February 4, 2014

Crane's Black Riders: IT IS BITTER, BITTER

"Nobody is more modern than Mr. Stephen Crane, the young American writer who has lately made a considerable reputation by his military and other novels," wrote the unnamed reviewer in the London Times for 4 February 1897. Crane's 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage was a huge success and was critically applauded (for the most part). Published at about the same time, however, Black Riders and Other Lines was nothing like his novel. For one thing, it was a collection of poems — and avant garde poems, at that. The book was printed in all capital letters, the poems did not rhyme or carry titles, and broke all standard rules of poetic form, some as short as four lines.

Crane must have been relieved by the review in the Times, which called the book "an experiment suggesting Walt Whitman on the one hand and Friedrich Nietzsche on the other." Other critics had simply dismissed the book as "trash" or, in a different comparison to Whitman, one wrote, "there is not a line of poetry from the opening to the closing page. Whitman's Leaves of Grass were luminous in comparison. Poetic lunacy would be a better name for the book." Crane wriggled a little from the sting but was also pleased by the stir the book caused.

The Times reviewer, however, seemed just as ahead of his time as Crane's poems. "Mr. Crane probably has a literary future," he wrote. "His novels have shown that he can observe and record with merciless, if one-sided, realism; his little 'Lines' show that he has ideas." Among those ideas is a frequent question of religion or at least the motivation of gods, a bitter outlook on humanity, strange irony, and a sort of uncomfortable ambiguity of meaning. His imagery often features deserts, monsters, and sage but aloof genius characters. Taking the book as a whole, a reader might feel on the cusp of understanding but Crane makes it difficult and, perhaps, too deeply personal. Consider, for example, number "III":

IN THE DESERT
I SAW A CREATURE, NAKED, BESTIAL,
WHO, SQUATTING UPON THE GROUND,
HELD HIS HEART IN HIS HANDS,
AND ATE OF IT.
I SAID, IS IT GOOD, FRIEND?"
"IT IS BITTER, BITTER," HE ANSWERED;
"BUT I LIKE IT
BECAUSE IT IS BITTER,
AND BECAUSE IT IS MY HEART."


And "XLVI":

MANY RED DEVILS RAN FROM MY HEART
AND OUT UPON THE PAGE,
THEY WERE SO TINY
THE PEN COULD MASH THEM.
AND MANY STRUGGLED IN THE INK.
IT WAS STRANGE
TO WRITE IN THIS RED MUCK
OF THINGS FROM MY HEART.

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