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CPR Classic Readings: “At Melville’s Tomb”

As Reviewed By: David Yezzi

There is an anecdote, too good not to be true, recounted by William Jay Smith, about a soused Hart Crane sidling up to the poet Witter Bynner in Mexico City and hissing, “Witter Bynner, you’re going to have a bitter winter.” Crane’s poem “Passage” refers to a “too well known biography,” and anyone familiar with his poems knows his star-crossed life as well. Both make clear that Crane had bitter seasons of his own.

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One particularly disappointing autumn came in 1925. When the few meager leads he had on advertising jobs fell through (he was perennially hard-up for cash), Crane decided to sell to magazines some of the poems he had written that summer. Malcolm Cowley describes the composition of the poem “Passage” during a drunken Fourth of July party at which Crane, in full face-paint, mugged his way through a “cannibal dance.” His “face still daubed with house paint, red and brown,” Cowley writes, “he sat by the lilacs in the dooryard, meditatively pouring a box of salt on the phonograph,” and with a glance up toward the branches intoned, “Where the cedar leaf divides the sky . . . where the cedar leaf divides the sky . . . I was promised an improved infancy”-the vatic opening of “Passages.”

When Crane sent the finished poem to Marianne Moore, who was then editor of The Dial, she rejected it, saying “its multiform content accounts, I suppose, for what seems to us a lack of simplicity and cumulative force.” T. S. Eliot likewise rejected “Passage” for The Criterion. When Moore did take a poem, “The Wine Menagerie,” she completely and shamelessly rewrote it under a new title, calling it “Again.” Crane became upset the more he thought about this, at one point even crying himself to sleep on a friend’s bed. Moore, he wrote, insisted “on changing it around and cutting it up until you would not even recognize it. . . . What it all means now I can’t make out, and I never would have consented to such an outrageous joke if I had not so desperately needed the twenty dollars.” When the poem appeared, Kenneth Burke at The Dial remarked that Miss Moore had taken all of the Wine out of the Menagerie.

To add to Crane’s unlucky streak, a Philadelphia magazine, The Guardian, folded before it could publish Crane’s extraordinary sequence “Voyages” with an accompanying article on the poem by Allen Tate. The magazine did, however, print the decidedly unfortunate forthcoming announcement “‘Voyages, four remarkable poems by Allen Tate’ [!] will appear in the next issue!” Meanwhile, Crane had sent the manuscript of his first collection, White Buildings, to his friend Harrison Smith at Harcourt, Brace, who turned it down. “I feel certain,” Smith wrote, “you are a genuine poet-and there are not many genuine poets lying around these days. . . . It really is the most perplexing kind of poetry. One reads it with a growing irritation, not at you but at himself, for the denseness of one’s own intellect.” (Smith, who had put Crane up in New York and at his house in Long Island, may have experienced a “growing irritation” with Crane himself, as Crane tended to wear out his friends with his extreme behavior.)

From the vantage point of some eighty years later, it is not hard to fathom how these editors could have misjudged or misunderstood Crane’s poems in this way, and their occasional puzzlement underscores just how astonishing his method must have seemed at the time, and how astonishing it remains today. Mind you, these were not unschooled tyros who easily lost their way in modern poetry, but eminent editors and poets-and not just eminent editors and poets, but eminent modernists, perfectly capable of resolving questions of difficulty and innovation. What was it about Crane’s work that puzzled them? This, in a sense, is the central question concerning Crane’s work, and the hardest one to answer. A partial answer, I think, lies in the type and degree of opacity that Crane employs from poem to poem-some forms of obscurity work while others do not. This is a lesson that Crane learned the hard way, I suspect, on his journey from White Buildings to The Bridge. And it is a lesson that continues to bear on much of the poetry that gets written today.

In October of 1925, Crane began work on his one of his finest lyrics, “At Melville’s Tomb.” Editors rejected it; he revised it and sent it out again. When he sent it to The Dial, Moore agreed to publish it with the provision that the last stanza be omitted. Crane withdrew the poem. When he later sent the poem to Harriett Monroe at Poetry, she replied with a long list of queries. Crane wrote back: “You ask me how compass, quadrant and sextant ‘contrive’ tides. I ask how Eliot can possibly believe that ‘Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum,'” lines from Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” As Crane writes elsewhere in that letter, he is “more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of words on the consciousness,” seeking “fresh concepts, more inclusive evaluation” than can be arrived at through reason. As Crane wrote, “the rationale of metaphor belongs to another order of experience than science.”

Some of Crane’s explications in the letter are as mysterious as the passages he is unpacking. Of the line “The calyx of death’s bounty giving back,” Crane writes, “This calyx refers in a double ironic sense both to a cornucopia and the vortex made by a sinking vessel.” Double ironic? Crane’s cryptic elucidation of his own poem from a rational, denotative standpoint convinced Monroe to publish the poem (alongside her letter and his reply), but as a definitive reading of the poem it was doomed to fail. Crane must have known it would. His very purpose in writing the poem was to arrive at non-rational, connotative connections that could not be fully elucidated in logical terms.

In a sense, what disturbed Crane’s editors most about his poetry was its resistance to paraphrase, or as Harrison Smith said, an irritation with “the denseness of one’s own intellect.” What else but the perceived lack of paraphrasable content could Edmund Wilson have been objecting to when he wrote, “Mr. Crane has a most remarkable style, a style that is strikingly original-almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was, not merely not applied to a great subject, but not, so far as one can see, applied to any subject at all.” Crane’s metaphors are wilder, more violently inventive than Eliot’s relatively polite simile of streetlamps beating like fatalistic drums: In “At Melville’s Tomb,” fragments of bone bring news of dead sailors, the sea both sucks in and gives forth portents. As Robert Pinsky wrote recently, “The lifted eyes of religion, the sextant of navigation, Melville’s genius: All are ways toward knowledge that contrive or discover meanings, despite their mortal limitations. In a word, they are tragic.” This is the promising beginnings of a paraphrase, in the sense that Yvor Winters understood the term.

A number of Crane’s poems, of course, are paraphrasable, such as “Repose of Rivers,” which Yvor Winters (rightly, I think) understood as a lyric poem spoken by a river, probably a tributary to the Mississippi. And then there are Crane’s own paraphrases for “At Melville’s Tomb.” Let’s return here to the question posed above, namely, What’s so puzzling about Crane? It is hardly surprising that Crane’s work should (in Steven’s formulation) “resist the intelligence almost successfully,” given that the poems comprise strings of gemlike phrases that Crane grouped through intuition rather than reason-so often an excellent recipe for gobbledygook. Yet Crane’s best poems-many of the lyrics in White Buildings, for example-do hold together in a way that much of The Bridge does not. Winters’s notion of paraphrasable content comes closest to locating the crux. Winters was excellent at discovering the key to a poem (no small feat in the case of Valéry, Stevens, Tate, or Crane!). Whether or not one agrees with Winters, his glosses work: “Repose of Rivers” is a riparian monologue; Allen Tate’s “The Subway” is a hellish look at a subway car shuttling underground. Why is it that these poems hold together, while others do not? I believe it has to do with the balance between reason and intuition. Tate writes of this balance in his most famous essay “Tension in Poetry”:

The Metaphysical poet as a rationalist begins at or near the extensive or denotating end of the line; the romantic Symbolist poet at the other, intensive end; and each by a straining feat of the imagination tries to push his meanings as far as he can towards the opposite end, so as to occupy the entire scale.

Judgments, then, about the success or failure of the Romantic-Symbolist intensive aspect of a poem and its relation to reason are a matter of scale, and paraphrase-not a word-for-word gloss but an accounting of the underlying tonal and rhetorical unity of the poem to which all of the parts must be accountable-is an excellent litmus test. If too much of a poem eludes this simple test, then it’s anybody’s guess what the poet is on about.

Crane himself was concerned that people would find his poems the work of someone who “merely fancied juggling words and images until [he] found something novel, or esoteric.” Readers have spent enough time with the poems now to know that their underpinnings, the framework of their subject matter (especially in the shorter poems), is largely sound-love, desire, death. Crane’s genius for metaphor pushed language to new limits, working his correspondences into the very fabric of the language itself, into jeweled phrases and musical movements that reason cannot fully fathom. He has given us “adagios of islands,” “sapphire arenas of the hills,” and “azure steeps,” this last a phrase taken from “At Melville’s Tomb,” one of his finest lyrics:

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.

If, as I have suggested, this poem succeeds as one of Crane’s best, it should, therefore, pass the test of paraphrasable content. Pinsky is on the right track, though he falls short of elucidating the entire poem. I offer a paraphrase only hesitatingly, since, as I have said, Crane’s poems test the very notion of paraphrasable content. Still, I think that “At Melville’s Tomb” does answer to it. Crane himself elucidates many of the specific images in his letter to Monroe. More generally, the poem is a rumination on death in the tradition of Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” though with a decidedly romantic bent. More than simply his grave site in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, Melville’s tomb-the terrible one described in his novels and the one from which he drew his “chapters”-was the sea, and the sea here is a figure for death: drowned men’s bones, wrecks that fail to hear their warning bells, portents of death’s bounty. As in Herbert, death is then depicted as quiet, calm, featureless, devoid of the striving against “further tides.” The end strikes me as quite romantic indeed: death as a kind of sleep, the “fabulous shadow” (is it the shade of the mariner or death itself?) that only the sea keeps.

Eliot wrote somewhere that good poets write from their experience, from the things that happen to them, while great poets write of things that have yet to happen. It is impossible, given Crane’s own death by drowning, not to consider whether, in some uncanny way, he had foreseen his farthest tides and scattered chapters.

Click here: David Yezzi reads “At Melville’s Tomb”

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article were originally presented as part of “Reckoning with Hart Crane,” a celebration of The Library of America’s Hart Crane: Complete Poems & Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City on October 23, 2006.
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David Yezzi’s poetry collections include Azores (2008) and The Hidden Model (2003), and his criticism and poetry have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Best American Poetry. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion. He has also edited The Swallow Anthology of New American Poetry (2009). His libretto for a chamber opera by composer David Conte, Firebird Motel, premiered in 2003 and was released on CD by Arsis (2007). Poet-critic Adam Kirsch, who selected Azores as one of Slate’s Best Books of 2008, noted that Yezzi’s poetry “displays a civilized mastery reminiscent of Philip Larkin and Donald Justice, which no poet of his generation can match.” David Yezzi is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University and received his MFA from Columbia University.

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