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On "Voyages I"

Paul Sherman

Although "Voyages I" concerns the deception and hidden malice of a maternally guarded world, it begins directly and descriptively, seemingly without any hidden meaning, and lets us discover it. The scene of childhood play on the beach is bright and gay. The children are not playing in the water but "above" it—"Above the fresh ruffles of the surf": an image at once domestic but, on second reading, jeopardized by "surf" and by the fact that the "ruffles" easily translate into the "folds" of stanza two ("The waves fold thunder on the sand") and that their curtain-like character, while connoting an enclosed world, defines a boundary and hides things from view. The children, described as "urchins" … are in brightly striped bathing suits, though again it is the urchins, too, who are "bright" (and shining – "brilliant") and whose "stripes" may be due to the sun or to their play, "flay[ing] each other with sand." Children’s play is often cruel – that the poet is not sentimental about them strengthens his later claim on truth. …

Already they ask questions of the universe, or of the mother; at least the poet considers their "treble interjections" in that way. And they are "answer[ed]": by the sun that "beats lighting on the waves," an exact yet ominous deception of the sunlit sea, where "beats" recalls the final return to shore in "At Melville’s Tomb"; and by the sea, whose "waves fold thunder on the sand"; where again the accuracy of image. Sound and cadence includes the intimation of imperious force in the nature of things, the storm that thunder and lightning portend.

Now the fact that all along the poet has been speaking is emphasized by his wish, at the end of stanza two, to speak to the children, to tell them what he knows, to guard their innocence with his experience, a thing he urgently wishes to do – the urgency powerfully transforms the poem – because he knows that, being innocently trusting, they cannot hear (understand) him, or for that matter the sun and the waves. They belong to the scene he describes, his very distance from it marking his own experience; and the scene, which for many of us at first may have been only one of childhood play, mediated by our own sentiment of childhood, now provides the evidence for the poet’s warning. In his injunction to them he initially describes the scene in just such terms ("O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog, / Fondle your shells and sticks"), and even as we become aware of the irony in "brilliant" we remember the happy boyhood world of "Sunday Morning Apples" – and now begin to see how much someone like Crane needed [artist William] Sommers [, whose buoyant visual art is celebrated in "Sunday Morning Apples"] to reassure him about nature’s "purposes." But the shells and sticks, as the subsequent phrase insists, are "bleached / By time and the elements"; like the "fragments of baked weed" in stanza one, they are tokens of death. And so he verifies his truth: that the universe, even that of childhood, being in time and of the elements (and being elemental), is not to be trusted. Childhood doesn’t last. Yet – cruel paradox – do not cross the line to experience ("but there is a line / You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it"); do not go to sea, as Melville said, do not push off from the vernal isle; and do not "ever trust beyond it" – trust to beyond it. For the sea is a cruel mother, at once too possessive and indifferent ("Too lichen faithful from too wide a breast"). The love she offers is superficial and deceptive. A bottom, in its depths, in its very nature, the sea is cruel. This is the certain truth of the final line, a single declarative sentence: "The bottom of the sea is cruel."

This is not an exceptional truth about experience. Were it not for the maternal imagery, and the poet’s bitter conviction, we would consider it shortly as a truism. The children will learn it because they will grow up; "Spry cordage of your bodies" suggests that they are already at sea or intended for it. Being in time, they cannot protect their innocence. No, what the poet really wants to say is the burden of his own growing up and of his greatest love, which is why it is fitting to begin "Voyages" [the sequence] with it: Do not trust love, not even a mother’s love. It is a counsel he hasn’t followed and isn’t about to follow. He speaks here as a disillusioned voyager, one who, trusting, had gone beyond the securities of childhood; and now he knows that love is not to be counted on, is dangerous and death-dealing. Still, the voyage beyond limits is one he will continue to make because the very love he has been denied urges him to it.

For Crane the voyage is explicitly connected with love and whether because his love is homosexual or oedipal or inordinately demanding, figures as a transgression, a going beyond limits in the metaphysical sense of attacking or searching out the nature of things. Crane refused to follow the wisdom of the poem – that "there are," as [Herbert] Leibowitz says [in Hart Crane: An Introduction (New York: Columbia U P, 1968), p. 82], "boundaries to the exploration of self and experience …" Perhaps he did not know when he spoke of the poem as a poster, a "skull & cross bones insignia," that he was flying his flag of piracy. Joseph Warren Beach reads the poem as a warning against homosexual love [in "Hart Crane and Moby Dick," Western Review 20 (Spring 1956), p. 187], but it may also be read as a declaration of it. The subsequent voyage, enacted within the maternal sovereignty and presence, and apparently with approval, may repay the betraying mother with betrayal.

From Sherman Paul, "And Gradually White Buildings Answer Day," Chapter 3 in Hart’s Bridge (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1972), 139-142

Warner Berthoff

"Voyages I" opens with attractive simplicity … – clear images, straightforward syntax, neatly end-stopped lines, with the spondees that conclude the third and fourth lines contributing a fine prosodic emphasis. Expectably, though, matters are not as casual as they look, or as they sound. "Ruffles," with its double connotation of lacy edge and subdued drumbeat (both senses immediately appropriate), introduces an energetic succession of markers – flay, conquest, crumble, digging and scattering – that move us on in the next stanza to the answering sublimity of the beach scene’s immense backdrop …

The poet-speaker’s friendly warning in the concluding stanzas – beautiful and beckoning as the sea’s wide breast may be, one must keep one’s distance from its enormous caress – seems less an expression of disillusionment and "bitter conviction" than the kind of hyperbolic admonition childhood excitements routinely elicit from observing grownups. Good humor as an element in Crane’s verse rhetoric is too commonly overlooked, though perhaps only the exquisite image of the children’s limber bodies as "spry cordage" (added to the original draft before its first publication and expertly placed as an opening spondee within this stanza’s tight run of enjambed lines) keeps this particular change of voice from self-parody. Crane may well have originally intended something independently conclusive by the gnomic statement closing "Voyages I," a line he recommended to Gorham Munson as operating "like a skull & cross-bones insignia" ([letter of ] Ausgust 28{?], 1922). Three years later, operating instead as a step in an expanding series, the line reaches beyond itself to set off the calculated magnificence of the poem that immediately follows, and follows (as the opening dash tells us) without pause or break.

From Warner Berthoff, Hart Crane: A Re-introduction (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1989) 77-78)

Eric Selinger

Crane is, in many ways, the perfect reader Whitman imagines in "Calamus": his "My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman – / so –," forms the most longed-for response to the older poet’s call. …

…"Voyages I" sets its scene on a Whitmanian "marge," with the poet watching and describing from below the water-line. …

[Selinger quotes the last seven lines.] … The sexual import of the children’s games is naturally emphasized by the off-shore speaker; the sea that figures as "the Eros of sexuality and the textuality of Eros" [in phrases by Lee Edelman] shapes and sharpens his gaze. And Crane’s strategic enjambments force the reader – there is an element of trickery involved – to overstep boundaries, to take unpredicted leaps of poetic faith and join him. The "shells and sticks" have been "bleached" into Whitmanian "debris" – but we notice and activate their erotic charge. "there is a line / You must not cross" – but we’ve just crossed it – "not ever trust beyond it" – trust what? Is that trust a transitive verb, then? – " / Spry cordage of your bodies …" and so on. Crane’s closing line, like Whitman’s Song of Myself, is self-descriptive, performative. "I stop somewhere waiting for you," the poet says, and the line’s been waiting there for us the whole time; likewise, "the bottom of the sea is cruel" we learn, just as we touch bottom at the end of the stanza, and the last word is "cruel" indeed.

From Eric Selinger, "When I’m Calling You: Reading, Romance and Rhetoric In and Around Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages,’ " Arizona Quarterly 47:4 )Winter 1991), 90, 91, 92

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