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On "The Mango Tree"

John Norton-Smith

… "Mango Tree probably reflects a memory of [Guillaume] Apollinaire’s charming:


shrubby bush
preparing itself
to blossom

From John Norton-Smith, A Reader’s Guide to "White Buildings," (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen P, 1993), 149.

First version as sent to Waldo Frank, 1926

Let them return, saying you blush for the great

Great-grandfather. It’s like Christmas.

When you sprouted Paradise a discard of chewing

gum took place. Up jug to musical hanging jug just

gay spiders yoked you first, – silking of shadows a

good sanitarium for owls.

First-plucked before and since the flood, old

hypnotisms wrench the creamy boughs. Leaves spatter

dawn from emerald cloud-sockets. Fat final prophets

with lean bandits crouch; the dusk is close

Under your noon,

Sun-heap whose

ripe lanterns gush history, recondite lightenings, irised.

M. D. Uroff

The first poem Crane wrote on [the Isle of Pines off Cuba in 1926) is "The Mango Tree," "a little unconscious calligramme," he called it. Convinced that the mango tree was the original apple tree of Eden, Crane gives the poem the shape of a tree as if it were to stand objectively for his location in paradise. "It’s all like Christmas," the poet says at the beginning, and as the eye reads down the shape, the tree is heaped with images of light until, in its gaudy decoration, it comes to resemble a trimmed Christmas tree. In its "silking of shadows," its "golden boughs," its leaves that "spatter dawn - from emerald cloud-sprockets," its "ripe apple-lanterns" and "recondite lightning / irised," the tree becomes a "Sun-heap" where "dusk is close." Yet this brightness has been yoked ands plucked and wrenched, and even as the poet commemorates its light, people are arriving with baskets to pick its fruits, and "Fat final prophets with / lean bandits crouch" under it. The poem is a visual and verbal trick; words pile on words senselessly. Although the tree blushes, sprouts, and spatters, it remains a static image, there to be observed from its crown to its roots, even to be plucked, but to be ultimately unyielding.

… In "Quaker Hill" the subject again is the misuse of paradise, but there is no sense in that poem, as there in "The Mango Tree," of the natural luxuriance of paradise. "Quaker Hill" is simply cynical, and although there is a certain amount of cynicism in "The Mango Tree" ("When you sprouted Paradise a discard of chewing- / gum took place"), the cynicism works against a kind of lushness in the tree. The ideal, imaged in the "golden boughs" of the mango tree, has been wrenched by "old hypno- / tisms," "First-plucked before and since the Flood." Although its "riple apple-lanterns gush history," the mango is now only a tree, whose fruits are to be picked quickly and enjoyed. Its history is meaningless to the crowds that eat its fruit. The poet, like the fruit pickers, has plucked and wrenched the tree from its setting and transplanted it into words, and there it remains solidly a tree. Despite the old hypnotisms and the fat prophets and history itself, the tree does not yield its meaning to the poet."

From M. D. Uroff, Hart Crane: The Patterns of His Poetry (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1974), 161-162.

Melvin E. Lyon

Hart Crane mentions "The Mango Tree" in two letters written on May 22, 1926. In one he says, "I have just written a little unconscious callegramme on the mango tree. . . ." ; in the other, "I'm convinced that the Mango tree was the original Eden apple tree, being the first tree mentioned in history with any accuracy of denomination." As the first letter suggests, the poem does assume the form of a tree on the page. The passage in the second letter provides the key that unlocks the prose sense of the poem. In the first paragraph the narrator addresses the tree and tells it not to be unhappy that people returning to it demean it by claiming that their return makes it ashamed again of Eve's having plucked its fruit. After all, he implies, they return to do the same thing. He reassures the tree by saying (paradoxically, since Christmas, in orthodox terms, marked the beginning of fallen man's redemption from the Fall) that this return is like Christmas: it is a time of beginning again, a time of gifts, indeed, of the greatest of all gifts, the gift of love, the forbidden fruit itself.

In paragraph 2 there is another paradox: the speaker sees the tree as the source of Paradise rather than of its destruction, because in his view "Paradise" was not a state before the Fall but after, when man knew love. Such knowledge signified man's arrival at maturity, his discarding of his childhood (and therefore of "chewing-gum") : He tells the tree that it was first made use of ("yoked") by spiders ("gay" because they were enjoying Paradise) weaving their webs, "a musical hanging," associating harmony with love, which here is viewed as physical love ("jug . . . jug" is the Elizabethan euphemism used also by Eliot: "jug, jug to dirty ears"). The spiders' webs are seen as having turned the shadows of the tree to silk, which the speaker says make good underpants for owls, traditional symbol for wisdom. Silken underpants for wisdom suggests a (desirable) awakening of Wisdom's sexual parts.

In paragraph 3 the speaker says that the tree was first plucked by Eve; then, when God tried to start over again, after the Flood, it was plucked once more. Its golden boughs (alluding to the Aeneid—and/or to Frazer?)—signifying the love (gold symbolized love to Crane) and immortality which the tree offers—have been distorted by old ideas that often have hypnotized men into mistakenly believing it an evil tree. Actually its leaves bring "dawn," light, love (the tree's fruit). He sees these leaves surrounding the fruit as being like green "sprockets" which engage the clouds and make them revolve around the fruit: love makes the world go round. The last sentence of the paragraph refers back to the ideas which twist the tree's offer of love and immortality.

Two kinds of people threaten the tree and the love it proffers: satiated (and therefore "fat") eaters of the fruit, who have reformed and become prophets of doom ("final prophets"), and ascetic ("lean") non-eaters of the fruit. whose asceticism has made them desirous of violently robbing mankind of the tree. Their existence makes darkness and death an immediate threat even in the utmost brightness of life and love ("your noon") offered by the tree. The association of the tree with light reaches its climax as the speaker calls it a "sun-heap"—an embodiment of the divine light and love which are the source of existence. Its forbidden fruit is seen as containing the guiding ("lantern") light—love—which has been the primary motive of human life and therefore the prime creator of history. This light is "recondite" because it is spiritual in origin and influence, "lightnings" because it is so powerful, "irised" because the light is multicolored like the rainbow and, like it, suggests a promise of life (though again, as in the case of Christmas and Paradise, the Biblical allusion is used with an anti- Biblical meaning).

In the final paragraph the speaker addresses the men and women of all nationalities who are returning to the tree with baskets to collect this divine fruit and then suddenly breaks off to tell his girl friend to "come on" to the tree with him so that they get their share of love.

from "Crane's 'The Mango Tree.'" The Explicator 25.6, Item #48, February, 1967.

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