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Tran 1 Andrew Tran Professor Davidson LTEN 172 19 November 2012 The City’s Displacement of the Human Form

as the Divine Image in Crane and Williams The dawning of the modern era brought with it sweeping changes in every sphere of life, and so it is unsurprising that those writing at the time could use no less than superlatives when trying to portray precisely what the new era was, what it looked like, and what it portended. Perhaps the most meaningful and spectacular manifestation of the modern is the urban city, the site of never-ending spectacles of light, sound, advertisement, and entertainment, with its buildings and monuments of unheard-of proportions. The effect of such a phenomenon on modern poetry was to give the impression that something superhuman or supernatural was passing into the world. The urban city, as the prime symbol of modernity, is often represented in modernist poetry as a divine presence which dwarfs the stature of man, but also presents the possibility of human elevation. In William Carlos Williams’ "The Great Figure" and Hart Crane’s "Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge," the city is represented through two signifiers of urban life, a fire-truck and the Brooklyn Bridge respectively, the sight and presence of which arrests the speaker in a religious rapture. Each of these poems portrays the divinity of the signifiers as being dependent upon the property of obscurity, or un-definition; the signifiers (and so the City) appear unearthly and supernatural because they defy human cognition. As such, they are events which allow the human speaker a glimpse of the inhuman, and perhaps enlarge the speaker by virtue of this experience. The Brooklyn Bridge of Crane’s “Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge” is fitting as a signifier for the modern city because it is a by-product of the presence of cities; it is possible only when cities have

” which recalls the rapture of the Romantic poet addressing some Natural scene as a holy medium. or of the ungraspable. The Brooklyn Bridge stands in place of Nature as the poet’s inspiration with which he carries on a conversation. as the inspirational power of the muse makes possible the construction of epic poetry. It is also described as an energizing force much as the muse is a force of inspiration: “Shedding white rings of tumult. Crane’s poem possesses features of both epic and Romantic poetry which heavily imply the divine status of the Bridge. kinetic energy. The physical elevation of the seagull also ties into the overarching theme of curves. as between priest and god. of upward ascents which serve to bridge the distance between the speaker and an experience of the exalted. which allows the construction of ‘Liberty’ high over the East River. or a connection between existing urban spaces.3-4). as in “O harp and altar. chill from his rippling rest / The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him.13.” and “Thee.25. across the harbor. through which elevated sentiments are transmitted (ll. That this divinity is dependent on some undefinable quality of the Bridge is made obvious when the speaker plainly calls it “Obscure as that heaven of the Jews. and so implies that to talk of the Brooklyn Bridge is to discuss matters of divine proportions The bird is linked with initiations and with new beginnings in the speaker’s initial exclamation. The poem begins with an exalted image of a seagull in flight that resembles the invocation of the muses which traditionally opens epic poetry. The seagull emits ripples of “tumult. are wedded to it (ll.” and describes how “Only in darkness is *its+ shadow clear” (ll. 41).1-2). or several day-breaks. silver-paced. 38). “How many dawns.” in which the new day. The divine form exists in a state of darkness.Tran 2 reached a level of prevalence which necessitates an expansion of urban space.” “O Sleepless as the river under thee. which ‘with no middle flight intends to soar’ above poems of less momentous subject matter. . 29. Crane also utilizes dramatic apostrophe repeatedly throughout the poem. building high / Over the chained bay waters Liberty” (ll.” of turbulent.

yet there is the impression of “motion ever unspent. the ‘implicit freedom’ or power of the bridge. the Bridge’s mantle of obscurity: the Bridge is both moving and not moving. the Bridge is not exhausted of energy. and by virtue of this mysterious process. of its inability to be sufficiently depicted by human works. it perpetually maintains this tension and is not destroyed. He attempts the suspension of movement. but then his ‘shrill shirt balloons’ as he jumps. simultaneously moving and not moving. . This energy. Unlike the bedlamite. how the spectacle of it evokes sentiments of something supernatural that is not present in man. Like Jesus who died and yet did not die. shrill shirt ballooning. This idea comes into sharper focus when the fourth stanza is contrasted with what follows. it cannot be called simply this or that the way the bedlamite could. in a petty parody of the Bridge’s paradox of motion and motionlessness. looks to be in motion. By this contrast between Bridge and bedlamite.” that although the physical bridge has spanned the river. and so here is the contradiction. the Bridge moves and does not move. and as such a ridiculous thing. a mere mortal ascends to the height of the Bridge intent upon suicide and hesitates. the motion is ongoing. the Bridge eludes the constraints of human cognition by being two things at once. by its spanning of the river. where the speaker sees the Bridge spanning the river and declares to it that there is “left / Some motion ever unspent in thy stride. and as Jesus broke the law of mortality. the Bridge seems to break laws of motion.15-16)./ Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!” (ll. and in the completion of the action he is defined a bedlamite. / Tilting there momently. as a paradoxical figure. Crane communicates how the City dwarfs man.. it is in possession of energy which renders it inert in some way. his passing is marked with “a jest. “A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets.” The Bridge.Tran 3 Obscurity is a traditional marker of the divine as a result of the infinite potential of the deity.18-20). Thus. / A jest falls from the speechless caravan” (ll. The bridge. This incomprehensibility to the cognitive mind is the sentiment evoked in the cryptic fourth stanza. the motion is both completed and yet ongoing. the Bridge is divine. avoids easy definition. Here in the fifth stanza. is what ‘stays’ it.

” the opening two lines constitute “two completely iambic lines with three accents in each of them:” “Among the rain / and lights / I saw the figure 5” (Halter. it is a machine built for public use. The speaker asks the Brooklyn Bridge to “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep.Tran 4 In the final lines of the poem. while keeping the center lines short and terse where the sight of the fire-truck resides. and so the visual structure immediately draws attention to it. the Bridge reveals a path towards the divine by the mere sight of it. Williams lengthens the opening and closing lines. As Peter Halter points out in his article on “The Great Figure. The beginning and the middle of the poem create the sense of this “curveship. God. and the Bridge between. as Jesus was meant to bridge God and man.” as the reader begins with the seagull soaring high in the air. descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God” (ll. The fire-truck of William Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure” is another useful signifier of the City. of bureaucracy. and of the gaze of the speaker and the reader. advertisement-like. the ethereal seagull at the top like the dove-shaped Holy Spirit. Crane suggests that the Bridge. its color scheme is meant to grab the eye. In effect. 43-44). These properties of systematization. and lend a myth to. and makes imaginable a state higher than what man has attained. as God had through Jesus. By presenting the speaker’s wandering gaze in such a way. and visibility. Thus the poem begins with a couplet which culminates in the . then to the Bridge. and so the modern City.” Williams utilizes the structure and meter of the poem to present the firetruck in an exalted position. a hierarchy which places man at the bottom. through what Crane calls a “curveship. ll. or towards. are all characteristics of the city and of modernity in general.1-3). Crane suggests that the sight of the Bridge creates a curving structure in the mind. publicity. is capable of raising the viewer to its own exalted status. In “The Great Figure. an upward curve similar to the curves of the Bridge. as the centerpiece of the action of the poem.” which might be defined as a bridging action in which an ascent is implied. then the bedlamite. He is asking that the Bridge descend among men. It exists as a piece of the fire department which is a result of a certain level of bureaucracy.

The shift creates a momentous impression of the reader. or appears differently to different groups. with what Halter calls “syncopated double-beat lines. Halter aptly mentions how the effect of the line-lengths creates an impression of slowing down to a timelessness in the presence of the figure 5 on the fire-truck. The shorter lines urge the reader to pay closer attention to the individual words therein. in his article.Tran 5 introduction of the “figure 5. to absorb the gestalt rather than the particulars.’ The direct visual image of the fire-truck ends with lengthier lines. The sight of the fire-truck is framed by longer lines and descriptions of setting. but divine.10-14). is not noticeable to the same degree throughout the poem” (Halter).” before ending with another description of setting: “to gong clangs / siren howls / and wheels rumbling / through the dark city” (ll. which recalls Biblical visitations in which God appears to a select few. with all the sights and sounds of a terrible chariot piloted by a wrathful deity. however. Also. whereas the longer lines allow the eyes to absorb the multiple words all-atonce.” which make it seem as though the fire-truck is traversing the sky. Apparently.’ to the subject of the ‘figure 5. which seems to stand at odds with all the commotion being made. The short lines “direct the attention to each single detail … *but+ the effect. is apparent from the sparse but effective diction. as when Jesus appeared to clusters of his Apostles after the crucifixion. which recall a scene of mythological importance. The setting is among “rain / and lights. the spectacle is seen only by the speaker and no one else. ‘rain and lights. The impression of divinity is also heightened by the strange addition of the word “unheeded” to describe the fire-truck and the figure 5. as a change both in the meter and also in the subject matter: from setting.” with thunder-like sounds of “gong clangs” and “siren howls. .” after which there is an abrupt shift in meter: “in gold / on a red/ firetruck / moving / tense/ unheeded” (ll. Williams creates the impression of the figure 5 and the fire-truck as a unique particular arising from the mundane general. By doing so. That the image is not only singular. both of which contrast with the image to embolden it. such as the appearance of a sky or storm god. 4-9).

yet here it is upon the fire-truck. “unheeded. gives us the divine rapture. but the reverse. then the divine no longer even resembles man. of the environment. yet as a public entity it is also on some level invisible. and we are small beside it. naturally glazes over such public sights as these. merely reporting the sensual details in as bare language as possible. of the City. the poem’s title “The Great Figure” creates expectations of the humanoid form. and is not a result of the human interpretation of the speaker. . the figure 5. This implies that the grandeur of the scene is innate. The simultaneously visible and invisible nature of the fire-truck. as fire hydrants and fire escapes. unmodified. the human element is minimized as the speaker describes the scene without qualifiers. and so the spectacle of the fire-truck is as miraculous and mysterious as the moving/unmoving bridge. As an abstraction. it has no concrete reality. The human eye. is within the fire-truck and the figure themselves. the fire-truck and figure are holy but hidden. of humanity. This idea suggests a displacement of the human form. and they are exalting the viewer by allowing him a glimpse of holiness. In effect. The condition of obscurity is also heightened by the abstractness of the subject matter: what is arresting the gaze is a number. What is more. Williams is pointing out the rise of the abstract. The diction is descriptive and vivid. It is not Zeus or Odin riding through the rain.Tran 6 The speaker’s sparse diction is characteristic of Williams’ poetics. lend the air of obscurity which is vital to its divinity. it is a Number 5 written in eye-catching gold on the side of a city fire-truck. trained to pick out particulars. The fire-truck should be a painfully visible thing. which makes the figure 5’s appearance the more striking. The fire-truck and the figure are not being raised above the level of the mundane by the imagination. like the motion and motionlessness of the Bridge. if the number 5 is what arrests us. but also unadorned. of the undefined.” since it is a part of the system of the city. of glaring red and gold color and howling sound. It is an instance of spirit miraculously made flesh. assaulting the speaker’s senses. and so the scene feels more like a photograph than a narrative. but it also serves to lessen the stature of the human speaker next to the figure and the fire-truck in a way.

the Bridge and the fire-truck. it is first and foremost a spectacle that possesses the senses as gods possess the soul. are man-made objects adds another layer to their complexity as holy symbols. That these signifiers. but it is also on some level. or perhaps evidence of man’s recent entry into the realm of divine capabilities. As products of man. Crane and Williams are providing a deconstruction of what the divine is. and so is boundless. and so the speakers of “The Great Figure” and “Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge” feel like mundane entities in contact with something greater than themselves.Tran 7 In a way. they might be evidence of the divine in man. Knowledge of the divine is said to enrich the soul. beyond understanding. .

.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. 2000. New York: Oxford University Press. “The Great Figure. Print. 390. Print.english.illinois. William Carlos. <http://www. Modern American Poetry. 2000.Tran 8 Works Cited Crane. Cary Nelson. Halter. Ed. Hart.edu/maps/poets/s_z/williams/figure. 17 November 2012. Cary Nelson. Cary Nelson. Peter: From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. 167. Ed. “Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge. University of Illinois.htm> Williams.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Bartholomew Brinkman.

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