Hart Crane: “Voyages”
—Exchange overheard in a West Hollywood Safeway
In 1923, Hart Crane (1899–1932) met a blond, blue-eyed Danish sailor named Emil Opffer. He fell crazily, blissfully in love. Like any wordsmith worth a red cent, he started writing a poem about it. And not just any poem, but a whole poem sequence, the most ambitious work that he had yet attempted. He faced two serious obstacles. First, it isn’t easy to write a convincing love poem. You’re up against such greats as Shakespeare and Byron; writers in the throes of young love generally churn out verse that sounds greeting-card vapid in comparison. Second, although Western poets from Theocritus to Whitman had celebrated male-on-male action, American society still wasn’t fully prepared for a gay bard to burn that torch too brightly.
Crane responded by lighting a bonfire. “Voyages” grandly, passionately blazes with traditional love-lyric rhetoric. You get blushes and sighs, rejection and consummation, heaving breasts and Freudian symbols, the whole melodramatic Petrarchan caboodle. Here is a representative sample, taken from Part IV:
All fragrance irrefragably, and claim
Madly meeting logically in this hour
And region that is ours to wreathe again,
Portending eyes and lips and making told
The chancel port and portion of our June —
Shall they not stem and close in our own steps
Bright staves of flowers and quills today as I
Must first be lost in fatal tides to tell?
By employing such outlandish rhetoric, Crane hopes to focus readers’ attention on what he believes really matters: the fact that true love hits you like a tsunami and overwhelms every objection and reservation. He might sometimes slip over the line from bold invention into pure nonsense, his grammar might rupture, and, yes, his diction might veer into weirdness, but more often than not, a reader is swept along by the swells of passion. Who expects lovers to behave rationally, let alone remember the rules of proper punctuation?
Just as the craziest moments in comedy from Plautus to Ugly Betty depend on virtuosic scriptwriting, a lot of craft goes into conveying the poem’s air of unruly, rowdy whimsy. The underlying iambic meter, for example, is a constant reminder of the author’s shaping hand. And the final section even rhymes, abcb, a deliberate echo of the ballad tradition. There’s method, Crane reminds us subtly yet insistently, behind the surface madness. One has to be alert throughout “Voyages” for how Crane’s words are “[m]adly meeting logically,” that is, assembled masterfully so as to suggest disorder.
Crane begins the poem sequence with an older, leftover, preachy lyric, originally titled “Poster,” that he had never found satisfying. It depicts a gang of kids—“Bright striped urchins”—“digging” in the sand and “scattering” bits of dried seaweed as they search for seashells:
Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
Gaily digging and scattering.
And in answer to their treble interjections
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
The waves fold thunder on the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them:
O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.
Instead of sentimentally delighting in the scene of kiddies at play, the jaded speaker perversely adds overtones of warfare and torture (“conquest,” “flay”). He sees the children as vulnerable, dwarfed by the titanic natural forces that play about them (“The sun beats lightning on the waves, / The waves fold thunder on the sand”). Worse, they engage in horseplay that comes dangerously close to foreplay (“frisk,” “fondle”). Their innocence is precarious. Only a few easily transgressed taboos separate them from an adult’s knowledge of mortality and sexuality: “there is a line / You must not cross . . . The bottom of the sea is cruel.” The implied punch line is downbeat. Children can be content because they are ignorant of life’s harsh realities. Disillusioned grown-ups are condemned to drown in sorrow.
Why kick off the sequence on such a depressing note? It provides a point of comparison. In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy starts her journey in rural Kansas. Harry Potter starts his at Number Four Privet Lane, Little Whinging. The Emerald City and Hogwarts enchant partly because of the gulfs that the books’ protagonists have to cross to get there. “Voyages II” begins by announcing a new departure: “ — And yet.” After this volta, this sudden turn, things become wild and strange:
— And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;
Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.
Crane multiplies metaphors like there’s no tomorrow. The sound of the surf makes him think of harmonious music (“diapason”), bells tolling (“knells”), and laughter. He compares the surface of the ocean to rare rich cloth (“Samite sheeted”), to a stately march (“processioned”), and to “scrolls of silver snowy sentences.” He personifies the sea, too, first comparing it to an impossibly large closed eye (a “great wink”) and then imagining it as a titanic “sceptred” queen whose body we glimpse only momentarily and partially (“vast belly”). This monarch is not so much “cruel” (as “Voyages I” puts it) as she is mercurial, the courtly “sessions” over which she presides going “well or ill” as “her demeanors motion,” that is, depending on her mood. (There is a crucial exemption: she always honors “the pieties of lovers’ hands,” the way true lovers treat each other as if they were not merely human but divine.)
The setting is nominally the Caribbean. Crane mentions “bells off San Salvador,” the island where Columbus first touched land in the New World, as well as the “galleons” associated with the Age of Discovery:
And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides, —
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.
The speaker here appears to travel among “adagios of islands,” that is, an archipelago whose islands appear one by one, slowly, as he sails, the way notes arrive in a musical piece. This journey is less actual, though, than metaphorical:
Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave, —
Hasten, while they are true, — sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.
The poem proposes a launch into the unknown in search of erotic fulfillment (“one instant in one floating flower”). But who knows where love will lead? The beloved is addressed as “O my Prodigal,” a peculiar word choice that combines, on the one hand, overtones of generosity and munificence and, on the other, a sense that the person has gone wandering, perhaps gone astray. Opffer, a sailor, was away at sea for long stretches of time; Crane could be casting him in the role of biblical Prodigal Son, someone who leaves home only to return later, unexpectedly, in an event worthy of lavish celebration. Regardless, “Voyages II” ends with a fervent prayer that the lovers will undertake this particular adventure together and that their jaunt will last uninterrupted until beyond death:
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise
Crane could have written something easier to understand, a line closer to “I’ll love you baby till the end of time” or “I <3 U 4-ever.” But if you’re feeling at all cynical, such declarations are trite. “Voyages” uses extravagant, unusual diction to overcome an audience’s resistance and to entice them into experiencing vicariously the mad heights of infatuation.
The line that the children in “Voyages I” were never supposed to cross has been crossed—and yet (“And yet!”) puberty, instead of bringing doom, turns out to be a ticket to a nonstop erotic Disneyland. One can trace a rough plotline. In Part II, as we have seen, the lovers embark, leaving the seashore and its moral quandaries behind. In Part III, their ardor seems to reach a climax. In Part IV, they frolic. Next comes an episode, it appears, of betrayal (“flagless . . . piracy”) and reconciliation (“Draw in your head and sleep the long way home”). Finally, the poem pans back out into an avowal of perfect mutual love, “the unbetrayable reply / Whose accent no farewell can know.” These events and poses, though, are never fully or realistically presented, since they serve largely as occasions for Crane’s over-the-top verse.
Lovers, he shows us, are all prodigals insofar as they are extravagant, errant wasters of language. Instead of getting to the point, they fool around. As we earlier saw, in Part IV one word can give rise to several (“Portending . . . port and portion,” “fragrance irrefragably”). Sound play sometimes proliferates to such an extent that it almost threatens to crowd out sense altogether, as in this excerpt from “Voyages VI”:
let thy waves rear
More savage than the death of kings,
Some splintered garland for the seer.
Beyond siroccos harvesting
The solstice thunders
Here the letters “s” and “r” seem to govern word choice more than any discernible underlying argument or description. Throughout Parts III to VI the speaker strives for an operatic high style by tossing off money word after money word (“Infinite consanguinity,” “immutability,” “Infrangible,” “fervid covenant”), and he imitates romantic odes by throwing in a few mannered apostrophes (“O minstrel,” “O rivers”). Sometimes, granted, he gets things wrong. In “Voyages V,” for example, he refers to his beloved’s “argosy of bright hair,” which might sound impressive but in fact turns out to be rather silly. “Argosy” refers to an extra-large merchant vessel of the kind favored by Venice and its erstwhile maritime rival Ragusa (today Dubrovnik). “Oh, Emil, what a cute container ship you have on your head!”
Tossed and tormented by Cupid’s tempest like every true lover since Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “My Galley Charged with Forgetfulness,” Crane’s speaker doesn’t really care what comes out of his mouth. He burbles what Roland Barthes calls le discours amoureux, the lover’s discourse, a special way of using language that creates and sustains an otherworldly, anarchic, timeless space of pain, bliss, and ecstasy that remains impervious to common sense, the reality principle, decorum, and all censorship. “Voyages III” best exemplifies Crane’s utopian dreamscape:
Infinite consanguinity it bears —
This tendered theme of you that light
Retrieves from sea plains where the sky
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke
Wide from your side, whereto this hour
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.
And so, admitted through black swollen gates
That must arrest all distance otherwise, —
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
Light wrestling there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
and where death, if shed,
Presumes no carnage, but this single change, —
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of song;
Permit me voyage, love, into your hands . . .
In this passage, Crane continues the whimsical proliferation of metaphors we saw earlier in Part II. Waves are compared to lifted “hands,” “whirling pillars,” “lithe pediments,” and “black swollen gates.” This time, however, the action takes a different course. Initially, we discover the speaker swimming through “ribboned water lanes,” and he seems to be united with his beloved (“no stroke / Wide from your side”). Then, between the first and second verse paragraphs, the scenario suddenly changes, as if there has been an awkward film splice. “I” and “you” now appear to be separated. The speaker must make a heroic swim “through wave on wave” to reach “[y]our body rocking.” In fact, he must travel so far out that he is at risk of drowning. He is not afraid, however. “[D]eath” under such circumstances, we are told, is not “carnage,” that is, senseless slaughter. It is a “change,” a magical metamorphosis. Reminiscent of the “sea change” that “thy father” undergoes in Ariel’s song “Full Fathoms Five” in Shakespeare’s Tempest, this “change” is into something rich and strange, albeit not into a gem-encrusted corpse: “Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn / The silken skilled transmemberment of song.”
What a riddling pair of lines! There’s slant rhyme (“flung” / “dawn” / “song”) and rampant alliteration (“Upon the steep,” “floor flung from,” “silken skilled”) to distract you. There’s also a coinage, a brand-new word, “transmemberment,” which resembles a mash-up of the words “transformation,” “dismemberment,” “remember,” and “re-member” (as in “to reassemble”). If in Part I we learned that “[t]he bottom of the sea is cruel,” here that lesson is revised. Once you are drawn far out into the sea of passion, you can lose yourself, you can drown, but then you are transformed, made new, by love’s siren call. Cruel, perhaps, but also a consummation devoutly to be wished. Part III concludes, “Permit me voyage, love, into your hands.” In another poem, this line might come across as overly saccharine. Here, though, in the wake of all the striving and sinking, the speaker does not appear to be making a Hollywood-ish love-you-forever, church-bells-and-tulle declaration of love. He envisions an extreme version of erotic embrace so final, so powerful, so decisive that it will be like death.
Writing half a century before the Stonewall riots, Crane can think of no better way to describe the fundamental, total “transmemberment” necessary to commit himself publicly to loving another man. Romeo and Juliet had it easy by comparison; they only turned their back on their families, friends, and hometown. Crane risked those things, too, plus his livelihood and his life. (More than once, he was attacked and beaten while at gay bars. He seems to have endured a particularly bad thrashing the night before he committed suicide at age 32.) “Voyages” is a 20th-century masterpiece not because its author is queer but because lauding queer love requires a reckless openness to and acceptance of emotions so intense, so fiery, that they burn away your past self. No going back afterward; no underbrush left to hide in. You must consign yourself to the “harbor of the phoenix’ breast,” as Crane puts it in “Voyages VI,” and trust in rebirth, in poetry, and in love.
Brian Reed is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of the book Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006) as well as articles on such poets as Susan Howe, Ezra Pound, Tom Raworth, and Carl Sandburg.