Thursday, December 27, 2018


Read "Nero" at The Eldritch Dark:

This outstanding poetic monologue from the young Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is a true tour de force, and one of his signature artistic achievements.  The entire poem is instantly memorable, with rich and evocative lines at every turn, such as:

There have been many kings, and they are dead,
And have no power in death save what the wind
Confers upon their blown and brainless dust
To vex the eyeballs of posterity.

Not surprisingly, CAS led off his first published collection of poetry (The Star-Treader and Other Poems) with this very piece, and several reviews of that volume singled this poem out for praise.  CAS' early mentor George Sterling also praised the poem*:
It has a maturity, a vertebration, a pertinency and grasp beyond those other poems, and I'd give a reasonably-sized slice off one of my ears to have done anything so great for this many a year.  Ah! yes! it's a tremendous thing--I wonder where you're going to wind up, with such a beginning as you are making!
Also of interest: this poem is the subject of a dedicated modern critical article authored by Carl Jay Buchanan, which is available at The Eldritch Dark**:

Paradox is one of the notable themes of "Nero" that Buchanan discusses, as exemplified by this quotation:

As in many of the best poems ("Ode on a Grecian Urn," for instance), the ironies and cumulative paradoxes enrich our understanding as the rich imagery and well-balanced Miltonic and Keatsian rhythms satisfy our aesthetic natures.

The references to John Keats and John Milton are by no means misplaced, since this poem is really just that good.  As Buchanan suggests, the subtle but effective use of alliteration lends these lines a powerful musicality.  Some examples:

  • "darkling dream's effulgency"
  • "wandering will and wastage of the strong"
  • "music forced from tongueless things"
  • "radiance redder for the blood of men"
  • "The strong contention and conflicting might / Of Chaos and Creation"

If CAS is known as a writer with a notably cosmic vision, then "Nero" is certainly an apogee of that particular creative vein:

And were I weary of the glare of these,
I would tear out the eyes of light, and stand
Above a chaos of extinguished suns,
That crowd and grind and shiver thunderously,
Lending vast voice and motion but no ray
To the stretched silence of the blinded gulfs.

There is no reason to hesitate in praising "Nero" too much.  It's a spectacular triumph of the English language, and if CAS had written only this, he would still be a poet to endlessly read and admire.

*See letter #28 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

**Also available in The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith from Hippocampus Press.

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