Although Hart Crane was obviously inspired by Walt Whitman and aspired to receive Whitman’s mantle, it seems to me that he is most effective when inspired by Emily Dickinson rather than Whitman.
In a poem like “Cape Hatteras” Crane nearly attains Whitman’s style with lines like:
Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity
Be still the same as when you walked the beach
Near Paumanok — your lone patrol — and heard the wraith
Through surf, its bird note there a long time falling…
For you, the panoramas and this breed of towers,
Of you — the theme that’s statured in the cliff,
O Saunterer on free ways still ahead!
Our Meistersinger, thou set breath in steel;
And it was thou who on the boldest heel
Stood up and flung the span on even wing
Of that great Bridge, our Myth, wherof I sing!
Recorders ages hence, yes, they shall hear
In their own veins uncancelled thy sure tread
And read thee by the aureole ’round thy head
Of pasture-shine, Panis Angelicus!
Yes, Crane, like Sandburg and Roethke in his later poems, seems able to successfully capture Whitman’s style, though at times Crane’s use of archaic language seems forced and detracts from the meaning of the poem.
Ultimately, though, Crane seems unable to sustain Whitman’s vision, and, unfortunately, seems more convincing in earlier lines in “Cape Hatteras” like:
Dream cancels dream in this new realm of fact
From which we wake into the dream of act;
Seeing himself an atom in a shroud —
Man hears himself an engine in a cloud.
No matter how much he wants to believe in Whitman’s positive vision and reject Eliot’s modern wasteland, he seems unable to sustain that belief in his poetry. Perhaps his dedication to poetry demanded a dedication to truth that would not allow him to sustain’s Whitman’s vision.
For me, at least, Crane’s smaller poems, poems where he seems to mirror Emily Dickinson’s simultaneous optimism and regret, are often his most convincing poems:
TO EMILY DICKINSON
You who desired so much–in vain to ask–
Yet fed you hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest–
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,
Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momently in every breast;
–Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind–
Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill.
Crane, like Dickinson, believes in, and “desired so much,” the kind of joy that Emerson and Whitman could celebrate in such joyous terms, yet both seemed to do so “in vain.” Although they “bless the quest” of poetry, neither found the personal joy in life or received, at least in their lifetime, the fame they probably deserved.
Crane envisions Emily as passing through eternity cradling a beauty, the beauty of poetry, obviously, in her hands that never withers. Her poetry is a greater treasure than the philosopher’s stone or the finest gold.