Clarity and Obscurity:The Essences of Classicism and Modernism Compared
Classical and modern poetry are inarguably different. Indeed, modernism’s chief boast is its break with classicism and tradition more broadly. The difference is palpable in even the most cursory reading of a classical poem alongside a modernist one. Yet in what does the difference lie? It might be tempting to follow Justice Stewart’s famous maxim “I know it when I see it.” Of course we know the difference when we see it, but a fairly surface-level analysis of the two styles of poetry reveals what the difference is and why it is so.
The first aspect immediately noticeable about a classical poem is its clarity of expression. The language might be lofty or florid or sensuous, but the meaning – the underlying truth the poet is conveying through his art – is never lost. By contrast, a modernist poem is notable at first for its opacity. Symbolism unique to the poet or even the poem, inexplicable without footnotes, pervades the work. And the language always speaks in riddles, conjuring many possible interpretations, none of them necessarily wrong.
The divergence over clarity more fundamentally stems from a difference in worldviews. The classical poet operates under the presumption of truth. Poetry is merely a vehicle for expressing that truth, and a poem that is not clear in that expression is a failure. The modernist poet, by stark contrast, denies either the discoverability or the existence itself of any absolute truth. Truth then becomes subjective, identical to the perceptions of the observer. With the observer as the ultimate arbiter of truth, effect becomes paramount, and the success of a poem is determined by the power of the effect it has over the reader, regardless of the conclusions to which the reader arrives. Thus, in a modernist poem, the timbre, the nuance, the imagery of language is paramount, for they themselves contain, rather than convey, truth to the reader.
Two poems that beautifully illustrate this divergence are Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and Hart Crane’s “Voyages.” Similar in structure and vividness and grandeur of their imagery, they serve as perfect contrasts to analyze the use of poetic language by a classicist and by a modernist in contrast with each other. These, along with both classicist and modernist polemical writings, illustrate this fundamental difference over the nature of truth and its measurable stylistic effects.
First, Shelley. Before examining his verse, it is worthwhile to consider what he himself considered the end of poetry to be. After all, what better benchmark to measure the success of his poem than the one he himself set out? In his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley divides the human mental processes into reason, or “the enumeration of quantities already known,” and imagination, or “the perception of the value of those quantities.” (Shelley, 473-74.) Poetry is “the expression of the imagination.” (Id., 474.) Thus, the language of poets “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words, which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts . . . .” (Id., 478.)
For Shelley, “[a] poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” (Id. at 481.) Whereas a story is merely “a catalogue of detached facts” related only through time, place, and causality, a poem “is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.” (Id.) Poetry thus captures the ideals themselves, rather than the forms observed.
But poetry also acts in another “diviner” way: “[i]t awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought;” it “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” (Id., 484.) In this way poetry precedes and is superior to moral law, for it “enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food.” (Id.)
Towards the end of his essay, Shelley lays down the role and function of poetry in human society. “The functions of poetry are two-fold,” he says; “by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure; by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order, which may be called the beautiful and the good.” (Id.) Poetry, then, is the “center and circumference of knowledge” and “comprehends all science,” and is most needed when “the accumulation of the materials of external life” – knowledge and perception – “exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.” (Id., 504-05.)
Ambitious stuff – not surprising for a piece that famously ends by calling poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (Id., 512.) But Shelley was not one for small thoughts. To him, poetry was no less than the revelation of truth more comprehensively than either science or ethics could achieve.
To see Shelley put his poetic ideal into practice, his “Mont Blanc” provides one of the best examples of clarity of expression. The poem has become something of a war-horse for undergraduate classrooms, but this in no way diminishes its worth for study. Its sweeping, grandiose imagery captures the quintessence of the Romantic ideal of the sublime as beautiful, and renders the poem a perfect case study to observe clarity of expression even through a heavy surface layer of imagery.
The first stanza begins:
The everlasting universe of things Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark — now glittering — now reflecting gloom — Now lending splendour, . . .
Here Shelley brings the reader from the broadest possible topic, “the everlasting universe of things,” unconstrained by place or even time, and frames it as thought within the mind of the observer. It is the human mind alone that contains the universe entire. Then he introduces the first metaphor:
. . . where from secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters, — with a sound but half its own, Such as a feeble brook will oft assume In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
The human mind, which contains the universe, is likened to a “feeble brook,” so frail amidst the titanic forces of mountains, waterfalls, and river rapids. Despite the intensity of the images, neither the metaphor nor the main idea is lost. Indeed, the imagery serves the metaphor, highlighting the brook’s feebleness among mightier forces of nature.
Having set the mountain scene for the brook that represents the human mind, Shelley spends the first twenty-two lines of the second stanza immersing the reader in vivid description of the “awful scene” of raw, untamed, overpowering natural forces in the Arve Valley beneath Mont Blanc: the “giant brood of pines;” the “chainless winds;” the “earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep / Of the aethereal waterfall whose veil / Robes some unsculptured image.” Then Shelley returns to the human mind – his own, this time – reflecting on the awesome sight he just described:
Seeking among the shadows that pass by Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee, Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
Here Shelley’s Platonism surfaces. He sees in the images before him mere “shadows” and seeks among them the “ghosts of all things that are,” not very subtly evoking Plato’s famous analogy of the shadows on the cave wall.
In the third stanza, Shelley explores the Platonic ideal further, pondering the existence of the ideal beyond “[t]he veil of life and death. Now halfway into the poem, Shelley introduces its main metaphor:
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, Mont Blanc appears, — still, snowy, and serene — Its subject mountains their unearthly forms Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps, Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread And wind among the accumulated steeps; A desert peopled by the storms alone, Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone, And the wolf tracks her there — how hideously Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high, Ghastly, and scarred, and riven.
The imagery is awesome and frightening. The mountain, aloof above the clouds, serves as the metaphor for the Platonic ideals Shelley has just been pondering. At last Shelley addresses the mountain directly, calling on it (or, rather, the ideal it represents) to act upon the imperfections in the perceivable world:
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood By all, but which the wise, and great, and good Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
Again, even at the poetic climax, the most awe-inspiring images in a poem packed with awe-inspiring natural imagery, the poetic language serves only as a vehicle for expressing the metaphor of the mountain as representing the Platonic ideal.
The fourth stanza descends from the serene, unreachable mountaintop to the chaotic scene beneath. Throughout the imagery is powerful and frightening: “glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey;” the piled rocks resemble “A city of death . . . yet not a city, but a flood of ruin;” “Vast pines . . . branchless and shattered stand.” These images show the irresistible power of nature, amid which “The race / Of man flies far in dread, his work and dwelling / Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream . . . .” Thus, humanity is fleeting not only in comparison to the idealized, unreachable mountaintop, but also to the natural, if transient, forces of nature beneath.
The fifth and final stanza concludes, “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there.” It ponders how high on the isolated peak the winds rush and the lightning flashes silently. And yet:
. . . The secret Strength of things Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee! And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, If to the human mind's imaginings Silence and solitude were vacancy?
With that question, the immovable, eternal ideal represented by the mountaintop is framed within the mind of the creatures portrayed as miniscule and powerless only a few lines before. The power of the mountain rests only in the human mind’s ability to perceive it and grasp the ideal it represents in the poem.
Throughout the poem, Shelley’s meaning is never lost. It is a philosophical lesson vividly, breathtakingly described. Nowhere is any imagery gratuitous. It serves only to support the metaphor. Be it the frailty of human nature and the human mind, the raw, overpowering grandeur of untamed nature, or the unreachable Platonic ideal, all the vivid description serves the point being made. Nowhere is the meaning vague or ambiguous. Indeed, the poem would be a failure otherwise. If Shelley is going to propound philosophy, it would ill serve him to make his readers guess at his meaning. Philosophy is, of course, the search for truth, and presumes the existence of a truth to discover.
Shelley uses the poetic language not as a mask, but as a lens to reveal that truth. The imagery makes the ideas they convey come alive, phrased in concrete terms to which any reader can immediately relate. Rather than forcing the reader to guess at his meaning, Shelley reveals it more clearly and more powerfully through imagery with power and detail enough to conjure the emotions.
Before moving to modernism, some additional words of classical polemics supply a worthy supplement to Shelley’s. An equally enthusiastic polemicist, Edgar Allan Poe echoes Shelley in his posthumously published essay, “The Poetic Principle.” Poe, after concluding that the ideal poem is short but not too short, addresses the function of poetry. Whereas Shelley’s human mind is dual, Poe’s is tripartite, divided between intellect, taste, and moral sense. (Poe, 893.) The intellect concerns itself with truth; taste with beauty; and moral sense with duty. (Id.) Regarding taste, “[a]n immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists.” (Id.)
Mere reproduction of those sense-impressions, though “is not poetry.” (Id.)
“There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, . . . no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us – but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.”
(Id., 893-94.) It is “the struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness” that “has given to the world all that which it . . . has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.” (Id., 894.)
In concluding, Poe summarizes his poetic principle as “strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty.” (Id., 905-06.) And “the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul” independent of passion or even truth. (Id., 906.) Poe, however, is quick to hedge his exclusion of truth from the poetic principle: “if . . . through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect” – but the effect refers to the harmony perceived, not the truth itself “which merely served to render the harmony manifest.” (Id.)
Thus, for Poe, as with Shelley, the principle upon which all poetry is founded is the revelation of a truth. But for Poe, revelation is not through a direct telling of the truth, as in prose, but a showing of it through a “harmony” or metaphor previously unrealized by the reader. Any of Poe’s works readily demonstrate his use of this principle. “The Bells,” with its stark imagery and oppressive repetition, is one example.
Let us conclude the discussion of the classical approach with a statement from Keats in a letter to his friend, the poet John Hamilton Reynolds:
“Poetry should be great [and] unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject. – How beautiful are the retired flowers! [H]ow would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘[A]dmire me I am a violet! [D]ote upon me I am a primrose!’”
(Keats, 493.) This simple statement of methodology stands in stark contrast to the sweeping, grandiose philosophizing of Shelley and Poe. With this simple, almost childlike statement, Keats more succinctly and perhaps better than either Shelley or Poe captures the essence of classical aesthetic: meaning is never subverted to the sensory delight of the imagery.
If philosophy and rhetoric do not belong in poetry, all that remains is the raw emotional effect of the language itself. The modernist conception, which sees the effect of language as the true substance of poetry, leaves no room for philosophizing. Or rather, it makes its philosophy about the poem – and therefore external to the poem – rather than within the poem. In this way modernist poetry, which bills its opacity as depth, is actually superficial.
To illustrate the modernist conception of poetry as superficial, few better examples are available than Hart Crane’s “Voyages.” While on its surface the poem might seem a poor comparison to Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” as its poems are indisputably love poems. To be sure, contemporary critics, mired in the dominance of sexual identity politics, tend to view Crane’s “Voyages” as primarily expressions of homosexual love. But Crane himself characterized them as primarily “sea poems” and only secondarily as “also love poems.” (Crane, 192.) The sweeping imagery Crane uses in portraying a subject as grand and universal to the human experience as the sea compares perfectly to Shelley’s equally sweeping description of a similarly grand and universal object of nature.
Before turning to the poems themselves, it is once again worthwhile to examine polemics, this time modernist. “Voyages” emerged in the modernist milieu, and understanding modernism is essential to examining its language. Crane did not leave us with any sweeping polemic stating his conception of poetry as Shelley did, but he left voluminous correspondence that permits insight into his poetic ideals. There, Crane expressed his high regard of both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (Crane, 28, 66.) Both Pound and Eliot, it so happens, were highly influential polemicists, and their arguments should provide some helpful insight into Crane’s ideals.
In his short but tight 1913 essay, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Pound begins by defining the poetic “image” as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” (Pound, para. 1.) The presentation of this emotional “complex,” in turn, “gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (Id., para. 2.) To Pound, “[i]t is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” (Id., para. 3.)
Pound advises poets, “Don’t be “viewy” — leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays,” and “Consider the definiteness of Dante’s presentation, as compared with Milton’s rhetoric.” (Id., paras. 19, 29.) Pound’s use of “viewy” is unclear. Though it would usually mean “showy” or “ostentatious,” he associates it instead with philosophy rather than the display of imagery he advocates. Given the primacy of the image in his conception, his preference for “presentation” over “rhetoric,” and his earlier definition of the image complex, it is not a difficult leap to conclude that Pound conceives of poetry not as the conveyance of a message so much as the conveyance of an emotional effect.
T.S. Eliot’s profoundly influential 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” provides a much more detailed and eloquent articulation of the modernist approach to poetry. Though the essay’s primary focus is the relationship between the heritage of past literature and present poetry, its entire second section describes the purpose of poetry in Eliot’s modernist conception.
For Eliot, the mature poet is a mere catalyst, a “finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations” in the same way that platinum catalyzed the formation of sulfuric acid without itself being consumed. (Eliot, paras. 11-12.) The elements that the poet catalyzes are “emotions and feelings,” and their product, “[t]he effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it[,] is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art.” (Id., para. 13.) This effect “may be formed out of one emotion, or may be a combination of several; and various feelings, inhering for the writer in particular words or phrases or images, may be added to compose the final result.” (Id.) Great poetry may even “be made without the direct use of any emotion whatever: composed out of feelings solely.” (Id.)
On examining the greatest poetry, Eliot perceives “how completely any semi-ethical criterion of ‘sublimity’ misses the mark.” (Id., para. 14.) Its greatness lies not in “the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” (Id.) Even though poetry might “employ[ ] a definite emotion, its “intensity . . . is something quite different from whatever intensity in the supposed experience it may give the impression of.” (Id.) Providing the example of Keats, Eliot asserts, “The ode of Keats contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale, partly, perhaps, because of its attractive name, and partly because of its reputation, served to bring together.” (Id., para. 15.)
Eliot also rejects the Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” (Id., para. 18.) For Eliot, the poet does not recollect emotion, but collects experiences, using ordinary emotions and working them through poetry “to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.” (Id.) In concluding, Eliot calls this emotion in art impersonal, and has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. (Id., para. 19.)
These two essays reveal the modernist conception of poetry as completely alien to that of Shelley, Poe, or Keats. However highly Eliot regarded those poets as part of the historical tradition he and his generation were to expand, his views of their art could not be more alien to theirs. For both him and Pound (and the rest of the modernists), the poem is not the conveyance of an underlying truth in a manner that delights – a concept, at least in English, stretching back to Sir Philip Sidney in the Renaissance – it is rather they conveyance of an effect on the reader. For Pound, the conveyance is a complex formed from the poetic image, and for Eliot it is a concentration of an impersonal experience that conjures a new emotion. But Eliot’s definition is only a more expansive view of Pound’s. The essence of both – the essence of modernism – is that poetry’s purpose is to convey an effect, not a truth. It works on, rather than speaks to, the reader.
If “effect” is merely the emotional response of the reader to the language used, then poetry is but a cosmetic art, and a poet is but a writer who can string together a series of pretty-sounding words that conjure an image. That task requires no special skill. Like architecture or carpentry, true craftsmanship in poetry requires attention to structure and foundation, not merely color and ornament. And shoddy constructions and Potemkin villages never endure. True art lies in the essence of the work, not its impressions. This is yet another sense in which to read Keats’s famous line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
The language Crane uses in “Voyages” perfectly encapsulates modernism: poetry as the conveyance of effect rather than truth. The first poem paints a vivid picture of the grandeur of the sea: “fresh ruffles of the surf,” “[b]right striped urchins.” “The sun beats lightning on the waves, / The waves fold thunder on the sand.” But as soon as it leaves these images, it concludes with an exhortation to “brilliant kids” – “frisk with your dog” and “[f]ondle your shells and sticks” – along with a warning that “[t]he bottom of the sea is cruel.”
The second poem follows the same pattern, beginning with a portrayal of the sea in sweeping images: “rimless flood, unfettered leewardings, / Samite sheeted;” the “undinal vast belly moonward bend[ing];” the “scrolls of silver snowy sentences;” and the striking simile “as the bells of San Salvador / Salute the crocus lustres of the stars / In these poinsettia meadows of her tides.” Here Crane likens the sea to a “great wink of eternity” and urges the lover to whom the poem is addressed to “hasten . . . – sleep, death, desire / Close round one instant in one floating flower.” Again, the poem ends with an address, this time as a double invocation, first to the “Seasons clear” to “bind us in time” and “awe,” then to the “minstrel galleons of Carib fire” to “bequeath us to no earthly shore.”
Both of the first two poems contain striking imagery undeveloped in relation to any metaphor. Instead, they are atmospheric pieces serving essentially the same purpose twice: to portray the beauty and grandeur of the sea. The first presents the sea from the shore and the second on the high seas, but these images are just a backdrop for the true message of the poem, which is shouted at the end of each as a direct announcement. Finally, the essential message of poems, rather than being developed as an argument throughout the poem, is stated plainly in summary fashion at the end, as an exhortation and then as an invocation. Pretty descriptions followed by a blunt statement of prosaic literality, though, for however many fine turns of phrasing they contain, do not make poetry.
The third poem is darker, hinting at death. It begins with an impression of the “tendered theme” of the lover “that light / Retrieves from sea plains where the sky / Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones.” Meanwhile, the narrator is separated in “ribboned water lanes . . . laved and scattered with no stroke,” to be “admitted through black swollen gates / That must arrest all distance otherwise” – an image of death under the waves, “Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments.” Moving from shore to sea, the third poem has now brought the reader under the water, to see “Light wrestling there incessantly with light, / Star kissing star through wave on wave . . . / Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn.” Here Crane mentions death explicitly, not as something to fear but something which “if shed, / presumes no carnage” – a calming transformation that the underwater calm evokes. As with the others, this poem closes with an invocation, this time directly to the lover: “Permit me voyage, love, into your hands . . .”
The language of the fourth poem is much less concrete, as it is the most message-oriented rather than atmospheric, of the six poems. Here, the narrator sings the immortality of love between two mortals, the love “Whose circles bridge, I know, (from palms to the severe / Chilled albatross’s white immutability),” that renders the narrator’s mortality “clay aflow immortally” to the lover. The only truly striking images given are the “Bright staves of flowers and quills” and the “Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes.” The rest of the language is remarkably abstract in comparison to the other five poems, at the same time that the poem’s message flows consistently through the poem. This is not coincidental. The fourth poem is the closest Crane comes to expounding on a theme, but he fails to do so with any unifying metaphor, instead speaking directly about the immortality of his love.
What metaphor is lacking? Metaphor as a single underlying idea that unifies the sensory descriptions of the poem into a coherent whole. Metaphor is the meaning of a poem, in the classical sense. Without this unifying principle, “Voyages” as a whole appears as little more than a series of gaudy descriptions passing one after the other like floats in a Mardi Gras parade.
The fifth poem returns to descriptive imagery, painting an intimate nighttime scene:
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
The moonlight is “deaf.” It exercises “Slow tyranny.” The moon is a “godless cleft of sky / Where nothing turns but dead sands flashing.” Bleak language. It forms both the backdrop and the conclusion of the narrator’s musings on his lover’s words. Where the lover sees contentment, the narrator sees only a deaf, tyrannical, godless world – exactly opposite of how the narrator views the universe within his love, as he has described in the previous poem. Portraying the moonlit scene this way is perhaps the closest Crane comes to classical use of metaphor, but he does not take the metaphor anywhere beyond the nihilistic view of the world.
Both the fourth and the fifth poem, as with the third, close with an address to the lover. The fourth poem’s ending is ambiguous in its joined verbs “exclaim receive” – is it the “bright insinuations” that exclaim, or is the narrator commanding his lover to exclaim, to receive, or both? The fifth poem unmistakably directs a lengthy address to the lover, “Draw in your head and sleep.” As with the first three poems, this exhortation in the fifth poem direct states a point for the atmospheric scene set out in the beginning of the poem with an exhortation that strongly, almost ham-handedly, hints at death. The lover’s complete absence from the next poem bolsters that implication.
The sixth and closing poem is unique in the set for its rhymed quatrains in iambic tetrameter. It opens with a series of images, the first two unconnected images of the ocean and the latter two as analogies to the churning in the second image:
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;
Here Crane bombards the reader with evocations, each connected only loosely by way of analogy, and all unconnected to any metaphor underlying the poem, let alone the set of six. But he does not end there; he evokes “siroccos harvesting / The solstice thunders,” and Belle Isle, the “Unfolded floating dais before / Which rainbows twine continual hair.” Beautiful language, but they are merely observations incidental to the voyage on which the narrator ends the poem. Here the narrator neither addresses nor even mentions the lover, strongly implying that the two have parted ways.
The poem closes with a paean:
The imaged Word, it is, that holds
Hushed willows anchored in its glow.
It is the unbetrayable reply
Whose accent no farewell can know.
Crane leaves the reader with not a grandiose summary of his musings on love as reflected in the sea, but a simple musing after the lover’s implied departure. The idea, the “image” of the lover remains, and unlike the lover himself knows no departure, for it remains with the narrator.
“Voyages” cannot be analyzed according to the flow of its logic like “Mont Blanc,” for it has none. It is better considered as a set of six atmospheric pieces, each conveying a specific mood about the sea and love. Their arrangement does have a logic to it: the setting progresses from shore to high sea to underwater to a moonlit night to an ocean-wide voyage; and the subjects progress from fun to love to death to general musings on love. And while the poems as a whole use the sea and its images to represent love, both the entire set and each individual poem comprising it lack a single, tight metaphor around which all of the poetic language revolves. Without that central image to anchor the poem, Crane’s six poems leave the reader with no central idea as Shelley’s does, but only with a varied series of musing on his love and the gorgeous marine imagery he so strikingly details.
But Crane’s imagery accompanies, rather than describes, the musings on love. They set the scene, create a mood. The images themselves do not speak to the poems’ subject. The sea is not love. Instead, the narrator loves while surrounded by the sea, which conjures up the various musings on love. It is poetry devoid of metaphor, and for all the beauty of its language, is little more than the “philosophizing” Pound derides. And as much as Shelley “philosophizes,” he makes Mont Blanc into the Platonic ideal. Crane does no such thing with the sea, and leaves the reader with only a set of idle musings and impressions.
“Mont Blanc” represents the classical ideal of poetry: the revelation of a truth through language that delights. Why should anyone else care what Shelley felt on seeing a Swiss mountain two centuries ago? If those remote feelings are to have any meaning, they must contain something universal that a reader of the twenty-first century can grasp just as easily as Shelley. That is the truth Shelley reveals, the Platonic ideal, and its distant, unreachable permanence that dwarfs the titanic forces of nature which in turn dwarf humanity in the valleys below.
To convey this poetic truth, Shelley is always clear. His language is vivid, even florid in places, but his meaning is never lost. Nothing remains in the poem that does not serve the central truth and Mont Blanc as its metaphor. Shelley fulfilled his ideal as a classical poet.
“Voyages,” as representative of modernist poetry, for all its beautiful language and imagery, is as clear as swamp-mud, and like swamp-mud requires wading and dredging to fathom. This is intentionally so. Modernism as a worldview denies absolute truth. It holds meaning to be subjective, and as such it exists in art only within the reaction of an individual observer. Meaning to the modernist therefore is united with effect, and the primary purpose of poetic language in modernism is to convey an effect, not an idea.
Eliot and Pound both state as much in their polemic essays. But the quintessence of modernism would best be summarized decades later, after classicism was swept aside in two World Wars, by a man not conventionally recognized as a poet. The Doors’ Jim Morrison stated: “Listen, real poetry doesn’t say anything; it just ticks off the possibilities. Opens all doors. You can walk through anyone that suits you.” That is the logical end-result of Pound’s and Eliot’s polemics, and it is also how the entire poetry establishment would define poetry today.
But poetry is expression. The poet writes to express, to convey not only emotions and experiences but the ideas that render those emotions and experiences universal, and hence powerful. Successful communication depends on clarity of expression. The reader must comprehend what the writer intends to express. A poet who has no intention for the reader is conveying nothing, and really has nothing to say.
Modernism and its progeny have had their time, and it was a fun experiment while it lasted. Now let it properly become a museum-piece, a relic of an era when art sought new modes of expression. As a sustained artistic school, however, modernism cannot endure. Indeed, its continued dominance beyond its expiration date has led to a devolution of art in general and poetry in particular into quotidian smatterings of no artistic rigor, leaving the reader, the viewer, or the audience to supply the meaning. Failure to comprehend becomes the fault of the observer, not the artist, for the onus is on the observer to supply the meaning. It is a clever scam under which artists have too long gotten away with not needing talent or rigor for their works to acquire commercial value.
Classical art is eternal because the ideas it expresses are eternal. A resurrection of classical form does not represent a return to the past, real or imagined, but instead a return to sanity, a reorientation of the artistic eye back to its natural, fully human purpose and use.
Crane, Hart. The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932. Ed. Brom Weber. Univ. of California Press, 1965.
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Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Indiana, where he practices as a civil and appellate litigation attorney. His poems have appeared in print and online publications, and he has published two volumes of poetry: The Spring's Autumn (2013) and Inquietude (2016). He also composes music, which may be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives with his wife, Ivana, and their two children.