Warner Berthoff: On "Black Tambourine"

Through the first two of its three quatrains, "Black Tambourine" (which started from Crane’s companionship at work with a black handyman in his father’s Cleveland restaurant) moves in simple declarative verse-sentences. Not until the ambiguously phrased line completing the second quatrain is there anything that might seriously trouble comprehension – or any word of more than two spoken syllables:

[The first two stanzas are quoted]

The effect of simplicity in this is deceptive. What is given so far is considerably more than a string of factual observations; the matter directly at hand has been set into a context that is both judgement-framed and, a step later, given a visionary dignity and elevation. The opening irony of the black man’s having something called "interests" in a world that twice shuts him out is substantially reinforced by the squalidness of his city surroundings – scavenger insects, broken cellar floor, a single bottle; correspondingly the running rhythm of the first two lines, doubly tempered in the second line’s enclosing and assonant spondees ("Mark tardy … closed door"), comes up sharp against the expressive halt, with its elided syllables, of "gnats toss" and "a roach spans." In the second stanza tense and voice abruptly shift – and the imaginative perspective widens accordingly – to a universal memory of extraordinary triumph out of extraordinary adversity. Aesop, in legend, was an African slave, and in the lines following the definition of his triumph (like his tortoise’s it was by means of unaided but unforgettable vernacular invention) he is appropriately commemorated in the folk tributes of animal offerings and in an indistinct but celebratory blending of human voices.

The last stanza returns to the man in the cellar, with metrical irregularities and hesitation again pressing the emphasis:

[The last stanza is quoted]

Here, maintaining the widened perspective, a pair of popular truisms fix the black man in his cultural-historical limbo, unconsoled even by the compensatory folk-legacy of an Aesop. The first is that such a man has, after all, his simple diversions ("give him a tambourine and he’ll be happy")/ The second – and one may suspect another Eliot-marked source, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and marlow’s sighting at the river station of the dying fever-ravaged negroes – is a harshly factual reminder of what the man’s life would most probably have been in the other situation conceivable for him given the historical realities of European colonialism. So at least, Crane explained to his [Gorham] Munson, the whole matter stands – "sentimentally or brutally" – in the popular mind.

Details

Title Warner Berthoff: On "Black Tambourine" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Warner Berthoff Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 29 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hart Crane: A Re-Introduction
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