Wednesday, December 25, 2019

To Nora May French

There are two versions of Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) poem "To Nora May French" at The Eldritch Dark:


The second version most closely matches what was published in both Ebony and Crystal (1922) and Selected Poems (1971), so my discussion is focused there.

CAS never met Nora May French, and she had already taken her own life by the time he became aware of her work.  Despite not knowing the poetess personally, CAS has written a very moving work inspired by the scattering of her ashes into the Pacific Ocean.  The second stanza in particular is something of incredible beauty, closing with these near-perfect lines:

If now thy voice
In any wise return, and word of thee,
It is a lost, incognizable sigh
Upon the wind's oblivious woe, or blown,
Antiphonal, from wave to plangent wave,
In the vast unhuman sorrow of the main
On tides that lave the city-laden shores
Of lands wherein the eternal vanities
Are served at many altars; tides that wash
Lemuria's unfathomable walls,
And idly sway the weed-involvèd oars
Rotting amid the moles of orichalchum
In deep Atlantis; tides resurgent ever
From coral-coffered bones of all the drowned,
And sunless tombs of pearl that krakens guard.

The association between French's life and verse is intertwined with the life force of the mysterious ocean, a truly beautiful conception:

The western wave is eloquent of thee,
And half the wine-like fragrance of the foam
Is attar of thy spirit, and the pines,
From breasts of darkling, melancholy green,
Release remembered echoes of thy song
To airs importunate. 

This work surprised me with its deeply emotional lyricism, something I have seldom encountered in CAS' verse.  But the abundance of feeling is handled with considerable technical skill, creating a genuine standout verse from the Bard of Auburn.

1 comment:

  1. At the time of my visit, Sterling had given the use of his house to John Kenneth Turner, author of BARBAROUS MEXICO, and Turner's wife and children, Turner being in temporary financial difficulties. Sterling was occupying the little cabin he had built for Nora May French; but, turning this over to me, he moved into a little tent for the duration of my stay.

    He spoke often of Nora May French, that strange and tragically gifted girl who had ended her life with poison in the same bed in which I slept nightly. She had, it seems, previously attempted to shoot herself with his revolver and had brought him a tress of her ashen-blonde hair clipped away by the bullet. He showed me the very spot beside the path up the ravine where this attempt had occurred, according to her statement. But, oddly, there had been no powder marks on her hair. I do not recall that he attributed her suicide to unrequited love for James Hopper; but there had been other reasons . . . perhaps sufficient ones.

    She was, he said, the most changeable person he had ever known: incredibly radiant and beautiful at times; at others, absolutely dull and colorless in her appearance. One day he brought out a manuscript of hers dictated during the delirium of illness. It was full of an otherworld weirdness; but I can remember nothing of it, but that it was "such stuff as dreams are made of" and therefore immemorable as dreams.

    On one occasion, I recall that George told me to keep the cabin door shut at night. "if you don't," he warned, "the cat will come in and jump on the bed. You'll think it's Miss X_ trying to climb into bed with you, and you'll be scared." "Oh. no," I rejoined, "I'll probably think it's Nora May's ghost, and I won't be scared at all. I'm sure that her ghost would be a lovely one." "You certainly have an imagination," he commented, half admiringly, half deprecatingly.