We'll Need A Map: Seeing and Hearing Figurative Language in Parts I and II of Hart Crane's 'Voyages'
--And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;
Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers' hands.
And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,--
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.
Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,--
Hasten, while they are true,--sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.
Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.
Multiple, many-faceted threads of imagery twist through Hart Crane's 'Voyages.' Among all of these varied images, it is easy for a reader to become lost and confused, unsure which images are important, and how (or if) all of them are interrelated. The poem contains recurring imagery about the (female) body, sex, flora, music, violence, and time. As if this visual feast were not enough, 'Voyages' is also overflowing with figures of sound—ringing repetitions and haunting recurrences that capture the reader's ear and imagination. These figures lend the work a singing tonal cohesiveness that makes this difficult poem a pleasure to listen to—even if it is not initially understood. The plethora of audio-visual material that permeates the poem not only gives the reader a beautiful collection of sounds and images, but also advances overarching themes. Love and courtship are most evident in the poem's imagery; the poem's core thoughts and themes are most accessible through figurative language. The figures of sound that make the poem so mellifluous add to this; the musical quality of the poem calls to mind a love song used in courtship. It is through images and figures of sound that the themes of 'Voyages,' love and courtship, are really brought to the attention of the reader. The soul of the poem is in what we hear and see while reading it.
Throughout the poem, Crane creates images using metaphor. The most prevalent images in 'Voyages' are body images – nine body images are present through both parts of the poem, and three sexual images. Flora and music, with five incidences each, are next, followed by violence, with four, and time, with two. Though these ideas at first seem unconnected, on further consideration, the body, sex, music, flowers, and time are all heavily involved in love—even violence is often relevant to it. Throughout the poem, Crane creates a conceit of the sea as a woman, using metaphor to create several images of a woman's body. The first body images, not involved with the sea or femininity, are more literal—the fingers, cordage, and bodies of the urchins in Part I. Beginning in line 15, though, with 'breast,' the body imagery focuses on the sea--'Her undinal vast belly' (20), 'the dark confessions her veins spell' (31), 'her turning shoulders' (32), 'her penniless rich palms' (33). The only body image in the Part II not related to the sea is that of the 'lovers' hands' (26). While the sexuality in the poem seems to focus mostly on the sea (it is the sea that caresses in line 14, and the body images involving the sea are often sexually charged, as the breast, the bending belly) the sea does not seem to be one of the lovers—the 'wrapt inflections of our love' (21) and the 'pieties of lovers' hands' (26) do not include the sea. This, perhaps, is not a surprise—the sea is personified as female throughout the poem, and Crane was homosexual, writing this poem while in love with a Danish mariner (Wikipedia). Love and sex are evoked throughout this poem both in relation to the sea, and to the lovers; sexual images are strictly figurative, while love is called by name a time or two. Crane seems to use the image of the sea as a woman to express erotic images he may not have felt were appropriate when applied directly to himself and his male love; his religious background caused him to feel alienated by his sexual orientation (Wikipedia). The 'dark confessions' writ in the sea seem to be sentiments in a similar guilty vein.
Flora and musical imagery, when taken in context of the theme of love, suggest courtship. Plant images appear five times: 'baked weed' (4), 'lichen-faithful' (15), 'crocus lustres' (28), 'poinsettia meadows' (29), and 'floating flower' (36). While in Part I, the plants are unattractive sea dwellers, in Part II they are somewhat more courtly blossoms—though still not traditional roses or similar. Flowers are often considered a language, usually used in courtship, and here they are suggesting an unconventional love. Like the floral imagery, the music in the poem is most romantic in Part II: 'treble' appears in line 6, while 'diapason' (22), 'bells' (27), 'Adagios' (30), and 'minstrel galleons' (38) appear in Part II. The four instances of violent images in the poem have the most tenuous connection to love; while sometimes violence is inspired by love, usually the two are not connected. The four images of violence in the poem, 'flay each other' (2), 'The sun beats lighting on the waves' (7), 'The sceptred terror' (24), and 'sleep, death, desire' (35), are subtle ones, and not overtly connected with the theme of love. However, especially in Part I, the poem has a tone of warning about it: 'the bottom of the sea is cruel' (16). This warning is not only of the dangers of the sea, but also of the dangers of love, and the images of violence present in the poem create an aura of danger around it. Finally, the two time images in the poem, 'time and the elements' (12) and 'this great wink of eternity' (17) evoke, respectively, the great age and immortality of the sea, and the eternity that all lovers assume their feelings will have. All of these disparate images, then, are tied in different ways to love. Through figurative language, Crane brings into play many aspects of love, lust, and courtship, invoking images through metaphor and personification.
Alliteration abounds in 'Voyages.' From the conventional, word-initial repeated letter of 'scrolls of silver snowy sentences' (23), through assonance and consonance, to the more elusive, mid-word repeated sounds in 'crocus lustres' (28), Crane uses repeated sounds again and again. In the sixteen lines of Part I, there are nine instances of repeated sounds; in the 25 lines of Part II, there are 13. Throughout the poem, there is approximately one repeated sound figure for every two lines. In some cases, they are concentrated, as 'contrived a conquest for shell shucks' (3), and in some cases they are far between, as 'O Seasons clear, and awe... The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.' (37-41) Often, but not always, alliterations occur around metaphorical images, drawing them subtly to the reader's attention, as 'Adagios of islands' (30). Because of the massive number of alliterations present in the poem, they are most effective collectively. Individually, they may have specific purpose and import; but taken as a group, they are already important. The ubiquitousness of sound repetition makes the poem flow smoothly from a reader's tongue, harmonious and song-like. This harkens back to the musical imagery present in the text; it calls to mind a love song, a courting song.
While few details of love are mentioned in a literal sense in 'Voyages', in the figurative language of the poem a multitude of aspects of love and courtship surface. Through imagery and alliteration, Crane elaborates upon and reinforces the theme of love, giving his readers an array of images to complement and enhance the themes of love and courtship in the text, and creating a poem that is beautiful not only in meaning but also in sound and form.
“Hart Crane.” 17 October 2005. Wikipedia. 18 October 2005 < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hart_Crane >
Crane, Hart. "Voyages." The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. Liveright, 1986.