Skip to main content

"Cape Hatteras"—three years in the making, and by far the longest poem in The Bridge, in fact, the longest single poem Crane ever wrote. It is both palinode and antidote, really, to his "Faustus and Helen," a poem of transformations and metamorphoses, revising the paradigm of the Faustian overreacher in favor of Whitman’s more democratic brotherhood of man. In his reading of Spengler and of Western literature and Western history, as in studying his own parents, Crane had come to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the ego-centered drive of Western man to conquer and pacify. The conquest of time, the conquest of space, the conquest of the wilderness, manifest destiny, the age of progress, the race to link East and West. But once "The seas all crossed, / weathered the capes, the voyage done," what then? An age of armaments, the war to end all wars, one empire dying, another striving to be born. Hollywood manifesting once again the gold rush fever. Europe an exhausted whore.

But what of the long view? The gradual replacement of one age with another, the late Jurassic transformed into coal and gas and oil-fields, to be devoured by the late Cambrian in its Western industrial phase. The "dorsal change of energy": frogs’ eyes transformed into the giggling whine of greased ball bearings. Explorations, strange languages, the surf of radio static, the "combustion at the astral core." Matter transformed into energy: wind over waters bringing Columbus to the New World. And now what new worlds disclosed with the whirr of engines and the wind playing over canvas wings?

Cutty Sark [note: "Cutty Sark" is the poem preceding "Cape Hatteras"] transformed to Kitty Hawk. Horizontal conquest giving way now to sheer verticality. He was finishing "Cape Hatteras" two years after Lindbergh had made his transatlantic solo flight, reversing Columbus’s voyages and covering the same distance backward in a fraction of the time. "The nasal whine of power whips a new universe," Crane wrote, like Williams and other American poets aware of the sheer power of the new electrical stations built to supply power to entire cities, the stars’ energy harnessed by coal and oil, the strop of belts on assembly lines, the boom of spools, the roar of industry with its deafening power. Energy as exotic dynamo.

But consider too the underbelly of this Faustian energy: the urge to conquer space and time implying the urge to conquer other humans as well. The Wright brothers, "windwrestlers," veering like Columbus "Capeward," and the soul, "by naphtha fledged into new reaches," already that much closer to exploring the rocky surface of Mars. Not the space age only, implied in the lifting of that gooneybird over Kill Devil Hills in 1903, but military conquest following inevitably in its wake as well. The most advanced airplane of 192 not that far removed from its World War I counterpart: biplanes leaving their silver hangars like so many larvae—new Iliads glimmering "through eyes raised in pride." The dogfight, enemy circling enemy in "war’s fiery kennel," machine-gun bullets—those "theorems sharp as hail"—grenades exploding, their razor petals carving face and body. Or the vision of dirigibles like huge whales aboard which planes might land:

Regard the moving turrets! From grey decks See scouting griffons rise through gaseous crepe Hung low . . . until a conch of thunder answers Cloud belfries, hanging, while searchlights, like fencers, Slit the sky’s pancreas of foaming anthracite Toward thee, O Corsair of the typhoon . . .

A pseudo-epic language here, alas, as out-of-date, really, as da Vinci’s drawings of an early helicopter, a mIltonic rhetoric employed to treat the facts of modern air combat. Planes lifting from aircraft carriers circa 1929. Swarming through overcast skies, then the sounds of anti-aircraft shells and sirens and searchlights zigzagging, swording the skies, trying to pinpoint the enemy, flown by Faustian overreachers, hot-dogs. But the picture in its outlines true for all that, no more far-fetched, really, than the idea of permanent space stations from which manned spacecraft or missiles might be launched. And all this in an elevated Virgilian / Elizabethan language Crane thought of as resonating with the most sublime undertakings of humankind, man drunk on power in the "alcohol of space."

America, Crane rightly understood, had within it the power "to conjugate infinity’s dim marge—anew." But first it would have to overcome its bloodlust, its dependency always on force—its destruction of the Indian, slavery, the murder of brother by brother in the epic Civil War which Whitman had witnessed firsthand. "Thou, pallid there as chalk," Crane wrote now, addressing his guide, none other than this same Walt Whitman, "Has kept of wounds, O Mourner, all that sum / That then from Appomattox stretched to Somme!" All those deaths at Antitam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg. Chancellorscille, Cold Harbor, the trenches south of Petersburg and Richmond, as well as at the Little Big Horna nd San Juan Hill and the even more terrible losses at the Somme, Verdun, Chateau-Thierry. There had to be another way out of the nightmare of history. If it was death one wanted, then, yes, receive the "benediction of the shell’s sure. Deep reprieve," the "Sky-gak pilot," hit with a fusillade of machine-gun bullets, as the soaring plane – perforated – suddenly reversed in its ascent, spiraling down and down until man and plane hit the Cape again, a healp of "high bravery," yes, but a heap of "mashed and shapeless debris" as well.

Another way was needed, then, another way to ascend those imagined heights and "conjugate infinity’s dim marge – anew." That sense of discovery, such as Crane felt, he tells us here, when – like Keats opening Chapman’s Homer – he first read Whitman in the spring of 1916 with the Somme offensive about to be unleashed, and fifty thousan dmen were lost in those first hours alone. Whitman’s lines of power and beauty, surging and receding, lines of poetry – "thunder’s eloquence" felt in the landscape itself – "as rife as the loam / Of prairies, yet like breakers cliffward leaping," a power Crane was trying to replicate in The Bridge with his own thundering lines.

Not division, then, but communion. Not bare-knuckled hands, but a hand extended in friendship. Wasn’t that what Whitman, having seen what bullets could do to his brother and to every mother’s son, had offered in their stead? Panis Angelicus! The new communion of friendship, the radiant host of brotherhood, glimpsed in those "Eyes tranquil with the blaze" not of bullets but "Of love’s own diametric gaze, of love’s amaze." A gaze steady, democratic, accepting the other not as inferior or superior but as equal, as brother. Walt, seen on the bearded faces of hoboes and beggars behind his father’s cannery, or on the tracks, or (closer) the streets of New York. A look both familiar and evasive, the sustaining myth of brotherhood, extended to all, in the all-conquering language of love that just might transcend death itself, a vision bequeathed by Whitman in those marvelous leaves of grass of his:

And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me . . .

The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied them, And proceed to fill the next fold of the future . . .

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and filter your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Whitman’s vision of the Open Road, then – open to all, to be shared by all, the rainbow’s arch as promise, a bridge of love connecting past and present. St. Francis Whitman, the "joyous seer" providing a vision of brotherhood, and Crane accepting the open hand extended toward him in friendship across the chasm of time and suffering. For now Crane’s hand, but, after him, another’s and another’s – each reading the Bible of Whitman "by the aureole ‘round thy head / Of pasture-shine. Panis Angelicus!"