Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

“God is Cold” — A Religious Observance of Stephen Crane’s Poetry

By Maddie Gallo

            Known for his prose works like The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and “The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane never considered himself much of a poet, and therefore his poetry remained largely underappreciated during the nineteenth century. Only recently has serious scholarly attention turned toward Crane’s poetry, although his poetic works have still garnered little study in comparison to his novels and short stories. Crane’s lack of seriousness with regard to poetry allowed him to execute some of his most radical, personal, and rebellious ideas, particularly about religious matters, that he may not have been willing to expose elsewhere. In fact, these relatively obscure poems raise surprisingly modern questions as Crane contemplates religious values and truths. Often succinct, allegorical, and enigmatic, Crane’s poetry reveals a passionate questioning of God’s existence and whether God, if He exists, is evil, benevolent, or simply removed from mankind. At the same time, Crane also scorns mankind’s hypocritical representation of religion. 
            The most fundamental element to Crane’s religious poetry is his grappling with God’s existence and character, with the most significant question being whether God truly exists at all. Born to a Methodist minister and a clergyman’s daughter, Crane was immersed in Christianity from a young age. His poems, however, reveal his troubled relationship with religion as he expresses inconsistent and contradictory beliefs about God’s existence: “Crane’s view of the human condition . . . is generally bleak. God is either an ineffectual blusterer, absent, or nonexistent” (Wertheim 29). Scholar Max Westbrook asserts that these inconsistencies are the result of a “two-voice” system, in which Crane sometimes expresses a voice of “arrogance” while at other times conveying a voice of “perspective.” This arrogant voice, less likely to attract serious scholarly study, is the scathing, agnostic side of Crane that vehemently attacks the very concept of God. The perspective voice, on the other hand, “is characterized by humility, kindness, a quiet determination, and a consistent belief in a truth which is symbolic, elusive, but always real” (25). This concept of two voices, or alternating perspectives, parallels one of Crane’s main poetic influences, French Impressionism. Impressionism was a style of painting that favored color, pointillism, and abstractions over concrete images, leaving the meaning of the painting solely to the viewer’s own interpretation. Many different viewpoints or voices could thus exist inside a single painting: “The nature of reality, the physical world, according to the Impressionist view, depends primarily on how it is perceived” (Rogers 293). This concept plays into Crane’s belief that no one description of reality is concrete, but rather depends upon “the psychology of whoever perceives it” (Rogers 294). His poems therefore represent speakers who both accept and reject God’s existence. Westbrook believes, however, that Crane’s “inability to sustain a coherent world view” is one reason why his poetry may have fallen into obscurity in comparison to other poets (24). More often than not, however, Crane’s poetry questions God’s nature rather than his existence.
            In poems in which Crane has seemingly decided that God does in fact exist, his most frequent subsequent concern is whether God is evil or benevolent, with his works often leaning toward the former conclusion. The most well known critic of Crane’s poetry, Daniel Hoffman, suggests that Crane’s early poems demonstrate a scathing criticism of God, but his later, more mature works often represent God as benevolent. While the shorter poems in his 1895 collection The Black Riders and Other Lines display a youthful, rebellious rejection of God’s benevolence, the poems in his 1899 collection War is Kind represent a more evolved and peaceful representation of religion. These earlier poems did, however, appeal to religious public opinion of Crane’s time: “In his pessimistic fictional world of blind force, and in his poems attacking God, Crane does share the widespread negation of divinity characteristic of the end of the century” (Hoffman, The Poetry 14). John Blair disagrees with Hoffman completely, believing that many of the poems Hoffman interprets as portraying God as cruel instead illustrate God as honoring free will over complete control. Whether or not Hoffman’s theory is correct, Crane clearly used his poetry as a means of expressing many of his innermost fears and worries concerning the possibility of God’s wrath.
             “A Man Adrift on a Slim Spar” and “The Sins of the Fathers” are two poems that could potentially portray God as evil. In “A Man Adrift on a Slim Spar,” Crane describes a man’s dangerous journey through the “incessant raise and swing of the sea” (l.6)[1]. Several critics agree that were God compassionate in this poem, He might show “a gesture of pity” and slow the tumult of the sea in order to save the man (Hoffman, The Poetry 14). Instead, as Crane writes, God chooses not to turn the ocean to spray, allowing the man to drown (1.12). Crane ends each stanza with the simple statement, “God is cold.” What makes God truly evil here, according to Hoffman, is Crane’s portrayal of God willingly killing the man rather than merely taming the sea. Blair disagrees with this reading, stating, “Crane can no more hate God in this poem than he can hate nature” (225).  In “The Sins of the Fathers,” however, Crane explicitly expresses his hatred of a wrathful deity. Here an unnamed speaker, presumably Crane himself, depicts God as a vengeful force planning on destroying generation after generation of mankind for an unknown sin, perhaps Original Sin. In this poem Crane claims, “Well, then I hate thee, unrighteous picture / Wicked image, I hate thee; So strike with thy vengeance” (l.5-7).
            Nevertheless, Crane’s God was not always wrathful. Several of Crane’s poems reveal his shifting thoughts as he portrays God instead as a kind, benevolent force worthy of honest worship. According to Hoffman, “This compassionate God is the deity proposed by Jonathan Townley Crane, Stephen’s father . . . who was ostracized by more orthodox and influential members of the Methodist hierarchy for his liberal beliefs” (“Many Red Devils”). Crane’s religious background most certainly influenced the more optimistic religious principles he portrayed in his poetry; critic Stanley Wertheim claims, “Many of the other poems in The Black Riders contrast the jealous, wrathful God of vengeance with a humane, internal God of kindness and mercy” (29). According to Wertheim, Crane’s poetry supports the idea that a person’s duty is to separate inward religion from outward religion in order to decipher the true and sincere God. Overall, he believes that Crane’s poetry expresses the concept that two deities can exist simultaneously within one being. In other words, a peaceful and compassionate deity can exist even inside a cruel outer one.
            The best example of a poem in which Crane portrays God as benevolent is “The Livid Lightnings Flashed In The Clouds.”  In this poem, Crane illustrates a worshipper raising his arms to the sound of thunder, as he believes it is “the voice of God” (l.4). Another man whispers to him that he is wrong, and that God’s true voice is gentle and beautiful:
                                             ‘The voice of God whispers in the heart
                                               So softly
                                               That the soul pauses,
                                               Making no noise,
                                               And strives for these melodies,
                                               Distant, sighing, like faintest breath,
                                               And all the being is still to hear.’ (l.5-12)
The contrast between the outward thunder and God’s mild voice suggests that, although people may perceive God as malevolent and frightening, the real, honest God is actually calm and compassionate. Other examples in which Crane portrays God as benevolent include “A Man Went Before A Strange God” and “Each Gleam Was A Voice.” The former is another poem that supports Wertheim’s two-God theory, as, in Crane’s words, a man encounters the “God of many men, sadly wise” (l.2). This deity, “Fat with rage, and puffing” is cruel (l.4). He orders the mortal man to “grovel and do homage / To [His] Particularly Sublime Majesty” (l.6-7). The man flees to a second God — one of “inner thoughts” (l.10). This internal God has “soft eyes” and “infinite comprehension” (l.12-13). When He looks at the man in the poem’s fourteenth and final line, he says only, “‘My poor child!’” He is sympathetic toward the human’s suffering. In “Each Gleam Was A Voice,” the speaker finds solace and beauty in the “little song” of a Church choir as it praises God’s goodness (l.3). These “good ballads” leave behind beautiful colors that might symbolize the Church’s stained glass windows — a concept that contrasts surprisingly with Crane’s general views of organized religion (l.12). Overall, the “songs of carmine, violet, green, [and] gold” leave the speaker with a sense of wonder and appreciation for religion (l.17).
            Although Crane’s inability to choose a single viewpoint makes his religious beliefs unclear, this indecisiveness ultimately allows him to often present God as an aloof, removed creator unconcerned with the affairs of mankind altogether. According to the entry on Crane in The American Tradition in Literature, Crane “was initially in belief that the destiny of human beings, like the biological fate of other creatures, is so much determined by factors beyond the control of individual will or choice that ethical judgment or moral comment by the author is irrelevant or impertinent” (Perkins and Perkins 788). Therefore, several of Crane’s works illustrate a world in which nature or other uncontrollable factors ultimately reign supreme over mankind. While these themes are typically more evident in his prose works, Crane’s poetry also often exemplifies a belief that God is simply detached from mankind, and is therefore unconcerned with humanity altogether. When a person suffers, he is suffering as a result of his own free will: “It is a commonly held Christian belief that although God is indeed all-knowing . . . Man is still imbued with free will. He has the ability to choose, and if he involves himself in a tragic situation, the situation is nevertheless the end result of a choice . . .” (Blair 222). Many poems therefore promote neither a malevolent nor a benevolent God, but instead focus on mankind’s struggle between free choice and nature. Even these works, however, can become problematic: “In spite of his freedom to will and act within a context, man in his relations with the universe faces ultimate frustration . . . . The essential indifference of God and nature means that man has relative free will and freedom of choice as far as cosmic forces are involved” (Schneider 7). If men exist in a world that rests upon fate rather than their own actions, is there really any free will at all?
            Three examples of poems in which Crane portrays God as indifferent toward mankind are “God Fashioned the Ship of the World,” “A Row of Thick Pillars,” and—one of Crane’s most famous—“A Man Said to the Universe.” In the first, Crane illustrates God as a ship maker “With the infinite skill of an All-Master” (l.2). He moves through the various steps God has made in fashioning this ship, including building the hulls, sails, and rudder (3-5). Before He can complete the ship, however, God becomes distracted. After observing His work, He turns from the ship and abandons it (8). The ship then slips away into the ocean, unfinished:
                                                So that, forever rudderless, it went upon the seas
                                                Going ridiculous voyages,
                                                Making quaint progress,
                                                Turning as with serious purpose
                                                Before stupid winds.
                                                And there were many in the sky
                                                Who laughed at this thing. (l.11-17)
The deities in the sky laugh as the directionless ship ventures across the turbulent sea. This reaction could be interpreted as another representation of a cruel God. Characterizing all of humanity as a captain-less crew, however, seems more to support the belief that people are not exactly God’s victims. Instead they simply no longer have His help or instruction. “A Row of Thick Pillars” dramatizes a seemingly wild dog’s suffering as it crawls into a ruined building to die. A “great and terrible bird” watches the dog’s death — but again there is no interference from any almighty force, as if to suggest that God has no part in the natural cycle of life and death (l.7). “A Man Said to the Universe” is another very short poem:
                                                 A man said to the universe:
                                                “Sir, I exist!”
                                                “However,” replied the universe,
                                                “The fact has not created in me
                                                 A sense of obligation.” (l.1-5)
Crane’s detached God is extremely clear and powerful in this poem as the man attempts to justify God’s responsibility to him through the mere fact that he exists. God, on the other hand, feels that, although he has created humanity, he has no subsequent “obligation” to his progeny.  
            Crane’s religious ideals become even more complicated in poems that seem not to question God’s character at all but rather to scorn mankind’s misguided worship of Him. As Schneider writes, “Man could not save himself by saving society because he was innately weak and selfish. There is evil and selfishness within all men because, for Crane, that is the definition of humankind. It is for this reason, and not because of a universe that disregards him, that man can never find truth, or do complete justice, or be wholly unselfish” (8). These poems reveal a deep discontent with the materialism and hypocrisy displayed in the Church that he believed led people from honest reverence. Often Crane appears unable to forgive mankind for Original Sin, resulting in somewhat self-pitying poems in which he seems alone in his ability to disentangle true Christianity from false worship. In a Centennial Review article, George Monteiro asserts that Crane’s vision of honest religion derived from ideals of charity. He writes, “For Crane it was not enough that those in need be given the food and shelter which would diminish their immediate suffering” (94). Monteiro continues: “It was Crane’s conviction that the charity of his day — trivialized and dishonest — had little or nothing to do with the demands of what the ancient Christians would have honored by calling charity . . . . It exposed those selfish motives that prevent the full flow of caritas” (97). Caritas, simply Latin for charity or Christian compassion, emphasized the virtuous teachings of Jesus Christ over the ritualism, materialism, and icons typically found in organized religion.
            Crane’s contempt for Church practices and his passionate desire to return to the values of early Christianity appear again and again throughout his poetry. In “A Little Ink More or Less!” he even criticizes religious texts as ultimately meaningless. They are, after all, but ink on a page. Crane personifies the sky, “opulent sea,” “plains,” “the hills,” and the entire natural world as “aloof” to the sounds of human worship (l.3-4). These things listen to the “uproar of all these books / But it is only a little ink more or less” (l.5-6). The speaker then asks how these “trinkets” can truly define God (l.8). He wonders how “surplice numskulls,” a “fanfare of lights,” and “measured pulpitings” possibly speak to true Christianity (l.10-12). In a particularly scathing turn, the speaker is unable to distinguish the Church from hell — in fact, he believes that hell may even be better (l.15-18). “Where is God?” is the final line of the poem, as the speaker concludes that no God can exist in a place that openly defies all that Christ represents (l.19).  The five-line poem “You Say You Are Holy” is one of Crane’s most brutal as it openly renounces mankind’s virtue. Here Crane argues that even secret sin is visible to someone, most likely God Himself:
                                                You say you are holy
                                                And that
                                                Because I have not seen you sin.
                                                Aye, but there are those
                                                Who see you sin my friend. (l.1-5)
Although someone may believe he is virtuous if he does not outwardly practice sin or is
only sinful in private, his evils cannot escape God’s omnipotent power.
            Ultimately, to say that Stephen Crane embodied a single religious viewpoint throughout his poetic career undermines the complexity with which he expressed his Christianity. Perhaps his poems do not represent his own thinking at all, as Blair suggests: “A poet is as fully capable of taking on a persona and the views of a persona as a writer of fiction.” Or perhaps Crane’s poetry, much like a private journal, offers a look into his mind as he worked through his personal religious concerns. As Hoffman writes, “It is evident that, however important his poems seemed to Crane, they occupied only a minor part of his time, energy, and creative concentration” (“Many Red Devils”). And although “His unmetered, unrhymed lines appeared shocking, as did his manhandling of religious themes,” his poetry remains relatively unappreciated in comparison to nineteenth-century contemporaries like Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and others (“Many Red Devils”). Although certainly unjust, this neglect of Crane’s poetry makes sense because he was experimenting with poetic forms and religious themes that extended beyond his literary time period.  In fact, few would disagree that, although Crane’s poetry surprisingly had very little influence on future poets, his works represent an incredible turn from nineteenth-century Romanticism to twentieth-century Modernism. His questioning of God’s existence and subsequent search for religious truths points toward the very same issues later confronted by poets like T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Whether or not Crane’s poetry remains largely unacknowledged in the future, there is no denying that his works, particularly those that are religious, embody the evolving literary trends of his time, thus effectively making him a significant forerunner of American Modernism.
[1] Regarding parenthetical citations throughout this paper, the appearance of a lowercase “L” and period preceding a number indicates “line number,” always in reference to Crane’s poetry. 

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