Part IV: Hart Crane's The Bridge and the 20th Century

The victory of the North in the Civil War was also a victory of industrialism in America, for the industrial North had proved the importance of the machine the machine meant power. Henry Adams, in his Education, proclaimed the Dynamo to be to the modern age what the Blessed Virgin Mary was to 13th century Europe. The machine was to be the new God, and the scientists the priests. What Crane was to call the "iron dealt clevage" had already cut across the new nation. In his Democratic Vistas(1871). Whitman warned America of spiritual degeneracy and cautioned that science without spirituality would only lead mankind into chaos. In his 1872 Preface to Leaves of Grass, he indicates the true function of science:

With Science, the Old Theology of the East, long in its dotage, begins evidently to die and disappear. But (to my mind) Science and may be such will prove its principal service as evidently prepares the way for One indescribably grander Time's young but perfect offspring the New Theology heir of the West lusty and loving, and wondrous beautiful. For America, and for today, just the same as any day, the supreme and final Science is the Science of God what we call science being only its minister as Democracy is or shall be also.

Crane was familiar with all of Whitman's writings, and the following excerpt from and 1876 Preface is also indicative of Crane's attitude toward science and its spiritualization:

Only … joyfully accepting Modern Science, and loyally following it without the slightest hesitation, there remains ever recognized still a higher flight, a higher fact, the Eternal Soul of Man, (of all Else too,) the Spiritual, the Religious which it is to be the greatest office of Scientism, in my opinion, and of future Poetry also, to free from fables, crudities and superstitions, and launce forth in renewed Faith and Scope a hundred fold. To me the worlds of Religiousness, of the conception of the Divine, and of the Ideal, though mainly latent, are just as absolute, in Humanity and the Universe as the world of Chemistry, or anything in the objective worlds.
(Whitman, 1876 Preface to Leaves of Grass)

Ironically, today the greatest, of the modern scientists proclaims the spiritual to be the most important single fact in life, and the source of all true science. Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

In his essay "Modern Poetry," Hart Crane calls Science "the uncanonized Deity of the times" that "seems to have automatically displaced the hierarchies of both Academy and Church."

It was Hart Crane (1899-1932) who directly took up Whitman's job of creating a poetry of vision that extends beyond civilizations and histories into the grand significance of man in his relationship with the eternal. Crane has been called the greatest poetic genius that America has produced, "the Shelley of our age," as Robert Lowell called him, for in his short, chaotic life he was able to create a poetic myth that extends and endures beyond narrow literary confines. Crane was also one of the first great poetic geniuses to bump heads with the Machine Age and he refused to let the mechanical chaos of the 20th Century triumph. In "Modern Poetry" he writes:

The function of poetry in a Machine Age is identical to its function in any other age; and its capacities for presenting the most complete synthesis of human values remain essentially immune from any of the so-called inroads of science. … For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i. e. , acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function.

Crane's job, as he saw it, was to inject his vision of God into machinery. He sees Science and its Machine capable of taking two paths the road to Hell (symbolized by the subway in "The Tunnel") or the road to God (symbolized by the Brooklyn Bridge). He recognizes, the Brooklyn Bridge as a magnificent technological achievement that is capable of "singing" God. When Crane wrote The Bridge, his magnus opus, he lived in Brooklyn, and his apartment window afforded him a scenic view of the East River, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Coincidently, his apartment was the same apartment the bridge's architect used during its construction. Musing out the window at the Bridge, that gateway to Whitman's "golden Manahatta" the harplike "altar" soon came to represent a unifying force in Crane's roaring life, and in his greatest poem Brooklyn Bridge metamorphosizes into "Thou steeled Cognizance", the symbol of the Absolute in a technological age of chaos. The Bridge is a long poem divided into eight sections, "Ave Maria," "Powhatan's Daughter", "Cutty Sark", "Cape Hatteras", "Three Songs", "Quaker Hill", "The Tunnel", and "Atlantis". Together they represent an odyssey of the soul through the horrors and paltry, sensual joys of the tunnel of life and the soul's subsequent release into the eternal bliss of the spiritual realms. Throughout the soul's odyssey the Bridge is there, but it is removed from all struggle. It awaits the sojourner as the eternal Reality. "I stop somewhere waiting for you", is the promise, for God awaits all in eternity; He waits for the individual soul to turn from Maya, and turn to Him. In the opening Poem, the Bridge, as the symbol of Godhead, is presented in triumph through "white rings of tumult", as Krishna is surrounded by His Brahmajyoti effulgence. The picture is one of eternality, omnipotence, and freedom.,

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty

The City and its "chained bay waters" are bound however by an inextricable workday business karma. In his Wall Street office, man falls from his realization of this vision.

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
Till elevators drop us from our day …

At this point Crane likens the phenomenal creation to a motion picture cinema with mankind bending toward the screen, as the deluded men in Socrates' cave watch with fascination the illusory reflections thrown on the wall of the cave, unaware that the reflections are only dream fantasies and that in actuality their faces are turned from the bright Reality. But the true nature of "Maya" as a reflection of the Reality is revealed to "other eyes," namely the poet and seer, though hidden from the multitudes, for the Divine reserves the right to disclose Himself only to His chosen.

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

Meanwhile the great Magician Whose creation is merely a "sleight of hands" trick, stands in His Supreme Abode across the harbor, eternally "unspent" by dint of His own freedom.

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Arjuna saw "the heroes of the mortal world rush into Thy (Krishna's) fiercely flaming mouths," (Gita, 11.28) but in the age of Kali the heroes are reduced to one mad "bedlamite" jumping from the Bridge's parapets. This is also a prefiguration of Crane's suicidal jump from the back of a boat in 1932.

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Amidst this madness, the gift of the Divine lies in His pardon and in the relative anonymity of the individual soul.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon … Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

Then the Bridge is addressed as "harp and altar, " which it tends to resemble. The forces surrounding this Absolute are forces of cosmic, not human, fury. No human toil can ever conceive or construct a miracle that is the answer to all prayers, the cry of all lovers, the fulfillment of all desires and prophecies.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,

Its "swift unfractioned idiom" is a monolithic omnipotence that has power to condense eternity. To the sigh of stars, the dharma is indicated. It is the personal figure of the Deity that lifts night in His powerful arms.

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

In the poem's conclusion, the Cognizance, Who is eternally awake as His creation (the river, the ocean, the prairie) flows eternally beneath Him, is petitioned to descend into the iron age, and, by His descent, to give mankind a new myth by which to worship Him.

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the praries' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

In the "Ave Maria" section of The Bridge, the Deity is invoked by the New World "discoverer," Columbus, as he sails back to Spain. Columbus, like Whitman in a later day, is a mystical explorer, a seer and leader, who knows Krishna to be as an ocean "athwart lanes of death and birth." As an explorer, he enters into the Creator's "burning blue" savannahs and petitions His assurance that his "sail is true," Without such faith, man can accomplish nothing. Crane's Columbus knows the Creator to be omnipotent and omnipresent, and fittingly praises His "teeming span" and "primal scan" that surveys all in His domain from the sacred Ganges to the Chan.

O Thou who sleepest on Thyself, apart
Like ocean athwart lanes of death and birth,
And all the eddying breath between doth search
Cruelly with love thy parable of man
Inquisitor! incognizable Word
Of Eden and the enchained Sepulchre,
Into thy steep savannahs, burning blue,
Utter to loneliness the sail is true.
… O Thou
Within whose primal scan consummately
The glistening seignories of Ganges swim;
Who sendest greeting by the corposan,
And Teneriffe's garnet flamed it in a cloud,
Urging through night our passage to the Chan;
Te Deum laudamus, for thy teeming span!

White toil of heaven's cordons, mustering
In holy rings all sails charged to the far
Hushed gleaming fields and pendant seething wheat
Of knowledge, round thy brows unhooded now
The kindled Crown! acceded of the poles
And biassed by full sails, merideans reel
Thy purpose still one shore beyond desire!
The sea's green crying towers a-sway, Beyond
And kingdoms
naked in the
trembling heart
Te Deum laudamus
O Thou Hand of Fire

Again, God is presented surrounded by dazzling lights. Images like "seething wheat of knowledge" are typical of Crane who telescopes two interrelated ideas in one phrase. For man, God is both bread (sustenance) and knowledge. Again, His omnipotence is stressed in such phrases as "meridians reel Thy purpose." The "Hand of Fire" is God's Shiva (Destroyer) aspect. Columbus is well aware that God can enable him to return with news of his discovery or kill him with one swift stroke. Kingdoms naked in the trembling heart" echo Christ's "The Kingdom of God is within you." As in other instances, Columbus prefigures a later figure in the poem, Whitman, as a seer and man of faith. In the second section of the poem we are shifted again to the Twentieth Century in a part entitled "The River" which is none other than the river of life. Here we are given a graphic picture of the wild, bumbling 20th Century Express that roars its way to hell to jazz rhythms. The Express is the 20th Century machine run wild without spiritual direction.

while an EXpress makes time like
Science Commerce and the Holy Ghost
Radio Roars In Every Home We Have The Northpole
Wallstreet And Virginbirth Without Stones Or
Wires Or Even Running brooks connection ears
and no more sermons windows flashing roar
Breathtaking as you like it … eh?

So the 20th Century so
whizzed the Limited roared by and left
three men, still hungry on the tracks, ploddingly
watching the tail lights wizen and converge,
slipping gimleted and neatly out of sight.

The three men are mendicants, "hobo trekkers" who have jumped off the wild American bandwagon that is bumbling its way toward "Progress" and Materialism. These are the transcendental waysiders with whom Crane identifies, outcasts who somehow know something of God, though they cannot articulate their knowledge

Each seemed a child, like me, on a loose perch,
Holding to childhood like some termless play. …

Like Whitman, these hobos "confess no rosary or clue," but their wanderings have put them in intimate contact with the Deity.

Yet they touch something like a key perhaps.
… They know a body under the wide rain …
They lurk across her, knowing her yonder breast
Snow-silvered, sumac-stained or smoky blue
Is past the valley-sleepers, south or west.
As I have trod the rumorous midnights, too,
And past the circuit of the lamp's thin flame
(O Nights that brought me to her body bare!)
Have dreamed beyond the print that bound her name.
Trains sounding the long blizzards out I heard
Wail into distances I knew were hers.
Papooses crying on the wind's long mane
Screamed redskin dynasties that fled the brain,
Dead echoes!. But I knew her body there,
Time like a serpent down her shoulder, dark,
And space, an eaglet's wing, laid on her hair.

They travel over the body of God (here referred to in the feminine gender) that contains and reconciles both time (the serpent) and space (the eagle). Contrasted with the wandering mendicants is the "Sheriff, Brakeman and Authority," repressive forces in the 20th Century, that "smile out eerily what they seem" and joke at heaven's gate." Such absurd men who try to lord it over the creation are borne down the river of life despite themselves. Crane's condemnation of the 20th Century American materialists is severe he sees them as "grimed tributaries to an ancient flow" (a flow that could be Vedic civilization). Without God they can "win no frontier," make no progress, but only "drift in stillness."

Down, down born pioneers in time's despite,
Grimed tributaries to an ancient flow
They win no frontier by their wayward plight,
But drift in stillness, as from Jordan's brow.

The River of Life is much greater than any tributary civilization, and it sweeps all along with it in its course. This is also a River of dreams whose unity or "knit of identity" rests in the Self that is the same in all. Man is eternal in this river, for each man is the father of his father endlessly reincarnated.

The River, spreading, flows and spends your dream.
What are you, lost within this tideless spell?
You are your father's father, and the stream
A liquid theme that floating niggers swell.

The theme the River sings is the Song of God as it heaps itself free from its bed to flow into the great Gulf of the Supreme Lord. The dream of life, of history, pours into the sea, its only will is in rapidly flowing unchecked, in spending itself of its confines and meeting and praising God in His great Gulf.

… Ahead
No embrace opens but the stinging sea;
The River lifts itself from its long bed,
Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow
Tortured with history, its one will flow!
The Passion spreads in wide tongues, choked and slow,
Meeting the Gulf, hosannas silently below.

In the "Cape Hatteras" section of The Bridge, Whitman is canonized by Crane as the great American poet-sage-guru-seer-saint who could perceive the Deity beneath the inherent sweetness of the earth and, like Columbus, the great Navigator, maintain his vision of the Godhead despite innumerable impediments in Whitman's case, the Civil War, industrialism, and the incipient madhouse of the Stock Exchange.

O Saunterer on free ways still ahead!
Not this our empire yet, but labyrinth
Wherein your eyes, like the Great Navigator's without ship,
Gleam from the great stones of each prison crypt
Of canyoned traffic … Confronting the Exchange,
Surviving in a world of stocks. …Sea eyes and tidal, undenying, bright with myth!

Crane also states that it was Whitman who inspired The Bridge:

Our Meistersinger, thou set breath in steel;
And it was thou who on the boldest heel
Stood up and flung the span on even wing
Of that great Bridge, our Myth, whereof I sing!

The poet's and humanity's duty, as Crane sees it, is to meet the challenge Whitman gives them.

… To course that span of consciousness thou'st named
The Open Road thy vision is reclaimed!
What heritage thou'st signalled to our hands!
… O joyous seer!
Recorders ages hence, yes, they shall hear
In their own veins uncancelled thy sure tread
And read thee by the aureole 'round thy head
Of pasture-shine, Panis Angelicus!

Crane calls for a cohesive force in the Machine Age, one that will empregnate science and machinery with the. vision of God. The airplane pilot, "Falcon-Ace," carries with him the hope of the race, and the Vedic injunctions are also in his veins, written in his wrists.

Remember, Falcon-Ace,
Thou hast there in thy wrist a Sanskrit charge
To conjugate infinity's dim marge
Anew … !

The next to last section of The Bridge, "The Tunnel," stands as the most graphic depiction in verse of the hell man has constructed for himself in the 20th Century. The New York City subway comes to symbolize mankind's tunnel of horrors that result from the improper use of the machine. "The Tunnel" does serve a positive function, however, for as in Dante's Divine Comedy, one gets to heaven by going through hell. Hence the Blake quotation heading this section: "To find the Western path/ Right thro' the Gates of Wrath." It is in this tunnel that we hear the cries and bellows of a chaotic demonic mankind caught in the endless rounds and boroughs of samsara.

Some day by heart you'll learn each famous sight
And watch the curtain lift in hell's despite …

Our tongues recant like beaten weather vanes. …

The phonographs of hades in the brain
Are tunnels that re-wind themselves, and love
A burnt match skating in a urinal. …

In these "back forks of the chasms of the brain" and "interborough fissures of the mind," Crane sees Edgar Poe, poet laureate of the tunnel of horrors, riding like a ghost with Death in his eyes "below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads." As the train bends to a scream before diving under the East River, Crane delivers the most vehement accusation ainst the iron age in verse:

Daemon, demurring and eventful yawn!
Whose hideous laughter is a bellows mirth
Or the muffled slaughter of a day in birth
O cruelly to inoculate the brinking dawn
With antennae toward worlds that glow and sink;
To spoon us out more liquid than the dim
Locution of the eldest star, and pack
The conscience navelled in the plunging wind,
Umbilical to call and straightway die!
O caught like pennies beneath soot and steam,
Kiss of our agony thou gatherest;
Condensed, thou takest all shrill ganglia
Impassioned with some song we fail to keep.

The "shrill ganglia" is contemporary civilization without a living spiritual myth, and the "song we fail to keep" is the Song of God. The section ends on a note of triumph, however. The subway rises up the slope from under the River and emerges in the open air where Crane sees the Bridge standing as a great Word promising eternal life.

And yet, like Lazarus, to feel the slope,
The sod and billow breaking, lifting ground,
A sound of waters bending astride the sky
Unceasing with some Word that will not die …!

The 'Word" is the dharma that releases man from what Krishna called "the Great Fear," death and the endless cycles of rebirths. Crane asks "Or shall the hands be drawn away, to die?" and the reply is that Shiva, the destroyer aspect, the "hand of Fire," only gathers us to God. "Kiss of our agony Thou gatherest, / O Hand of Fire/gatherest " leads logically into "Atlantis," the great promise of the poem, which is a wonderful, tumbling description (the only one given in American verse) of the wonders of the spiritual universe. In "Atlantis," the lost mythical city, the Bridge is celebrated in all its beauty, majesty, omnipotence, eternality, and knowledge. Religion, myth, science and technology merge to make a new and joyous music. "Music is then the knowledge of that which relates to love in harmony and system," Crane quotes Plato, then sings the Absolute.


Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel
Transparent meshes fleckless the gleaming staves
Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream
As though a god were issue of the strings. …

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,
"Make thy love sure to weave whose song we ply!"

White tempest nets file upward, upward ring
With silver terraces the humming spars,
The loft of vision, palladium helm of stars.

Like hails, farewells, up planet-sequined heights
Some trillion whispering hammers glimmer Tyre .

The Bridge is seen through a vision of blazing light, which is none other than the white, pervasive light of love. It is the Bridge that yokes "wave to kneeling wave," unifying the creation in one mighty song of itself. "The vernal strophe chimes from deathless strings!"

From gulfs unfloding, terrible of drums,
Tall Vision-of-the-Voyage, tensely spare
Bridge, lifting night to cycloramic crest
Of deepest day O Choir, translating time
Into what multitudinous Verb the suns
And synergy of waters ever fuse, recast
In myriad syllables, Psalm of Cathay!
O Love, thy white, pervasive Paradigm …!

The Bridge is beyond this relative world of time and space. It defies all mundane conceptions, logic, explanation, or description. Crane's verse a fusion of images is peculiarly adept to give a sense of its wonder and power. It is the Bridge that controls the creation from lark's northward flight to the glowing star. And it is the Bridge that leads man lovingly from the realms of time into the realm of eternal bliss.

O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits
The agile precincts of the lark's return;
Within whose lariat sweep encinctured sing
In single chrysalis the many twain,
Of stars Thou art the stitch and stallion glow
And like an organ, Thou, with sound of doom
Sight, sound and flesh Thou leadest from time's realm
As love strikes clear direction for the helm.

Swift peal of secular light, intrinsic Myth
Whose fell unshadow is death's utter wound. …

As in Whitman, the Bridge is a secular force in the New Age of the Machine. Without its unifying influence, man dies. Science is only a "minister" to this eternally young Deity, assigning Him a new beatitude, a new attribute as the God of Science and the Machine Age.

Forever Deity's glittering Pledge, O Thou
Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns
To rapt inception and beatitude,
Always through blinding cables, to our joy,
Of thy white seizure springs the prophecy:
Always through spiring cordage, pyramids
Of silver sequel, Deity's young name
Kinetic of white choiring wings … ascends.

Crane, at this point, sees his own chaotic life as a transgression against the Deity and, begging His pardon, bequeaths himself to His dazzling light while proclaiming the Deity Everpresent beyond the realms of time, unified as One Song, One Bridge, reconciling time and space omnipotently in Himself.

Unspeakable Thou Bridge, to Thee, O Love.
Thy pardon for this history, whitest Flower,
O Answerer of all, Anemone,
Now while thy petals spend the suns about us, hold
(O Thou whose radiance doth inherit me)
Atlantis, hold thy floating singer late!

So to thine Everpresence, beyond time,
Like spears ensanguined of one tolling star
That bleeds infinity the orphic strings,
Sidereal phalanxes, leap and converge:
One Song, one Bridge of Fire! Is it Cathay,
Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring
The serpent with the eagle in the leaves.
Whispers antiphonal in azure swing.

The Bridge was the only great poem of God consciousness in America to follow Whitman's "Song of Myself," and Crane's early death no doubt cut short some even greater works. Today, thirty-seven years after The Bridge's publication (1930), no poet in America has taken up the work begun by the transcendentalists, Whitman, and Crane: which is the work of all true poetry, the harmonization of God with the age. Today the poets in America are too busy with protest poems to positively affirm the Presence of the Supreme Lord Who is also the Lord of the Space Age. A true poet shows how God is visible in every age. Many of the young poets have jumped off the bumbling rampaging American bandwagon and are sitting alongside the American roadside like transcendental mendicants, but they don't offer warm fires of love and truth. They simply grumble that the 20th Century Express is going too fast and in the wrong direction. No one is saying, "Here, this way."

Krishna Consciousness is now indicating the direction. In American poetry the way has already been trod to a point. The post-war "Beat" poetry was a betrayal of Whitman's and Crane's positive vision. Now a poetry of the New Consciousness is needed, especially since the youth are discovering that the grand poetic vision is true and are beginning to explore "inner space." Nor can the dry, corncob, speculative poetry of the Academy delineate this vision. A true poet is needed. "Nature and Man shall be disjoin'd and diffused no more," Whitman wrote in "Passage to India." The true son of God shall absolutely fuse them." The fusion of Nature, God, the machine, Science and Man should be begun from the pivot of a solid and timeless theology, such as is set down in the Gita, not by recent concoctions of self-proclaimed avatars. May we soon hear a new strong voice singing in America to justify Whitman's vision

After the seas are all cross'd, (as they seem already cross'd,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish'd their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.