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On "The River"

Edward Brunner

[In 1927, when constructing "The River," Crane] has on hand seven, possibly eight quatrains originally composed in the summer of 1926 for "Calgary Express," and it now seems reasonable to employ them as the conclusion to "the River." "Calgary Express," formerly titled "John Brown," was to have taken place on a Pullman sleeper: "The main theme is the story of John Brown," Crane wrote, possibly in the spring of 1926, "which predominates over the interwoven ‘personal, biographical details’ as it runs through the mind of a Negro porter, shining shoes and humming to himself. In a way it takes in the whole racial history of America." …

All that is left of "Calgary Express" (and perhaps all that was ever written) appears as the last eight quatrains of "The River." Judging from that fragment, what can be told about the poem? In Crane’s explanatory outline, he had the porter meditating while "humming to himself." Presumably, toward the end of his poem, he was to break into a spiritual, a spiritual that would somehow unite the strands of the porter’s own "personal, biographical details" with the porter’s memory of John Brown. And in fact the quatrains that end "the River" are noteworthy for their stately rhythms and frequent rhymes as though they were intended to reproduce the sonority of a spiritual. The outline also mentions that the poem was to take in "the whole racial history of America," and these quatrains also allows for that possibility, though it requires some reconsideration before that is evident.

As the quatrains bear it (when viewed from the perspective of the unfinished "Calgary Express" rather than "The River"), the whole racial history of America is a history of thwarted progress. But what Crane offers as a critical view of the sorry relation between the races is tactfully (or perhaps shrewdly) masked by appearing in the guise of an innocent meditation on the course of the Mississippi River. Needless to say, the idea that the porter must speak ina code which only the initiated can hear, and which sounds like innocent chatter to everyone else, itself indicates Crane’s familiarity with certain aspects of living as a member of an oppressed minority. … On its surface, the fragment appears as innocent and even beguiling, in keeping with stereotyped ideas of porters – the waywardness of black folks, their musical talents, their belief in a Promised Land, and so forth.

The river, though, carries another tune, one right below its surface, a tune an alert. Sophisticated reader would quickly overhear. In that other tune, the porter begins by cautioning himself to submit to the quiet, subdued flow of the river. Though he is one of the "born pioneers in time’s despite, / Grimed tributaries to an ancient flow," he realizes that there is "no frontier" for him and advises himself to "drift in stillness, as from Jordan’s brow." Yet such a deliberate act of submission, the porter also recognizes, is a postponement of living, even a capitulation to despair. The river is slow because "loth to take more tribute," as though reluctant to bear more freight, swollen enough as it is with those who have already submitted to it. To give way to the manner of the river, to drift in stillness, is to learn that you have spent your dream and gained nothing. Your return downstream to the Southland indicates, then, your lack of progress:

The River, spreading, flows – and spends your dream.
What are you, lost within this tideless spell?
You are your father’s father, and the stream –
A liquid theme that floating niggers swell.

Superficially, this stanza is no more than a clever interpolation of stereotyped images: black folks are irresponsible, always spending the little they have, then wandering lost as their fathers had before them; fortunately, their talent for minstrelsy is sufficient to cheer them in their despondent state. From another angle, however, the stanza is bitterly blunt: the dream of progress, the promise of emancipation, is forgotten once one prostrates oneself, submitting to the muteness of the river, "sliding prone / Like one whose eyes were buried long ago." "You are your father’s father" then becomes a dolorous gauge of how little progress has occurred. And "nigger" is no longer a mere phrase from the vernacular: it retains its edge of contempt, for by submitting to it you become no more than a "floating nigger," a victim with no cause, no rights, no future.

Crane continues in this double vein, always from one angle simply describing the Mississippi River in terms of a spiritual, but from another angle revealing the angry bitterness of a race that has been displaced, its promises broken. … As this river gains momentum, then, it masses together because of these numbers of persons:

O quarrying passion, undertowed sunlight!
The basalt surface drags a jungle grace
Ochreous and lynx-barred in lengthening might;
Patience! And you shall reach the biding place!

Over DeSoto’s bones, the freighted floors
Throb past the City storied of three thrones.
Down two more turns the Mississippi pours
(Anon tall ironsides up from salt lagoons).

These stanzas reveal a whole new meaning to the initiated. Superficially, the lines are just what they have been praised for being by critics who have admired them because they seem a rare instance in which Crane is simply, if lushly, descriptive: they are not weighed down with thinking, they are simply exotic descriptions of the Mississippi with a few historical references tossed in for local color. A second look, though, discloses a host of multihued black, brown and sepia faces moving together in a "jungle grace." The "Ochreous and lynx-barred" colors are not simply a play of sunlight imagined below "The basalt surface": these are clues to identify the color of the faces as they assemble to move together. Sunlight is "undertowed" and the "Quarrying passion" is repressed; but the drawing-under and the repression have the effect of concentrating, of building with energy in a "lengthening might." When the river gains speed, disturbing the bones of that imperial conqueror DeSoto, disrupting "the City storied of three thrones" (with "thrones" an emblem of obedience), the sense is of a strengthening force no longer able to be constrained, literally heaving its way up out from within the oppressive weight of a long history of exploitation. (Perhaps Williams was correct when, after reading the passage, he felt that Crane had borrowed from his "Destruction of Tenochtitlan.") "Tall ironsides" – a warship – is ominously released from the mud, later ("Anon") to emerge on the surface.

The conclusion of the fragments is no less unsettling to those who can hear the note of prophecy in the porter’s apparently innocent descriptions. When the river reaches its terminus, its speed and strength enormously increased, it quite naturally rushes to break free of any constriction. "And flows within itself, heaps itself free" is, of course, a description of the river water backing up and spreading out across the delta.ut in the underground context of the poem, it is also the portrayal of a revolutionary urge to break free of constraint, to escape from bondage. "Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow / Tortured by history, its one will – flow!" From the porter’s perspective, this image of the river carries a distinct significance. Underneath his superficial air of subservience, beneath his guise of a harmless drifter who is bemused by spirituals and possesses a childlike innocence and waywardness, the black man fervently retains all his old dreams of emancipation. And he is still "Poised wholly" on a dream, and, though "Tortured" by a history of exploitation and repression, he has an unbroken will to be free. To suppress his dream only adds to its strength, increasing the likelihood that the moment must soon arrive when the bondage is too great to be endured. At the moment, the river meets "No embrace … but the stinging sea," and it spreads back as though it had met the master’s whip. But "The Passion" remains to spread outward, in ‘wide tongues, choked and slow."

From Edward Brunner, Splendid Failure: Hart Crane and the Making of "The Bridge" (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1985), 190-194.

M. D. Uroff

… The train that roars into the nighttime wilderness of America and carries the poet with it is on the same track as the locomotive that came whizzing and shrieking through Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844, to upset Hawthorne’s peaceful reveries; it is a descendant pf the iron horse whose car-rending neighs pierced the silence of Walden Pond; it is naturally of the same species as the snakelike machine that intrudes upon the unaxed campsite in "The Bear." But the extent to which Crane’s Twentieth Century Limited differs from these other trains is marked and suggests how Crane had absorbed the sensations of twentieth-century industrialized America.

In Crane’s consciousness there exists a certain sensorial correspondence between nature and the machine. He does not contrast the noisy. Whizzing train with a pastoral world of calm and silence; rather, the train’s frenzied speed has its counterpart in nature as the poet hears "Trains sounding the long blizzards out." The eye is not blinded by the real ugliness of nature; the elements themselves are not all sunshine and clear water. The grimiest train resembles the Mississippi River, described accurately as "Damp tonnage and alluvial march of days – / Nights turbid, vascular with silted shale." The mechanical and seemingly unnatural force of the machine finds its natural model in the ruthless flow of the river, which drags everything with it to its biding place as, in a curious combination of mechanical and organic metaphors, the "river’s freighted floors / Throb past the City." Crane does write of the "iron dealt cleavage" of the train, the destruction of nature by the machine. But it is also a reminder of the natural origin of the train, the iron taken from the "Iron Mountain," the iron-dealt cleavage of the mines which has become the train. Now "iron strides the dew – / Straddles the hill, a dance of wheel on wheel," and so the circle is closed as the iron returns to nature in a dance, a foretelling of as well as a contrast to the mythic dance of the Indian in the next section of The Bridge and another form of the harmonious "sapphire wheel" of Elohim from the earlier Columbus section. Crane here echoes Whitman’s address in "To a Locomotive in Winter":

Type of the modern – emblem of motion and power – pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

The remarkable fact about this section of The Bridge is that this particular train, the plushest conveyance of the glittering 1920s, leads the reader not away from nature into the great world of civilization but directly into the interior of the country and back in time to the "primal world of the Indian." The train in all its splendor does in fact fade into the landscape, and in one of the long poem’s several metamorphoses it becomes the Mississippi River.

The tramps whom the Twentieth Century Limited deposits along the banks of the Mississippi have been regarded as anti-industrial figures. "pastoral Charlie Chaplins." These childlike figures, uncorrupted by civilization, have a direct, sensual, and intuitive response to the land, which the Indian and the pioneer shared and which industrial man must recapture "Under a world of whistles, wires and steam." It is true that these hoboes have the "elemental gist," remember certain nature favors like "watermelon days" and the best place for "early trouting," and have touched "something like a key perhaps" in the continent. They can count time not measured by the "Keen instruments, strung to a vast precision" of scientific America; they are in tune with the freer movements of nature and measure "The river’s minute by the far brook’s year." In a sense, then, they are quite the opposite of the "Express" that "makes time like / SCIENCE" and the world that exists in a "telegraphic night." But these "humpty-dumpty clods" as Crane also describes them, are not the only people in modern America who know at first hand the time and the movement of the land. They share their awareness with two figures straight out of the machine age, the steamboat pilot and the Negro train porter, "Memphis Johnny, Steamboat Bill, Missouri Joe." The pilot and the porter as they merge into one person, an "ancient clown," lead the modern pioneer, the "Pullman breakfasters," to the special knowledge that nature bestows. Mn must move as far as he can on his modern contrivance to conquer space and time, and then he must harmonize his flight with the same powerful primitive force of nature which the steamboat captains as well as Columbus knew. Modern man must flee in the sense in the opposite direction from Columbus, away from the skill and control of "Sheriff, Brakeman and Authority" to the intimate knowledge that Columbus had from the beginning of the "ancient flow," the "quarrying passion," the "jungle grace," "this tideless spell" of nature, rampant, free and wild. The new "liquid theme" of flight will be a version of Columbus’s Te Deum, the Negro spiritual Deep River, in which is celebrated man’s flight from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from this world to the next. And in this case the deep river carries from the confusion of the present back through the steamboat era into the world of myth, where in "The Dance" that follows he comes to possess a sense fo the primal movement of life.

From M. D. Uroff, "The World in Flight," Chapter Four in Hart Crane: The Patterns of His Poetry (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1974), 128-131.

David Bromwich

The Waste Land and The Bridge were not assisted imaginatively by the encyclopedic ambition to which they owe their conspicuous efforts of structure. The miscellaneous texture of the poems is truer to their motives. A little more consistently than Eliot’s early poems, The Waste Land divides into two separate registers for the portrayal of the city, the first reductive and satirical, the second ecstatic and agonistic – the latter, in order to be released, often seeming to require the pressure of a quotation. At any moment a detail such as "The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring," may modulate to a style less easily placed:

O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr held
Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold.

Although the transitions of The Bridge are less clear-cut, part of Crane’s method lies in a pattern of allusions to The Waste Land. This plan had emerges as early as his letter of September 11, 1927, to Otto H. Kahn, and later, piece by piece, in the echoes he found of Phlebas and Phoenician, who "Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell, / And the profit and loss" – lines that haunted him already in "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen."

Let us turn to a kind of allusion more precisely dependent on context. Eliot in The Waste Land, himself looking back to Shakespeare’s Tempest, overhears a character in "The Fire Sermon" in an unexpected trance of thought,

While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.

Pondering these lines in "The River," Crane added to the Old World image of destiny the local accretions of a childhood in the American Midwest. The effect is a startling recovery and transformation:

My father’s cannery works I used to see
Rail-squatters ranged in nomad raillery.
The ancient men – wifeless or runaway
Hobo-trekkers that forever search
An empire wilderness of freight and rails.
Each seemed a child, like me, on a loose perch,
Holding to childhood like some termless play.
John, Jake, or Charley, hopping the slow freights
– Memphis to Tallahassee – riding the words,
Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods.

The allegory of both poets tells of a child set loose from his moorings, but discrete elements of erotic feeling are at work in the two passages. The poet’s distance from the allegory is widened by Eliot as far as possible. It is narrowed by Crane to an unembarrassed intimacy with the humble materials from which any cultural myth can be made.

The Bridge, like The Waste Land, is spoken by a man reluctant to conquer a landscape he imagines in the form of a woman, a landscape which itself has suffered the assault of earlier generations of men. The king of The Waste Land owns an inheritance that has shrunk to nothing. At its outer reach he is dimly conscious of the Thames maidens who "can connect / Nothing with nothing." The same intimation of despair is in the familiar landscape of the child Hart Crane as he watches the hobo-trekkers, but in The Bridge the possibility of connection is not despised:

They lurk across her, knowing her yonder breast
Snow-silvered, sumac-stained or smoky blue –
Is past the valley-sleepers, south or west.
– As I have trod the rumorous midnights, too.

The narrator of the last line is noticeably mortal, and idiosyncratic in what he confides, unlike the Tiresias of The Waste Land.

Tiresias was fated to endure sexual experience as a man and a woman, then punished with blindness by Hera for his report that women’s pleasure was greater. And in compensation, rewarded with the gift of prophecy by Zeus. His self-knowledge, as the poem presents it, is a version of all knowledge. "As I have trod the rumorous midnights, too" implies a more local and personal claim. It is possible that this narrator, too, has known experience in both sexes. If so he has evidently derived feelings of potency from both. And if the word rumorous is a further memory of Eliot – "aetherial rumors / Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus" – the roughs of the "empire wilderness of freight and rails" connect the memory with a different nostalgia.

The paths a single echo may suggest are a consequence of disparate conceptions of poetic authority. When the speaker of "The Fire Sermon" sits down and weeps "by the waters of Leman," he imagines a fraternity shared with the lamenter of Psalms, a kind of fellowship that is possible only across time. The rail-squatters "ranged in nomad raillery" speak of a casual traffic among the traditions of the living; and American folk songs, some of them named in "The River," are a reminder of the energy of such traditions. You make a world in art, Crane seems to have believed, out of fragments knowable as parts of the world. With his submission to the sundry data of life – a gesture unmixed with contempt – the speaker of "The River" admits a fact of his personal life, namely, that he has had a childhood: something (odd as it feels to say so) that cannot be said of the narrator of The Waste Land. Crane is able here to discover a pathos foreign to Eliot, even in a line,

Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods,

which itself has a strong foreshadowing in Eliot’s "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" (as also in "other withered stumps of time"). "Blind fists of nothing" implies an energy in purposeless action that Eliot withholds from all his characters. The defeats or casualties in The Bridge are accepted as defeats without being accounted final. Sex is the motive of this contrast, with Eliot’s plot steadily allying sexual completion and disgust – an event and a feeling that Crane may link incidentally, as he does in "National Winter Garden" and "The Tunnel," without implying that these show the working out of an invariable law.

From David Bromwich, "T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane," High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture, ed. Lucy McDiarmid (New York: Oxford U P, 1996), 54-57

Jared Gardner

With "The River," another intermediary bridge is constructed, here towards a recovery of racial identity. The roar of commercialism and technology, as embodied in the speeding Twentieth Century Limited, leaves in its tracks three black hobos, modern day stand-ins for Rip [Van Winkle in "Van Winkle," the preceding poem in this sequence], "wifeless or runaway." These men form an intermediate identification for the poet to pass through before he can achieve union with the Indian in the next section, as if he must first put on blackface in order to see red.

The hobos are "born pioneers," innocent possessors of an instinctual knowledge of the land, and Crane juxtaposes these men and their myths to the father who had punished the young poet for his desires [in "Van Winkle"]. By locating the hoboes "Beind / My father’s cannery works," they can offer a very different set of lessons from the father’s commercialism and the father’s whip:

Rail-squatters ranged in nomad raillery,
The ancient men – wifeless or runaway
Hobo-trekkers that forever search
An empire wilderness of freight and rails.
Each seemed a child, like me, on a loose perch,
Holding to childhood like some termless play.

These dispossessed men know the land "without name," they know Pocahontas without knowing "the myths of her fathers." As the missing link between modern America and Native America, the hobos know Pocahontas without the ability to recover the power of that bridge: "They know a body under the wide rain." The poet must first experience the land as they do, learn their myths ("Jesus! Oh I remember watermelon days," "There’s no place like Booneville though, Buddy … – For early trouting") hum "Deep River," and walk with them a while to learn all they can teach him of the true Pocahonats.

This section engages blacks as stepping-stones back to the pure race of the Indian. Crane referred to the hobos as "psychological ponies" that would "carry the reader across the country and back to the Mississippi," allowing him to "unlatch the door to the pure Indian world which opens out in ‘The Dance’ section." Identifying the black men as "Grimed tributaries to an ancient flow," the poet charts his progress through their ancillary knowledge towards the river which will carry him finally to the "pure Indian world" of Maquokeeta and "the Dance." Walking on their "backs," the poet empowers his recovery of the Indian for the homosexual American by employing the black as the unassimilable minority. Imagined as a dispossessed, drifting, and dying race, the sacrificed black serves as the poet’s vehicle back to the Indian in an especially horrific image:

The River, spreading, flows – and spends your dream.
What are you, lost within this tideless spell?
You are your father’s father, and the stream –
A liquid theme that floating niggers swell.

In his effort to establish a genealogical bond that would evade the biological one of father and mother, the poet seems to authorize racist violence in using the bodies of blacks, a race excluded from both Progressivist and nativist constructions of American identity, to propel his course back to the Indian in order that he might truly become his "father’s father."

from Jared Gardner, "’Our Native Clay’: Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in The Bridge," Arizona Quarterly 44:1 (March 1992), 37-38.

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