Hart Crane: After His Lights

By Brian M. Reed | Go to book overview

1
How American

In the first decades of the twentieth century, many significant U.S. poets— among them T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, H.D., Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams—reacted strongly against the perceived excesses of late nineteenth-century poetry. These authors rejected the elegant, highly wrought poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites and the decadents, as well as the treacly sentimentality of mainstream verse, in order to embrace a more “natural” style in two senses of the word: first, they experimented with contemporary vernacular diction and speech patterns, and, second, they eschewed theatrical or inappropriate displays of emotion.

Crane, however, chose a contrary path. He typically preferred ornate rhetoric to clean imagery, aureation to blunt Anglo-Saxon, and exaggeration to understatement. He disliked vers libre. He increased, not reduced, the gap between his conventionally rhymed-and-metered verse and the language of everyday speech. Simply put, he became a mannerist. He so supersaturated his poetry with the perceived vices of the late Victorian lyric that, like a viewer standing before such notorious late Renaissance works as Parmigianino's Madonna with the Long Neck (1534), his first readers were often unsure whether to snort, giggle, or be swept up in the passion and audacity of the masterful execution.

Crane's outrageous style has many stereotypically modernist aspects to it: obliquity, indirection, estrangement, and a concentration on the quiddity of its medium, language. Nevertheless, it also represents a bold departure in tone, affect, and temperament from the standard set by such chiseled, reticent, worldly works as Pound's Lustra (1916), H.D.'s Sea Garden (1916), Williams's Spring and All (1923), Moore's Observations (1924), and Eliot's Pru

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