naked in the
Te Deum laudamus
O Thou Hand of Fire”
Hart Crane, “Ave Maria,” section two of “The Bridge”
According to Crane’s (and Hopkins’) biographer Paul Mariani of Boston College, it was fellow poet and literary critic Yvor Winters who introduced the younger Crane to the reclusive Jesuit. In December 1927, Winters read The Wreck of the Deutschland and other poems to Crane, who responded enthusiastically: [a letter to Winters, January 28 1928] “It is a revelation to me—of unrealized possibilities. I did not know that words could come so near a transfiguration to pure musical notation—at the same time retaining every minute literal signification! What a man—and what daring!” (Crane 568). Crane was so taken by the reclusive Jesuit poet that he borrowed Winters’ copy of Robert Bridges’ published collection of Hopkins’ poems, threatening that he might not ever return it unless he could find a copy of his own. He was willing to pay the princely sum of $10, equivalent to a month’s rent in the small hotel where he was lodging at the time. It would take two and a half years for him to procure a copy of Hopkins’ poems, and then only through the intercession of friend of Robert Graves. We don’t know whether Winters ever retrieved his copy of Hopkins.
At first blush, these two poets’ lives couldn’t be more different. Hopkins was reclusive, introspective, and according to some, difficult to know. His work was reverential and speculative, a form of personal worship through which he tried to resolve the great antimonies of his faith and belief, a search that early in his clerical career he believed would require that he abandon poetry altogether. Crane came to poetry violently, as a means of “breathing” he called it, in a culture that did not much countenance the worth of its poets, especially if he happened to be openly gay. There has been speculation, of course, about Hopkins’ sexuality, but none was needed about Crane’s: his love life moved in rough harmony with his aesthetic life, and he often sought in his many lovers the source for his muse. Hopkins eschewed the public, especially in any sort of performance, while Crane performed for the public seeking in its praise an affirmation of his worth as an artist.
Hopkins’ life and early death from typhus might properly be called “anticlimactic,” paling in comparison to the inner life he revealed to his closest friend Robert Bridges and that he probed through his poetry. Crane’s life was anything but anticlimactic, ranging from one life crisis to another—his alcoholism, his dangerous liaisons with strangers, and finally, near the end, in his feverish fling with Peggy Cowley, wife of esteemed critic Malcolm Cowley. It was on a cruise off the Florida coast with Peggy that Crane apparently detoured one evening into the sailors’ quarters, received a mighty beating, and shortly afterward, folded his nightrobe neatly on the deck of the Orizaba, and then jumped overboard still dressed in his pajamas. He was last seen swimming powerfully into the current. Hopkins was quietly buried in Glasnevin Cemetary ahead of his funeral, where an empty coffin marked the passing of the young Jesuit. Hopkins was 45 years old when he died; Crane was 32 when he jumped overboard in 1932. His body was never found.
What, then, did Crane see reflected so clearly in the poetry of Hopkins, such that he would openly state that he hoped the creative spirit of the Jesuit poet would inspire him as he worked on his masterpiece, The Bridge? While Hopkins’ work clearly presaged the modernists and Crane broadly associated himself with the American modernists (Robinson Jeffers, William Carlos Williams, etc), what sensibility, for lack of a better term, did Crane discern in The Wreck of the Deutschland or God’s Grandeur that he wished to channel in his ground breaking celebration of American exceptionalism via the grand symbol of the Brooklyn Bridge? What we do know from the correspondence that Crane kept with Winters and contemporaries in the poetic community living in and around New York City is that the debate about what new direction lay ahead for modern poetry had split after T.S. Eliot’s publication of The Wasteland in 1922. Crane believed that Eliot’s vision was a decadent one, a paean to cultural and historical exhaustion that spent more time looking backward than ahead to the future. For Crane, what poetry needed was an aesthetic of transcendence, something we can sense in his initial response to hearing Hopkins. Modern poetry needed to create a bridge to the future, not mourn a lost and privileged past . In the note to Yvor Winters I mentioned earlier regarding his discovery of Hopkins, Crane effuses, “I can’t wean my eyes from one poem to go on to the next—hardly—I’m so hypnotized” (568). Earlier, in “General Aims and Theories” (1925), Crane insisted that he was “really building a bridge between the so-called classic experience and many divergent realities of our seething, confused cosmos of today” (Crane 160).
In his study of Crane’s work, Brian Reed notes that this moment of recognition was not as unlikely as one might have supposed: Crane already had employed “a battery of that poet’s [Hopkins] favorite [poetic] devices: a vatic, mannered apostrophe to God; word coinage through hyphenation; the blurring of distinctions among parts of speech . . .; a concatenation of interjections without regard to syntax; and the insistent repetition of the same sounds from line to line . . .” (21). Crane, Reed explains, “may be more telegraphic than apocalyptic than, say, Hopkins in The Wreck of the Deutschland, but only by a hair” (21). One is tempted to argue that the work of that obscure Victorian Hopkins must have influenced Crane’s work on The Bridge, especially because the latter made such a big deal of having found a kindred poetic spirit in Hopkins. But there are a couple of problems with this argument, not least of which is the fact that by 1928, much of The Bridge had already been crafted and some parts had circulated among the writers and small magazines that supported their work in New York. More viable would be to suggest that it was Crane’s planned third book, tentatively titled Key West: An Island Sheaf, in which we might discover an influence. These last poems include work that Crane did on his family’s Cuban plantation (The Isle of Pines), much of it uneven, but they also include two clear masterpieces, The Hurricane (1928) and The Broken Tower (1932), copies of which you have on your handout.
Even if we make the argument that in terms of method and style, Crane’s discovery of Hopkins began as an ardent admiration and eventually did influence his last poems, especially The Hurricane and The Broken Tower, we also need to examine whether the work of these two men is joined in spirit and sensibility as well as in “stylisms.” Because the two poets relied upon and perhaps discovered signature devices and techniques in their poetry simultaneously, we still need to explore the ends to which those devices and techniques were used. In other words, the explicit aesthetic aims of God’s Grandeur or The Windhover might not parallel the sometimes predatory aesthetics of Hart Crane. One way of drawing this distinction that is perhaps a bit esoteric is to describe the trajectories of the poems under consideration, the direction tracked by the artist’s use of these devices and techniques which should lead us to what we commonly talk about in our literature classes as the meaning of the poems. In The Dialogic Imagination (1981), Soviet critic Mikael Bakhtin described what he called the centrifugal and centripetal “forces of literature,” the latter serving to “unify and centralize” the literary and linguistic world of the artist, while the former serves the purpose of “decentralization and disunification” within the literary and linguistic world of the artist (270-72). This distinction might help determine whether the modernist aesthetic of Hart Crane found more than a kindred technical spirit in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Let’s begin with The Hurricane and The Windhover.
While Hopkins’ earliest readers might have been alienated by the density of his poetry along with his seeming obscurantism, his work follows the centripetal formula that Bakhtin ascribes to poetry in the Western tradition. Even the terms that Hopkins developed as part of his evolving aesthetic—inscape, instress, etc, direct the reader’s attention to the center of the poem. In a generous reading of Bakhtin’s idea, we could say that the trajectory of the lyrical poem is toward its center, and that the function of the words, images and the particular cadence that the poet assigns them is to provide the tools and references for that center to burst into sense for the reader, a powerful and transformative alignment of registers that coalesce into vision and understanding. This is perhaps clearest in The Windhover, which is reproduced on your handouts.
The Windhover (Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844–1889)
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Relying on Norman MacKenzie’s sturdy explication of the poem, we can appreciate the complex vision that Hopkins crafts out of a simple morning observation of a kestrel’s flight into the rising sun, beginning with the dedication “To Christ our Lord” that he added two years after he sent the original draft to Robert Bridges.
Thus the octave runs from the first glimpse of the brave bird hovering on the morning wind currents to the inner stirring of the watcher, whose heart “in hiding” reaches out toward the bird. The first tercet after “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” hosts the famous exhortation “Buckle!” when the heart and the bird move simultaneously now. This leads to the final tercet where the aftermath of that transcendent moment is rendered in the poet’s palate of chivalric colors. Hopkins’ description of “inscape” after he arrived in Dublin is telling in this regard, “The essential quality or specific properties of a thing] or individually-distinctive beauty of style” (MacKenzie 242). MacKenzie renders this idea more clearly as “the expression of the inner core of individuality, perceived in moments of insight by an onlooker who is in full harmony with the being he is observing” (242). Thus vision and object become one and the climactic point of the poem occurs when this transcendence is complete. The trajectory we follow is from outside the poem into it and into the vision of the poet which then becomes our vision as well. Now let’s look at one of Crane’s poems that is often linked to Hopkins’ work, The Hurricane.”
The Hurricane (1928)
Lo, Lord, Thou ridest!
Lord, Lord, Thy swifting heart
Nought stayeth, nought now bideth
But’s smithereened apart!
Ay! Scripture flee’th stone!
Milk-bright, Thy chisel wind
Rescindeth flesh from bone
To quivering whittlings thinned—
Swept, whistling straw!
Battered, Lord, e’en boulders now outleap
Rock sockets, levin-lathered!
Nor, Lord, may worm outdeep
Thy drum’s gambade, its plunge abscond!
Lord God, while summits crashing
Whip sea-kelp screaming on blond
Sky-seethe, dense heaven dashing—
Thou ridest to the door, Lord!
Thou bidest wall nor floor, Lord!
Outwardly, this poem has many of the same features that mark Hopkins’ style in The Windhover: what Brian Reed called “the mannerist apostrophe to God,” the retasked semantic functions (nouns as verbs, etc), the made up hyphenated words and the seemingly obscure referencing in the body of the poem. Notice, however, the different trajectory of the poem. Where Hopkins’ use of the antique “thee” in reference to Christ the Chevalier as transcendent in the artistry of the kestrel is reverential, precise and rare, the same register is defiant in Crane, almost parodistic. The persona of the poem offers a false sounding, defiant reverence to the God in hurricanes, something that Crane actually experienced during the year he spent in Cuban exile on the Isle of Pines plantation.
Where Hopkins’ poem moves inward, inviting, toward the moment of self recognition (“my heart in hiding”), Crane’s poem is exclusionary, not merely in the language that is still daunting to his modern readers, but in its insistence that the God in hurricanes remain at the threshold even while that power seems overwhelming, itself in a way transcendent. The poet/persona is apart from the powerful storm and we readers are outside the poet/persona of the poem. This is also true of another of Crane’s “Hopkinesque” poems, Lachrymae Christi, from his first collection, White Buildings (1926), which was published just before Winters introduced Crane to the work of Hopkins.
Whitely, while benzine
Rinsings from the moon
Dissolve all but the windows of the mills
(Inside the sure machinery
And curdled only where a sill
Sluices its one unyielding smile)
Immaculate venom binds
The fox's teeth, and swart
Thorns freshen on the year's
First blood. From flanks unfended,
Twanged red perfidies of spring
Are trillion on the hill.
And the nights opening
Anoint with innocence,--recall
To music and retrieve what perjuries
Had galvanized the eyes.
Beneath and all around
Inaudible whistle, tunneling
But song, as these
Perpetual fountains, vines,--
Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes.
Let sphinxes from the ripe
Borage of death have cleared my tongue
Once again; vermin and rod
No longer bind. Some sentient cloud
Of tears flocks through the tendoned loam:
Betrayed stones slowly speak.)
Names peeling from Thine eyes
And their undimming lattices of flame,
Spell out in palm and pain
Compulsion of the year, O Nazarene.
Lean long from sable, slender boughs,
Unstanched and luminous. And as the nights
Strike from Thee perfect spheres,
Lift up in lilac-emerald breath the grail
Of earth again—
From charred and riven stakes, O
Unmangled target smile.
This more careful poem deals with a subject that would seem familiar to Hopkins, the personal transcendence of Jesus the Christ, but here again, Crane moves in a different direction. Jesus here provides a mask for the poet and his original sacrifice—perhaps unwilling (“red perfidies of Spring”)—has disappointed (“Betrayed stones”), at least until the dead Christ gives way to the resurrected Dionysus, muse and godhead of the modern poet. The poem is not about Christ as God, but Christ as failed poet, whose incarnation as the Word has failed to render the “sure machinery” of this modern age. The crucial turn in the poem occurs at “Thy Nazarene and tender eyes,” after which the persona calls upon all the mythic riddlers of previous ages (“sphinxes”) to take up the failed mission of the Christ. Unlike Hopkins’ Pied Beauty (1918) , for example, (see your handouts and below ) there is no contemplation of a single moment in which the vision of the poet subsumes the attention of the reader leading to a particular transcendence that embodies the idea of centripetal movement that Bakhtin talked about.
In his “General Aims and Theories,” Crane described his aims as both epic in form and centrifugal in trajectory: “It is my hope to go through the combined materials of the poem, using our ‘real’ world somewhat as a spring-board, and to give the poem as a whole an orbit or predetermined direction of its own. I would like to establish it as free from my own personality as from any chance evaluation on the reader’s part [emphasis in the original]” (163). Yvor Winters’ negative review of The Bridge in 1930 in which he claims it is a “failed epic” might not have been far from the mark, despite Crane’s impassioned rebuttal, and it no doubt inspired Joseph Riddel’s famous reevaluation of Crane’s overall work in 1966: “What Crane had finally to confront, perhaps unconsciously, was the fact that his failure lay in his method—the very method that had become his identity” (478). The “method” that Riddel condemns “affirms alienation as prelude to transcendence,” (478) and in his poetry Crane seems incapable of moving toward transcendence and thus is threatened with anonymity, an erasure of the Self . This, Riddel claims, is precisely the opposite of what Crane saw in Washington Roebling’s magnificent masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge, the inspiration for The Bridge. In August 1930, Crane sent an inscribed copy of The Bridge to John Augustus Roebling, Washington Roebling’s grandson; in it he wrote, “My devotion to the Brooklyn Bridge as the matchless symbol of America and its destiny prompted this dedication […] as I dare say the particular view of the bridge’s span from my window on Columbia Heights . . . inspired the general conception and form of the entire poem” (Mariani 356). Clearly Crane’s hope was to accomplish in verse what that magnificent bridge had done in spans of steel and cable: symbolize an emergent America. And, according to Riddel and a generation of critics since, he failed.
Crane’s aesthetic (and personal!) search was for a Whitmanesque self or Self, something he directly addresses in the fourth section of The Bridge, “Cape Hatteras. ” He fails because his method is too expansive to allow that to happen, something we noted in his own descriptions of his “aim and theories.” Hopkins sought a self by following an opposite trajectory into the vision of the poem. There he confronted and surmounted his fears of insufficiency and poetic sterility, something he notes triumphantly in his final sonnet, “To R.B .” We are tempted after this much time has passed to suggest that Crane mistook Hopkins’ “linguistic transubstantiations” (the phrase is Mariani’s) for a sort of map of transcendence, a thread that would lead from the labyrinth out to the unmeasured world, as a magnificent bridge might. It turned out not to be, something I believe he came to understand shortly before his death.
In The Broken Tower (1932), a poem that Paul Mariani characterized as “a poet’s awe before a mystery that has the power to silence or to lift him […] it signals the death of the failed Romantic poet” (406), Crane comes I believe to an understanding of his work, his search and perhaps his life. Most critics understand the tower in the poem to be the poet’s tower, something akin to the tower mentioned by Yeats in “The Tower” and fashioned after his beloved Thoor Ballylee where he and his family lived in the 1920’s.The Broken Tower (which is also in your handouts) is an allusion to something different than this: I believe that the tower is figuratively the tower of Babel, the Biblical site of a pre-emptive strike by a fearful God against the poets who would become gods: by scrambling their only weapon, their language, God ensures his survival and their failure. The last line of Crane’s “General Aims and Theories” is instructive: “Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always” (164). Perhaps it’s best to let the poet speak for himself, from the sixth quatrain of the poem:
“My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope, --cleft to despair?”
I am struck by the fact that at this late date in his career Crane should frame the pivotal quatrain in his final poem as a question about whether his art and maybe his life matters at all. Hopkins, thankfully, seems to have answered that crucial question before his demise.
Bakhtin, M.M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin, TX: University of
Texas Press, 1981
Crane, Hart. Complete Poems and Selected Letters. New York:
Penguin Putnam, 2006.
Cuddon, J.R. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.
Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Mariani, Paul. The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
MacKenzie, Norman H. A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins,
2nd Edition. Philadelphia: Saint joseph’s University Press, 2008.
Reed, Brian. Hart Crane: After His Lights. Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Riddel, Joseph. “Hart Crane’s Poetics of Failure,” ELH. Vol. 33, No. 4
(Dec. 1966). Pp. 473-496.
Schultz, Susan M. “The Success of Failure: Hart Crane’s Revisions of
Whitman and Eliot in ‘The Bridge.’” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 54. No. 1 (Jan. 1989), pp. 55-70.
Most Viewed Lectures in Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive
Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Breastplate of Saint Patrick (Kevin McEneaney)
The Poet as Prophet (James Mackey)
State of Church of England when Hopkins left it (Douglas Grandgeorge)
Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Love in the Writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Poet as Prophet || Romanantic Poetics || Hopkins nad the Church of England || Meister Eckhart and his Influence on Gerard Manley Hopkins || Robert Bridges and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Saint Patrick's Breastplate ||