Hart Crane: The Life of an American Poet

by Philip Horton
[Norton, $3.00]
IT would be difficult to conceive a more tragic and wretched and in many ways sordid story than Mr. Philip Horton gives us in his life of Hart Crane; and it is greatly to Mr. Horton’s credit that out of comparatively eventless materials, and with a central character who by no conceivable stretch of the imagination can be called sympathetic, he has written an admirable and very moving biography. When Hart Crane, not yet thirty-three, ended his life by drowning five years ago, it may be Said that he not only ended a bankrupt personal dream or vision, but the bankrupt dream of a whole generation as well. It was an era of spurious violences, spurious mysticisms, spurious esotericisms; an era of easy and lazy short cuts; above all, an era of a kind of specious spaciousness, a spaciousness which was as little founded in thought as it was in education. If Harry Crosby, a belated Jin de siécle enfant terrible, was its reductio ad absurdum. with his dreary little coterie of ‘black sun’ worshipers, Hart Crane was its genius.
Perhaps pseudo-genius? It is much too soon to say. Mr. Horton does not scruple to use the adjective ‘great’ of Crane’s achievement, nor is he by any means without sound critical support. And that Crane had a kind of power, both of imagination and of phrase, is without question. Superb lines, superb images, fine groups of lines; here and there, as in the Mississippi River section of The Bridge, a whole poetic movement of great beauty; but what is everywhere apparent also, and increasingly apparent as Crane grew older, is the failure of the substructure to hold together, either formally or conceptually. He had, it is true, an explicit æsthetic in defense of this: he claimed the privileges of a pre-logical and associational and purely affective kind of poetic statement, carried to an extreme of subjectivism; but it may well be questioned whether this was not an ex post facto rationalization of what had become an essentially destructive bad habit. Good ‘nonsense,’ as M. Cammaerts has pointed out, is an important ingredient in all good poetry; but great poetry, except of the most fragmentary sort, and perhaps decadent as well, cannot be built of nonsense alone.
Crane was a neurotic, a profoundly disequilibrated soul, and he had a really extraordinary talent; but he lacked the will or the courage to discipline his talent, indulged its weaknesses to excess, whipped up his failing associational powers with alcohol, and came inevitably to the point at which they were exhausted. Arrived there, he found, of course, that he had no intellectual centre, and no core of conviction, left. Intellectually and spiritually, he died with his failure to synthesize the architecture of The Bridge, his finest poem; and this he knew. His death by suicide three years later was simply the posthumous death of a poet who had lost his way, and become a hollow man, a man without beliefs.