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A Man Said to the Universe -- Stephen Crane

(Poem #1200) A Man Said to the Universe
 A man said to the universe:
 "Sir I exist!"
 "However," replied the universe,
 "The fact has not created in me
 A sense of obligation."
-- Stephen Crane
       (War is Kind & Other Lines: XXI, 1899)

No collection of poetic views on religion would be complete without today's
little gem. Many of Crane's poems seem overly simplistic; indeed, some of them
seem to degenerate into mere tautologies, or even worse, platitudes. However,
if you ask yourself *why* Crane wrote those particular lines; if you note that,
MacLeish notwithstanding, some poems need to mean as well as be, and ask "What
did he mean by that?", the results are invariably thought-provoking, and often

Today's poem is remarkably straightforward for Crane - indeed, it seems almost
Biercelike in its attitude and expression. There are no deep Zenlike moments of
revelation hidden beneath a deceptively void surface, no mind-twisting
experiments in cognitive dissonance, just a dryly ironic commentary on some
people's[1] attitudes towards the higher powers. And indeed, when you think
about it, a number of religious practices *can* be viewed as announcing to the
universe (or the deity of your choice) "Sir, I exist!", and then sitting back
in complacent expectation. (A more prescriptive analogue of this observation
can be found in the saying "Heaven helps those who help themselves"[2], though
it could be argued that Crane doesn't imply any help even for those people who
*do* do more than proclaim their existence).

And tangentially, I am reminded of one of my favourite absurdist
science-fictional religions, Greg Egan's "Church of the God who Makes No
Difference". I believe Vonnegut had something similar too, though I can't
remember the details of that one.

[1] ironic poems are, of course, always about someone else :)
[2] which can, if nothing else, be used to justify a second serving of dessert


66 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

ClickForth said...

The Vonnegut novel that addresses religion that Martin is talking about is
Cat's Cradle. Great little book.


maherjnd said...

You've got the poem wrong! The universe says "The fact creates in me NO
sense of obligation." Big difference.

maherjnd said...

Never mind. I just reread, and you do have it correct. Sorry.

Kathy Sue said...

Please subscribe me to this service, whatever it is about. Your comments on Stephen Crane's poem, "A Man Said to the Universe," with an enjoy-life insight and humor along with analysis that takes me back to my college days as an English major, make me feel good!

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Anonymous said...

Crane was a naturalist. This poem isn't anti-religion. It's anti-self importance. Self importance, today, sometimes comes in the form of religion. But the atheist who thinks he has everything figured out is also the butt of this poem's joke.

Anonymous said...

The poem posits existence as a bare fact without any significance whatever to any power beyond the one who asserts their existence. "The fact" presumes the truth of the implied assertion of a claim of significance. "However" precedes and encapsulates "the fact" of the minimal claim of existence. The Universe thus has the last word in interpreting what thereby appears to be a naive and possibly presumptuous assertion of even an elementary claim to significance. The poem echoes the sun in Red Badge of Courage and other signs and symbols representing emptiness in Crane's work. For example, throughout the century there was a succession of alternative authorities held up for scrutiny and dismissal, beginning most famously with The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Hawthorne, and ending with the Naturalistic wastelands of Crane, late Twain, and Frank Norris (McTeague, 1899).

This poem is about personal meaninglessness and potentially everything built upon it--only the voice of the "man" remains and even that is in question. Without a referent outside of himself, he is alone in all of nature to succeed or suffer without knowing whether it means anything or not -- at least as far as nature's witness can ascribe. Crane seems to say, " if you are looking for meaning in the natural world, nature is mute." or "don't fool yourself, there is nothing in the natural world that gives you meaning." One obvious application is the tendency to think of evolution as "intentionally promoting" anything important to man. The only natural alternative left also comes from this era: the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Socialism, Communism, National Socialism and their softer brothers, Fabianism and Progressivism, invent, based on Hegelian dialectics, a theme of intentional self promotion through a collective. But these are variants of the Naturalistic dead end pointed out by Crane: all guarantees are self-delusional at best. Is the end of man really dead to all possible alternatives?

Anonymous said...

actually, although CAT'S CRADLE does have a fake religion in it, the religion you are probably thinking about is in the book THE SIREN'S OF TITAN: "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent."

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Anonymous said...

Please make a distinction between atheism and naturalism.......... I don't see any real difference lol

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Anonymous said...

Crane was a naturalist. This poem isn't anti-religion. It's anti-self importance. Self importance, today, sometimes comes in the form of religion. But the atheist who thinks he has everything figured out is also the butt of this poem's joke. is bubblegum casting legitimate

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