Fast Rode the Knight by Stephen Crane is a story of a zealous “knight” rushing into battle in order to rescue his “lady.” This, however, is only the surface of the poem’s meaning. Through careful examination of details that are left behind, words that are overlooked, and heroic symbols and ideals, the reader can infer the true theme of this poem rests in the dangers of youthful zeal that is not tempered with good sense and preparation. This “knight,” overall, was not sufficiently concerned with such factors, and his end was brutal.
For this, Crane has created a quick-paced poem to mirror “the knight[‘s]” rush of adrenaline and the ways that youthful enthusiasm can suddenly lead to doom. The warning, then, is to always lead with something beyond naïve determination in order to find success.
Fast Rode the Knight Analysis
Fast rode the knight
With spurs, hot and reeking,
Ever waving an eager sword,
“To save my lady!”
These first lines paint a heroic picture of “the knight” as he charged to “save [his] lady” from some unnamed danger in a barely-described scenario. There is no indication given about what this danger was to the “lady,” and very little detail about “the knight” himself other than he had “spurs,” was “hot and reeking” and “wav[ed] an eager sword.”
The choice of description places the focus directly on “the knight[‘s]” emotions and “eager[ness]” above the rationale of why he had to rescue this woman. This technique is a representation of the zeal of youthful love and heroism that can lead to reckless zeal. Essentially, to “the knight,” the particulars of the peril did not matter against his love and desire to be the hero, and to parallel this idea, Crane offers no details on the matter to the reader. Like “the knight,” the reader can only be concerned with his enthusiasm and desire, as if those are the only things that matter.
Clearly, however, “the knight” was invested in this effort since he was “hot and reeking,” and he came prepared for the endeavor to some extent since he had “spurs” and a “sword.” Unfortunately, the reader cannot know if this preparation was sufficient at this point since no description has been offered about the danger he “[f]ast rode” into.
Fast rode the knight,
And leaped from saddle to war.
Men of steel flickered and gleamed
Like riot of silver lights,
And the gold of the knight’s good banner
Still waved on a castle wall.
Line 5 is a replica of Line 1 with one difference: there is a comma after the end of Line 5 whereas Line 1 had none. This could be an indication of a slight pause on “the knight[‘s]” part, as if he approached the “castle wall” and “war,” and experienced hesitance beyond his youthful zeal. This would be a logical reaction upon having to confront what he seemed to have pushed to the side of his mind early on. He was, after all, focused on the “lady” and heroism, but when confronted by bloodshed and violence, he could have second-guessed his decision, if only for a moment.
His enthusiasm and determination won out, though, as can be seen in the fact that he “leaped from saddle to war.” Whatever his hesitance then, he pushed past it to fight for his “lady.” This, then, is evidence that he chose his enthusiasm over his senses telling him to pause and reconsider.
“[L]eaped,” as it happens, is a telling verb in this context since it leaves behind any hesitance that was shown by the comma. It comes with enthusiasm that is almost playful in its delivery, like a child merrily “leap[ing]” in a feigned battle. This, once again, reveals a youthful “eager[ness]” of rushing into something unknown for a heroic tale. In fact, at this point, the reader can infer that “the knight[‘s]” enthusiasm had more to do with heroism than affection for the “lady” since at no other point, through these lines or what is to come, does Crane mention the “lady.” Instead, the narration clings to points of regal tales—like “[m]en of steel,” “silver lights,” and a “good banner.” This contrasts the notion that “the knight” was primarily interested in rescuing his love, and reveals his true mindset to be heroism. With this mentality, “the knight” seems childlike, impatient, and too “eager.”
That “eager[ness]” causes there to be no point of hesitation beyond the comma in Line 5. All other aspects of these lines show determination, passion, and an actual sense of glee as he “leaped” into “war.” In fact, the final scene of these lines is like a warrior in a moment of battle glory as “the gold of the knight’s good banner [s]till waved on a castle wall.” This indicates continued striving, as well as sensations of contentment and honor, and this combination feels like something that would have carried “the knight” to success.
. . . . .
Blowing, staggering, bloody thing,
Forgotten at foot of castle wall.
Dead at foot of castle wall.
The series of periods for Line 11 shows a passage of time, but they are not the standard ellipsis. Rather, there are five periods in place of the three an ellipsis would employ. This variation could reveal confusion in regard to what occurred over this passage of time, as if the person reporting the details can hardly understand what happened.
This confusion is mirrored in the neglected words throughout the passage and the clipped methods of delivering information. Specifically, the “horse” is described as “[b]lowing, staggering, [and] bloody,” and the description continues when it is noted as “[d]ead” and “[f]orgotten at foot of castle wall.” There is not, however, any verb in that context that can stand as a main verb of a sentence. Rather, they all apply as descriptions, which makes the statements feel more like rambling than coherent sentences. As well, there is no “the” before or within “foot of castle wall,” though syntax would necessitate two. Once more then, the structure of these lines is grammatically confused to bring that element of confusion regarding the turn of events to the forefront of the discussion.
The reason for the confusion becomes clear when Crane notes that the “horse” is “[d]ead” near the “castle wall.” While this does not explicitly mention “the knight,” it is clear that this “horse” is the one “the knight” “leaped” from. One hint of this connection is the already mentioned periods for Line 11. It is as if the “Fast rode the knight” line has been replaced by these periods, indicating that he is no longer a part of the picture. It makes sense, then, that the next focal point would be connected to what remains of him—like the “horse” he rode into battle.
Given how confident and almost gleeful “the knight” was about charging into battle, seeing that his goal went unaccomplished can be a “staggering” idea because his victory seemed so sure. Still, he fell, and so did his “horse.”
This is a statement that youthful zeal, while energetic and lively, can be harmful if it is not tempered with sense and reason. Since “the knight” did not concern himself with the enemy or his good sense too greatly before rushing into battle, he is the example of a too-zealous young person. The confusion and failure, in the end, are a warning about where such blind passion can lead.
About Stephen Crane
Born in 1871, Stephen Crane wrote a number of works—including novels and poems—and has been accredited for issuing in American Naturalism. His career, however, was short-lived since he died of tuberculosis in 1900 shortly after completing Active Service. He had thirteen brothers and sisters, two of whom also had writing ties.