Harbor Dawn

“When the band plays hail to the chief / they point the cannon at you”

Hart Crane, photograph by Walker Evans, 1928

I’m mostly unfamiliar with the American canon. I could blame it on my education. The Americanists at my university are incredibly progressive, and tend to focus on more marginalized works. I only had time to take one of the survey courses in American Lit, seventeenth century mostly, and the canonical works read like dry lumps of wood compared to the other stuff presented (captivity narratives, diaries, etc.).

So, encountering a poem that takes in the sweep of the American canon like Hart Crane’s The Bridge requires a lot of work for me. But it’s welcome, because now I get the chance to fill in some gaps in my reading.

While it was accused by its critics as being an attempt at an American epic, The Bridge is really more of a lyric vision. It has an interesting affinity with Joyce, because it traces the events of a single day against a deep backdrop of allusions. But in Crane’s case, the allusions are slanted and obtuse, inviting a great deal of speculation about the real nature of the intention involved. This isn’t a cold intellectual game, but a warm-hearted reflection on the story of America thus far.

The fun really begins in the second section of the book, “Powhatan’s Daughter.” I related the opening epigram near the end of my last entry on Hart Crane, and now I’m just about ready to start talking about its poems.

The first poem is “Harbor Dawn” which begins on the borderline between waking and sleep, and needs to be presented with its glosses intact. One of the interesting bits of textual history is that Crane went to great lengths to assure that the glosses would not override the main text, even if that meant the were lost in the bleed into the books spine. The glosses are almost a “machine for thinking” about the text though, rather than an explication. They ask the key questions.

Insistently through sleep—a tide of voices—      
They meet you listening midway in your dream,     400 years and
The long, tired sounds, fog-insulated noises:     more . . . or is
Gongs in white surplices, beshrouded wails,     it from the
Far strum of fog horns . . .signals dispersed in veils     soundless shore
      of sleep that
And then a truck will lumber past the wharves     time
As winch engines begin throbbing on some deck;      
Or a drunken stevedore’s howl and thud below      
Comes echoing alley-upward through dim snow.      
And if they take your sleep away sometimes      
They give it back again. Soft sleeves of sound      
Attend the darkling harbor, the pillowed bay;      
Somewhere out there in blankness steam      
Spills into steam, and wanders, washed away      
— Flurried by keen fifings, eddied      
Among distant chiming buoys — adrift. The sky,      
Cool feathery fold, suspends, distills      
This wavering slumber. . . . Slowly —      
Immemorially the window, half-covered chair      
Asks nothing but this sheath of pallid air.      
And you beside me, blessèd now while sirens     recalls you to
Sing to us, stealthily weave us into day —     your love,
Serenely now, before day claims our eyes     there in a
Your cool arms murmurously about me lay.     waking dream
      to merge
While myriad snowy hands are clustering at the     your seed
panes —      
              your hands within my hands are deeds;      
              my tongue upon your throat — singing      
              arms close; eyes wide, undoubtful      
                                          drink the dawn —      
              a forest shudders in your hair!      
The window goes blonde slowly. Frostily clears.     — with whom?
From Cyclopean towers across Manhattan waters      
— Two — three bright window-eyes aglitter, disk      
The sun, released — aloft with cold gulls hither.      
The fog leans one last moment on the sill.     Who is the
Under the mistletoe of dreams, a star —     woman with
As though to join us at some distant hill —     us in the
Turns in the waking west and goes to sleep.     dawn? . . .
      whose is the
      flesh our feet
      have moved

It took longer to set this poem correctly than I expected, so I’ll have to refrain from diving into the next poem, “Van Winkle” which does begin to answer indirectly the questions raised in the glosses of “Harbor Dawn”. I have become overwhelmed even more by the poem by transferring it here. The echoes of the proem should be apparent to any reader,
for it begins with a gull soaring over the Brooklyn Bridge. And remember that the entire poem is prefaced by an epigram from the Book of Job, where Satan tells God that he came to stand before him by “walking up and down the earth.” The question raised is not just the result of a one-night stand with a woman whose name he can’t remember the next day, but a question of whose flesh the poet has trod upon to get here. What might not be so apparent is the gesture at Mathew Arnold’s Dover Beach.

Rather than the sound of stones clattering against the beach, Crane hears the sounds of New York harbor. Arnold’s poem echoes the pessimism of Eliot’s Wasteland, and if anything, it seems to me that Crane is attempting to answer the despair and defeat of both poems. Unlike Arnold’s retreat to reflection and human love, the object of Crane’s affection exists in a twilight realm between waking and sleep. This scene appears to be one of shimmering illusion to me, rather than the concrete darkness of Arnold’s closing lines:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In contrast, Crane’s world does have joy, love, and light. For certitude, I suspect that Crane turns to tradition, much like Eliot did. Crane’s vision is of an awaking world, and the mystery is confronted like Rip Van Winkle’s awakening.

I spent the day reading Longfellow, and both Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. They are important to the next poem in this section, which alas, will have to wait another day.