Sunday, 4 November 2012

A life too brief

Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900)

There is the finest of poetic imagery in the suggestions subtly conveyed by Crane's tricky adjectives, the use of which was as deliberate with him as his choice of a subject. But Crane was an imagist before our modern imagists were known.
Vincent Starret on Stephen Crane.

Fortunately, the typos in my Kindle copy of Stephen Crane's works seem to be restricted to the novel Active Service, which isn't his best work anyway. Now I'm free to enjoy his writing, although I have experienced a little thread of disappointment - not with Crane, but with my own writing pretensions. Crane died of TB at the age of only twenty eight when he was already a fine, innovative writer. Ah well! 

Had he lived, what else would he have offered us and given his interest in wars, what would he have made of the First World War? Anyhow, here are a few miscellaneous quotes, beginning with his approach to writing.

I understand that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes, and he is not at all responsible for his vision--he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to this personal honesty is my supreme ambition.

Crane was criticized for his use of language, his way of defying the more stuffy literary conventions to paint his word pictures. He even invented his own adjectives begad!

Suddenly a little boy somersaulted around the corner of the house as if he had been projected down a flight of stairs by a catapultian boot. 

Actually, I'm not sure if Crane actually invented catapultian, but it's the kind of deed he was criticised for, as well as his unconventional lifestyle and iconoclastic approach to his craft. 

A man properly lazy does not like new experiences until they become old ones.

In London Impressions, he makes a number of references to what he calls drill. The word obviously derives from his interest in military matters, but Crane applies it much more widely - a useful word for behaviour acquired by repetition. At one time it had a place in education where such things as multiplication tables were drilled into us. We never forgot them either. It's a useful word - we could do ourselves a favour by dusting it off. 

This London, composed of a porter and a cabman, stood to me subtly as a benefactor. I had scanned the drama, and found that I did not believe that the mood of the men emanated unduly from the feature that there was probably more shillings to the square inch of me than there were shillings to the square inch of them. Nor yet was it any manner of palpable warm-heartedness or other natural virtue. But it was a perfect artificial virtue; it was drill, plain, simple drill. And now was I glad of their drilling, and vividly approved of it, because I saw that it was good for me. Whether it was good or bad for the porter and the cabman I could not know; but that point, mark you, came within the pale of my respectable rumination. 

Another observation, this time on London policemen directing traffic at a major intersection.

This truth was very evidently recognized. There was only one right-of- way at a time. The police did not look behind them to see if their orders were to be obeyed; they knew they were to be obeyed. These four torrents were drilling like four battalions. The two blue-cloth men maneuvered them in solemn, abiding peace, the silence of London. I thought at first that it was the intellect of the individual, but I looked at one constable closely and his face was as afire with intelligence as a flannel pin-cushion. It was not the police, and it was not the crowd. It was the police and the crowd. Again, it was drill. 

In a not entirely dissimilar vein, we have Crane's idiosyncratic view of a railway journey from London to Glasgow. 

The crowd of porters and transient people stood respectful. They looked with the indefinite wonder of the railway-station sight-seer upon the faces at the windows of the passing coaches. This train was off for Scotland. It had started from the home of one accent to the home of another accent. It was going from manner to manner, from habit to habit, and in the minds of these London spectators there surely floated dim images of the traditional kilts, the burring speech, the grouse, the canniness, the oat-meal, all the elements of a romantic Scotland. 

A final quote - this time on dying. It's a comment Crane made to his friend Robert Barr when Crane and his common law wife Cora Taylor were about to leave England for  Badenweiler, Germany, a health spa on the edge of the Black Forest. Crane had been persuaded to try it as a possible treatment for his TB. 

It didn't work though - as both Crane and Barr knew it wouldn't. As they shook hands on the quayside, both men were fully aware that they would not see each other again.

Robert, when you come to the hedge--that we must all go over-- it isn't bad. You feel sleepy--and--you don't care. Just a little dreamy curiosity--which world you're really in--that's all.


Demetrius said...

The lessons taught by the American Civil War in relation to the deployment of troops against industrial scale firepower of both rifles and cannon was either forgotten or ignored by the military in Europe. It was evident even in the early stages of WW1 notably at Gheluvelt in 1914. Even after years they still went on with it. What Crane may have made of it, I don't know, but he would have recognised the madness of it.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes, I don't think Crane would have held back either - he'd have seen the stupidity of it immediately.