Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages II’

Lately I have been bogged down in my thesis. I have delighted in my work on the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats but I am also constantly called back to the Modernists. (I use the capital ‘M’ to signify the High Modernists so that I don’t contradict myself, as Wordsworth was one of the most significant originators of modernism, after Dante.) I chose to write my thesis on Romantic poetry so that I might better understand the modes of thinking that led to Modernism. After reading so much of Wordsworth and Keats, it became clear that one of my truest poetic loves, Hart Crane, did not draw as much inspiration from them as he did from Shelley and Blake. In any event, I am not drawn to Crane because of his poetic allegiances but rather because, after traipsing through Wordsworth’s Prelude and Keats’s epic Endymion, the awe of Crane’s compression always makes for a great sabbatical for the analytical mind. And though much of Crane’s poetry is compressed, there is nothing quite like ‘Voyages II’ from his visionary six part poem. I think that it is best to read the poem first, this time.

—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—
Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

When offering up a poem, I don’t usually like to piece the poem apart. I prefer to provide doorways into the poetry and for the reader to make of it what they will. But the diction is so tricky here that a close reading through the breakdown of the diction is necessary if we want to ‘understand’ the poem.

Hart Crane

Hart Crane

The dash that opens the poem tells us that it is a continuation of ‘Voyages I’, which ends: ‘The bottom of the sea is cruel.’ The ‘great wink’ then, is the ocean and the personification of the closed eye sets in motion Crane’s repetition of the curved, supple nature of the sea found in the ‘vast belly moonward bends’ and ‘her turning shoulders’. Here, contrary to medieval and romantic representations, the sea does not represent eternity but is itself merely a temporal aspect of it, as the ‘wink’ represents transience. Indeed ‘rimless flood’ sets up a difficult dialectic, as it seems to represent somehow the eternal in the temporal, as floods are a frightening actuality of humankind since Noah and ‘rimless’ would represent an infinite space. Likely, it is a metaphor for the boundless love he shares with Emil Oppfer, whom we meet in line five. (The term boundless is purposefully contraindicative of the poem’s finality.) Now, for one of my favorite parts. Crane calls the sea ‘Samite’, which is a heavy silk fabric still used in religious vestments. Thus, the sea is made holy. (Samite comes to us through the Greek hexamiton which means ‘six threads’ and Voyages is a six part sequence weaving in and out of time back onto itself etc. The analogy is there, do with it what you will.) The wonder of this metaphor is the way in which it obscurely grows. Samite was often interwoven with gold and silver, so when we get to ‘undinal’ there is something we can do with it. An Undine is a sea nymph, the root ‘unda’ is Latin for wave; the nymphs themselves are governed by the moon, so the ‘undinal vast belly moonward bends’. This is all well and good. However, what is more important is that for Paracelsus, a 16th century alchemist, undines were the elements in water necessary for alchemy. Therefore, when we later see that the sea is made of ‘scrolls of silver’ in line seven, the metaphor is complete and the sea is indeed samite, or interwoven with gold and silver. Then the belly of the sea protrudes when laughing with ‘the wrapt inflections of our love”. Crane is doing a lot here with the word ‘wrapt’. The inflections of their love are wrapt by the sea; however the two lovers are also wrapping their hands together because their love is [w]rapturous. That their love is rapturous is a key characteristic and is the reason why the sea is not laughing at them, but rather delighting in their love and also why the final vision is exultant.I have always found these next two lines as a signifier of Crane’s whole poetic ability (though ‘The Broken Tower’ is an epitaph that announces the very fracturing of its power). There is such a wonderful in-folding here that echoes the enfoldings of the close of the previous stanza. A ‘diapason’ is a swell of harmony. Indeed this is what both love and a poem represent, and so for Crane it is no wonder that the knelling swell of harmony crashes into itself (imagine a wave cresting and falling back into its calm surface) forming ‘sentences’, just as when Crane’s consciousness reaches its diapason and the swell emerges in self-reflective poems made of swelling vestiges of that self. (This aligns with the sea as a flower of death later to come, which represents Narcissus’s plight.)

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences

Emil Oppfer

Then there is, I think, one of the most pathos-ridden turns in English poetry. As I have said, the lover here is Emil Oppfer, a Danish sailor. ‘Take this Sea’, beyond meaning merely ‘Take this sea, for example’ also becomes the Whitmanian proclamation to take the sea as a lover, an impossible sexual hubris. The poetic beauty of ‘sentences’ then immediately turns from its original meaning of poetry to mean being sentenced by a court, as the ‘sceptered terror’ symbolizes a type of damning aristocratic rule. Here the sea briefly transforms into something much larger, and more frightening: a society that reprimands their sexuality for religious reasons. But the sea (unlike humanity), whose mood (‘demeanors’) change at a moment’s notice cannot reprimand or sentence this love that was deemed true (or divine) when it was recognized as rapturous, and so there love is anointed by the holy samite sea despite what society thinks.

her demeanors motion well or ill,
[on] All but the pieties of lovers hands

There is no need to explicate the symbolism of the flowers in the following lines, though there is much here. It’ll suffice to say they prefigure the ‘floating flower’ in the penultimate stanza. What people have trouble with here is

Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Regarding ‘Adagios of islands’ Crane states explicitly in an essay called ‘General Aims and Theories’, that ‘the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc.’ ‘O my Prodigal’ is a call to Oppfer; he is prodigal in that he is very giving of love but also because, in the second sense of the word, he often leaves home to sail. Crane likely feared the potential of Oppfer’s sexual encounters, or ‘dark confessions’, during these trips, which the sea (life) has written onto his body. However, instead of wallowing in what Oppfer may have done, Crane notices that time is slipping away (‘Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours’), and so he asks that they redouble their love, and make its climax come about quicker—to move from the adagio of love into a prestissimo—as the sea is going to pass a second judgment or ‘superscription’ on them, which is death.

Blake, ‘The Lovers’ Whirlwind’

In the end, the wish is fulfilled; the lovers remain bound in time through boundless love, holding hands, and so they can never truly die. What is most important in the final stanza is the word vortex. It reminds us of the ‘calyx of death’s bounty’ and ‘The portent wound in corridors of shells’ from Crane’s ‘At Melville’s Tomb’. Here the portent is Crane’s suicide. But it is not so portentous or mournful as ‘The Broken Tower’, rather the death is an elation. I’ll leave you with Harold Bloom, who summarizes the conclusion best. ‘The prayer [to the seasons] is suicidal, prophesying Crane’s leap into the Caribbean seven years later, since the bodies of the lovers are not to be washed ashore until the seal’s longing gaze for the lost mother is answered “in the vortex of our grave,” which in the Blakean sense of vortex intimates a resurrection, in which subject and object, spirit and body, unite again. And yet the tonalities of this concluding stanza are not suicidal, because desire is exalted over sleep and death. “Bind us” remains the dominant yearning and the celebration of the erotic completion continues to be ecstatic.’ (The Art of Reading Poetry, 2004).

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4 responses to “Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages II’

  1. Your writing makes clear so many things I would not have even considered. Thank you for your clear insight and passion for these beautiful works.

  2. Pingback: Heartful Hart | Elemental Profoundity

  3. Thank you for your exposition of how the sea was integrated into the very being of the life of Hart … you have introduced me into the work of this amazing poet.

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