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Hart Crane’s place in the Modernist pantheon is established by The Bridge. Not all of his work is so conspicuously proclaiming itself as modern. He learned from Pound and Eliot that the imperative ‘to make it new’ was no excuse for a deracinated free-for-all. Modernity looked to the future but depended on the past. Indeed, The Bridge itself, whatever else it may be, is largely a meditation on American history. This much is obvious.


Critics seem in disagreement on the extent of Crane’s debt to Imagism. Sure that he fits neatly among other clear debtors, Leslie Fiedler says that ‘all of the ambitious long poems of our time have been written under Pound’s guidance or inspired by his example. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for instance, and Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson: all of those fragmented, allusion-laden, imagistic portraits of an atomized world which have so offended the Philistine mind’. K. L. Goodwin, on the other hand, believes Crane was more obviously shaped by a later stage in Pound’s career. Goodwin says The Bridge is ‘ideogrammic’ but not ‘imagistic’: ‘The completed poem consists of large blocks of quite distinct material from which a common theme is intended to emerge; it is, that is to say, ideogrammic. Even within the larger divisions, the same technique of "montage" is applied, though there is a tendency to revert to a previous block of material for the purpose of summing up or of balance.’ With the exception, perhaps, of this last characteristic, the above statement would clearly be as applicable to the Cantos as to The Bridge. But Goodwin goes on: ‘Attention is never concentrated for long on a particular object, so that there are no outstanding examples of imagism in the poem.’ As proof, this last remark seems to rely on a mistaken definition of what Imagism ever sought to do. To ‘focus long’ is hardly compatible with the notion of the fleeting glimpse. I see no reason why we should not agree that the italicised lines in ‘The Harbour Dawn’, for instance, owe a heavy debt to Imagism [….]

Goodwin is right, of course, to draw attention to ideogrammic juxtaposition as a crucial structural procedure which Crane inherited from Pound, but the technique passed to him more fluently from T S Eliot.

Crane’s complicated indebtedness to The Waste Land is often abbreviated by hasty critics. A particularly compact version goes as follows: ‘The Waste Land continued to provoke discussion. The poet Hart Crane felt that he had to show up Eliot by writing a big poem about myths and modern life. But unlike The Waste Land his poetry would be romantic and optimistic. When The Bridge failed he killed himself.’ Some of the ingredients of this account are more positively expressed by Robert Martin: ‘His poetry might most accurately be called Romantic Modernism, for he resolved the clash of American Romanticism with European Modernism by turning Modernism into a tool with which to rediscover his own poetic heritage.’ Perhaps this is a major source of difference from Eliot: Crane believed his heritage could be not only rediscovered and reused, but rebuilt.

Crane’s main objection to The Waste Land was, indeed, that it was too pessimistic. All of his reactions to it repeat this charge. When he first read it he found it ‘good, of course, but so damned dead’. He wrote to Gorham Munson that he felt Eliot’s vision ignored ‘spiritual events and possibilities’. It quickly became clear, as a letter to Allen Tate shows, that Crane’s deep admiration for Eliot’s poem would cause problems in the writing of his own poetry, since he wanted to take part in the Modernist experiment that Eliot was shaping, and, as his reading began to follow Eliot’s recommendations, to take his own place in the English poetic tradition that Eliot had newly redefined, but he disapproved of the trend Eliot had set in modish pessimism. Crane wrote to Tate, ‘I … would like to leave a few of his "negations" behind’. The same point was repeated in many subsequent conversations with Tate. Most damningly, Hart Crane detected ‘a certain narcissism in the voluptuous melancholies of Eliot’. So much for Eliot’s much vaunted detachment.

So, while Crane was excited by The Waste Land as an experiment in strenuous modernity, he was unconvinced by its depressed view of the modern world. Perhaps one might say he was insufficiently enamoured of European culture to be as loftily pessimistic as Eliot. Crane, after all, still believed in America. The Waste Land’s depression, therefore, became a reference point to which the composition of The Bridge would always return, and from which it would purposefully veer. Crane’s poem confines its disgust to the debasement of urban physicality that we find in ‘The Tunnel’ and its portrayal of lost love as ‘a burnt match skating in a urinal’. This reference to ‘tearoom sex’ — or ‘cottaging’, as British slang would have it — is a pivotal moment in the text’s journey through underworlds both literal and figurative. The poem goes no lower than this line. It is not by accident that the line’s evocation of a debased sexuality from which all potentially uplifting emotion has been burnt off may well remind us of comparable moments in Eliot’s poem: the carbuncular clerk’s joyless collision with the typist, the lewd proposition of Mr Eugenides, the listless passivity of the conversation in the pub.

Once individuals appear in the modern world of The Bridge, they can seem just as numbed as Eliot’s personages. So, for all the poem’s hope, there is a good deal of logic in what Roy Harvey Pearce says of The Bridge: ‘Crane’s protagonists, taken all in all, reduce to the American as Prodigal: having wasted his patrimony; now trying somehow to restore it; unable to restore it until he returns to the home, the land, the myth, the language, which he has left behind. The patrimony is simply this: his spontaneous, fully-felt, all-powerful sense of his language as it reveals him as a person.’ By this reading, the poem is profoundly nostalgic, and its language is itself both the instrument and the object of that nostalgia. In these respects, the poem reinvokes the tendencies of its main model, The Waste Land; and it also, albeit perhaps inadvertently and only occasionally, reflects on the present with a negativism more characteristic of Eliot than of Crane.