John Norton-Smith: On "Chaplinesque"

The poem is free from literary allusion, or the conscious use of other poems. It is simply an artist’s public testimony, or editorial manifesto, built out of recreated film sequences wholly composed of simple setting and gesture, and put together in a definitive plot: stroll, encounter with object in need of protection, discovery and accusation, evasions, unsuccessful comic escape and "recap." The poem contains one slight, literary connection with T. S. Eliot’s "Preludes" [letter of October 6, 1921]: "I have made that ‘infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’ of Eliot’s into the symbol of the kitten." …

Activity (gesture and movement) is basic to the total idée of the poem. The implied and symbolized capacity for art, sympathy, gaiety and failure is imagined as activity not personage. Hence the title, "Chaplinesque" which has been suggested by, or modeled on, "Humoresque," "a capricious musical composition." Crane’s decision to commemorate Chaplin’s art is paralleled by Carl Sandburg’s tribute "Without the Cane and the Derby (for C.C.)" in Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922). Sandburg tries to make use of onamatopoeic effects; a comparison of the two poems brings out the felicities of Crane, as against the tasteless elaboration of Sandburg.

… The poem, through the use of the pronoun "you" in line 17, relegates the reader/audience to the normal world of philistine simplicity. See [Charles] Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 266: "[Hart Crane and I] discussed the purpose of poetry. I said it was a love letter to the world. ‘A very small world,’ said Hart ruefully."

From John Norton-Smith, A Reader’s Guide to Hart Crane’s "White Buildings" (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen P, 1993), 61-63

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