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Stephen Crane is the author of “A man said to the universe.” The poem appears in the 1899 collection of poems War Is Kind. As with his first collection of poems, The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895), the poems in War Is Kind are stark and jarring. “A man said to the universe” exemplifies Crane’s bleak perception of the world. As with much of Crane’s work, the poem sends the message that people are expendable and readily vulnerable to the indifferent machinations of the universe. The poem is lyrical, and it is something of a parable, since it conveys its forcefully somber message through a tiny story, which is comprised of the conversation between a man and the universe.
Crane scholars continually remark on the oddness of Crane’s poetry. In Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (1950), the distinguished American poet John Berryman describes Crane’s poetry as “queer”—that is, difficult to label. In another critical biography of Crane, Burning Boy (2021), the prominent American writer Paul Auster calls Crane’s poetry “oddly worded, enigmatic, and infinitely strange” (p. 196). Yet Crane’s poetry is not so unusual. Poems like “A man said to the universe” reflect the pessimism of Modernism and continue the mordant brand of poetry practiced by 19th-century French poets like Charles Baudelaire.
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Crane was a prolific writer—publishing journalism, fiction, and poems. He is best known for his American Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and short stories like “The Open Boat” (1897). Whatever genre Crane worked in, he tended to focus on the grim aspects of life, which is what “A man said to the universe” emphasizes.
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Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, on November 1, 1871–nearly six years after the end of the American Civil War. His father was a Methodist preacher and abolitionist, and his mother was a temperance activist, so she supported the prohibition of alcohol in the United States. Crane wanted to be a soldier and attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. His brother persuaded him to choose a different path, so Crane became a writer. He wrote a caustic article about the Junior Order of United American Mechanics' American Day Parade for The New York Tribune in 1892. The piece offended the participants, probably led to Crane’s firing, and supposedly cost the Tribune’s owner Whitelaw Reid the chance to be the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Crane rebounded and flourished as a journalist. He reported on the underbelly of New York, the 1897 war between Turkey and Greece, and the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Aside from reporting, Crane published countless works of fiction. He self-published his novella Maggie: Girl on the Streets (1893), which focuses on an underprivileged young woman from a coarse family in New York City. One year later, his Civil War story, The Red Badge of Courage (1894), began to appear in installments in The Philadelphia Press. The story was popular and came out as a complete novel in 1895–the same year Crane published his first collection of poetry, The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895). To cover the brewing conflict in Cuba, Crane set sail on the Commodore in 1897. The ship sank, and Crane and others endured a day-and-a-half on a tiny lifeboat—a calamity that inspired his famous short story “The Open Boat” (1897). Around this time, Crane met Cora Taylor—an enterprising woman with whom Crane would spend the rest of his life. One year before his death, Crane published his second collection of poems, War Is Kind (1899), which features the poem, “A man said to the universe.” Crane was 28 when he died of tuberculosis in a German sanatorium on June 5, 1900.
Crane, Stephen. “A Man Said to the Universe.” 1899. Poetry Foundation.
Stephen Crane did not title his poems, so to identify the poem, scholars use numbers. The title/first line sets the stage for what will happen in the poem. A man speaks to the world or “[a] man said to the universe” (Line 1). What this man says to the universe is not long or complicated—it is three words: “Sir, I exist!” (Line 2). The exclamation point indicates that the man is speaking loudly. He is adamant about his presence in the world.
Then the universe answers the man’s exclamation: “‘However,’ replied the universe” (Line 3). The universe is about to counter this man’s statement and tell him something he might not want to hear. The universe informs this man, “The fact has not created in me / A sense of obligation” (Lines 4-5). The man is proud he exists. The universe acknowledges that this man exists, yet the man's mere existence does not mean the universe must care for or tend to the man's wellbeing. At this, the conversation ends.
By Stephen Crane