Thursday, January 4, 2024

Ballad of a Lost Soul

This unpublished poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) exists as a manuscript in the John Hay Library at Brown University, and has a notation of "unfinished" written on the bottom of the manuscript.

Unseen, without a sound, were closed
    The irremeable doors of clay;
Debarred from earth, to space exposed
    The spirit took her outward way.

She rose, at first on cautious wings--
    New to the freedom of the sky,
E'en a wind, from wanderings 
    In devious forests thick and high

Coming into the day at last
    But soon, upon ascended heights,
A sense of barriers overpassed 
Came on her, and she met the vast 
    Swiftening unto its wider flights.

To her, with backward gaze, 
    The earth was shaken from its place,
And flung returnless, unredeemed,
    In gulfs that closed without a trace;

Where the precipitated moon 
    A glittering pebble followed swift;
And shot the sun, that dwindled soon--
    A plummet in an endless rift.

"As to the vortices of dread
    That wast beyond the nether bars
They fell," said she, above her head--
    A night that bristled with its stars.

"Methinks that yonder suns, in rows
    Serried, innumerable, shine
As the angels where disclose
    The portals of the place divine."

Tow'rd eyries of the clustered spheres--
    Their vantages remotely seen--
She soared apace, nor thought to face 
    The gulfs that drave between:

By night resistless pushed apart,
    The systems, on each side
Divided swift, and through the rift 
    She saw the blackness wide 
Field of ulterior suns, that stood
    In far-assembled pride.

Although much of the diction in this poem feels strained, it's a fascinating idea to trace the path of a spirit emerging after the death of a physical being in a journey to  "The portals of the place divine."

I don't know when CAS wrote this poem, but it certainly feels like a early effort akin to the work that led up to his first published volume of poetry (The Star-Treader and Other Poems).  In reading "Ballad of a Lost Soul", I can't help but recall CAS' later epic poem "The Hashish Eater, or The Apocalypse of Evil", which traces a similar journey of cosmic proportions, although following a much less conventional course!

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

An end, but not The End

I started this blog almost six years ago.  I have not been able to contribute to it every day, so there have been some gaps between posts, but with my last post previous to this one I reached something of a milestone: I've now read through the entire corpus of Clark Ashton Smith's published and completed poetry, as documented in The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith (in three volumes) from Hippocampus Press.

The same three volumes contain two more sub-collections of CAS' poetry: the "Fragments and Untitled Poems", and an entire volume of his translations into English of verse from other poets (such as Charles Baudelaire).  I intend to continue reading through (and blogging about) the first of those groupings.  I am not yet sure about the translations, since those are not wholely the work of CAS, but I'll tackle that when I get there!

Sunday, December 31, 2023


Read "Cycles" at The Eldritch Dark:

This was the last poem that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote before his death in August 1961.  It was commissioned by Donald Sidney-Fryer for his CAS bibliography (Emperor of Dreams), although oddly enough it did not appear in that volume when it was published in 1977.

In his essay "A Memoir of Timeus Gaylord", Sidney-Fryer commented on the origin of this poem:

I...asked him (CAS) to write for the bibliography a sonnet in alexandrines which would symbolically comment on the canon of his writings.

In that vein, it's worth noting that the first three words of this poem match the title of an earlier poem by CAS, which I read a few years ago:

Back then, I read "The Sorcerer Departs" as something of a prophecy, wherein the artist speculated on the future prospects of his creations, those "cryptic runes that shall / Outblast the pestilence, outgnaw the worm".  "Cycles" is clearly thematically related to the earlier poem, but enriched with the notion of endless deaths and rebirths.  

If indeed CAS was responding to Sidney-Fryer's request that he "comment on the canon of his writings", then "Cycles" speaks to CAS' confidence that "My volumes and my philtres shall abide", but furthermore that his words would continue to resonate with readers, "to blaze with blinding glory the bored hours".  Not a bad way to close out a long and amazing poetic career.

Saturday, December 30, 2023


Read "H.P.L." at The Eldritch Dark:

This is the second poem that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote about H.P. Lovecraft, a peer whom he never met in person.  I wrote about the first of these poems ("To Howard Phillips Lovecraft") several years ago:

Twenty-two years (from 1937 to 1959) separated the writing of these two works, and yet the same theme can be found in both of the them.  In the first poem, CAS enshrined Lovecraft's words like so: "And from the spirit's page thy runes can never pass."

In the later poem ("H.P.L."), CAS expresses a similar sentiment, but with an exalted technique that befits the cosmic imagination of its subject:

Some echo of his voice, some vanished word
Follows the light with equal speed, and spans
The star-set limits of the universe,
Returning and returning, to be heard
When all the present worlds and spheres disperse,
In other Spicas, other Aldebarans.

What writer could wish for a greater legacy than to create work that "spans / The star-set limits of the universe"?  Almost ninety years after his death, Lovecraft's work continues to have a major impact on contemporary culture, so one can't help but wonder if CAS' prognostications may well turn out to be correct.

Friday, December 29, 2023

High Surf

Read "High Surf" at The Eldritch Dark:

There are quite a few typos in the text of this poem at The Eldritch Dark, so here's a corrected version:

Loud as the trump that made the mortised walls
Of Jericho to tremble and lean and sway,
The voice of ocean sweeps this granite verge.
The cormorants today,
Back-diving through the falling walls of surge,
Float not too near the rocks;
And smoky, white haired phantoms ride the long-spined rollers
Curving across the bay
From gulfs that round Cipango, arc Cathay.

For me,
Who stand enchanted and exalt,
Seized up into a short eternity,
No anger and no sorrow that men feign
Informs the risen main:
I hear alone the impassible roar
Of years and centuries and cycles rolling
Under that solar and galactic vault,
Over the cliffs and cities, over the mountains
From shore to crumbled shore.


"Cipango" is an archaic name from the age of Marco Polo, associated with modern-day Japan (日本).

As an ode to the vast powers of nature, "High Surf" soars with all of the huge scope of Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) imagination.  The speaker's encounter with the palpable energy of ocean waves meeting the immovable "granite verge" at land's end blooms into a broader vision of "centuries and cycles rolling / Under that solar and galactic vault".  It's a beautiful piece of poetic inspiration; further evidence that CAS was truly possessed of the spirit of the muse.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Tired Gardener

Read "Tired Gardener" at The Eldritch Dark:

In many ways, this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is simply a richer expression of the same ideas found in "Lawn-Mower", which I read yesterday.  In that work, CAS used the mythological figure of Procrustes to imagine a manicured lawn as a metaphor for humanity's fumbling attempts to create order out of the "chaos" of the natural world.  "Tired Gardener" expands significantly on the same theme, although with quite a bit more poetic flair.

The grotesque and luxuriant foliage of the first stanza seemingly exists "only to prove the old Mammonian power".  In spite of all that floral beauty, the sole object of tending those showy blooms is a pretentious exhibition of mankind's inflated self-conception.  But the tired gardener knows all too well "how soon / the lovely weeds half-disinherited / return".

And so in the second stanza, the speaker encourages the embrace of un-manipulated natural splendor, and CAS delivers incredible images such as "willows following the dark sunken channel / of marsh-lost waters toward the sea."  

But this is CAS, the poet with the vivid (and sometimes vicious) imagination, and he takes it one step further, as the "last empire" of humanity becomes little more than "a fat mandragora / uprooted by its rebel gardeners."  The poet's preference for unspoiled natural landscapes extends to a vision of the downfall of Mammon and the coarse civilizations that gave birth to it, envisioning a future in which the artifacts of those expired human realms surrender to encroachments of that which they had attempted to suppress.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023


Read "Lawn-Mower" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) references Procrustes, the villain from Greek mythology who, as Wikipedia notes, "attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their legs, so as to force them to fit the size of an iron bed."

CAS worked informally as a gardener after his 1954 marriage and move to Pacific Grove, California. It could not have been an easy occupation at his age (early sixties) and this poem, slight as it is, reflects a broader dissatisfaction with human civilization and its preference for compliance and obedience.  The obvious metaphor of the cut grass may not be highly original, but it communicates the poet's ideas perfectly.