M. D. Uroff: On "The River"

… The train that roars into the nighttime wilderness of America and carries the poet with it is on the same track as the locomotive that came whizzing and shrieking through Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844, to upset Hawthorne’s peaceful reveries; it is a descendant pf the iron horse whose car-rending neighs pierced the silence of Walden Pond; it is naturally of the same species as the snakelike machine that intrudes upon the unaxed campsite in "The Bear." But the extent to which Crane’s Twentieth Century Limited differs from these other trains is marked and suggests how Crane had absorbed the sensations of twentieth-century industrialized America.

In Crane’s consciousness there exists a certain sensorial correspondence between nature and the machine. He does not contrast the noisy. Whizzing train with a pastoral world of calm and silence; rather, the train’s frenzied speed has its counterpart in nature as the poet hears "Trains sounding the long blizzards out." The eye is not blinded by the real ugliness of nature; the elements themselves are not all sunshine and clear water. The grimiest train resembles the Mississippi River, described accurately as "Damp tonnage and alluvial march of days – / Nights turbid, vascular with silted shale." The mechanical and seemingly unnatural force of the machine finds its natural model in the ruthless flow of the river, which drags everything with it to its biding place as, in a curious combination of mechanical and organic metaphors, the "river’s freighted floors / Throb past the City." Crane does write of the "iron dealt cleavage" of the train, the destruction of nature by the machine. But it is also a reminder of the natural origin of the train, the iron taken from the "Iron Mountain," the iron-dealt cleavage of the mines which has become the train. Now "iron strides the dew – / Straddles the hill, a dance of wheel on wheel," and so the circle is closed as the iron returns to nature in a dance, a foretelling of as well as a contrast to the mythic dance of the Indian in the next section of The Bridge and another form of the harmonious "sapphire wheel" of Elohim from the earlier Columbus section. Crane here echoes Whitman’s address in "To a Locomotive in Winter":

Type of the modern – emblem of motion and power – pulse of the continent, For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee, With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow, By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes, By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

The remarkable fact about this section of The Bridge is that this particular train, the plushest conveyance of the glittering 1920s, leads the reader not away from nature into the great world of civilization but directly into the interior of the country and back in time to the "primal world of the Indian." The train in all its splendor does in fact fade into the landscape, and in one of the long poem’s several metamorphoses it becomes the Mississippi River.

The tramps whom the Twentieth Century Limited deposits along the banks of the Mississippi have been regarded as anti-industrial figures. "pastoral Charlie Chaplins." These childlike figures, uncorrupted by civilization, have a direct, sensual, and intuitive response to the land, which the Indian and the pioneer shared and which industrial man must recapture "Under a world of whistles, wires and steam." It is true that these hoboes have the "elemental gist," remember certain nature favors like "watermelon days" and the best place for "early trouting," and have touched "something like a key perhaps" in the continent. They can count time not measured by the "Keen instruments, strung to a vast precision" of scientific America; they are in tune with the freer movements of nature and measure "The river’s minute by the far brook’s year." In a sense, then, they are quite the opposite of the "Express" that "makes time like / SCIENCE" and the world that exists in a "telegraphic night." But these "humpty-dumpty clods" as Crane also describes them, are not the only people in modern America who know at first hand the time and the movement of the land. They share their awareness with two figures straight out of the machine age, the steamboat pilot and the Negro train porter, "Memphis Johnny, Steamboat Bill, Missouri Joe." The pilot and the porter as they merge into one person, an "ancient clown," lead the modern pioneer, the "Pullman breakfasters," to the special knowledge that nature bestows. Mn must move as far as he can on his modern contrivance to conquer space and time, and then he must harmonize his flight with the same powerful primitive force of nature which the steamboat captains as well as Columbus knew. Modern man must flee in the sense in the opposite direction from Columbus, away from the skill and control of "Sheriff, Brakeman and Authority" to the intimate knowledge that Columbus had from the beginning of the "ancient flow," the "quarrying passion," the "jungle grace," "this tideless spell" of nature, rampant, free and wild. The new "liquid theme" of flight will be a version of Columbus’s Te Deum, the Negro spiritual Deep River, in which is celebrated man’s flight from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from this world to the next. And in this case the deep river carries from the confusion of the present back through the steamboat era into the world of myth, where in "The Dance" that follows he comes to possess a sense of the primal movement of life.

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Title M. D. Uroff: On "The River" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author M. D. Uroff Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hart Crane: The Patterns of His Poetry
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