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Friday, 8 July 2011

Hart Crane: Imagination Beyond Despair (Anchises Fleeing Troy)


Anchises fleeing Troy on the back of Aeneas, his son by Aphrodite: Attic Red Figure ceramic mixing bowl (calyx krater) with scenes from the fall of Troy, Early Classical Period, about 470–460 B.C., by Altamura Painter, found at Iliupersis: image by Sebastià Giralt, 5 October 2008 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Anchises' navel, dripping of the sea, --
The hands Erasmus dipped in gleaming tides,
Gathered the voltage of blown blood and vine;
Delve upward for the new and scattered wine,
O brother-thief of time, that we recall.
Laugh out the meager penance of their days
Who dare not share with us the breath released,
The substance drilled and spent beyond repair
For golden, or the shadow of gold hair.

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
The imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

Hart Crane (1899-1932): from For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen (Part III), in White Buildings, 1926


Anonymous said...

For me, this (by itself and paired the Homeric hymn and the associated images) is the essence of Beyond The Pale.

The imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

This really opens the day up in new and unexpected ways.

TC said...


Like much of what is so unique (and great) in Crane, those lines have alternately drawn and mystified me for years. And sometimes both at once, which is the interesting thing.

The frequent manifestation in the work of what appears (and probably is) a cavalier disregard for what were once somewhat snootily termed denotative values -- words having precise significations and all that -- well, this sort of liberty, one might even call it indulgence, when encountered in the wrong mood, can strike one as sloppy.

Then again, if one gives it half chance, one can be carried away by it. (The same is true, I think, of a fair amount of Shelley.)

After the typing of these lines, the two-hundred-pound head pondered, for a solid hour in the pitch dark, the question of exactly how, in a pinch (and here we are clearly in a pinch), imagination, with its "span", could be thought to "outpac[e] bargain, vocable and prayer".

In the end, as I always do when considering these lines, I flung my doubts aside, and let myself fall into the generous arms of a willing suspension of disbelief.

When Crane was producing these poems, with their periodic moments of great glory, in that brief sad mayfly career, he was taxed by Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine for being a bit too "oblique", "confusing" and "confounding".

His response:

"[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... than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.

"This may sound as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, something esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past."