Sunday, February 14, 2016

Only a little ink more or less - Crane's War Is Kind

War Is Kind (1899) is Stephen Crane’s second and last book of poetry, another tiny little Arts & Crafts book with poems – or “lines” or “pills” as Crane called them – much like those in The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895), meaning much unlike anything anyone else was writing at the time.

A little ink more or less?
It surely can’t matter?
Even the sky and the opulent sea,
The plains and the hills, aloof,
hear the uproar of all these books.
But it is only a little ink more or less.

Then this goes on to be, explicitly, about the absence of God, e.g., “Where is God?”  The strange writerly link between ink and God returns in a posthumous (1929) poem:

A horizon smaller than a doomed assassin’s cap,
Inky, surging tumults
A reeling, drunken sky and no sky
A pale hand sliding from a polished spar.
                                     God is cold.

Then there is the amusing attack on newspapers, “A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices,” etc.

The War Is Kind poems feel like a concentrated collection of Crane’s concerns.  Journalism, war, shipwreck, fatalism:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

Crane perhaps would have turned to aphorisms if he had lived longer.  Some poems are more imagistic, some more like  “A man said to the universe,” the wisdom of a 28 year-old who has seen a lot.

I suppose I prefer the images:

A grey and boiling street
Alive with rickety noise.
Suddenly, a hearse,
Trailed by black carriages
Takes a deliberate way
Through this chasm of commerce…  (another posthumous poem)


Fire-rays fall athwart the robes
Of hooded men, squat and dumb.


To the maiden
The sea was blue meadow
Alive with little froth-people

There is a fantastic side to Crane’s imagination that he unleashes in his poems, where not only God but a variety of knights, demons and weird figures serve as characters.  Maybe if he had lived longer he would have written some Ambrose Bierce-like stuff, some weird tales.

War Is Kind concludes, to my surprise, with a sequence of love poems in which Crane imagines himself as an ogre, or a knight:

I was impelled to be a grand knight,
And swagger and snap my fingers,
And explain my mind finely.

What kind of a knight that is, exactly, I am not sure.  Sometimes God himself interferes; sometimes Crane “sees spectres, / Mists of desires.”  They are odd, the love poems, in keeping with the rest of the book.

Ten – well, twenty – years later, everything Crane does seems normal, and I am reading a hundred years after that.  I can only recapture the strangeness in specific images, phrases, and jokes.  There are plenty of those, though.


  1. "A man said to the universe" has always been one of my favorite poems; it worked well in freshman lit classes long ago when I needed an example of cosmic irony. I wonder now, in an increasingly polarized culture (hard-line secular v. rabid religious), if "cosmic irony" would still matter very much to students. Well, it does still disturb me. Thanks for reminding me of the poem; it helps me better understand my place in the universe (and elsewhere).

  2. I'll bet some of your students got it. Maybe the ones with a little more life experience, as they say.

    Crane is a great source of cosmic irony.