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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:

“I stood upon a highway,
And, behold, there came
Many strange peddlers.
To me each one made gestures,
Holding forth little images, saying,
‘This is my pattern of God.
Now this is the God I prefer.’
But I said, ‘Hence!
Leave me with mine own,
And take you yours away;
I can’t buy of your patterns of God,
The little gods you may rightly prefer.’” (XXXIV, emphasis mine)

Crane settles because he cannot reconcile justice, mercy, truth, or beauty into any divine being he is aware of. Justice in these poems is always brutal and unfair; mercy seems almost like a joke, or at least a trap:

“There was One I met upon the road
Who looked at me with kind eyes.
He said: ‘Show me of your wares.’
And this I did
Holding forth one.
He said: ‘It is a sin.’
Then held I forth another.
He said: ‘It is a sin.’
Then held I forth another.
He said: ‘It is a sin.’
And so to the end
Always He said: ‘It is a sin.’
And, finally, I cried out:
‘But I have none other’
Then did He look at me
With kinder eyes.
‘Poor soul,’ He said.” (XXXIII)

If there is any transcendent beauty, to Crane, it is too transcendent, elusively lying “at impossible distances. (XXVI)” He urges the soft corners of the universe to keep their “distant beauty (XXIII)” and tells this tale of disappointment:

“A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it,
And eventually he achieved it —
It was clay.” (XXXV)

With these unresolved tensions, truth is presented as either an impossibly complex matter (to make sense of the painful complexities in the world) or a blunt instrument that will indiscriminately and unfairly cut through the myriad of problems the voice has observed:

“And—tell me—is it fair
Or is the truth as bitter as eaten fire?”(VII)

Crane is at times at peace with a complex, unknowable definition of truth (“Doubtless there are other roads” than the “pathway to truth”, 91). Yet the bitter truth has the stronger hold upon his faculties; one of the more famous poems from the collection is a parable of a man eating his own heart:

“I said, ‘Is it good, friend?’
‘It is bitter — bitter,’ he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.’” (III)

There is one peculiar truth that could bring harmony to the beaten down scenery of the narrator. The style of the poems, as pointed out by Christopher Benfey, is at times almost a haunted echo of Christ’s parables. If this Christ is the truth as he claimed, Crane’s inability to grasp it is not an intellectual difficulty:

“For truth was to me
A breath, a wind,
A shadow, a phantom,
And never had I touched
The hem of its garment.” (XXVIII)

If the embittered poetic voice is missing out on the solution, it is not due ignorance, it is due to a lack of touch. While this voice is able to see deeper into others than they themselves, it is plagued by a spiritual blindness (52). The book of a seer is opened in front of Crane’s eyes, only for him to suddenly go blind (38). It is not up to the speaker whether a clean, beautiful truth can be held, as the argument is one “Which God solves / Only after lighting more candles.” 149)

This collection from a most underappreciated poet is full of wonderful language and intriguing themes. A welcome break from sentimental art, it is not too self-important to consider the common themes that have tormented humanity throughout the ages. The volume is quite chronological, with the different texts illuminating each other and the whole of Crane’s ambitious mind as they are read. The handsome printing and Benfey’s helpful introduction and notes form an appropriate coat for such a rich collection.

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