Hart Crane (1899-1932) was an American poet in the mystical tradition who attempted, through the visionary affirmations of his richly imagistic, metaphysically intense poetry, to counter the naturalistic despair of the 1920s.
Hart Crane was born on July 21, 1899, in Garrettsville, Ohio, the son of the successful Cleveland manufacture of "Crane's Chocolates," and was raised in Cleveland. He violently repudiated the business values of his father and attached himself to his more cultivated mother. Crane's life was permeated with severe psychic disturbances perhaps originating in this nearly classic Oedipal situation; he eventually became an avowed homosexual and a severe alcoholic.
In 1916 Crane went to New York, where he held odd jobs to support himself while writing poetry. Later he worked in several midwestern cities before returning to New York in the early 1920s to align himself with the literary avant-grade. Immersing himself in the study of his American literary ancestors, particularly Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, Crane also managed to become familiar with the experimental verse being published in the "little magazines" of the period and to read the latest works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
From 1925 until the end of his life Crane received financial assistance from the New York banker and art patron Otto Kahn. Thus he was able to prepare for publication his first volume of poetry, White Buildings (1926).
Earlier, in 1922, a reading of the Tertium Organum, written by the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky, had affected Crane profoundly, for it provided what seemed a cogent defense of Crane's own belief in the validity of mystical knowledge based on ecstasy and direct illumination. Ouspensky used Whitman as the chief example of a modern man possessed of mystic awareness, further enhancing Crane's interest in Whitman's poetry. This interest eventually resulted in Crane's most ambitious project, The Bridge (1930), a series of closely related long poems (inspired by Whitman's example) on the transcendent meaning of the United States, in which the Brooklyn Bridge symbolized the spiritual evolution of civilization. Crane attempted to build a metaphysical "bridge" between the individual and the race, the temporal and the eternal, and the physical and the transcendent.
The tortuous spiritual affirmations of Crane's poetry, with its illumination and exaltation, represented the positive side of an intense lifelong struggle against despair and self-disgust. On April 26, 1932, after a year in Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship, Crane committed suicide by leaping into the Gulf of Mexico from the ship that was returning him to the United States. Thus the poet united himself with the sea that had so often served him as symbol of both the universal creative life-force and the threat of annihilation.
Analysis of the Writings
Allen Tate's foreword to his friend's first volume, White Buildings, remains perhaps the best brief introduction to Crane's difficult and intense poetic vision. Tate wrote: "The poetry of Hart Crane is ambitious … It is an American poetry. Crane's themes are abstractly, metaphysically conceived, but they are definitely confined to an experience of the American scene. … Crane's poems are a fresh vision of the world, so intensely personalized in a new creative language that only the strictest and most unprepossessed effort of attention can take it in. … Melville and Whitman are his avowed masters. In his sea poems … there is something of Melville's intense, transcendental brooding on the mystery of the 'high interiors of the sea.' … Crane's poetry is a concentration of certain phases of the Whitman substance, the fragments of the myth."
The best of White Buildings, "Repose of Rivers" and most of the "Voyages," are conceivably the greatest mystical poems in America since early Whitman.
Crane's "General Aims and Theories" (1926) is a rather tortured attempt to explain the terms of his mystical "way up" toward illumination and discovery through the creative adventure of art: "It is my hope to go through the combined materials of the poem, using our 'real' world somewhat as a spring-board … Its evocation will not be toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an 'innocence' (Blake) or absolute beauty. In this condition there may be discoverable under new forms certain spiritual illuminations, shining with a morality essentialized from experience directly, and not from previous precepts or preconceptions. It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate …." [Crane's italics].
But the best illustrations of Crane's poetic aims are found in the poetry itself. These poems are notoriously difficult to paraphrase, precisely because, when Crane is most successful, the mystical experience "described" in the poetry is actually simulated for the reader in the actual reading of the poem itself. In "At Melville's Tomb" Crane moves toward the achievement of religious illuminations by what he termed the "logic of metaphor." Often, as in "The Broken Tower," a late poem, the avenue to mystic vision is paved with erotic images similar to those employed by Whitman.
Although "The Proem" to The Bridge is surely one of Crane's greatest achievements, the work as a whole is disappointing in comparison with the best of White Buildings. Attempting no less than an esthetic distillation of the "Myth of America" while plunging ever deeper into personal despair and doubt, psychic disturbance, and alcoholism, Crane was unable to realize his enormous intentions.
The intent of the book, which grew out of Crane's devotion to Whitman and his desire to refute the spiritual desolation of Eliot's Waste Land, was to provide a defense of mystical experience in the age of modern science. Ouspensky's scientifically learned book had provided Crane with an invaluable weapon in the struggle, but the indispensable ally was Whitman. At the center of The Bridge is the poem "Cape Hatteras," which Crane himself described as "a kind of ode to Whitman." Within it, Crane echoes several of Whitman's works. For both poets, science and technology do not destroy faith based on mystical awareness but enlarge and promote it.
But it was in "The Proem" that Crane had fully repaid his debt to Whitman. Affirmation and denial, dream and fact, in their paradoxical fusion and conflict, manage to incorporate both Whitman's vision and the materialistic temper of the 1920s that seemed to invalidate that vision. The parabolic curve of the actual bridge, which never closes in on itself, suggests the "inviolate curve" of the perfect circle of infinity and the upward movement of the spirit, while at the same time seeming to tend toward the finite closing of the arc in the intensely real steel girders of the span. The final line of the poem resolves its profound ambiguity in a plea for illumination which will "of the curveship lend a myth to God."
But Crane's attempt to demonstrate the possibility of spiritual experience in the modern wasteland through the creation of an "intrinsic," "secular" myth exacted a severe toll on the poet's already-strained psychological resources. Unable to trust completely in mystic intuitions derived largely secondhand from Whitman, and unsure of the validity of the supporting metaphysics supplied by Ouspensky but not fully corroborated in his own speculations, the poet sustained his fragile equilibrium mainly by strength of will. The excesses of Crane's personal life were probably as much the result of his tortured consciousness as of any purely clinical disorder. The failure of The Bridge to live up to its universal implications represented a collapse of will rather than a failure of the poet's art. The times were out of joint for the fulfillment of Crane's quest for transcendent certainty.
Although Crane published only two volumes of poetry in his brief career, he is regarded as one of the five or six greatest American poets of the 20th century. (Crane's Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose were published in New York in 1966.)
Further Reading on Hart Crane
The Letters of Hart Crane, 1916-1932, edited by Brom Weber (1952), is an invaluable source for the turbulent events of Crane's life. There are two excellent biographies of Crane: Philip Horton, Hart Crane: The Life of an American Poet (1937), and John Unterecker, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (1969), which introduces previously unpublished material. See also Brom Weber, Hart Crane: A Biographical and Critical Study (1948). A standard critical work is R. W. B. Lewis, The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study (1967).
Additional Biography Sources
Crane, Hart, Letters of Hart Crane and his famil, New York, Columbia University Press, 1974.
Crane, Hart, O my land, my friends: the selected letters of Hart Crane, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997.
Horton, Philip, Hart Crane: the life of an American poet, New York: Octagon Books, 1976, 1937.
Lindsay, Clarence B., Hart Crane, an introduction, Columbus: State Library of Ohio, 1979.
Unterecker, John Eugene, Voyager: a life of Hart Crane, New York: Liveright, 1987, 1969.