As I'm coming to terms with Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) mighty poem The Hashish-Eater, I've found an excellent introduction in S.T. Joshi's essay What Happens in The Hashish-Eater?*
As the title implies, Joshi's essay is a search for a coherent narrative thread in this epic poem, and he finds it by breaking down the text into four distinct sections (in the quote below, I've left out some references to CAS' "Argument" of The Hashish-Eater since I already covered that in my previous post):
- A general description of the narrator's visions (lines 1-171)
- The narrator enters his visions and becomes a participant in them (lines 171-242)
- The narrator perceives an intruder into his visions (lines 242-283) and is pursued by a series of horrors (lines 283-476), including the monsters in those regions "that knew my trespassing" (line 417)
- Fleeing, the narrator nows falls into some strange realm (lines 476-582); the poem ends on a half-line to convey this sense of the narrator's absorption into this realm.
This strikes me as a reasonable approach to reading the poem while paying particular attention to its narrative aspects, and I'm planning to do that re-reading today.
*Available in The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith from Hippocampus Press.
Read "Argument of 'The Hashish-Eater'" at The Eldritch Dark:
I've now reached an important milestone in my journey through the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS). I've been reading more-or-less chronologically through the corpus of CAS' poetry, and next up is his most well-known poem, "The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil".
Clocking in at almost 600 lines, "The Hashish-Eater" is a significant work by any measure, and I'll be taking my time to read it, and also to read and reflect on some of the critical literature dealing this poem.
Up first is a logical place to start, the "Argument" of the poem, in which CAS articulates the broad sweep of "what happens" in "The Hashish-Eater". This short statement establishes a couple of key points; firstly, that the drug referred to in the title is used only as a symbol, and secondly that the terminus of the narrator's journey will bring him into contact with "the face of infinity itself, in all its awful blankness". I am particularly interested in the phrase "awful blankness", implying that the poem's ultimate confrontation may have a nihilistic quality. I'll see how true that is upon reading the poem!
Read "Amor Aeternalis" at The Eldritch Dark:
The title of this sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is Latin for "eternal love". Although these lines certainly express a bitter tone, it's hard not to enjoy the pure poetry at work here, especially in the closing sestet:
Away! I know the weariness and fever
Kisses compounded of the world's old dust
With fire that feeds the seventh hell for ever!
The grave shall keep a gentler couch than thine,
Though round my heart the roots of nettles twine,
Wreathed in the ancient attitude of lust.
If there was ever a true poetry that emerged from the end of a relationship gone wrong, this work is certainly it!
Read "The Incubus of Time" at The Eldritch Dark:
This is a dour sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that casts the very phenomenon of time as an incubus, or an agent of nightmarish impact. Many words and phrases echo a theme of languor: "dolorous", "Weariness", "leaden woe", "ennui". Time is characterized as a malign overseer:
And the thousand-chorded monotones of pain
Irresolubly played and played again
On broken souls and bodies ruinous.
The immense futility expressed in the opening octet is somewhat relieved in the closing sestet by a wish for the ultimate act of rebellion, casting God himself to the pits below "in deathless overthrow".
Despite the extremity of the vision presented, the invocation of the eternal punishment of Tantalus places these frustrations within a broader context, and this artful approach to a grim vision of relentless human suffering makes "The Incubus of Time" both powerful and oddly comforting for the reader.
Read "In Alexandria" at The Eldritch Dark:
Once again, we have a poem penned by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that he chose to attribute to one of his pseudonyms, Christophe des Laurières.
I presume that the title refers to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which imbues the ancient city of Alexandria with characteristics sensual and languid, at least when compared to the somber and sensible city of Rome. The threesome described in the poem may not be sourced directly from the events of Shakespeare's play, but nonetheless seems likely to have been inspired by it.
This is probably the most erotic poem by CAS that I have read so far, well in keeping with the works he chose to attribute to Christophe des Laurières. But it also has a hint of the supernatural anchored by the very last line: "Deeper than death, we died and lived anew."
This combination of elements makes "In Alexandria" stand out from the other Christophe des Laurières poems, by presenting a more complex picture of eroticism that is quite thought-provoking.
Lately I've been reading through a batch of poems from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that were not published in his lifetime, and "To a Northern Venus" is another of these. Since it's not available on The Eldritch Dark, I'll begin with the text itself:
I would not have you anywhere,
Save in some interspace of pines,
When the blue flame of day declines
On altars of the solemn air;
And all the woodland, warm with spice,
As from a hundred censers flown,
Hierophantic, weird, unknown,
Seems to await a sacrifice.
O, come and cast your veil aside!
No robe but does your beauty wrong:
This pilgrim Love, he hath not long
Between your foam-white breasts to bide.
Ah, paler for the shadows green
That gather your subtler form,
And waver on your lifted arm,
Like riven veils obscurely seen;
And fairer with your ashen hair
Enkindled by the sudden ray
Which is the backward glance of day
From oubliettes of burning air--
Come, child of Friga, made for love,
And let my arms your girdle be,
And give your pallid loins to me,
And all the secret fires thereof.
This poem is more erotic than has been typical of the work by CAS that I have read so far, and the invocation of Norse mythology and other references to the Scandinavian world are likewise new, although many of CAS' poems references Greek mythology.
I'm somewhat neutral about this poem - it has some interesting imagery, but the language itself is rather pedestrian by CAS' standards, and the novel subject matter does not seem to have inspired him greatly.
Here's another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that went unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:
Remember'st thou that day, my sweet,
A thousand years agone,
When from the desert's glare and heat
I came at set of sun,
To where with towers agleam,
Bagdad lay by the Tigris stream?
And I had ridden long and far
Over the sands to thee
Thy face as a guiding star,
Beckoning ever to me.
The burning miles were naught
Beloved, with thee in my thought.
For I was Bedouin bold and swart
A robber and outlaw--
Chief of a band, and thou, my heart,
Child of a proud pasha.
Unto to the garden at eve I went,
Where weary was the air
With rose and jasmine subtly bent,
And found thee waiting there.
Lo! Like the moon thou seemed to me
Coming to light my dusk.
Aye, gloom and darkness fled from thee
With breath of myrrh and musk,
And lovelit eyes and face,
Thou camest to my warm embrace.
This poem does have the feel of a draft, given that some of the metrical patterns don't quite come off, and there are several awkward rhymes. Moreover, it is little more than a slight piece of orientalism, in the vein of CAS' juvenile prose writings (see the Black Diamonds and The Sword of Zagan, both from Hippocampus Press).
"The Oracle" is another poem unpublished in Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:
Life and time are changeful mist
Of a never-changing sea;
Death is also Vanity,
Said the Master Ironist.
Brief and to the point, this quatrain echoes themes found throughout CAS' poetic corpus, although it does so a little more bluntly than is typical of his work.
Although some readers feel that CAS' writing has a tendency to long-windedness, I often find the subtle shades of meaning that he employs to reveal a thoughtful approach to his subjects, and "The Oracle" misses that usual mark with its rather directly cynical approach.
"Ode to Aphrodite" is a poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was not published in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:
Empress who hast the fertile stars in fee,
And toiling worlds to serve thy dread desire!
Who guard'st thine empery,
In deep on sullen deep,
With watchful suns of infatiguéd fire!
Not with the Lesbian lyre
I sing, and not of easeful love and sleep--
Of arms and breasts that tire,
In brief, ecstatic throes,
On bed of shattered rose;
And not as they that worshipped thee of old,
I call on thine incomparable name,
And with no blasphemies of praise or blame:
Before thy hidden throne,
And thy veiled face, impassable, I hold
This iron harp of stridors manifold,--
And telling thy termless fame,
In strophes durable as graven stone,
And loud as stricken gold!
In a letter to his mentor George Sterling*, CAS expressed his dissatisfaction with this ode:
I've written almost nothing. I began an "Ode to Aphrodite", but gave it up as being too conventional. I'm sick of the old subjects, the old images. They've been mauled, and thumbed, and slobbered over by so many million poets. Even blasphemy is trite,--God is a cliché.
Although his statement to Sterling bespeaks a period of frustration, it's hard to argue with CAS' analysis of "Ode to Aphrodite", which feels rather uninspired. In general, I have not much warmed to those odes from CAS that I have read so far, given the rather stiff nature of the form, and "Ode to Aphrodite" simply reinforces that response.
*See letter #230 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.
This is another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:
All the world is green and sad...
If I were a little frog,
Sitting on a lily-pad
In a cool and splashy bog,
Would the world be green and glad?
This is certainly a minor item in CAS' corpus. The subject and the technique feel so foreign to CAS' usual poetic voice that I would never have assumed "Speculation" to be his work unless it was included by reputable editors in a collection under his authorship!