Cudworth Flint: On The Bridge

… I wish by way of interlude to glance at the suspicions of those who think contemporary poetry of the sort discussed in this essay [Allen Tate’s "Death of Little Boys," Hart Crane’s "Recitative" and "At Melville’s Tomb"] to be either a deliberate hoax, or a product of unwitting self-deception. In either event, it is supposed that such poems can be manufactured in quantities by any versifier with a little technical skill and his tongue in his cheek. In the Saturday Review of Literature for March 10th, 1928, Mr. William Rose Benét made merry in this fashion at the expense of Mr. Hart Crane. Mr. Benet produced a few specimens of his own, dashed off light-heartedly within a few minutes, and asked his readers whether these were not quite as good as anything of Mr. Crane’s. Of these effusions, one was


Let us by apples be believed; No rainy crow Jangling a heaven sparked with light Can murk the orchard more; For apples now relate, remind, Vertumnian …

The neighing night Falls to flat peace, lays gold on gray; The rose and violet shower … And this is past. Your eyes immediacies Apples incredulous of heaven.

Another specimen:

Rhetorical Question

A dromedary dreams all neck Peered round but patient wax impressed the die of steel … Poised on a pin-point. Dark Riddling said Paracelsus is the illusion yet Magammon will not miss the way, His house being bright.

It is of course possible that Mr. Benet was not serious in his criticism, yet this is the sort of test which is sometimes soberly proposed in proof of the insincerity of contemporary verse; and the specimens produced by Mr. Benet are at least as good as those usually produced in any such test. Comparison of them with the poems quoted in this essay shows, I think, how easy it is to single out the fakes. In the first place, the associations in Mr. Benet’s verses are evidently easy and trivial: "gold on gray" is quickly and rapidly followed by "rose and violet"; "peered" and "patient" suggest "poised on a pin-point" by mere alliteration; "riddling" suggests "Paracelsus" to anyone who ever tool a college course in nineteenth century poetry, and "Paracelsus" in turn leads with almost the weary inevitability of a text-book syllogism to "illusion" and "Magammon." Secondly, the triviality of Mr. Benet’s impulse has landed him in what seems to me an unintended pun – "neighing night." Punsters, one admits grudgingly, exist, but not among the Muses. Lastly, one of these spurious compositions – the second – establishes in the mind of the reader no sense of its direction, and the first one achieves such a sense only by a sudden unprepared repetition. If Mr. Benet was serious, his lack of skill has betrayed his convictions.

Poems obviously need not, like Mr. Tate’s ["Death of Little Boys"], originate in a perception of some object or event; they may result from an attempt to embody or illustrate some idea or system of ideas. In ages when the poet is sustained by a systematized theology or philosophy, accepted by the wholem society of which the poet is a member, poems of this sort have typically a logical organization, or else follow an allegorically narrative plan. But it is a characteristic of the present age that there is no such universally accepted foundation of ideas on which the poet may build. In consequence, the poet ambitious of presenting an articulate interpretation of life must construct his own system as he goes along. He might, of course, pursue his philosophizing and poetizing separately; he might compose philosophical treatises and in alternation with these, illustrate his ideas in verse. However, the image-making habit characteristic of the poet does not foster the habit of sustained abstract thought; few poets of any note have produced treatises on metaphysics. The poet prefers to do his thinking while he is creating his poetry. And poets nowadays often, as Mr. [Yvor] Winters has pointed out in his American Caravan essay, employ the psychological method in alternation with other methods when they are on the trail of a philosophy. Mr. Winters’ explanation of this fact is, as I make it out, that by following non-logical sequences of ideas poets stumble upon – or, from a different point of view, are unwittingly led to – conceptions immediately perceived to have philosophical significance. In other words, truth has grown so shy that it will not come out for any of the familiar repeated calls; it must be stalked. By use of the psychological method, the poet hopes to surprise it in its secretest retreats. And the history of thought – even of scientific thought – does furnish testimony to the worth of this method. The biographies of noted scientists show that generalizations popularly supposed to have been the product of experiment or deduction from experience, were really arrived at by flashes of imagination, and owed only their verification, not their birth, to methods characteristic of science.

Whether or no Mr. Hart Crane has actually arrived at any of his ideas through the psychological method, he is a good example of a poet who employs that method in poems based on abstract conceptions – a fact conspicuously illustrated in his notable recent poem, The Bridge. …[Flint paraphrases each section of the poem.]

This poem seems to me indubitably the work of a man of genius, and it contains passages of compact imagination and compelling rhythms. But its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails. And for a quite simple reason. The radical metaphor and the psychological method, which is really a string of such metaphors, by their particularity are adapted to the representation of unique objects or shades of feeling, and may as Mr. Winters suggests even on occasion be a source of single ideas. But any general theory – of America, life. God, or anything else – whgich is intended as a basis for thought and feeling in many different minds, must evidently be generalized so as to make it capable of adequate transplanting. Now, generalization necessitates formalization; form in ideas implies system; and a system requires a logical, rather than a merely associative, method of presentation, for system is logic. A system may be faulty, but it is then faulty logic; its faults, as well as its virtues, exist on the plane of logic. Particular metaphors and psychological sequences, expressing as they do identities peculiar to the individual, are ill adapted to furnish us with anything that can be seen as a system; they usually result at best in a vagrant route, and at worst in a jungle. In a poem such as The Bridge, therefore, however appropriate to certain passages the psychological method may be, either as furnishing metaphors for presenting details, or as a way of arriving at particular insights, when applied to the representation of Mr. Crane’s central body of ideas (or intuitions, or feelings; at any rate, they are intended to form a body, or organic system) the method breaks down. We feel behind the poem a definite intellectual structure trying to break through the imagery, but strangled in the attempt. Or better, the poem is a super-saturated solution, with ideas trembling on the verge of crystallization; but the needed shock does not come and the ideas remain fluidly elusive behind the symbolism.

… Must we conclude then that such modern features of technique as I have been discussing must, because of their inadequacy for the presentation of any large view of life, be regarded as steps in the wrong direction? … The chief malady of thought at the present day seems to arise from our exaggerated and warring sectionalisms in thought. The philosopher, no doubt, combines these partial insights, but he combines them into a structure, not into a vision; in other words, the unity he achieves is a unity the mind can inhabit, but hardly a unity the mind contains. The poet, striking out continually new and fresh metaphors, and striking them out, if he is a contemporary poet, with an awareness of the several specialized systems of metaphor which constitute our modern science, produces in the minds of attentive readers a flexibility which aids them to grasp more of reality in a single act of apprehension. Moreover, sometimes the very metaphors of the poet will be found to possess a sort of centrality; they have connections simultaneously with aspects of reality until then seemingly mutually exclusive. It may well be through paths of strange invention that we must pursue the end which ever eludes us as we approach it: "to see life steadily and see it whole.".

Forever Deity’s glittering Pledge, O Thou Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns To wrapt inceptions and beatitude, –


Title Cudworth Flint: On The Bridge Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cudworth Flint Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Metaphor in Contemporary Poetry
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