Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge


Here is the text of "To Brooklyn Bridge": http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15444

I assume that all direct addresses in the proem to "thee" or "thou" or "thy" refer to the Brooklyn Bridge itself.

I am interested in the alternation between "I" and "we" in the proem. What might one might find if it was carefully traced?

One thing that bothers me about the bridge as a symbol is that it is immobile. Crane tries to will it into motion in the final stanza, but I am not quite convinced.

A number of these glosses may reflect my professor's Catholic lens.



(numbers refer to lines of the poem)

Proem : Roughly, proem means "introduction" or "prelude."

1: his rippling rest : describes the gull bobbing on the water of the East River.

3: white rings of tumult : "White" may refer to a feather that falls from the gull. In this case, the rings may be (1) concentric circles on the water, caused by the gull's feather or by its wingtips, though "tumult" is a very strong word for such a gentle action; or (2) the circles traced by the feather as it spirals through the air down to the water. (In the second case, the "white ring of tumult" would be the feather itself.)

I have also read an opinion that this refers to the figure traced by the (white) gull itself as it circles. In that case, we would perhaps read "Shedding white rings of tumult" as a compound noun, that is, as "white rings that shed," since seagulls sometimes shed feathers. (This compound noun reading suggests multiple gulls to me, rather than just one.)

4: chained : often taken to depict the shadows cast by the bridge and its cables on the water, which would look like chains (Hishikawa).

4: Liberty : may refer to the Statue of Liberty, visible from the bridge. I think the implicit point of view on the bridge in this section is from the Brooklyn end; the Statue is only visible from this end, and Crane himself in 1924 moved into a room at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn, which overlooked the bridge, and was (though Crane did not learn this until later) the room in which the bridge's architect, John Agustus Roebling, had once lived (Wetzsteon, 370).

The fact that we implicitly look West may support my contention that the idea of Manifest Destiny hovers in the background of line 31.

4: chained . . . Liberty : this is the poem's first instance of an oxymoron, self-contradiction, or paradox. There are many (depending on your readings of individual lines). Others might include "flashing scene / Never disclosed" (lines 10-11), "thy freedom staying thee" (line 16), "breathe . . . still" (line 24), "Accolade . . . / Of anonymity" (lines 26-27), "condense eternity" (line 35), "Only in darkness is thy shadow clear" (line 38).

6: sails : this word is interesting, because for the next line to make sense, it must be read as a pun on "sales"--punning is not only invited, but required.

7: page of figures : "figures" has three meanings: human figures, sales figures (numbers), and poetic figures. Giles brilliantly notes that "page" can mean a royal servant, so a "page of figures" may be a lowly office worker.

stanza 3 : Universally agreed to refer to Plato's allegory of the cave, from Book VII of The Republic.

11: again : unless Crane is thinking of repeat moviegoers, this is not literally true unless we consider "the people" en masse: the same people are not attending the movie again, different people are.

14: sun took step of thee : I am unsatisfied with any reading of this phrase I have found. Giles thinks it refers (in part) to the bridge functioning as a sort of sundial. Hishikawa thinks it means that the sun took the bridge's step away, making it motionless. Or might it not mean that the light shining on the bridge is a sort of footprint of the sun?

16: staying : may be read as "arresting" or as "remaining."

17: cell or loft : I take this to be a binary opposition. "Cell" may play on "cellar," so we would have a low space contrasted with a high space.

"Cell" may also refer to a menial office worker's proto-cubicle, and "loft" may refer to an artist's loft, which would be another contrast, in value systems or ways of life. However, I do not know when artists began living in lofts (by tradition, they used to live in "garrets," which are not so different perhaps), and I do not know whether workers worked in small rooms or in large open ones or in some other arrangement at that time.

One could imagine that the "cell or loft" is where the bedlamite was before he arrived at the "subway scuttle." This would require us to reverse the usual order of syntax, but Paul Giles argues that Crane often does this. (Another way to take it is that "cell or loft" is a synonym for "subway scuttle.")

18: bedlamite : "bedlam" is the slang name for the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London, an insane asylum; so a "bedlamite" is an insane person. My professor also believes that the bedlamite is the figure of the poet (and that "the poet" really refers to Crane himself).

20: jest : I take this to refer to the bedlamite. The common reading of this stanza is that it portrays an insane person jumping to his/her death from the bridge.

20: caravan : this may be the line of cars traveling across the bridge. Why is it "speechless"? Does this mean that no one honks, because no one notices the jumper?

21: Down Wall : "Wall" is capitalized in the poem, and surely refers to Wall Street in Manhattan. But I think "down wall" could also describe the movement of the sun as noon arrives, sliding down the wall of a (perhaps unfinished) skyscraper, from "girder into street."

21: noon leaks : there is a reference to urination here (sunlight is yellow, after all). My professor observed that Crane is makes crass or sexual puns at the most exalted moments, uniting the sacred and the profane and continuing the long tradition of a secret code of double entendres intended for other gay men. (My favorite example, which I overlooked for years, is the title of Cole Porter's song "You're the Top"--"top" and "bottom" are terms for the active and passive partners in male anal intercourse.)

In general, my professor suggested that if you suspect a sexual pun in Crane, you are right.

22: a rip-tooth : some feel that the "rip-tooth" is the sun. Others feel that it refers to the jagged skyline made by skyscrapers. Concretely, the term refers to a "rip-tooth saw," also called a "rip saw." Wikipedia has an extensive article on the history of the saw.

22: acetylene : acetylene proper is a colorless, poisonous gas, but as commonly mixed with oxygen in an acetylene torch (invented ca. 1900), it is blue.

23: derricks : derricks are another name for construction cranes. Crane is consciously avoiding an explicit pun on his own name.

24: breathe . . . still : "continue to breathe" or "breathe it into stillness" (not a capability we would normally ascribe to breath--indeed, this is almost oxymoronic, since breath connotes motion).

25: obscure as that heaven of the Jews : In "Hart Crane: The Contexts of the Bridge," Paul Giles makes a clever but extreme argument that this refers to the poem's hidden ("obscure") capitalist imagery, since Jews are often (usually with an anti-Semitic cast) "associated with high finance" (p. 231).

There is a simpler meaning: In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the editors note that "Sheol," the Jewish underworld, first mentioned in Genesis 37:35, is a "shadowy existence;" the Jewish vision of the afterlife is often considered vague compared to the explicit Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell. (Ellmann and O'Clair have a footnote to this effect in the Norton Anthology.)

26: guerdon : archaic for "reward." I think this refers to a reward given by the bridge, not to it.

26-27: Accolade . . . / Of anonymity : another oxymoron. Also, in my professor's opinion, an idea of the loss of the ego as ecstasy.

29: O harp and altar : the bridge. "Harp" compares the bridge with its cables to an aeolian harp.

30: The bridge seems too miraculous to be the product of human effort ("strings" refers to the bridge's suspension cables).

31: Terrific : includes the Old Testament sense of "terrifying."

31: threshold of : This phrase may take only the rest of line 31 as its object, or may take line 32 as well. The latter is simpler: the bridge is the threshold of all three of these things. I could swear I hear a reference to Manifest Destiny here.

31: the prophet's : i.e., the poet's pledge, my pledge.

32: lover's cry : orgasmic, in part.

34: Unfractioned idiom : a very hard phrase to interpret. My professor feels that "unfractioned" means "not made of constituent parts, undividely whole." Literally, an idiom is a phrase the meaning of which is more than the sum of its parts, a phrase that you can't figure out simply by looking up each word (like "kick the bucket" meaning "to die"). So calling an idiom unfractioned is redundant. Perhaps the point is simply to underline that this is the aspect of idioms (their indivisibility) that interests Crane here.

35: beading : alluding to rosary beads?

36: And we have seen night lifted in thine arms : invokes a Pietà (Italian for "pity"), a work of art showing the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus, as Harold Bloom observes in his introduction to the Simon edition of Crane's poems.

36: lifted : I see this as a sort of inversion of the dropping elevators in line 8. "Lift" is British idiom for "elevator."

39: fiery parcels all undone : the lights in the buildings have all gone out. Also perhaps invokes Christmas presents.

41: Sleepless : the bridge never sleeps (literally speaking, it never closes to traffic).

43: descend : perhaps God incarnating as Christ.

44: curveship : I think this might refer to the (curved) Earth itself, a "curve-ship" on which all we humans are traveling. But it is more often read as referring to a "curvedness," i.e., the bridge. Also perhaps a rainbow, which is the sign in Genesis of God's promise not to send any more floods.

This echoes the "inviolate curve" of line 5. To push it a bit, I can discern (or impose) this structure: the curve begins in the air and ends on the ground. Bracketed by this, the elevator begins heading to the ground and ends with "lifting" in line 36. So there is an upward motion (of the elevator) contained within a downward motion (of the curve).

44: And of the curveship lend a myth to God : Everyone I have read on this line feels that it describes a myth about God. But to me, that really tortures the syntax (how would "of" be made sense of?). Then again, of course, God is traditionally omniscient, so why would he need anything explained to or mythologized for him, especially if we agree that the "curveship" is the Earth, his creation?




This page has been edited 38 times. The last modification was made by - MisterMartin MisterMartin on Mar 13, 2008 8:47 am