The Tunnel

Agreed by all to represent a descent into Hell in the form of a subway ride under the East River. It seems from a number of references that the poet has just been at the theater, and is now going home. His trip takes him East under the river, since Brooklyn is to the East of Manhattan. This seems to clash a bit with (or purposefully invert?) the "Western path" in the epigraph.

(numbers refer to lines of the poem)

epigraph: From "Morning," by English early Romantic poet and highly iconoclastic Christian visionary William Blake (1757-1827). (Text from Lewis p. 355.)


To find the Western path
Right thro’ the Gates of Wrath
I urge my way;
Sweet Mercy leads me on
With soft repentant moan:
I see the break of day.
The war of swords and spears,
Melted by dewy tears,
Exhales on high;
The Sun is freed from fears,
And with soft grateful tears
Ascends the sky

--William Blake

2: Times Square . . . Columbus Circle : Mariani sees these as references to "time squared" and "time circling back on itself" (p. 233). He does not detail his evidence, but I believe Crane did express interest in Einstein's Theory of Relativity (in which it is the speed of light--not time--that is squared, but close enough), and Crane wrote explicitly that the Italian washerwoman later in "The Tunnel" was a reference back to Columbus from "Ave Maria."

By the way, Einstein disliked the name "Theory of Relativity" and would have preferred "Theory of Invariance." I believe one reason for this was the misuse of the name to justify what would become postmodern moral relativism, or so it is argued briefly in this letter by Arthur Miller (not the playwright, but another Arthur Miller) in New Scientist.

15: twelve : echoing the twelve apostles? (Cf. note to line 82 about "denying the ticket.")

21: penguin flexions of the arms : The handwritten note in my edition of Crane says that this represents a subway turnstile. R. W. B. Lewis thinks that it describes the poet slapping (or more properly, anticipating that he will soon need to slap?) his arms against his chest (more properly his sides?), penguin-style against the cold (p. 356).

I am convinced by Lewis's reading: the poet is going to get on the subway, then considers walking in line 18, then decides to take the subway after all in line 22, and so I think the comment about penguin flexions means, "You realize that you will become quite cold if you walk, so you decide not to."

24: Out of the Square, the Circle : I am certain this alludes to "squaring the circle," an ancient geometrical problem that was proved to be impossible in 1882. Since real efforts to square the circle are doomed to failure, I think this line suggests a miracle, "burning bright."

25-26: Avoid the glass doors gyring at your right, / Where boxed alone a second, eyes take fright : surely refers to a revolving door, and the momentary fear that people feel when they are alone inside of it.

30: The gongs already rattle : according to Mariani, gongs in subway stations signaled approaching trains.

40-41: Floral Park / Flatbush : both places in New York (subway stops? Mariani says so on p. 271).

51-52: IS THIS / FOURTEENTH? : my professor tells me that there was a gay pickup spot in the toilets at Fourteenth Street.

53: my gate : vaginal (or, covertly, anal).

60: burnt match : invokes a post-orgasmic penis, perhaps (see note to lines 51-52).

60: skating : the choice of verb gives a delicious elegance to a rather crass image.

66: Whose head : it's Edgar Allan Poe's, surely (see note to line 82). This may allude to Mark 6.21-29, in which Herod's daughter (called in different texts Salome or Herodias) asks for the head of John the Baptist and it is brought to her on a platter.

78: evermore : alludes to Poe's poem "The Raven," in which stanza after stanza ends with "Nevermore" (though stanza 2 of "The Raven" does in fact end with "evermore").

82: Poe : this describes a (perhaps apocryphal) experience of American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). To quote Lewis: "The question is whether Poe--drunk, exhausted, humiliated though he was--managed to withstand the efforts of the Baltimore hoodlums who (according to historical report) tried to make Poe cast a number of illegal ballots for their 'ticket' of political candidates" (p. 361). It is referred to in line 81 as the "last night" because Poe supposedly died after being left still drunk on the street by the hoodlums.

The commentators I've read agree that the idea here is that Poe should have denied the ticket. But I keep thinking of the apostle Peter, who denied Christ three times (see Matthew 26.33-35 and Matthew 26.69-75). Could the "ticket" be a subway ticket and/or a ticket to eternal life? Eternal life for a Christian, as we know, is obtained only through accepting Christ, and I think one must accept Christ aloud (as opposed to "denying" him, I'm suggesting). Cf. "Lazarus" in line 119.

83: Gravesend Manor . . . Chambers Street : both actual subway stops.

87: each eye attending its shoe : the riders of the escalator look down at their feet.

Mariani says that this change of trains and riding of the escalator happens at the 14th Street stop (p. 234).

91: Thunder is galvothermic here below : Perhaps means, "We have a different kind of thunder, the product of modern physics and its technology, here under the ground where the trains run." There is no real word "galvothermic," but it seems to be Crane's yoking together of "galvanic," which appears in line 124 and means "electrical," and "thermal," which means "related to heat."

Is it possible that this is an inversion? It is actually lightning after all, rather than thunder, that is associated with electricity and heat.

101: Wop : insulting American slang term for an Italian.

102: cuspidors : a cuspidor was a large bowl, often made of metal, for spitting in (especially useful for people who chewed tobacco).

104: Genoese : a person born in Genoa, Italy. (Though some now doubt it, Christopher Columbus was commonly believed to have been born in Genoa, and Crane said explicitly that the humble "Wop washerwoman" was a reference back to Columbus and "Ave Maria.")

104-105: do you bring mother eyes and hands / Back home to children and to golden hair? : I think this means, "Do you have children?" But it's a bit puzzling, because I think (I may be wrong) that blond hair is uncommon among Italians.

106: Daemon . . . yawn! : I think it is the titular tunnel that Crane personifies as a daemon, and pictures as a yawning opening.

115: caught like pennies beneath soot and steam : does this refer to the child's game of putting a penny on a train track to see it flattened by a passing train? (I assume it is "we," and not "thou," who are caught like pennies.)

116: Kiss of our agony thou gatherest : If the penny reading is right, this would describe the moment when the pennies are crushed by the train and yield up their "kiss" to its wheels.

117: ganglia : a ganglion is simply a mass of tissue, but in neurological contexts it means a mass of nerve tissue existing outside of the brain. And so figuratively, it can mean a center of intellectual or economic activity. I think it relates here to nexuses of intelligence or emotion; further, I think it means individual people, who are being gathered up like pennies in a continuation of the lines above.

119: to : I would expect "we" here. "We are gathered like pennies, we are shrill ganglia that fail to keep the song, and yet we rise like Lazarus." But instead we get "to," which leaves the verb implicit: Is Crane saying that it is great when we do rise from underground, or it would be great if we rose from underground, which might or might not happen? The grammar favors the latter reading (though not conclusively). But the facts of the literal story favor the former, since the train certainly does emerge from underground. Perhaps this is an intended tension.

If you want to push it, you could suggest that in Crane's poetic world, to fully imagine an experience in one's mind is the same as to actually have it, so if we can truly envision a rise like Lazarus's, then we have accomplished it. This would certainly make Blake a fitting choice of epigraph, if my memories about Blake are correct.

119: Lazarus : the man Jesus raised from the dead (John 11.1-12.19).

Jesus himself was raised from the dead (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21). I have an idea (though no proof in the text of the Gospels) that Jesus is thought of as having been lifted up into Heaven on his death and then returned to Earth when he was resurrected. If so, that motion up and then back down might be inverted by "The Tunnel," in which the train goes down under the river and then back up.

The Gospels always use the word "raised" to refer to someone brought back to life from the dead. Considered by itself, this word implies that Jesus moved down in death and then came back up; but that might be too strict a reading. Could "raised" refer simply to the way the prone body of a dead person stands back up?

120: sod : this word choice bothers me a bit: Lazarus was not buried in the ground, but entombed in a cave with a stone rolled in front of its entrance.

120: billow : billow as a noun means a great wave or a mass like a great wave, as of flame or smoke. The East river would not truly have great waves on its surface, but perhaps Crane is being hyperbolic. Or perhaps this refers to the dawn that may be breaking at the end of the poem (cf. note to line 137), in which case the emergence of the train and of the sun are yoked.

120: lifting ground : given the use of "galvothermic" and "galvanic" in this poem, it seems relevant that a "ground" is a term relating to electrical circuits. "Lifting ground" in that context might mean "removing the ground."

Though I'm no electrician, if I understand the Wikipedia article I linked to above, one purpose of having a ground is protective; a ground in such a case is usually a literal connection to the earth, an object so large relative to a person or a machine that it is effectively infinite, so any charge can drain away into it. Removing such a protective ground would allow charge or static electricity (if I'm using that term correctly) to build up. In figurative terms, things would start to get energized and dangerous. This would be a good metaphor for the kind of Romantic visionary state that Crane subscribes to.

124: galvanic : electric or electrifying (I think it means "electrifying" here).

127: the oily tympanum of waters : I think this refers to the membrane-like oil slick atop the water. A tympanum is a membrane in the ear against which sound resonates, or the taut skin over the head of a drum, so the water could be either listening or offering itself up to be played.

131: by the River that is East : refers to Manhattan's East River, which separates Manhattan (where Crane has been) from Brooklyn (where he is going home to). The East River is also, of course, the river that the Brooklyn Bridge spans.

134: How far away the star has pooled the sea : could this refer to the tides (which are caused by the combined effects of the moon and the sun)?

137: O Hand of Fire : a handwritten note in my copy claims this represents dawn. Cf. "Ave Maria" line 93, "O Thou Hand of Fire."

This page has been edited 33 times. The last modification was made by - MisterMartin MisterMartin on Mar 13, 2008 8:39 am