Friday, April 19, 2019

The Doom of America

Here is a long poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) never published in his lifetime, so let's start with the text itself, which features many unusually long lines:

Thou has striven after strange gods, O America: in the temples of latter time, thou hast lifted up Baal and Mammon and Moloch.
Thou hearkenst wholly unto these, thine ears seek after the flattery of subtle and false oracles:
They are filled therewith, they are grossly satisfied: neither shalt thou hear the Lord if His thunders bespeak thee, nor heed His prophets except with mockery.
O bride thou wast given unto God of former time! O sharer in the covenant of the Most High: 
Thou doest adultery with bestial deities:
Yea, thou deniest it not, in the marts thou confirmest the report of thy shame with mirth.
O breaker of faith, thou fearest not, thou art graceless: thou hast forgotten the promises of the jealousy of the Lord, and the prophecy of his vengeance: 
O fornicatrix! thou art entirely naked; thou art bare even of shame.

Thou hast built innumerable furnaces for altars to the greed of thy gods: thou hast drawn forth the demons of the elements and enforced them to labour with groaning and shrieking in the service of Mammon.
But the smell of thine altars is not pleasant to the true God, neither do the stars approve it: 
It is a stench to the nostrils of Alcyone; the cry of the sacrifice is a howl of abomination in the ears of Altair.
The stars have cursed thee with red conjunctions, with a most fatal configuration: 
They are leagued with God in a conspiracy against thee.
Thou canst not hear the menace of His mirth, who fashioneth the levins of reckoning: 
Neither dost thou observe how the planets of midnight shake with an evil and unheard laughter: 
In her cold hollow heat, the pale moon hath a most black and secret mirth:
The years and days of thine end have been assigned to the work thereof, and God hath already named their attendant angels:
Time and the sun have been notified as to thy doom; thou alone knowest it not.

O foolish, O indiscreet, thou hast taken to thee many alien peoples, the stranger is become thy possessor;
They shall be invoked against thee soon, they shall be given over to the task of thy confusion, even to the redoubling thereof:
The curse of Babel shall be upon thee.
Shall the Beasts of the Abyss that thou hast taken for deities, countervail the flaming might of the seraphim, the sunlike wrath of the Most Righteous? 
Mammon shall be aghast in the light of thine end, Moloch shall reel amain before the thunder of thine undoing.

Art thou stronger than Rome, art thou greater than Babylon, that, sinning as these sinned, thou shalt abide where they abode not, nor be stricken as these were stricken?
Nay, thou art less than these were, the term of thy fornication shall be briefer than theirs; Doom shall come upon thee ere thou art made ready, and the chariots thereof shall be swifter than comets.

O scorner of poets and prophets, of them that are soothsayers: O mocker of the trumpets of Truth: I know that thou wilt not heed me: thou wilt pause a little, thou wilt pass on with derision and forget:
For thine ears are withholden; the rumour of the preparation of doom may not reach so far; and seals are upon thine eyes like eyelids.
Perhaps thou wilt remember me, in the days like tempestuous night, when thine ears shall be thronged with the thousand noises of the labour of death, and around thee shall gather and multiply the rumours of manifold division:
When many confusions are increased upon thee.
But now thou sayest, Ha, ha, am I not armoured with cities, is not my metropolis a shield of adamant embossed with iron?
Am I not fortified? Have I not swift messengers that I have taken captive in the kingdom of the wind?
Am I not ringed about with demons of the deep, with strangers from the vast that I have enslaved and compelled to my service?
Yea! but the strength of iron and stone availeth and saveth not when the heart is corrupted; 
Neither shall the weapons of genii protect against the rot and rust of the spirit.

O thou unseemly one, whose actions are not meet: who hast suffered thy merchants to wax as kings: who admittest the multitude to thy councils:
In the end they shall betray thee to the desert and the dust.
In that day thy captains and divers peoples shall divide thee from within: the strong shall be at strife with the strong:
Also, the heathen of his multitude shall sunder thee from round about: he whose heart is entire within him, who is not forsworn as thou:
Who hath not departed from his god as thou from thine.
O twice-confounded: in the end they shall render thee to the Abyss, to the blind and earless One who receiveth but rendereth not in turn:
Abaddon shall take charge of thee.

In the far time to come, ere the end of the black cycle, thy memory shall be but as the writing on a stone that hath crumbled, that the wind hath lifted grain by grain and diffused afar:
The wise and patient shall hardly regather the characters of that writing, nor put together the import thereof.
Only some wind, that hath blown always within thy loneliest and most ancient waste, shall have remembrance of thee then.
Even thy magic shall be forgotten: the desert peoples latterly thy remnant, will hardly have the same name for thy devils in that day made free and ranging as aforetime.
Also, thy high and haughty cities shall in those years be such that they who builded would scarcely say of this were their own handiwork: 
Neither shall they endure as the stone of old time, as the pillars of Rome and Tyre that builded mightily, of Egypt whose toil shall be a testimony to the stars of the last and endless night.

In many ways, the content of this work doesn't really lend itself to poetic form and structure, but one gets the impression that CAS had something he needed to say, and documented it in words using the device he knew best: poetry.  As a poem, it's not all that great since it amounts to an extended rant, but there sure are some powerful aspects to that rant.

I'm most curious amount the religious content of this work.  Phrases like "the smell of thine altars is not pleasant to the true God" are unusual for CAS, and after reading this piece a few times I'm still not sure how much these invocations of the Abrahamic deity are simply an artistic device.  I suspect CAS is using God only as a dramatic vehicle to damn the shortcomings of America, but I'm not really sure about that.

Smith himself described this work in a letter to George Sterling as follows:*

The last is a sort of Bible prophecy, in about fifty verses.  I don't suppose it's poetry.  It's a sort of round-up of all my grudges and kicks against the present age.  I even took a swat at the suffragettes.  I'm glad it's out of my system.

So as a work of poetry, it's reasonable to dismiss this work, as CAS apparently did himself.  But this work nonetheless offers an insight into CAS' frustrations with the role of a poet in early twentieth century America, a familiar plight for an artist that hasn't really changed much in the over one hundred years since he penned these lines.

*See letter #83 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

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