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Book Review: Stephen Crane: Complete Poems (American Poets Project), Edited by Christopher Benfey

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Stephen Crane is best known for his short story, “The Red Badge of Courage.” In it, an anxious young Civil War soldier happens upon another soldier, dead, in what would normally seem a wonderfully serene “sanctuary” in the bosom of nature. The reader sees that the surface prettiness of nature does not run deep — the birds and trees don’t offer the heavenly refuge that the Romantic poets pretended it did. Crane thus moved away from his contemporaries before literature made its way into full-fledged modernism — the rejection of old truth structures in religion, nature, and language, supplanted by a new structure erected by the artists themselves.

This collection of poetry is fascinating; it more ambitiously, in his words, addresses the concerns of Crane’s prose. Crane is very cynical in dealing with nature, humanity, truth, and God, yet he deals with them all thoroughly and honestly. Whereas a modernist poet down the road would render these classic subjects as old news, the “Complete Poems” collection treats them as crucial, even if they are bitterly crucial.

Written with little regard for form, the voice (in Crane’s poems personified as a “wooden tongue” in one) is usually minimalistic and pessimistic. It is, in a word, anti-poetic. The voice behind most pieces is disillusioned at each turn, whether encountering nature, violence, hypocrisy, or the very idea of God.

The harsh character of nature is clear to the speaker. The ocean laments, in XXXVIII:

“That the king of the seas
Weeps too, old, helpless man.
The bustling fates
Heap his hands with corpses
Until he stands like a child
With surplus of toys.”

Elsewhere the landscape is described as featuring “valleys of black death-slime (LXVIII)”, and to a wrecked sailor, the sea “was dead grey walls” that pointed to the “grim hatred of nature. (79)” There is no natural justice, as the “plains and the hills, aloof (pg. 80)” and any seasoned person is chided for holding to any optimism therein:

“With your old eyes
Do you hope to see
The triumphal march of justice?
Do no wait, friend!
Take your white beard
And your old eyes
To more tender lands.” (LXIV)

The human actors on the natural stage fit right in, repeatedly brought up at some point in the cycle of violence, war, and death that circles Crane’s poems. These men, “born to drill and die (75)”, are typically unaware of their plight, fooled into believing that pride and valor come from their strivings; the emptiness of red badges of courage is lost on the zealous characters scattered throughout the collection. And whether spending one’s days in bliss, earnestness, or detachment, all is flattened out into this shared experience of death:

“An hour, with its million trinkets of joy or pain,
Matters little in cellar or merry den
Since all is death.” (148)

The source of this terrible reality, for Crane, is God. Man and beast are often complicit (despite their claims otherwise), but the one that “fashioned the ship of the world carefully” is distracted, letting the ship slip into chaos, “forever rudderless (VI)”. This God, presumably of the Christian faith, is called the “Father of the Never-Ending Circles (The Battle Hymn)” and a great “battle-god” with his kingdom: “A field where a thousand corpses lie (75).” The “clang of swords” is attributed as divine wisdom (136). As the sea, “God is cold (138)” is a refrain in one piece.

At times Crane seems to defy primarily the God of the Bible, responding to a segment of the 10 commandments with, “I hate thee, unrighteous picture (XII)”. It is common for Crane to object to pictures, or images of gods, and his defies these conceptions of deity as untrue or, if true, unworthy of reverence:

“Blustering god,
Stamping across the sky
With loud swagger,
I fear you not.” (LIII)

He is unimpressed with the gods presented to him by others:

“You tell me this is God?
I tell you this is a printed list,
A burning candle and an ass.” (87)

And while the poetic voice points out the façade that can be the piety of many (a man dabbles with a strange god, only to flee to the “god of his inner thoughts” in poem LI), he resigns to settling for his own imagination of deity:

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