The Bridge – Hart Crane

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I dwell in Possibility
A ja:Lrer house than PrO!6.
More numerous of windows,
Superior oj doors.
AG R A R I A N America had a common culture, which
was both the fruit and the carrier of what I have called
elsewhere’ “the great tradition,.” 1 This tradition rose in
the Mediterranean world with the will of Egypt, Israel
and Greece, to recreate the individual and the group in
the image of values called divine. The same will established
Catholic Europe, and when it failed (producing nonethe·
less what came to he the national European cultures), the
great tradition survived. It survived in the Europe of
Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution. With the Puritans,
it was formally transplanted to the North American seahoard.
Roger Williams, Thomas Hooker, Jonathan Ed·
wards; later, in a more narrow sense, Jefferson, Madison,
Adams, carried on the great tradition, with the same tools,
on the same intellectual and economic terms, that had heen
hrought from Europe and that had failed in Europe. It
was transplanted, it was not transfigured. But before the
final defeat of its Puritan avatar-a defeat ensured by
2. The Re-discovery of America.
the disappearance of our agrarian economy, the great tradition
had borne fruit in two general forms. The first was
the ideological art of what Lewis Mumford calls the Golden
Day: a prophetic art of poets so diverse as Emerson,
Thoreau, Poe, whose vision was one of Possibility and
whose doom, since its premise was a disappearing world,
was to remain suspended in the thin air of aspiration. The
second was within the lives of the common people. Acceptance
of the ideal of the great tradition had its eft’ ect
upon their character; and this humbler achievement is
,recorded, perhaps finally, in the poems of Robert Frost.
Frost’s art, unlike Whitman’s or Melville’s, is one of Proba.
bility. It gives us not a vision, but persons. They are frustrate,
poor, often mad. They face grimly their resurgent
hills, knowing the failure of their lives to enact the beauty
of their great tradition. Yet their dwelling within it for
many generations, their acceptance of its will for their
own, has given them even in defeat a :6hre of strength, a
smoldering spark of victory; and it is this in the verse of
Frost that makes it poetry of a high order. ,
Frost’s record (North of Boston, 1914; Mountai11;
Interval, 1916) was already made when the United States
entered the War; and the War brought final ruin to the
American culture of “free” individuals living for the most
part on farms, whose beauty Frost recorded. The tradition
which had tempered the persons in Frost’s poems had
already, before the Civil War, sung its last high Word in
the old terms that ‘Were valid from Plato to Fichte. And
this too was fitting, for the Civil War prepared the doom
which the World War completed, of our agrarian classculture.
But the great tradition, unbroken from Hermes
Trismegistus and Moses, does not die. In a society transfigured
by new scientific and economic forces, it too must
be transfigured. The literature and philosophy of the past
hundred years reveal many efforts at this transfiguration:
in this common purpose, Marx and Nietzsche are brothers.
The poetry of Whitman was still founded on the substances
of the old order. The poetry of Hart Crane is a deliberate
continuance of the great tradition in terms of our
industrialised world.
If we bear in mind this purpose of Crane’s work, we
shall be better prepared to understand his methods, his
content, his obscurity. We shall, of course, not seek the
clear forms of a poet of Probability, like Frost. But we
shall, also, not too widely trust Crane’s kinship with the
poets of the Emersonian era, whose tradition he immediately
continues. They were all, like Crane, bards of Possi ..
bility rather than scribes of realisation. Yet they relied
upon inherited forms .•• forms emotional, ethical, social,
intellectual and religious, transplanted from Europe and
not too deliquescent for their uses. Whitman’s apocalypse’
rested on the politics of Jefferson and on the economics of
the physiocrats of France. Emerson was content with the
ideology of Plato and Buddha, his own class world not too
radically differing from theirs. Even Emily Dickinson
based her explosive doubts upon the permanent premise of
a sheltered private garden, to which such as she could
always meditatively retire. These conventional assumptions
gave to these poets an accessible and communicable form;
for we too have been nurtured on the words of that old
order. But in Crane, none of the ideal landmarks, none
of the formal securities, survive; therefore his language
problem-the poet’s need to :find words at once to create
and to communicate his vision-is acute. Crane, who began
to write while Frost was perfecting his story, lived, instinctively
at first, then with poignant awareness, in a world
whose cant outlines of person, class, creed, value–still
clear, however weak, in Emerson’s Boston, Whitman’s New
York, Poe’s Richmond-had dissolved. His vision was the
timeless One of all the seers, and it binds him to the
great tradition; but because of the time that Heshed him
and that he. needed, to substance his vision, he could not
employ traditional concretions. He began, naked and brave,
iri a cultural chaos; and his attempt, with sound materials,
to achieve poetic form, was ever close to chaos. What is
clear in Crane, besides the intensity and the traditionalism
of his creative will, is the impact of inchoate forces through
which he rose to utterance. Cities, machines, the warring
hungers of lonely and herded men, the passions released
from defeated loyalties, were ever near to overwhelm the
poet. To master them, he must form his Word unaided. In
his lack of valid terms to express his relationship with life,
Crane was a true culture-child; more completely than either
Emily Dickinson or Blake, he was a child of modern man.


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