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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Hart Crane’s "Mystical-empirical" poetry and its relation to nineteenth century traditions Bonham, Ronald Allen


This dissertation defines and analyzes a conflict which is present in all of Crane's poetry. The conflict is based on the opposition between two outlooks which are called mystical and empirical. Because both of these outlooks were central to Crane's vision, their apparent deep opposition troubled him. Crane's personal tensions both in his early private life and in his sensibility are important considerations in understanding this conflict. However, since he tried to discover a balance in life through his poetry, his art rather than his life is the central focus of this study. Crane turned to the literature of three Nineteenth Century traditions—Romanticism, Transcendentalism and American Symbolism—for his solution. In the works of these traditions, he found the same troubled conflict and the search for a solution in a unified statement. Consequently, he examined their art closely and was greatly influenced by it. At times, this influence appears to be an unconscious absorption of principles or techniques; at others, it is expressed in obvious, conscious imitation. Crane's ability or inability to incorporate the work of these earlier traditions is closely related to the success or failure of his own vision. His life-long relationship with these traditions is, therefore, the central energy behind his work. It is this relationship which is the concern of this dissertation. Chapter 1 defines the terms "mystical" and "empirical" as they are applied to Crane's art. It also provides a brief overview of Crane's poetry and letters in order to demonstrate how the tensions represented by the two terms are developed throughout all of his work. Chapters 2 to 5 deal with Crane's relationship to English Romanticism. Crane's earliest work is found to be an imitation of the anti-"empirical" literature of the fin de siecle. His maturer work is then studied in relation to the poetry of the High Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake. The works of these poets are compared to Crane's both through analyses of individual poems and through studies of themes and poetic techniques. Chapters 6 and 7 explore Crane's debt to American Transcendentalism. The "mystical"-directed ideas and works of Emerson and Whitman are explored in relation to Crane's poetry and poetic. Inherent contradictions in the works of the two Transcendentalist figures appear again in Crane's. Chapters 8 to 10 deal with the American Symbolists—Poe, Dickinson and Melville. Crane found that these writers differed from the American Transcendentalists, mainly because of their distrust of a completely optimistic-minded outlook. The relationship of Crane's work to theirs demonstrates his share in this distrust. Chapter 11 is the conclusion. It summarizes Crane's relationship to the three Nineteenth Century traditions, as a difficult and uneven, but courageous, attempt to renew poetic faith in the Twentieth Century.

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