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.


  1. I highly appreciate this interpretation, as I myself found Ellis's criticism dry as it lacked any contextual considerations. My belief is that poetry in itself means little without the analysis of intention to bring if anything greater artistry. Thank you for covering this work, I intend to read further into this blog.

  2. Thanks for your comment. As I read through CAS' poetry and his letters to George Sterling simultaneously, it seems inescapable that the verses reflect the philosophy and the values of their creator. For me as a reader, that interpretation adds immensely to their interest and their artistic value.