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Harold Hart Crane (July 21,
1899 – April 27, 1932) was an American poet.
Finding both inspiration and provocation in the poetryof T.
S. Eliot, Crane's poetry was difficult and often archaic in
language, and sought to express something more than the ironic despair that
Crane found in Eliot's poetry. Though frequently condemned as being difficult
beyond comprehension Crane has proved in the long run to be one of the most
influential poets in English language of his generation.
Hart Crane was born in Garrettsville,
Ohio. His father, Clarence, was a successful Ohio
businessman who had made his fortune in the candy business with chocolate
bars. He originally held the patent for the Life
Saver, but sold his interest to another businessman just before the candy
became popular. Crane’s mother and father were constantly fighting, and early
in April, 1917, they divorced.
It was shortly thereafter that Hart dropped out of high school and headed to New
York City. Between 1917 and 1924 he moved back and forth between New York
working as an advertising copywriter and
a worker in his father’s factory. From Crane's letters, it appears that New
York was where he felt most at home, and much of his poetry is set there.
Crane was gay.
As a boy, he had been seduced by an older man. He
associated his sexuality with his vocation as a poet. Raised in the Christian
Science tradition of his
mother, he never ceased to view himself as a social pariah.
However, as poems such as "Repose of Rivers" make clear, he felt that this
sense of alienation was necessary in order for him to attain the visionary
insight that formed the basis for his poetic work.
Throughout the early 1920s, small but well-respected literary magazines
published some of Crane’s lyrics, gaining him, among the avant-garde,
a respect that White
Buildings(1926), his first volume, ratified and strengthened. White
Buildings contains many of
Crane’s best lyrics, including "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," and a
powerful sequence of erotic poems called "Voyages,"
written while he was falling in love with Emil Opffer, a Danish merchant
"Faustus and Helen" was part of a larger artistic struggle to meet modernity
with something more than despair. Crane identified T. S. Eliot with that kind
of despair, and while he acknowledged the greatness of The
Waste Land, he also said it was "so damned dead," an impasse, and a
refusal to see "certain spiritual events and possibilities." Crane’s
self-appointed work would be to bring those spiritual events and possibilities
to poetic life, and so create "a mystical synthesis of America." This ambition
would finally issue in The
Bridge (1930), where the Brooklyn
Bridge is both the poem’s
central symbol and its poetic starting point.
The Bridge received poor
reviews by and large, but worse was Crane’s own sense of his work's failure.
It was during the late '20s, while he was finishing The
Bridge, that his drinking, always a problem, became notably worse.
While on a Guggenheim
Fellowship in Mexico in
1931-32, his drinking continued while he suffered from bouts of alternating
depression and elation. His only heterosexual relationship - with Peggy
Cowley, the soon to be ex-wife of his friend Malcolm
Cowley, who joined Crane in the south when the Cowleys agreed to divorce -
began here, and "The
Broken Tower," one of his last published poems, emerges from that affair.
Crane still felt himself a failure, though, in part because he recommenced
homosexual activity in spite of his relationship with Cowley. Just before noon
on 27 April 1932, while onboard the steamship SS Orizaba heading
back to New York from Mexico - right after he was beaten for making sexual
advances to a male crew member, which may have appeared to confirm his idea
that one could not be happy as a homosexual - he committed suicide by jumping
into the Gulf
of Mexico. Although he had been drinking heavily and left no suicide note,
witnesses believed Crane's intentions to be suicidal, as several reported that
he exclaimed "Goodbye, everybody!" before throwing himself overboard.
His body was never recovered. A marker on his father's tombstone in
Garrettsville includes the inscription, "Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932 LOST AT
Crane's critical effort - like Keats and Rilke -
is most pronounced in his letters: he corresponded regularly with Allen
Winters, and Gorham
Munson, and shared critical dialogues with Eugene
Carlos Williams, e.
Most serious work on Crane begins with his letters, selections of which are
available in many editions of his poetry; his letters to Munson, Tate,
Winters, and his patron, Otto
Hermann Kahn, have been particularly valuable. Even his two most famous
stylistic defenses emerged from correspondences: his Emersonian "General
Aims and Theories" (1925) was written to urge Eugene O’Neill’s critical
foreword to White Buildings,
then passed around among friends, yet unpublished during Crane's life; and the
famous "Letter to Harriet Monroe" (1926) was part of an exchange for the
publication of "At Melville's Tomb" in Poetry.
'Logic of Metaphor'
As with Eliot's "objective
correlative," a certain vocabulary haunts Crane criticism, his "logic of
metaphor" being perhaps the most vexed. His most quoted formulation is in the
circulated, if long unpublished, "General Aims and Theories":
As to technical considerations: the motivation of the poem must be derived
from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of
expression employed are often selected less for their logical (literal)
significance than for their associational meanings. Via this and their
metaphorical inter-relationships, the entire construction of the poem is
raised on the organic principle of a 'logic of metaphor,' which antedates
our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech,
hence consciousness and thought-extension.
There is also some mention of it, though it is not so much presented as a
in his letter to Harriet Monroe: "...The logic of metaphor is so organically
entrenched in pure sensibility that it can't be thoroughly traced or explain
outside of historical sciences, like philology and anthropology...."
L. S. Dembo's influential study of The
Bridge, Hart Crane's
Sanskrit Charge (1960), reads
this 'logic' well within the familiar rhetoric of the Romantics:
The 'logic of metaphor' was simply the written form of the 'bright logic' of
the imagination, the crucial sign stated, the Word made words.... As
practiced, the logic of metaphor theory is reducible to a fairly simple
linguistic principle: the symbolized meaning of an image takes precedence
over its literal meaning; whether or not the vehicle of an image makes
sense, the reader is expected to grasp its tenor.