18 pages 36 minutes read

Stephen Crane

A Man Said to the Universe

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1899

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Literary Context

Crane’s poetry has a reputation for defying established literary contexts. Crane added to this legacy by referring to his poems not as poems but as “lines” or “pills” (Auster, Paul. Burning Boy. Macmillan, 2021. p. 196). Yet Crane’s poetry is not that difficult to categorize. The poem fits in with the ethos of Modernism, which developed around the same time Crane published War Is Kind. As with Modernism, “A man said to the universe” emphasizes the fragmented, belligerent aspects of the world. For many Modernists, the world was not glorious or romantic but gloomy and nerve-racking. Fast-paced contemporary life could leave a person feeling like they did not matter, which is what the universe all but tells the man in Crane’s poem. For Modernists and Crane, the world is not necessarily a bountiful, beautiful place.

The Imagists provide another context for Crane’s poem. Early 20th-century Imagists like Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams used exact language to create a vivid picture for the reader. Crane uses sharp words to illustrate the interaction between the man and universe. Neither Crane’s poem nor Imagist poetry tolerated much verbosity or excess words. Both are relatively bare and aimed to get right to the point.