good as those usually produced in any such test. Comparison of them with the poems quoted in this essay shows, I think, how easy it is to single out the fakes. In the first place, the associations in Mr. Benet’s verses are evidently easy and trivial: "gold on gray" is quickly and rapidly followed by "rose and violet"; "peered" and "patient" suggest "poised on a pin-point" by mere alliteration; "riddling" suggests "Paracelsus" to anyone who ever tool a college course in nineteenth century poetry, and "Paracelsus" in turn leads with almost the weary inevitability of a text-book syllogism to "illusion" and "Magammon." Secondly, the triviality of Mr. Benet’s impulse has landed him in what seems to me an unintended pun – "neighing night." Punsters, one admits grudgingly, exist, but not among the Muses. Lastly, one of these spurious compositions – the second – establishes in the mind of the reader no sense of its direction, and the first one achieves such a sense only by a sudden unprepared repetition. If Mr. Benet was serious, his lack of skill has betrayed his convictions.

Poems obviously need not, like Mr. Tate’s ["Death of Little Boys"], originate in a perception of some object or event; they may result from an attempt to embody or illustrate some idea or system of ideas. In ages when the poet is sustained by a systematized theology or philosophy, accepted by the wholem society of which the poet is a member, poems of this sort have typically a logical organization, or else follow an allegorically narrative plan. But it is a characteristic of the present age that there is no such universally accepted foundation of ideas on which the poet may build. In consequence, the poet ambitious of presenting an articulate interpretation of life must construct his own system as he goes along. He might, of course, pursue his philosophizing and poetizing separately; he might compose philosophical treatises and in alternation with these, illustrate his ideas in verse. However, the image-making habit characteristic of the poet does not foster the habit of sustained abstract thought; few poets of any note have produced treatises on metaphysics. The poet prefers to do his thinking while he is creating his poetry. And poets nowadays often, as Mr. [Yvor] Winters has pointed out in his American Caravan essay, employ the psychological method in alternation with other methods when they are on the trail of a philosophy. Mr. Winters’ explanation of this fact is, as I make it out, that by following non-logical sequences of ideas poets stumble upon – or, from a different point of view, are unwittingly led to – conceptions immediately perceived to have philosophical significance. In other words, truth has grown so shy that it will not come out for any of the familiar repeated calls; it must be stalked. By use of the psychological method, the poet hopes to surprise it in its secretest retreats. And the history of thought – even of scientific thought – does furnish testimony to the worth of this method. The biographies of noted scientists show that generalizations popularly supposed to have been the product of experiment or deduction from experience, were really arrived at by flashes of imagination, and owed only their verification, not their birth, to methods characteristic of science.

Whether or no Mr. Hart Crane has actually arrived at any of his ideas through the psychological method, he is a good example of a poet who employs that method in poems based on abstract conceptions – a fact conspicuously illustrated in his notable recent poem, The Bridge. …[Flint paraphrases each section of the poem.]

This poem seems to me indubitably the work of a man of genius, and it contains passages of compact imagination and compelling rhythms. But its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails. And for a quite simple reason. The radical metaphor and the psychological method, which is really a string of such metaphors, by their particularity are adapted to the representation of unique objects or shades of feeling, and may as Mr. Winters suggests even on occasion be a source of single ideas. But any general theory – of America, life. God, or anything else – whgich is intended as a basis for thought and feeling in many different minds, must evidently be generalized so as to make it capable of adequate transplanting. Now, generalization necessitates formalization; form in ideas implies system; and a system requires a logical, rather than a merely associative, method of presentation, for system is logic. A system may be faulty, but it is then faulty logic; its faults, as well as its virtues, exist on the plane of logic. Particular metaphors and psychological sequences, expressing as they do identities peculiar to the individual, are ill adapted to furnish us with anything that can be seen as a system; they usually result at best in a vagrant route, and at worst in a jungle. In a poem such as The Bridge, therefore, however appropriate to certain passages the psychological method may be, either as furnishing metaphors for presenting details, or as a way of arriving at particular insights, when applied to the representation of Mr. Crane’s central body of ideas (or intuitions, or feelings; at any rate, they are intended to form a body, or organic system) the method breaks down. We feel behind the poem a definite intellectual structure trying to break through the imagery, but strangled in the attempt. Or better, the poem is a super-saturated solution, with ideas trembling on the verge of crystallization; but the needed shock does not come and the ideas remain fluidly elusive behind the symbolism.

… Must we conclude then that such modern features of technique as I have been discussing must, because of their inadequacy for the presentation of any large view of life, be regarded as steps in the wrong direction? … The chief malady of thought at the present day seems to arise from our exaggerated and warring sectionalisms in thought. The philosopher, no doubt, combines these partial insights, but he combines them into a structure, not into a vision; in other words, the unity he achieves is a unity the mind can inhabit, but hardly a unity the mind contains. The poet, striking out continually new and fresh metaphors, and striking them out, if he is a contemporary poet, with an awareness of the several specialized systems of metaphor which constitute our modern science, produces in the minds of attentive readers a flexibility which aids them to grasp more of reality in a single act of apprehension. Moreover, sometimes the very metaphors of the poet will be found to possess a sort of centrality; they have connections simultaneously with aspects of reality until then seemingly mutually exclusive. It may well be through paths of strange invention that we must pursue the end which ever eludes us as we approach it: "to see life steadily and see it whole.".

Forever Deity’s glittering Pledge, O Thou
Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns
To wrapt inceptions and beatitude, –

From "Metaphor in Contemporary Poetry," The Symposium I:3 (July 1930), 323-324, 334-335.

Gregory Woods

Hart Crane’s place in the Modernist pantheon is established by The Bridge. Not all of his work is so conspicuously proclaiming itself as modern. He learned from Pound and Eliot that the imperative ‘to make it new’ was no excuse for a deracinated free-for-all. Modernity looked to the future but depended on the past. Indeed, The Bridge itself, whatever else it may be, is largely a meditation on American history. This much is obvious.


Critics seem in disagreement on the extent of Crane’s debt to Imagism. Sure that he fits neatly among other clear debtors, Leslie Fiedler says that ‘all of the ambitious long poems of our time have been written under Pound’s guidance or inspired by his example. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for instance, and Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson: all of those fragmented, allusion-laden, imagistic portraits of an atomized world which have so offended the Philistine mind’. K. L. Goodwin, on the other hand, believes Crane was more obviously shaped by a later stage in Pound’s career. Goodwin says The Bridge is ‘ideogrammic’ but not ‘imagistic’: ‘The completed poem consists of large blocks of quite distinct material from which a common theme is intended to emerge; it is, that is to say, ideogrammic. Even within the larger divisions, the same technique of "montage" is applied, though there is a tendency to revert to a previous block of material for the purpose of summing up or of balance.’ With the exception, perhaps, of this last characteristic, the above statement would clearly be as applicable to the Cantos as to The Bridge. But Goodwin goes on: ‘Attention is never concentrated for long on a particular object, so that there are no outstanding examples of imagism in the poem.’ As proof, this last remark seems to rely on a mistaken definition of what Imagism ever sought to do. To ‘focus long’ is hardly compatible with the notion of the fleeting glimpse. I see no reason why we should not agree that the italicised lines in ‘The Harbour Dawn’, for instance, owe a heavy debt to Imagism [….]

Goodwin is right, of course, to draw attention to ideogrammic juxtaposition as a crucial structural procedure which Crane inherited from Pound, but the technique passed to him more fluently from T S Eliot.

Crane’s complicated indebtedness to The Waste Land is often abbreviated by hasty critics. A particularly compact version goes as follows: ‘The Waste Land continued to provoke discussion. The poet Hart Crane felt that he had to show up Eliot by writing a big poem about myths and modern life. But unlike The Waste Land his poetry would be romantic and optimistic. When The Bridge failed he killed himself.’ Some of the ingredients of this account are more positively expressed by Robert Martin: ‘His poetry might most accurately be called Romantic Modernism, for he resolved the clash of American Romanticism with European Modernism by turning Modernism into a tool with which to rediscover his own poetic heritage.’ Perhaps this is a major source of difference from Eliot: Crane believed his heritage could be not only rediscovered and reused, but rebuilt.

Crane’s main objection to The Waste Land was, indeed, that it was too pessimistic. All of his reactions to it repeat this charge. When he first read it he found it ‘good, of course, but so damned dead’. He wrote to Gorham Munson that he felt Eliot’s vision ignored ‘spiritual events and possibilities’. It quickly became clear, as a letter to Allen Tate shows, that Crane’s deep admiration for Eliot’s poem would cause problems in the writing of his own poetry, since he wanted to take part in the Modernist experiment that Eliot was shaping, and, as his reading began to follow Eliot’s recommendations, to take his own place in the English poetic tradition that Eliot had newly redefined, but he disapproved of the trend Eliot had set in modish pessimism. Crane wrote to Tate, ‘I … would like to leave a few of his "negations" behind’. The same point was repeated in many subsequent conversations with Tate. Most damningly, Hart Crane detected ‘a certain narcissism in the voluptuous melancholies of Eliot’. So much for Eliot’s much vaunted detachment.

So, while Crane was excited by The Waste Land as an experiment in strenuous modernity, he was unconvinced by its depressed view of the modern world. Perhaps one might say he was insufficiently enamoured of European culture to be as loftily pessimistic as Eliot. Crane, after all, still believed in America. The Waste Land’s depression, therefore, became a reference point to which the composition of The Bridge would always return, and from which it would purposefully veer. Crane’s poem confines its disgust to the debasement of urban physicality that we find in ‘The Tunnel’ and its portrayal of lost love as ‘a burnt match skating in a urinal’. This reference to ‘tearoom sex’ — or ‘cottaging’, as British slang would have it — is a pivotal moment in the text’s journey through underworlds both literal and figurative. The poem goes no lower than this line. It is not by accident that the line’s evocation of a debased sexuality from which all potentially uplifting emotion has been burnt off may well remind us of comparable moments in Eliot’s poem: the carbuncular clerk’s joyless collision with the typist, the lewd proposition of Mr Eugenides, the listless passivity of the conversation in the pub.

Once individuals appear in the modern world of The Bridge, they can seem just as numbed as Eliot’s personages. So, for all the poem’s hope, there is a good deal of logic in what Roy Harvey Pearce says of The Bridge: ‘Crane’s protagonists, taken all in all, reduce to the American as Prodigal: having wasted his patrimony; now trying somehow to restore it; unable to restore it until he returns to the home, the land, the myth, the language, which he has left behind. The patrimony is simply this: his spontaneous, fully-felt, all-powerful sense of his language as it reveals him as a person.’ By this reading, the poem is profoundly nostalgic, and its language is itself both the instrument and the object of that nostalgia. In these respects, the poem reinvokes the tendencies of its main model, The Waste Land; and it also, albeit perhaps inadvertently and only occasionally, reflects on the present with a negativism more characteristic of Eliot than of Crane.

From Woods, Gregory, "Hart Crane." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.

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