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Poem of the week: Once there came a man by Stephen Crane

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The 19th-century American poets free-verse parable about a nonsensical war reminds us that conflict rouses desire as powerfully as love

Stephen Cranes poems are distinctive. Typically, theyre short, free-verse parables in which moral dilemmas are played out by archetypal characters. This weeks poem, Once there came a man, is the fifth in Black Riders and Other Lines, the first of Cranes two collections. The poems in the book are untitled, and given Roman numerals, a device that adds to the biblical flavour. But if they are verses from a bible, its Stephen Cranes own revisionist bible of scepticism.

When the collection appeared in 1895, critics were scathing. This work wasnt fit to be called poetry. The New York Tribune declared it trash, but Crane was apparently pleased the book was making a stir. His fine novel about the American civil war, The Red Badge of Courage, though not yet published, had been serialised at the end of 1894, and Crane must have been confident of his artistic powers and moral vision.

Supposing that I should have the courage
To let a red sword of virtue
Plunge into my heart,
Letting to the weeds of the ground
My sinful blood,
What can you offer me?
A gardened castle?
A flowery kingdom?
What? A hope?
Then hence with your red sword of virtue.

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