Sunday, March 31, 2019

In the Ultimate Valleys

Read "In the Ultimate Valleys" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and overall is a rather minor item, when compared to so many other highlights from his poetic corpus.  He does use an interesting approach herein of matching the final word of the first and last line of each of the five quatrains, but I can't say this technique lends any especial interest.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Luna Aeternalis

Read "Luna Aeternalis" at The Eldritch Dark:

Although this poem was not published until the early 1950's, Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) discusses it in letters to his mentor George Sterling from 1913.  His initial description of the poem, from a letter to Sterling, is worth quoting*:

I enclose a rather fantastic experiment, in which I've tried the irregular repetition of lines and phrases, and a desultory rhyming of words with themselves.  I don't remember seeing it done this way before -- only in an arbitrary stanza, as in Poe.

Sterling responded with some brief criticism in a letter of his own**:

The poem is very weird, poetical and impressive.  It's only fault is the "too much Poe."  His exact spirit, in fact.

"Luna Aeternalis" does indeed make much more use of literary devices such as alliteration than is typical for CAS' verse, and of course such techniques are strongly associated with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (of whom CAS was a great admirer).  It seems correct for CAS to label this poem as an experiment, for while it does indeed echo the voice of Poe, it seems not to contain so much of the voice of CAS himself.  I like to think he toyed with this approach early in his career, quickly recognized its derivative quality, and returned to creating work that was truly his own.

*See letter #64 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith (SU) published by Hippocampus Press.

**See letter #66 in SU.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Sorrow of the Winds

Read "The Sorrow of the Winds" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is another poem (as with "Remembered Light") that Clark Ashton Smith successfully submitted for publication to Poetry magazine in 1912.  Similar to that other poem, this one presents themes that are common to CAS' body of work, but does so with less creative flair than is usual for him.  

I don't know if CAS may have intentionally smoothed some of the edges from these verses in order to make them more appealing to a generalist publication such as Poetry, but there's little to make them stand out in an artistic corpus that produced many better works than these. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Remembered Light

Read "Remembered Light" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was one of a handful that he published in Poetry magazine, which was a new publication in 1912, right around the time that CAS penned these words.  More than a century later, Poetry is still being published monthly, an impressive feat for a publication dedicated to original English verse.

Note that the version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a typo at line 31, which should read (corrected word in bold type below):

Till the gold was shaken with flight

Despite a sonorous voicing and plenty of dramatic imagery, "Remembered Light" strikes me as being a bit pedestrian for CAS, reworking themes he addressed in other poems with more vigor and imagination.  Nonetheless, it represents an important milestone in early recognition for the young writer, since Poetry magazine quickly became something of a tastemaker among American versifiers, even if it ultimately went in a direction that was hostile to CAS' particular style and artistic inclinations.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Cloud-Islands

Read "The Cloud-Islands" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) immediately reminds me of the very first poem by the same author that I discussed on this blog.  That poem was called "Cloudland", and the similarities between these two pieces go beyond the common subject matter.  CAS actually uses some similar phrases and word choices, as with these examples:

  • From "Cloudland": "A faery land is this that far and high"
  • From "The Cloud-Islands": "I mark a faery city stand"

  • From "Cloudland": "With opal walls and palaces doth stand"
  • From "The Cloud-Islands": "Of opal-flame is every hall"

While "The Cloud-Islands" was included in CAS' debut published volume (The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912)), "Cloudland" was never published in his lifetime.  Which of course makes me suspect that "Cloudland" was something of an early version of the later poem, although oddly enough I prefer "Cloudland", which includes a tonal shift that gives the verse more dynamic color than "The Cloud-Islands", which is a fairly breezy and light treatment of the same overall idea.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Titans in Tartarus

Read "The Titans in Tartarus" at The Eldritch Dark:

Note that the version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark does have several typos, but they are fairly obvious in context, so I won't elaborate on them here.

Here is another poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that deals with the titans of Greek mythology, a subject that he treated several times early In his poetic career.  This time around, the vision is quite dark, yet articulated with some of CAS' characteristic verbal magic, as in this brief example:

The flaming tumult of disastrous fight,
Taking their outward fire, had left them bleak
As their own statues, who yet ached within.

That's a powerful image of defeat, and the phrase "left them bleak / As their own statues" is chilling in its finality.  The general "action" of the poem features the humiliated titans groping about in the dark and lamenting their fate, a grim subject rendered with a suitably slow-burning narrative.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Satan Unrepentant

Read "Satan Unrepentant" at The Eldritch Dark:

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) herein offers his own take on the narrative that opens John Milton's Paradise Lost, that of the rebellious archfiend undiminished in his fervor of opposition to the supreme Christian deity.  CAS described his intent for this poem in a letter to George Sterling:

Here's a new poem, "Satan Unrepentant", which owes a certain deductible debt to John Milton, but is a somewhat more direct justification of the devil than "Paradise Lost."  It might have created a row fifty years ago; but I hardly think it would to-day.  Still, such a poem seems to me worth writing, for I'm not aware that anything exactly of the same kind has been done.*  

This poem has also been the subject of an essay by Phillip A. Ellis**, although having read Ellis' essay, I didn't get much from it, since he is mostly interested in rendering into dry prose the "what happens in this poem" type of criticism.  In his essay entitled "Satan Speaks: A Reading of 'Satan Unrepentant'" Ellis is very clear about his approach:

Overall, then, what this poem seeks to do is create a picture of Satan as a living, uncaricatured being.  It is irrelevant whether he is good or evil, as it is irrelevant whether the poet has sympathy or a sense of identification with his figure.  What is relevant is the degree to which the poem, as a dramatic monologue, expresses the nature and worldview of the character, and not of Clark Ashton Smith.

On that particular point, my approach is opposed to Ellis', since I am indeed interested in how CAS' writings may reflect his own worldview.  My path is the more dangerous one, since I risk drawing unfounded conclusions that fail to recognize the separation between a creative gesture and the creator's own value system.  But I'm not a professional academic or critic, so I'll do it my way!

So on to the poem. There are obvious relationships than can be drawn to other of CAS' verses, such as "Nero" and "The Hashish-Eater."  But setting those aside, I find a more interesting parallel in the poem "The Abyss Triumphant", which I read just a couple of days ago.  I identified a mocking tone in that poem, "in which God is reduced to a powerless victim of the Abyss and the chaos that it brings."

The present work "Satan Unrepentant" takes a different approach, but in contrast to what Phillip Ellis said in the passage from his essay that I quoted above, I do choose to interpret this poem as being influenced by CAS' personal worldview.  For example, these lines are clearly spoken by the character of Satan:

All tyrants fear whom they may not destroy,
And I, that am of essence one with His,
Though less in measure, He may not destroy,
And but withstands in gulfs of dark suspense,
A secret dread for ever: for God knows
This quiet will irrevocably set
Against His own, and this my prime revolt
Yet stubborn, and confirmed eternally.

As with the rest of the poem, the tone here is all defiance and subversion, specifically against God.  Outside of his poetry, I have read a sampling of CAS' letters and essays, and in all of those he expresses a strong spirit of resistance to modernism, industrialism, and the madness of the crowd.  So by extension, it is no surprise that CAS would sympathize with a character like Satan, at least that part of his nature embodied by the rebellious fallen angel immortalized by John Milton.  And in this poem "Satan Unrepentant" I detect a note of communion between CAS and his character, given that both parties are rebelling against powerful forces that they probably have no real hope of ever vanquishing.

*See letter #53 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

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

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Last Goddess

Read "The Last Goddess" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is love poem as only Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) could write it.  You don't find lines like this just anywhere:

The curls of one were black Circean petals
Of poppies blown by night
In the sad gardens of a sinful star

Three lines packed with mood, imagery, and motion, and that's just a sampling of the complete poem.  

There is an unusual rhyme scheme at work here (I'm not enough of a poetic scholar to name it if it does indeed match a known model).  The irregularity of the rhyme is part of what makes this piece work for me, since more regular rhyme patterns (ABAB or some such) can have a trite feel and sounding if the writer is not very careful with word choices.  By using a sort of staggered rhyme across these eighteen lines, CAS creates a foreword momentum wherein the reader seeks the completion of the rhymes, which has the effect of encouraging the reader to take in the entire poem in an almost single breathless reading (although the generous use of colons and semi-colons does create waypoints).  

Although CAS designated this poem as "A Fragment", it feels very complete to me, since the technical approach serves the subject matter very well.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Abyss Triumphant

Read "The Abyss Triumphant" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has an almost mocking tone, in which God is reduced to a powerless victim of the Abyss and the chaos that it brings.  In many ways, it reminds me of CAS' poem Nero, in which the legendary Roman emperor pines for a similar wave of destruction on the grandest possible scale:

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.

Although I know very few specifics regarding CAS' religious views, I have previously read (and blogged about) two verses that he wrote dedicated to the American deist Thomas Paine.  The viewpoint articulated in those pieces had more to do with a rejection of organized religion, and not necessarily of religious belief or inclination.  In comparison, what I've described above as the mocking tone of "The Abyss Triumphant" takes a different tack, painting the Christian deity in a very unflattering light as an essentially irrelevant figure on the grand stage of existence.  This would imply that CAS was an atheist, an interesting thread that I'll be watching for as I continue to read through the rest of his poetic corpus.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Morning Pool

Read "The Morning Pool" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is a slight early poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), well in line with other of his brief nature studies that I have read recently.  What captures my attention in these quatrains is the contrasting opening lines of each stanza.  We open with "All night the pool held mysteries", and the following stanza begins with "And now it holds the limpid light".  The mundanity associated with daylight significantly enhances the power of night's mystery as expressed in the first stanza.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Winds

Read "The Winds" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) strikes me as a sort of invocation of ecstasy, and perhaps even an embrace of the spirit of chaos.  The second stanza is particularly expressive:

More dear to me the shadowed world,
Where, with report of tempest rife,
The air intensifies with life,
Than quiet fields of summer's gold.

The use of the wind as a metaphor for the poet's larger subject is both obvious and effective at the same time, since anyone who has experienced the physical impact of a gale can well understand the associations CAS is exploiting in these lines.

Monday, March 4, 2019

White Death

Read "White Death" at The Eldritch Dark:

This sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has a great deal of mystery about it, as he describes sunlight being defeated by the overpowering force of Death.  The opening sentence is particularly strong:

Methought the world was bound with final frost:
The sun, made hueless as with fear and awe,
Illumined still the lands it could not thaw.

Right away, the fact that the sun has been "made hueless" suggests a powerful force at work that can constrain the radiance of a star.  The writer returns to this theme in the closing lines of the poem, echoing some of the vocabulary of the opening lines quoted above:

All hues wherewith the suns and worlds were dyed
In light invariable nullifed;
All darkness rendered shelterless and pale.

Although Death is present as a physical force in this sonnet, the effective visualization of the light-destroying power of that spectre goes beyond obvious clich├ęs that lesser writers might have leaned on in addressing the same subject matter.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Unremembered

Read "The Unremembered" at The Eldritch Dark:

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) significantly altered this sonnet between its initial publication in The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912) and the later publication in Selected Poems (1971).  In fact, he went so far as to change the title; it was originally known as "The Unrevealed".

I can't say that either version of the poem is particularly appealing to me; it is fairly workmanlike and I'm somewhat surprised that CAS thought it worthy of inclusion in his career-spanning volumes Selected Poems.

Friday, March 1, 2019

To the Sun

Read "To the Sun" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is one of those poems by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that I feel I should really like, but after several readings, it leaves me cold.  It's hard to pin down exactly why this poem feels so pedestrian, other than noting the awkwardness of many of the passages, such as in this example:

Athirst and unfed shall they be
When the springs of thy strength are dust
And thy fields of light are black with dearth.

There's nothing wrong there with the vocabulary, the pacing, or the imagery.  The issue is that it feels uninspired, and that is an uncommon occurrence in my experience of CAS' poetry.