How to Write an Epic
In “New Thresholds, New Anatomies: Notes on a Text of Hart Crane” (1935), the New Critic R. P. Blackmur attacked The Bridge's “radical confusion” (274). Though in many respects a dated piece, this essay is worth revisiting. It restores the scandalousness of the long poem in the aftermath of its initial publication. Blackmur takes it as an almost personal affront that one of the “most ambitious poems of our time” fails to deliver the “rational art” so desperately needed during the Depression years of “drums beating” and “fanatic politics” (269).
The Bridge's unforgivable flaws, he explains, are formal, or more precisely, generic: “He used the private lyric to write the cultural epic” (274). Crane wished to celebrate the founding, achievements, glorious present, and promising future of the United States. As he put it to Gorham Munson, he sought to write “a mystical synthesis of 'America'” (O My 131). Such subject matter, Blackmur insists, requires a corresponding style and point of view, “a sweeping, discrete, indicative, anecdotal language” given to “cataloguing” (274). To hone his technique, Crane should have turned to the epic tradition, to the likes of Milton and Dante (275–76).
Instead, Crane fell under “the influence of… the school of tortured sensibility.” He studied Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Hopkins, and early Eliot (274–75). The resultant style—whose “virtue” is “to accrete, modify, and interrelate moments of emotional vision”—is seriously mismatched to the demands of a “cultural epic.” In The Bridge he manages to craft lyrical effusions that convey “rare and valid emotion,” but he also persistently omits the facts, dates, stories, and other material necessary for the “objective embodiment” of a nation's history. What he writes is “enough for him because he kn[ows] the rest,” whereas his readers, expecting more than “the felt nature of knowledge,” are left mystified and unsatisfied (274).