• Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

Poem of the Week: Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages’

ByFlo Anderson

Oct 21, 2020

Walter Pater, one of the fathers of Aestheticism, in his Studies in the History of Renaissance argued that music was the highest form of art in that ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.’ Though Pater wrote this with a conception of music as pure abstraction, I believe that poetry and music both derive from the same essence – the human inclination for rhythm and pulse. While music is able to take these two entities and create a latticed, sensory experience through a multiplicity of melodies and harmonies, poetry has the ability to create a sub-text through their employment.

Hart Crane’s poem Voyages is an interesting example of just this, with Crane using these tenants of poetry to bring his Romantic lyric into a contemporary context. Crane was a crucial figure in twentieth-century American literature who adopted the role of Romantic during the high modernist period, and his interest in fusing tradition and experimentation gave his poetry a unique dissonance. The poem, divided into six sections, was written by Crane to celebrate and express his effervescent love for Danish-sailor Emil Opffer.  Crane’s Voyages is, in the words of Roland Barthes, le discours amoreux, a lover’s discourse that transcends and remains impervious to common sense, using the wild and uncontrollable sea as a medium to express this.

In true Romantic style, Crane looked to the natural world to offer structure to the essence of his poetry. The sea is an extended metaphor in this poem for the linguistic space in which words can mix and meld together and is further analogised to the mixing of lovers’ bodies. One would expect that because of the nautical imagery of the poem, the poem would echo the rolling rhythm of waves in its form. But by indulging in such operatic and extravagant language that breaks the grammatical confines, Crane replicates the syncopated and unpredictable rhythms of the Jazz Age. This interweaving of contemporary musical culture by Crane into the poem reworks the traditional Romantic imagery and concept into a modern aesthetic. The pulse and beat that underpins every piece of music can also be detected in every piece of poetry.


Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.   
They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,   
And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed   
Gaily digging and scattering.

And in answer to their treble interjections   
The sun beats lightning on the waves,   
The waves fold thunder on the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them:

O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,   
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line   
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it   
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses   
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.   
The bottom of the sea is cruel.


—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.


Infinite consanguinity it bears—
This tendered theme of you that light   
Retrieves from sea plains where the sky   
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;   
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke   
Wide from your side, whereto this hour   
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.

And so, admitted through black swollen gates   
That must arrest all distance otherwise,—
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,   
Light wrestling there incessantly with light,   
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto   
Your body rocking!
                            and where death, if shed,   
Presumes no carnage, but this single change,—
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn   
The silken skilled transmemberment of song;

Permit me voyage, love, into your hands …   


Whose counted smile of hours and days, suppose   
I know as spectrum of the sea and pledge   
Vastly now parting gulf on gulf of wings
Whose circles bridge, I know, (from palms to the severe   
Chilled albatross’s white immutability)   
No stream of greater love advancing now   
Than, singing, this mortality alone   
Through clay aflow immortally to you.

All fragrance irrefragably, and claim   
Madly meeting logically in this hour   
And region that is ours to wreathe again,   
Portending eyes and lips and making told   
The chancel port and portion of our June—

Shall they not stem and close in our own steps   
Bright staves of flowers and quills today as I   
Must first be lost in fatal tides to tell?

In signature of the incarnate word
The harbor shoulders to resign in mingling
Mutual blood, transpiring as foreknown
And widening noon within your breast for gathering   
All bright insinuations that my years have caught   
For islands where must lead inviolably
Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes,—

In this expectant, still exclaim receive   
The secret oar and petals of all love.


Meticulous, past midnight in clear rime,   
Infrangible and lonely, smooth as though cast   
Together in one merciless white blade—
The bay estuaries fleck the hard sky limits.

—As if too brittle or too clear to touch!   
The cables of our sleep so swiftly filed,
Already hang, shred ends from remembered stars.   
One frozen trackless smile … What words   
Can strangle this deaf moonlight? For we

Are overtaken. Now no cry, no sword   
Can fasten or deflect this tidal wedge,
Slow tyranny of moonlight, moonlight loved   
And changed … “There’s

Nothing like this in the world,” you say,   
Knowing I cannot touch your hand and look   
Too, into that godless cleft of sky
Where nothing turns but dead sands flashing.

“—And never to quite understand!” No,
In all the argosy of your bright hair I dreamed   
Nothing so flagless as this piracy.

                                              But now
Draw in your head, alone and too tall here.   
Your eyes already in the slant of drifting foam;   
Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know:   
Draw in your head and sleep the long way home.


Where icy and bright dungeons lift   
Of swimmers their lost morning eyes,   
And ocean rivers, churning, shift   
Green borders under stranger skies,

Steadily as a shell secretes
Its beating leagues of monotone,
Or as many waters trough the sun’s   
Red kelson past the cape’s wet stone;

O rivers mingling toward the sky   
And harbor of the phoenix’ breast—
My eyes pressed black against the prow,   
—Thy derelict and blinded guest

Waiting, afire, what name, unspoke,   
I cannot claim: let thy waves rear   
More savage than the death of kings,   
Some splintered garland for the seer.

Beyond siroccos harvesting
The solstice thunders, crept away,   
Like a cliff swinging or a sail
Flung into April’s inmost day—

Creation’s blithe and petalled word   
To the lounged goddess when she rose   
Conceding dialogue with eyes
That smile unsearchable repose—

Still fervid covenant, Belle Isle,   
—Unfolded floating dais before
Which rainbows twine continual hair—
Belle Isle, white echo of the oar!

The imaged Word, it is, that holds   
Hushed willows anchored in its glow.   
It is the unbetrayable reply
Whose accent no farewell can know.

Hart Crane, “Voyages I, II, III, IV, V, VI” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, ed. by Marc Simon, 1933

Image: Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel via Flickr