David Bromwich: On "The River"

The Waste Land and The Bridge were not assisted imaginatively by the encyclopedic ambition to which they owe their conspicuous efforts of structure. The miscellaneous texture of the poems is truer to their motives. A little more consistently than Eliot’s early poems, The Waste Land divides into two separate registers for the portrayal of the city, the first reductive and satirical, the second ecstatic and agonistic – the latter, in order to be released, often seeming to require the pressure of a quotation. At any moment a detail such as "The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring," may modulate to a style less easily placed:

O City city, I can sometimes hear Beside a public bar in lower Thames Street, The pleasant whining of a mandolin And a clatter and a chatter from within Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls Of Magnus Martyr held Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold.

Although the transitions of The Bridge are less clear-cut, part of Crane’s method lies in a pattern of allusions to The Waste Land. This plan had emerges as early as his letter of September 11, 1927, to Otto H. Kahn, and later, piece by piece, in the echoes he found of Phlebas and Phoenician, who "Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell, / And the profit and loss" – lines that haunted him already in "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen."

Let us turn to a kind of allusion more precisely dependent on context. Eliot in The Waste Land, himself looking back to Shakespeare’s Tempest, overhears a character in "The Fire Sermon" in an unexpected trance of thought,

While I was fishing in the dull canal On a winter evening round behind the gashouse Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck And on the king my father’s death before him.

Pondering these lines in "The River," Crane added to the Old World image of destiny the local accretions of a childhood in the American Midwest. The effect is a startling recovery and transformation:

                                                Behind My father’s cannery works I used to see Rail-squatters ranged in nomad raillery. The ancient men – wifeless or runaway Hobo-trekkers that forever search An empire wilderness of freight and rails. Each seemed a child, like me, on a loose perch, Holding to childhood like some termless play. John, Jake, or Charley, hopping the slow freights – Memphis to Tallahassee – riding the words, Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods.

The allegory of both poets tells of a child set loose from his moorings, but discrete elements of erotic feeling are at work in the two passages. The poet’s distance from the allegory is widened by Eliot as far as possible. It is narrowed by Crane to an unembarrassed intimacy with the humble materials from which any cultural myth can be made.

The Bridge, like The Waste Land, is spoken by a man reluctant to conquer a landscape he imagines in the form of a woman, a landscape which itself has suffered the assault of earlier generations of men. The king of The Waste Land owns an inheritance that has shrunk to nothing. At its outer reach he is dimly conscious of the Thames maidens who "can connect / Nothing with nothing." The same intimation of despair is in the familiar landscape of the child Hart Crane as he watches the hobo-trekkers, but in The Bridge the possibility of connection is not despised:

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.

The narrator of the last line is noticeably mortal, and idiosyncratic in what he confides, unlike the Tiresias of The Waste Land.

Tiresias was fated to endure sexual experience as a man and a woman, then punished with blindness by Hera for his report that women’s pleasure was greater. And in compensation, rewarded with the gift of prophecy by Zeus. His self-knowledge, as the poem presents it, is a version of all knowledge. "As I have trod the rumorous midnights, too" implies a more local and personal claim. It is possible that this narrator, too, has known experience in both sexes. If so he has evidently derived feelings of potency from both. And if the word rumorous is a further memory of Eliot – "aetherial rumors / Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus" – the roughs of the "empire wilderness of freight and rails" connect the memory with a different nostalgia.

The paths a single echo may suggest are a consequence of disparate conceptions of poetic authority. When the speaker of "The Fire Sermon" sits down and weeps "by the waters of Leman," he imagines a fraternity shared with the lamenter of Psalms, a kind of fellowship that is possible only across time. The rail-squatters "ranged in nomad raillery" speak of a casual traffic among the traditions of the living; and American folk songs, some of them named in "The River," are a reminder of the energy of such traditions. You make a world in art, Crane seems to have believed, out of fragments knowable as parts of the world. With his submission to the sundry data of life – a gesture unmixed with contempt – the speaker of "The River" admits a fact of his personal life, namely, that he has had a childhood: something (odd as it feels to say so) that cannot be said of the narrator of The Waste Land. Crane is able here to discover a pathos foreign to Eliot, even in a line,

Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods,

which itself has a strong foreshadowing in Eliot’s "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" (as also in "other withered stumps of time"). "Blind fists of nothing" implies an energy in purposeless action that Eliot withholds from all his characters. The defeats or casualties in The Bridge are accepted as defeats without being accounted final. Sex is the motive of this contrast, with Eliot’s plot steadily allying sexual completion and disgust – an event and a feeling that Crane may link incidentally, as he does in "National Winter Garden" and "The Tunnel," without implying that these show the working out of an invariable law.

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Title David Bromwich: On "The River" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Bromwich Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture
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