Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
— Hart Crane
I first read Hart Crane in a poetry anthology. It was this poem, in fact, that led me to seek out more of his work. At the time, I was fully enthralled with T.S. Eliot, who still ranks among the giants in my personal pantheon of writers, but Crane has long been the standard by which I judge my own poetry (and I fall pathetically short of that standard, I know).
Crane may be one of the most difficult modern poets to comprehend. Each line is so packed with meaning that a lifetime of study rarely reveals the true depth of any Crane poem.
Take just the first four lines of “At Melville’s Tomb” for example — we have thrown together the idea of random chance in life (the dice), fortune telling (again, the dice), death that is both caused by chance and leads to chance, and a diplomatic connection between the living and the dead (the embassy). And even with that brief inventory of meanings, we still do not arrive at an articulate connection between the words and their impact on the reader.
Crane called this the “logic of metaphor:”
. . . [A]s a poet, I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and the perceptions involved in the poem.
“At Melville’s Tomb” is one of the best illustrations of Crane’s point. While the poem is backed with unexpected flights of word play, the language is in no way trivialized and the overall scope of the poem remains cohesive and coherent. Crane takes unusual words, combines them in unusual ways and beats out odd rhythms on his way to hitting you in the gut with a powerful image. In this case, it is an image of death and fate seen through the closed eyes of Herman Melville.
Take a line like “Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars …” The phrase does not necessarily communicate a straightforward thought, but it is a powerful image once you piece together the look of a drowning man’s eyes, staring heavenward as he descends to the depths of a pitiless and icy sea, lifting prayers for his very soul as death becomes inevitable. A lesser poet would have been more direct, and therefore less powerful.
Crane is by no means an easy poet to comprehend, but none of the truly great poets ever are. Life is never easy, so how can a poet truly hope to reflect reality in simple phrases and trite observations? Language is, after all, a poor tool for describing life, so the poet must squeeze every ounce of meaning from the pitifully few words he has to choose from and illuminate our being as best he can. Crane did better than most.