Paul Giles: On "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge"

… The symbolic grandeur of the first four lines is counterbalanced by the world of work depicted in the second stanza, whose literal meaning is that the seagull fades out of sight as quickly as boats pass the harbor, and that the imaginative reveries inspired by the bird must be checked ("filed away") in order to allow the business world to function. But this opposition between a romantic desire to sail to far-off lands and an acquiescence in humdrum clerical duties is also revealed by the tilting between opposites inherent in the stanza’s puns. The clue is sails, for, given the context of figures and files and elevators, it would be more predictable to find commercial "sales" rather than sailing-ships here. Therefore we may see the "inviolate curve" of the Bridge as a merging into the "inviolate curve" of a sales graph, for Bridge and sales graph become equivalent mythic forces which allow a renunciation of the Romantic ego ("forsake our eyes," with a pun turning on "eye" and "I") and which transmute the citizen into an item within the profit-and-loss columns tossed off by this office-clerk, the "page of figures" (page: "a man of humble birth or status"). Similarly, in the fourth line Till puns on "money drawer in a shop or store," which presents us with a Surrealistic image of the New York office-workers being carried up and down the city’s skyscrapers as if on the levers of some gigantic cash-register. Crane’s intricacies extend even further, for drop is "to part with or lose (money)," and "our day" puns on "oday," American slang for "money." Thus one cryptic version of this line would be: "Cash-registers part us from our money." This testifies to the ceaseless orbit of commercialism upon which New York revolves: the workers’ wages are exchanged for goods in shops, the sales of commodities enables businesses to employ clerical workers – pages of figures – who in turn spend their earnings to keep the cycle in motion.

....

We can also select a stanza from "Proem" which contains a more obvious ambiguity:

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

The immediate connotations are of Brooklyn Bridge as a "vault," "an arched structure of masonry," which leaps over the water in a literal sense, and by extension provides a mythical object for the entire United States, even the personified prairies of the Midwest which the Bridge vaults over in a symbolic way. This is to read "the prairies’ dreaming sod" as the object of Vaulting. But as well as denoting the soil, sod can also be "sodomite," suggesting that "the prairies’ dreaming sod" may be none other than Hart Crane himself, the imaginative homosexual from Ohio. If this is the case, it may be simply the "dreaming sod" who is "Vaulting the sea," which could make the phrase psychoanalytically reductive, implying this "myth to God" might be brought down to mere autobiography and wish-fulfillment. Robert K. Martin [in The Homosexual Tradition in Modern Poetry {Austin: U Texas P, 1979), 33-47] has recently discussed the desire of some homosexual poets, notably Whitman, to conjoin themselves with an objective world which is the same as their subjective beings, in the same way as homosexuals choose lovers of the same sex; and so Crane, always guilty about what he thought of as the failure of his sexuality, is secretly admitting here that this vision of Brooklyn Bridge vaulting over the prairies’ dreaming sod may be the product simply of a dreaming sod’s desire to annex the world as an extension of his own ego. Does The Bridge stem from Crane’s inability to acknowledge the differences involved in heterosexual love and heterogeneous worlds? Vaulting itself has erotic connotations: Webster says "vaulting house" is an obsolete term from "brothel"; and the first two lines of this stanza seem to be a covert description of homosexual love-making, with the river being the active partner, one who "rives" ("to rend asunder, to split") the other’s flesh, and "reaming," enclosed in dreaming, being American slang for anal intercourse. (Crane knew the word reamed for he uses it openly in "After Jonah," a poem published posthumously: "O sweet deep whale as ever reamed the sky.") This would suggest The Bridge is secretly a homosexual idyll; and sweep has an obsolescent meaning of "whip" or "scourge" which would support this, inserting the homosexuality into a specifically sado-masochistic encounter."

. . .

There is in The Bridge, then, a series of concealed sexual puns which may serve to transfigure the world from the banality of logic into the brilliant liquid motion of verbal and sexual play; or alternatively may be no more than a perpetual rebellion from final assertion and resolution. … [J]esting wordplay was Crane’s specialty, and his friend Samuel Loveman was another who remembered Hart introducing this wordplay into daily life: "riding on the subway was just one holocaust of laughter because he saw double meanings in all the ads and usually obscene meanings. He claimed that most of them had some sexual or phallic undercurrent of meaning. I doubted that, although very frequently he was right or seemed to be right." Crane exploits these sexual double meanings in The Bridge, but is always striving to make them more than simply a form of confession. I noted how Emerson’s famous essay on "the Poet" talked of the need to apprehend analogies between past and present as such bridging would boost America’s cultural self-esteem by its recognition that "Methodism and Unitarianism … rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi"; and this same Emerson essay ,ay have been one of the inspirations behind Crane’s attempt to metamorphose his own private history into the public history of America: "Time and nature yield us many gift, but not yet the timely man, the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. Dante’s praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality."

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Title Paul Giles: On "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Paul Giles Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 29 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hart Crane: The Contexts of "The Bridge"
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