CYCLES OF ILLUSION AND DISILLUSION IN THE POETRY OF HART CRANE
ROWLETT, WILLIAM DOUGLAS
Doctor of Philosophy
This study is a reading of Hart Crane's two published volumes, White Buildings and The Bridge. The first chapter presents a general review of the major criticism of Crane's poetry and discusses the negative and positive aspects of that criticism. The relationship of this study to current critical opinion is also discussed, and the main thesis of this work is presented. The contention is that Hart Crane's poetry is motivated by a central synthesizing idea, the search for union between the illusions presented by poetic vision and the disillusioning antivisionary stance presented by twentieth-century reality. Crane, unlike many other poets, was not attempting to impose order upon, or change in any way, the world in his search for synthesis. He was, instead, seeking a stable order within himself that would accommodate both his vision and his reality. Since he was unable to alter perceived reality, he was forced to alter his poetic illusions one by one, constantly testing each against the disillusioning patterns of mundane existence until it failed, in continuous cycles of alternating illusion and disillusion. Crane sought not refuge from the harsh realities of life but a synthesis of real and unreal worlds that would provide a form of ultimate reality to which both the poet and the man, the visionary and the ordinary, could be reconciled. These cycles are illustrated in Chapter I by readings of two sections of The Bridge, and the problem of genre and division in Crane's poetry is discussed. The second chapter is a reading of the poems in White Buildings. The thesis is that the volume is divided into five distinct cycles, each of which includes several poems in the volume. The first cycle presents an almost sinusoidal pattern of despair that moves toward ecstasy and eventually returns to despair once again. The succeeding cycles, although not nearly as linearly precise as the first, also follow similar patterns. "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" encompasses an entire cycle of illusion and disillusion by itself, while "At Melville's Tomb" and the "Voyages" series compose the concluding cycle of the volume. Throughout the book Hart Crane moves ever nearer his goal of union between the ideal and the real, and actually achieves the union, albeit briefly, in the last two cycles. The third chapter is devoted to a reading of The Bridge. The contention here is that The Bridge is an evolved and expanded continuation of the process begun and partially developed in White Buildings. While the two works are separate entities able to stand by themselves, it is also possible to read them as, in one sense, one long work bound by similarities of theme, imagery, motif, and structure. The Bridge too is composed of cycles that oscillate between illusion and disillusion as the poet attempts to solve the twin problems of time and space, two aspects of reality that frustrate his drive toward synthesis. By using the lessons learned from White Buildings, Crane is able first to conquer time through a mystical dream-like journey into the prehistory of America in which he joins erotically and spiritually with Pocahontas, the essence and spirit of the continent, and then conquers space through an actual journey into the hellish depths of lower Manhattan and a subway journey beneath the East River. The synthetic element he finds is the symbolic "Bridge," the synoptic arc that joins reality and illusion with a stable platform that supports the poet between the two variant states of existence. The poet himself becomes both the process and the artifact, the creator of the bridge and the bridge himself, symbolized by identification with the architectural construct of Brooklyn Bridge.