©Mary Crockford March 26, 2017
Themes of ambivalence and depersonalization, and experimentation with form are all characteristics of literary naturalism. Spare prose, dark symbolism and frank sexual and violent language in particular revealed practitioners’ disillusionment with urban landscapes encouraging pernicious ethnic, gender and socioeconomic segregation. Traditional religion and psychology clashed with the humanist philosophies of social Darwinism and Freudian theory, highlighting the perceived inadequacy of the Romantic mode to ameliorate the horrors of industrialism and warfare, or soothe the fin de siècle artist’s despair over human disengagement from fellow man and the natural world. But for iconoclastic author Stephen Crane, Romanticism was less a failed mode of expression than an incomplete answer to old problems requiring new methods of illumination, especially those accompanying urban blight which strained the limitations of conventional poetics’ sanguine linguistic, symbolic and metrical structures. Crane did not reject Romanticism entirely, however, but rather co-opted elements of the movement including the heroic cycle, classicism and Gothic motifs, and through experimentation with meter, symbolism, and psychology of perception adapted those conventions to express poetically the naturalist’s ambivalence and antipathy toward distressing conditions he observed around him.
To the surface observer, Crane’s career as a fiction writer eclipses that of poet, with stories like The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets earning him a position as a founding father of American literary naturalism for his stories written in sparse prose and subject matter rooted in the “preoccupation with the lived realities of everyday life” (Fer et al. 254). Crane’s descriptions of Civil War battles and the lives of streetwalkers bore such “photographic fidelity” (Scofield 1) to real life that readers assumed he had fought in the war and had kept company with prostitutes – the latter denied by friends and colleagues who called him “a fellow of remarkably clean mind and speech” and “gentlemanly, even chivalrous behavior” (Sorrentino 135). A quiet man described by F.M. Ford as “an Apollo with starry eyes,” and armed with “a satirical sting” (Silverman par. 3-4), his storied reputation adds context to his deft bridging of realist spartanism with Romanticism’s “theatricality and melodrama…in connection with his preoccupation with heroism” (Scofield 1) to locate heroic sympathies in characters that in reality society would have overlooked or shunned. Soldier Henry Fleming’s encounter with the spectral Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage mirrors that of Browning’s adolescent Childe Roland, who along the “darkening path” (Browning 104) toward the Dark Tower encounters a “hoary cripple, with malicious eye” (2) whose “suppression of glee” (5) ghoulishly mocks his fate. Maggie, “a girl of the painted cohorts” (Crane 27) of New York City’s Bowery, is Hugo’s bohemian waif scorned by Enlightenment society, the grisette de la roman noir who “descends from the splendor of brightly lit avenues to the darkness of the river” (Wertheim 213) flowing through the subterranean labyrinths of post-war Paris. To view Crane as simply a realist who “insisted that his fiction approximate reality,” or purely a naturalist tending toward the cynic’s retreat from human connection and driving social consciousness, is to succumb to what Gandal called an “impoverished notion of creative genius” (41) in the modal equilibrium between the quotidian and fantastic running through his body of work.
Such generalizations are even more ill-suited to a sensitive reading of Crane’s poetry, as one risks overlooking the influence of Romantic poets like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and “dramatists like Shakespeare and Aristophanes,” all of whom Crane is known to have “read widely” (Sorrentino 24). Edgar Allan Poe, highly influenced by French Symbolists like Mallarmé and Rimbaud, appears also to have influenced Crane’s poetic style. In The Black Riders and Other Lines, which Silverman calls a “volume of murderously sorrowful free verse” (par. 4), Crane versified much as Poe did, using obliquely dualistic objects, short lines and “an astringent tone” to shock readers into proximity with ideas of profound significance lurking within and between each letter and word and line. In the case of “In the Desert,” a vaguely conceptualized creature is the focus of structural elements including sound and symbolism that create a poem impressionistic in nature. The result is a twinge of subconscious familiarity on the reader’s part with the man-beast of Menippean satire, a favored vehicle of Gothic authors and artists which also suited the globetrotting romantic’s desire for escapism by cleverly masking the horrors of a life lived under urbanism’s shroud of scrutiny and separateness:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground… (1-3)
As an impressionist Crane suggests only what is necessary of the creature’s appearance to hearken to an experience or idea cloaked in the historical and literary past, “blurring the lines between fact and fiction as he incorporates folklore and legend” into the poem’s narrative (Sorrentino 35) with a reporter’s dissociative detachment. The creature is constructed as a mystery because it is mostly and purposely undescribed. encoding in a hybrid body “the dialogic relation of the Menippean to the traditional Platonic line” (Musgrave 190) so suited to the satirist. But like Shelley’s hulking, decapitated Ozymandias urging “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair!” (11), the hunched creature marginally recalls the titan of Orphic mythos or the barbarian giant of German Nationalist fairy tale who waits to bite the heads off unsuspecting mortals. By its inertia, the reader can’t be certain if it is made of stone or flesh, metal or sand, or something else altogether. Whether it is indeed towering or dwarfish, even what it encodes structurally is less important than that it inhabits the same liminal space and moment as the speaker and possesses the Manichean potential for good or evil. We only know for certain what Crane chooses to tell us – that like the gargoyle or harpie, the creature is bestial, it is naked, and it squats. It is what comes next that shows Crane’s remarkable impressionist and symbolist facility for evincing shock with the addition of the sparest splash of melodrama onto his otherwise austere literary canvas. The creature:
Held his heart in his hands/And ate of it. (4-5)
The half-ling that only moments before had crouched mute and still, is now capable of action and expression, and shifts its gaze like Fuseli’s incubus atop sheets of sand, holding in not one hand but two, its own heart. Transfixed, it consumes the life-giving organ, reincorporating at least part of it back into itself in an act of futility and monstrosity. As strange as the creature’s behavior is, though, the speaker’s question is stranger still:
I said, “Is it good, friend,”… (6)
The speaker’s affective neutrality in politely inquiring of the creature whether its own bloody heart is good and calling it friend, is trademark Crane use of irony because the rational documentarian – the Nietzschean Apollonian mind – recoils in horror, recognizing there could be nothing normative or good in the removal and consumption of a beating heart, even if that heart is one’s own. But the unrestrained Dionysian artist embraces the commingling of mind and flesh with the violent, pounding rhythms of primitive Nature, unfazed by the “eating of his own heart in the desert” (Benoit) symbolizing the ultimate illusion or mirage for the naturalist – consciousness. The creature’s answer illustrates the naturalist’s consternation over the futile repetition of history and man’s mindless predilection for sating even the most existentially unsatisfying drives: “It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;” (7). It would be tempting to interpret the creature’s self-cannibalizing cardiophagia as a glib-tongued rendering of the phrase eat your heart out, were it not for its answer when the speaker inquires of its thoughts in a voice the mind’s ear interprets along the tonal spectrum of blasé to mutely horrified.
Crane’s liminal speaker’s question also highlights the diversity of effect that resides within the Gothic mode even without the structural schemes characterizing Goethian and Stokerian works traditionally labeled as Gothic. He responds to the self-immolating creature with the rhetorician’s succinct logocentric questioning, burying the ambivalent romanticist’s “sentimental emotions which are binding him to the real world” (Benoit) and noting the creature’s absurd and disgusting behavior with curiosity. An almost tender tone imbues the creature’s answer with the quality of rhetorical defense as it considers and reconsiders, and perhaps evinces its own surprise as it hears itself defending its behavior:
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.” (8-10)
Crane compounds his dark irony through alliteration and epizeuxis of “bitter-bitter” (7) then “bitter” (9) once more in short succession, while the “louder! louder! louder!” beat of the creature’s “hideous heart” (Poe) demands acknowledgment. Cavitch describes these lines and the sensation they produce as “a cognitive stutter” that “might be perceived as deliberative or defensive” (40). I would add that the speaker’s and creature’s voices, along with the creature’s “cognitive stutter” produces a form of Bakhtinian dialogism called polyphony, or multiple voices competing within the brief poem. I would further posit that a fourth voice echoes in the final line recalling Descartes’ existential defense of reason, “I think, therefore I am” (Philosopy & Philosophers). The monster’s grotesque, open form embodies the “spiritual, epistemological, and ontological anxieties” and “creaturely subordination” (Cavitch 40) of man to outer and inner nature frustrating the romantic hero’s quest for self-liberating identity and control, and cries “I destroy myself, because I can.”
In the book’s titular poem “Black riders,” Crane uses the same blending of prosody and paradox as in “In the desert” to create a gothically impressionistic scene of irrationality, violence and terror. Like the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, an unspecified number of riders are raised up for war from the classic metaphor for primordial life and mystery, the sea:
Black riders came from the sea. (1)
That the reaper-like riders come “from the sea” but not “out of the sea” is noteworthy. The picture Crane paints could be one of horses galloping atop the water’s surface. Crane as the ambivalent son and grandson of ministers, does not necessarily mock Christ’s walk upon the Sea of Galilee, but as the war correspondent he may be expressing cynicism toward justification of war as a righteous act in defense of God and nation. The line ends with a period, emblematic of Crane’s belief that for man, manacled by history and his own behavior, the arrival of the riders bearing violence and death signals not just a commencing battle, but the romantic artist’s fate in the naturalist’s world where “the life of man” is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes Leviathan XIII).
As in “In the Desert,” man and beast merge in the black riders, not in the static form of one heart-munching hunchback, but of an unspecified number – perhaps uncountable – of men of war riding as many horses. Through alliteration, epizeuxis and onomatopoeia, the reader hears the sound of sword and shield, then through the blending of boot with bit and beast, soldier and steed become one, and man and mane are indistinguishable:
There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
And clash and clash of hoof and heel,… (2-3)
In his poetry as in his prose, Crane’s characters mirrored his experience of war correspondent, writer and romantic adventurer, embodying his ambivalence by occupying multiple perspectives as he “searches for his place in the war machine” (Ficiello 5). His masculinely powerful, marginally dehumanized riders and the speaker’s detached tone, together with the subtle use of assonance and rhyme, create a particularly eerie effect upon the reader as Crane uses identification with beast and nature to depict the hypnotic and numbing power of rapid sociopolitical change to inure a culture to its own inexorable saturation in decadence and division.
Crane’s riders are not only unified with the powerful beasts they ride, but are also able to harness the power of Nature itself in the cause of conquest “In the rush upon the wind” (5). These horsemen of war represent much more than simple soldiers riding toward conquest or defense of some vaguely identified national border:
Thus the ride of sin. (6)
The black riders embody more than some accidental or adopted animalistic nature. For Crane the naturalist, they are human nature itself, fallen mankind separated from God and from creation in Darwin’s universe where man is little more than a beast himself. They represent the defeat of the romantic individualist’s aspirations by his own conquering demons.
In Gilded Age America as in Romantic-era Britain, political affairs domestically and abroad resulted in an ethos of violence and war which had “penetrated all elements of American culture” (Ficiello 5). As P.B. Shelley had in The Mask of Anarchy written following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, the social conscience exhibited by literary realists like Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane used the imagery and psychology of the urban Gothic aimed at “exposing, disarming, and disabling the Old Order” (Bainbridge 136) instituting oppression, through art as a medium of subversive but passive resistance. Dispensing with the ornate architecture and classical representations of wild nature that characterized Romantic poetics, Crane uses the barest reference to landscape and an atmosphere of confusion and terror to convey the ugliness of urban life:
Lands turned black and bare; (2)
Through use of the sparse naturalist style of writing, Crane enhances the depersonalized, materialist experience by creating a landscape existing outside of delimiting boundaries of time and place. For the naturalist as for the Gothic artist, the line between corruption and destruction of the natural world, and of the hero’s vulnerability to the elements of time and nature is often invisible until it is tragically and irreversibly crossed.
In “Black riders,” Crane the romantic individualist inverts Shelley’s “violence of form” (Reno 80) in The Mask of Anarchy, as well as Nietzsche’s Übermensch, multiplying him and “Meeting a row of upturned faces” (Kershner 139) whose spectral gazes force the reader to acknowledge the blood of women and children rising from the sin-soaked ground of Cainian urban anarchy and violence:
Babes ran, wondering. (3-4)
In turning his journalistic lens to women and children, while alliterating “women,” “wept” and “wondering,” Crane rejects age and gender preference in order to humanize the meekest victims of war. In the next line, he attempts to mediate violence by documenting poetically events that to the rational mind, even with the elucidation or explanation and detail, can not make sense of the slaughter of innocents:
There came one who understood not these things.
He said, “Why is this?”
Whereupon a million strove to answer him. (5-8)
Crane this time applies Bakhtinian dialogism through the chaotic polyphony not only of the mass weeping and frightened cries of children, but via the narrator’s naive, vocalized assumption that the million who “strove to answer him” can indeed ever do so:
There was such intricate clamour of tongues,
That still the reason was not. (9)
Like Shelley’s after the Peterloo Massacre and the seemingly innumerable campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, Crane’s grief remained unanswered by the gibbering, determined cacophony of philosophers and philosophies of past and present still persisting in their justification of oppression of the weak and poor.
In “Land of the Farther Suns,” Crane presents a world of Darwinian decadence in which humanity is not only animalistic but thoroughly de-evolved, and insentient beasts have returned to their sun-baked primeval jungles of origin:
Behold, from the land of the farther suns I returned.
And I was in a reptile-swarming place,
Peopled, otherwise, with grimaces,
Shrouded above in impenetrable blackness. (1-4)
The “impenetrable blackness,” the smut-soaked smog belching from urban factories and burned and blood-soaked battlefields, acts as the sealing lid of fate over mankind, whose greed and indifference to oppression and suffering has turned them into creatures lower than mammals on the Darwinian ladder. As metaphors for irrationality and self-destruction, the primitive monsters are chimeras reflecting back the unmediated impossibility for the romantic individualist to escape the artistic and intellectual claustrophobia and chaos of turn-of-the-century materialism.
The snarling, wordless grimaces of the reptilian beast-men resemble those of Miltonic fallen angels, their self-destructive hubris hearkening back to Crane’s literary and personal rejection of orthodox religion and to a great extent, conventional human wisdom:
I shrank, loathing,
Sick with it.
And I said to him,
“What is this?”
He made answer slowly,… (5-9)
Once again Crane uses the disembodied, incompletely omniscient narrator to express the dejection of the pathetic “traveller” whose pursuit of the pale “shadow” and “phantom” of “truth” fails in the fallen kingdom of the world (“Truth, said a Traveller” 8). His opposing self in the poem appears to mock him, summing up the decadence and death that is man’s fate in warring Apollonian/Dionysian determinist’s universe: “Spirit, this is a world./This was your home” (10-11).
An infrequent example of architectural allusion in Crane’s verse occurs in “Two or Three Angels,” in which Crane’s ambivalence toward institutionalized Christianity finds expression in
a favorite subject of Romantic poets from Shelley to Wordsworth: eternity and memory, and remembrance of loved ones past. But as is the tendency in the Gothic vein, what is treated tenderly and reverently by the metaphysically minded Romantic poets is haloed in dark characterizations and imagery by the naturalist. Heaven itself seems confused by what it witnesses on the earth below as it looks down upon a congregation of worshippers. The throng personifies the bloat and sin-sickness of a church bearing the stains of institutionalized corruption, crusade and imperialist expansionism:
Two or three angels
Came near to the earth.
They saw a fat church.
Little black streams of people
Came and went in continually. (1-5)
The goblinesque promenade of the prayerful “streams” live a river of boiling ichor emitting not from the Romantics’ beloved emblem of the sublime, the Medieval or Renaissance cathedral, but from the bowels of the earth itself. The naturalist’s and Gothicist’s abjection is joined by the angels, who are perplexed by the once virginal bride now drained of life and hiding, asleep and comforted only when interred away from the world it was once charged to show action and mercy: “And the angels were puzzled/To know why the people went thus,/And why they stayed so long within” (6-8). The voiceless consternation of the angels contains the subversive ring of dialogism found in many of Crane’s poems, as the quelling of many voices while the deist’s indifferent God turns his back in disappointment on the adulterous woman in white below.
An ironic juxtaposition of Arthurian legend and outlaw literature occurs in Crane’s poem, “A Youth in Apparel that Glittered.” In this poem betrayal and death take place in a setting part Black Forest fairy tale and part inverted grail legend. Like the claustrophobic landscape of madness through which Childe Roland marched to the Dark Tower, or an earnestly naive reporter happening upon the herbaceous tangle surrounding Dracula’s Transylvanian manor, a forest opens and closes behind the naive Romantic hero chasing promises of glory and consciousness but meeting instead a shrouded prefiguration of death:
A youth in apparel that glittered
Went to walk in a grim forest.
There he met an assassin
Attired all in garb of old days; (1-4)
The young knight, clothed in the youthful beauty and optimism of Romanticism, is oblivious to the evil dwelling in the heart of the false deliverer he encounters, who masquerades as truth but whose mask hides a deceptive, brutal countenance: “He, scowling through the thickets,/
And dagger poised quivering,/Rushed upon the youth” (5-7). The youth, believing the assassin to be the instrument of heroic liberation from the poet-prophet’s “mundane shell” (Blake) to consciousness and individuation, is unaware of the assassin’s motivating blood thirst. The assassin is institutionalized warfare and religion personified, the mocking tyrant of tradition capitalizing on the innocent hubris of youth which believes itself impervious to time and death:
“Sir,” said this latter,
“I am enchanted, believe me,
To die thus,
In this medieval fashion,
According to the best legends;
Ah, what joy!” (8-13)
Crane does not comment on the state of the murdered knight’s soul, employing no Romantic language of sublimation, demi-godhood or transcendence. There is none of the alliteration or epizeuxis which lends authorial power or mythical impact to the observer. There is only the reporter’s documenting of spare, utilitarian detail – until the poem’s almost imperceptibly oppositional closing word: “Then he took the wound, smiling,/And died, content”(14-15, emphasis mine). With the word “content,” Crane heaves a Donne-ian melodramatic sigh in the face of what the war reporter saw as senseless tragedy. In the assassin’s plunging dagger and the soldier’s dreamlike smile, there is both violence and delusion. There is the murderous masquerade and the imperialist rationale, sacrificing the would-be Arthur who welcomes an untimely death for a nation who will mythologize and then replace him. It is only Crane’s anachronistic romantic heart which allows the sublime emotional and psychological state in which the tragic hero will die.
Whether it was the domestic or transatlantic battlefield, or nightmare setting of Maggie’s New York Bowery, or the impenetrable dream state of the human psyche trying to make sense of both, Crane’s poetry treated each arena on the world stage similarly: He seized upon and conquered poetic ground previously considered the territory of the metaphysical and Romantic poets, including adaptation of Gothic structures to the alienated citizen’s mind and body. In doing so he was able to “poetize the grotesque for its own effect…to offer an image which is vivid and achieves the effect of horror and repulsion” (Benoit) for readers across physical, temporal and literal boundaries. He poetized the naturalist philosophy as he fictionalized the realist news. As a poet he was part modern-day Shelley urging a response to marginalization and massacre through passive resistance, and part Byronic adventurer whose own soul’s whims evaded capture during his brief life. Ultimately, as the naturalist who saw no discontinuity between the romantic and real, the grandiose and the grotesque, the mundane and the morbid – Black Riders and Other Lines is a timeless testimony to the internal tension of the mortal for whom the world was the artist’s horror, but whose art was the hero’s milieu.
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