"To Brooklyn Bridge" is the opening section of Hart Crane's most famous poem, The Bridge. Crane's masterpiece is one of the most beautiful and influential American literary works of the first half of the 20th century. It is a poem that defies easy description, at once mystical, romantic, bewildering, witty, secretive, and soaring. That's a lot of adjectives, but as you'll soon see, Crane loves adjectives.
Crane labels "To Brooklyn Bridge" a prelude, or "Proem," that will introduce the themes of The Bridge. And if we had to slap a big ol' English AP-test theme word on the whole poem, it would be "Unity," or even, "Mystic Unity." With the whole "Unity" idea, Crane is taking a cue from Walt Whitman, the great 19th-century American poet whose "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" was a direct influence on The Bridge. For Crane, as for Whitman, Brooklyn Bridge is a symbol of a manmade structure that can join together the fractured parts of society. The Brooklyn Bridge was finished in 1883. At that time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, an architectural and engineering marvel. For Crane, the bridge provides a symbol for the possibility of redeeming the modern world from the chains of money and commerce.
Published in 1930, The Bridge was panned by many for being too darned difficult and wordy. We'll say it straight up: this poem, like much of Crane's work, is incredibly difficult in the sense of, "What the heck is this guy even talking about?" But the payoff is worth it, because Crane is such a master of language that you'll be carried away by the emotion and musicality of the poem even when you're scratching your head. (Don't worry – Shmoop is here to keep your head-scratchings to a minimum.)
Because of the difficulty, ambition, themes, and wordplay in his poems, Crane is considered a "modernist" poet. "Modernist" is kind of a vague label, but it generally includes 20th-century poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore. These poets all share a common concern with how to present the facts of life in a radically changing society full of telephones, automobiles, tanks, airplanes, factories, and, yes, large bridges.
Crane's life is almost as interesting as his poetry. An Ohio native, he later moved to New York and fell in love with the city, again like Walt Whitman. He was gay at a time when that wasn't OK (to put it mildly), and sexuality is a constant, if hidden, theme in his poetry. Depressed, he turned to alcohol, and in the end his life played out like a Romantic tragedy. At the young age of 33, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind only his work to speak to future generations.
Bridges. Just think about how many times you've come across a bridge used as a symbol. Bridging the gap. Bridging differences. A bridge too far. A bridge to the past. A bridge to the future. A bridge to the 21st century (Bill Clinton's line). We've even got bridges to nowhere. And just when you might be thinking that there's nothing more that can be done with the image of the bridge, a copy of Hart Crane's The Bridge falls in your hands, and all those tired and trite metaphors fade away like the Golden Gate Bridge in a San Francisco fog.
You should read "To Brooklyn Bridge" – and stick it out through the incredibly dense language – because the poem presents a new way of looking at familiar things, like bridges. In particular, Crane had this great idea that people think in metaphors, symbols, and associations. You might call this "right-brain" thinking. When you open yourself up to this way of thinking, the outside world can become a wonderland of fantastic images and ideas.
For example, let's try the Greek poet Homer's famous phrase, "the wine-dark sea." Literally, he means, "the sea was the color of wine." But the real "meaning" of the image is in its associations – with drunkenness, crushed grapes, vineyards on the Mediterranean, old pottery, and so on. In short, thinking in metaphor is like running a sprawling Google search of the mind. With Crane, this associative thinking inspired images of amazing creativity, like "A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene" and "Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars."
In Crane's view, the world had become static and deadened by commerce – even religions seemed to lack the "myths" that human beings need to make sense of life. The ability to make imaginative and metaphorical "leaps" – like the leap of a bridge – was necessary if people were ever to have true freedom.
Which brings us to the last reason you should care about this poem – it is quintessentially American. The Bridge is in some ways a reply to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, probably the most influential poem of the 20th century. Like Eliot, Crane sees a fractured world, but he responds with those most American of qualities – hope and optimism. Imagine Crane's bridge as a passage over Eliot's wasteland. Today, in the age of Obama and globalism, talk of hope and "bridging divides" is everywhere, as are the huge problems of modernity. Hart Crane can help you move past the clichés to explore the hidden, "poetic" truth behind this ubiquitous modern symbol, the bridge.