Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Butterfly

Read "The Butterfly" at The Eldritch Dark:

I now reach a significant milestone in my more-or-less chronological journey through the poetic works of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  "The Butterfly" is the first of the poems I have read so far that CAS chose to include in his Selected Poems (1971).  

It was also included in his first collection, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912).  But the inclusion in Selected Poems seems of greater interest to me, since CAS spent several years preparing that volume for publication, and it's not unreasonable to assume that he viewed that selection of verses as the one on which his legacy as a poet would be built.

Also of interest is the fact that CAS included "The Butterfly" among a batch of early poems that he sent to George Sterling right at the beginning of their mail correspondence.  Sterling's comment on "The Butterfly" was that it "qualifies as performance"*, and that seems an astute observation to me.  I think this stanza from the second section of the poem really captures that notion:

Thy Beauty opes, O butterfly,
The doors of being, with subtle sense
Of Beauty's frail impermanence,
And grief of knowing it must die.

In those few lines CAS distills the essence of the larger poem, which
 is an effective meditation on the inherent transitory nature of beauty.  There is a back-and-forth contest between expressions of exultation ("Enraptured, marvelling I gaze") and despair ("Mine was the grief of change and death"), but in the end the poet's voice achieves a note of triumph born of the very act of seeking after beauty:

What though I fail, my duller sense
Baffled as by a wall of stone?
The high desire, the search alone
Are their own prize and recompense.


*The relevant letter is included as the very first item in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

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