- Stephen Crane and the Poetics of Nostalgia
Although repeatedly singled out for its anticipation of the modernist movement, Stephen Crane’s poetry participates, I argue, in a nineteenth-century tradition of longing for heroic selfhood. In this regard, the subjects of Crane’s poetry bear a distinct resemblance to those in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s works. While this might seem an unlikely pairing, the ubiquity of Longfellow’s late-nineteenth-century poetry provides the grounds for such a comparison. Due to the continued circulation and commemoration of Longfellow’s poetry after his death in 1882, Crane and others who came of age in the latter half of the nineteenth century would have encountered his works in the classroom.1 By attending to his nineteenth-century roots, this pairing also corrects excessive critical attention to Crane as a proto-modernist. Critical readings that push Crane forward into twentieth-century contexts contribute to the problem of periodizing the poetry of the 1890s, an era considered transitional even by its own contemporaries. Understood as either looking back or looking ahead, poetry in this era is never itself. I argue that an investigation into the influence of Longfellow on Crane’s free forms enables us to recognize that a poetic nostalgia permeated even the decade’s most innovative verse. In Crane’s poetry, nostalgia was a means of bridging past, present, and future in what was then and has since been perceived as a pause in the progress of American poetry. Indeed, I ultimately suggest ways in which Crane’s innovative verse subtends a strongly nineteenth-century project.
Longfellow, one of the most widely recognized and revered nineteenth-century poets, remained highly popular well into the twentieth century, and, more germane to this essay, Longfellow’s works were in Crane’s Sussex house library (Hoffman 32). Among Crane’s uncollected lines, moreover, is a brief parody of Longfellow’s platitude-heavy “A Psalm of Life,” in which the speaker insists that “we can make our lives sublime” in spite of cynicism and disillusionment. Crane riffs on Longfellow’s opening, “Tell me not in mournful numbers / Life is but an empty dream” before directly quoting his most exhortatory line: [End Page 305]
Tell me not in joyous numbersWe can make our lives sublimeBy—well, at least, not byDabbling much in rhyme.(Poems 81)
A number of critics have understood this parody as a wholesale rejection of Longfellow’s poetic project, arguing that Crane condenses the message of Longfellow’s metered, optimistic poem in order to refute it. Judith Saunders, for example, argues that this piece reveals that Crane’s poetry “strives for genuine rather than contrived sublimity,” and that “a preoccupation with the melodious effects of meter and rhyme tends to undermine—indeed, impede—the expression of harsh truths or tragic insights” (186). While accepting that Crane may reject Longfellow’s formal practices, I argue, in contrast, that he actually embraces Longfellow’s construction and communication of the “sublime” self. By writing a poetry that does not “dabbl[e] much in rhyme,” Crane develops new formal strategies in order to resurrect the strong individualism that Longfellow’s “Psalm” hoped to inspire. However, critics such as Max Cavitch take Crane’s innovative, irregular verses as a means of “combust[ing]” both the heroic selfhood that Longfellow’s rhyming poetry and the “free subject” that Walt Whitman’s free verse forms supposedly constituted (34, 33). Here I take issue with the critical tendency to equate Crane’s formal innovation—and, indeed, formal innovation more generally—with a depersonalized, protomodern sensibility. In Crane’s case, the opposite is true: his formal innovation continues commitments to sentimental longing for sublime selfhood articulated by poems such as Longfellow’s “Psalm.”
Because he breaks with formal traditions of nineteenth-century poetry that seemed outmoded by the 1890s, Crane has been too easily understood as a harbinger of modernist depersonalization. The 1890s, the decade in which Crane published his two poetry collections, were considered a problematic period in American poetry by late-nineteenth and twentieth-century critics alike. Noting “a period of decline” in 1885, Edmund Clarence Stedman dubbed the era the “twilight of the poets” in...