Hart Crane

If you were to write poetry to encapsulate the American experience, do you think it would be more pessimistic or optimistic? Why? 

Hart Crane Hart Crane

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    The modernist American poet, Hart Crane (1899‐1932), experienced many struggles in New York City, trying to make it as a poet amidst personal, financial, and relational struggles. However, rather than transferring the negativity within his own life into his representation of the city, he wrote poetry that depicted the reality, grit, and uniqueness of life in industrialized America with an air of optimism, strength, and opportunity.

    Hart Crane, New York City, StudySmarterFig. 1 Much of Hart Crane's poetry reflects the vast possibility of life in New York City.

    Hart Crane: Biography

    Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21, 1899, in Garrettsville, Ohio. He grew up in an upper-middle-class family, as his father was a businessman in the candy industry. Crane's parents had a very difficult, unstable relationship, which colored much of his life.

    Hart Crane's father was the inventor of Life Savers candy.

    Hart Crane was raised partially by his grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio. She had a vast library that inspired his literary tastes and love for reading at an early age. As a boy, Crane read the works of poets such as Robert Browning, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. As a teen, he read the works of Plato, Honore de Balzac, and Percy Bysshe Shelly. Much as Crane's education came from his vociferous personal reading habits.

    Due to the instability of his family, Hart Crane was often absent from school for extended periods of time. He dropped out of high school in his junior year and moved from Cleveland to New York City. Crane planned to attend Columbia University upon arriving in New York. However, he quickly abandoned that plan and threw himself into pursuing his passion for writing and literature.

    In Crane's time, you could just pass an entrance exam to get into a University.

    In New York City, Hart Crane became involved with numerous writers and explored different artists, art movements, and ideas. He associated with important American literary figures, including Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, E.E. Cummings, and Jean Toomer. During this time, he was greatly influenced by the poets and writers Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. Crane quickly found excitement and a greater sense of home in New York City.

    Hart Crane, Pedestrians in New York, StudySmarterFig. 2 The majority of Hart Crane's poetry is set in New York City, even though he was from Ohio and spent much of his life going back and forth between New York and Cleveland.

    Crane worked as an advertising copywriter and a factory worker at his father's company in New York while focusing on writing and publishing his poetry. He sold advertisements for the magazine Little Review, which highlighted Modernist writing by poets like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. He also became involved in a periodical called Seven Arts, which was dedicated to sharing traditional American literature, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost. Both the more traditional and Modernist writings represented by Little Review and Seven Arts exerted great influence on Crane's own poetry.

    Hart Crane as a Modernist Romantic Poet

    Hart Crane is often referred to as both a Modernist and Romantic poet. This is because he was greatly influenced by American Romantic poets such as Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Crane's poetry mixes traditional Romantic ideals of natural imagery and focus on the individual man's experience with the themes of modern life and industrialization. He wrote at a time when Modernism was at its peak and embraced a more experiential, Modernist approach to form, rhyme scheme, and meter in his poetry, while still paying homage to traditional forms.

    1917 was a significant year for Hart Crane. Around this time, his works were being published in the local literary journal, Pagan. These poems reflected his unique combination of both traditional and experimental forms. 1917 was also the year that Crane's mother and father divorced. His mother and grandmother came to live with him in his one-bedroom apartment in New York City; meanwhile, his father pressured him to find a suitable job.

    Though Crane's father was a successful businessman, he did not approve of his son's path as a poet. Crane sought escape from family troubles and pressures. He attempted to enlist in the U.S. army. However, he was rejected because he was only a minor. Crane left New York City and worked in a munitions plant until World War I ended in 1918.

    After the end of World War I, Hart Crane moved between Cleveland and New York City. He worked briefly as a reporter in Cleveland but then returned to New York. His father urged him to take on jobs within the business and shipping industry, and his mother constantly relied on him for emotional support. Crane's personal struggles and conflicts mounted, and he engaged in many relationships that ended in heartbreak.

    During the early 1920s, Hart Crane wrote many of the poems that would make up his first poetry book, White Buildings (1926), including "Chaplinesque" and "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen." Poems such as "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" showed a more triumphant view of post-World War I America in an age of industrialization.

    Unfortunately, Crane's personal life did not resemble this vision of triumph and positivity. His relationship with his father further broke down, his mother continued to depend on him for emotional support when he was not in a stable emotional state himself, and he took another job at an advertising agency in New York City that left him feeling purposeless. In the Fall of 1923, the poet was wracked with anxiety and escaped to Woodstock, New York, to enjoy the peace of nature and the company of a few good friends.

    When Crane returned to the city, he engaged in an intense relationship with a sailor named Emil Opffer, which inspired his sequence of love poems, "Voyages" (1933). In the mid-1920s, Crane focused on writing his most notable book-length poem, "The Bridge" (1930), which was a celebration of the American experience. "The Bridge" was written somewhat as a response to T.S. Eliot's poem, The Waste Land (1922), a modernist poem that expresses cynicism and lostness in the early 20th century.

    In the late 1920s, Crane's relationship with Emil Opffer was disintegrating. He turned to alcohol and sex for comfort, leading him further into depression and self-destruction. Around the same time, Crane had frequent conflicts with his mother, his grandmother died, and he reconciled with his father just before he died as well.

    The Bridge was published in 1930 and critics were dissatisfied with it. Crane took this to heart and it led him to further despair, seeking respite in unhealthy relationships and alcohol. He briefly lived in Paris and Mexico, but he accomplished little writing there.

    Hart Crane: Death and Legacy

    Hart Crane died on April 27, 1932, at the age of 32. He jumped overboard a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico on the way back to New York from Mexico. Crane had been with Peggy Baird, the wife of his friend. The two were having an affair, and Crane had been suffering from depression and mood swings. He had been drinking heavily before jumping off the ship and left no suicide note. His body was never found.

    Although critics did not highly praise Crane's work at the time of its publication, Crane was admired by many of his contemporaries, including Allen Tate, Eugene O'Neill, Kenneth Bure, Edmund Wilson, E.E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams. His long poem, The Bridge is now recognized for its uniqueness and is considered a seminal work of Modernist poetry.

    Modernism is an art movement that was prevalent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modernism aimed to depart from traditional art forms to create new art and philosophies that reflected the industrialized world, urbanization, new technology, and war. Famous modernist poets include T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

    Hart Crane: Collected Works

    Hart Crane only published two books of poetry during his lifetime:

    1. White Buildings (1926) is Crane's first collection of poetry, which consists of many modernist and lyrical poems he wrote in his early 20s. The book features the poems "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," "Voyages," "My Grandmother's Love Letters," and "Chaplinesque." White Buildings received mixed reviews. Crane was praised for his style, which evoked that of French Romantics such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. However, the subjects and meanings of his poems were hard to decipher.
    2. The Bridge (1930) is Hart Crane's first and only attempt at a long poem. The poem is made up of 15 lyric poems that vary in form, style, meter, and diction. However, they all center around the symbol of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Crane depicts different figures from American history, including Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas. The poet presents a positive image of his idea of the American experience, written in contrast to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

    A lyric poem is a short, songlike poem that expresses strong emotions.

    Crane's collected works were published a year after his death in a book called Collected Poems (1933). A more complete edition was published in 1966 called The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose. Aside from writing poetry, Hart Crane wrote numerous poignant and earnest letters to his family, friends, and famous acquaintances.

    John Unterecker wrote an 800-page biography of called Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane, which details the struggles of Crane's personal life, particularly his difficult family relationships, which are depicted through Crane's letters.

    Hart Crane: Poems

    Let's take a look at two of Hart Crane's most well-known poems, "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" (1926) and "The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge" (1930).

    While reading parts of Crane's poems, think about what strikes you about the language he uses. Can you identify any literary devices?

    "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" by Hart Crane

    Hart Crane's poem, "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" (1926), takes characters from an Elizabethan tragedy and places them in a modern American city. Crane's poem incorporates both lyric and narrative poetry to tell a story that transfers myths and legends to contemporary America. The poem is three parts and begins with a quote from a comedy called The Alchemist (1610) by Ben Jonson to remind readers of the possibility that magic can occur in unexpected places. Crane's poem seeks to dispel notions of cynicism toward the modern age by presenting the excitement of love in urban America:

    There is some way, I think, to touchThose hands of yours that count the nightsStippled with pink and green advertisements.And now, before its arteries turn darkI would have you meet this bartered blood.Imminent in his dream, none better knowsThe white wafer cheek of love, or offers wordsLightly as moonlight on the eaves meets snow." (2633)

    Who are Faustus and Helen?

    The poem tells the tale of Faustus and Helen. Faustus is the main character of Christorpher Marlowe's Elizabethan tragedy, Doctor Faustus (1604). In the play, Doctor Faustus is a renowned Renaissance doctor who is asked to summon Helen to save himself from a fate of impending doom. Helen is the beautiful daughter of Zeus, for whom the Trojan War was fought in Greek mythology.

    Why do you think Crane takes characters from different time periods and contexts and places them in urbanized America?

    "The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge" by Hart Crane

    Crane's poem, "The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge" (1930), is one of the poems that make up his notable book-length poem, The Bridge. "To Brooklyn Bridge" is an 11-stanza poem that presents the imagery of the Brooklyn Bridge during different parts of the day. The Bridge stands as a positive symbol of modernity, which evokes awe and a sense of stability and peace for the speaker. The poet starts the poem by personifying the Brooklyn Bridge and painting a picture of seagulls flying over the bridge at dawn to evoke a sense of both power and peace:

    How many dawns, chill from his rippling restThe seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,Shedding white rings of tumult, building highOver the chained bay waters Liberty—" (1‐4)

    Hart Crane, Brooklyn Bridge, StudySmarterFig. 3 Crane's poem blends natural imagery with the idea of the Brooklyn Bridge to suggest how it fits and supports its environment.

    Hart Crane: Quotes

    "The Broken Tower" (1932) was the last poem to be published by Hart Crane before his death. Strangely, the poem perfectly encapsulates how the poet experienced great difficulties in his brief life, yet tried to lend voice to the world around him through his poetry:

    And so it was I entered the broken worldTo trace the visionary company of love, its voiceAn instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)But not for long to hold each desperate choice." (20‐24)

    Although Hart Crane's life could easily be overshadowed by his issues with addiction to sex and alcohol, his yearning nature to aid and understand relationships was discovered through the many letters he wrote. In his poem, "My Grandmother's Love Letters" (1926), Crane writes about the discovery of his grandmother's letters after her death and reconciling his notion of her with his realization of her past. The poet expresses the nostalgia and reliance on memory for comfort:

    Are your fingers long enough to playOld keys that are but echoes:Is the silence strong enoughTo carry back the music to its sourceAnd back to you againAs though to her?" (17‐22)

    Hart Crane - Key takeaways

    • Hart Crane is a Modernist American poet who lived from 1899‐1932.
    • Hart Crane is known for his poetry books White Buildings and The Bridge.
    • Hart Crane wrote the poems "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" and "The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge."
    • The poet presented the American experience with optimism and appreciation for modernity and industrialization.
    • The poet committed suicide by jumping overboard from a ship when he was only 32.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Hart Crane

    What is Hart Crane famous for? 

    Hart Crane is famous for writing the book-length poem, The Bridge

    What was Hart Crane not interested in?

    Hart Crane was not interested in sticking to a uniform form of writing poetry. He experimented with form, use of rhyme, and meter to explore his ideas. 

    How did Hart Crane die?

    Hart Crane committed suicide by jumping overboard from a ship when he was only 32.

    Who is Hart Crane?

    Hart Crane is an American Modernist poet who lived from 1899 to 1932. He wrote poems such as  "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" and "The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge."

    Why is Hart Crane described as a Modernist Romantic?

    Hart Crane is described as a Modernist Romantic poet because he was greatly influenced by both American Romanticism and the Modernist movement he was immersed in. Crane combined both traditional and experimental forms in his poetry. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: Hart Crane grew up in a close-knit upper-class family.

    True of False: Hart Crane did not receive much formal education, but always loved to read. 

    Which of the following is not a poem written by Hart Crane?

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