Friday, August 14, 2020

Contra Mortem

This is another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that went unpublished in his lifetime.  The Latin title can be translated into English as "Against Death".

The poem is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:

Death is the eternal tedious platitude
With which all tales invariably end.
Deviceless seems the scurvy demiurge
Who can invent no other doom, but must
Repeat, as puerile penny-a-liners do,
This horror staled by time-long usage. Why,
For variation's sake, if for naught else,
Not dower with immortality one rose,
One seer, one star, one duad of blest lovers?...
O, bestial, dumb submission!  Will no voice
Cry out against this cosmic abatoir 
Where God the butcher drives us one by one
Into the slaughter-pen and slits our throats?
In lieu or prayer or incense, let us proffer
A protest and a taunt, deriding Him
Who is corruption's pimp, and caterer
To pampered maggots...

With this poem, CAS joins a passionate tradition of modern-era poets who wrote on the same subject.  A few famous examples come to mind:

CAS' take on the theme is almost vicious in tone, giving no quarter to "God the butcher", who is labeled as "corruption's pimp, and caterer".

Given the extreme language used in "Contra Mortem", I can see why CAS chose not to publish this one.  And yet that very intensity of diction reveals a side of the artist not often seen in his best-known work, where a sardonic viewpoint is more often at work.

Although we don't have an exact date of composition, it is believed to have been written somewhere between 1930 and 1938.  That time span covers the death of CAS' mother (1935) and the death of his father (1937).  One can't help but wonder if "Contra Mortem" was a reaction to one or both of those sad events.


  1. A very interesting CAS poem, and I'm glad you're here to share it! With his tales and other poems embracing death, it's refreshing as well as strange to see this one. I've always admired "Do not go gentle into that good night", and I think "Contra Mortem" is sincerely speaking in a similar spirit, though far more aggressively than Dylan Thomas' piece. It feels and sounds like it was written during an intense time.

    I was a little perplexed that the same man who wrote this piece had also written, in roughly the same time frame, stories like "Empire of the Necromancers", "Isle of the Torturers", and "Dark Eidolon." All these stories, especially the third, rather revel in the inescapable silence of oblivion. But this poem practically accuses Death of being a cliche, so I wonder. But then again, Smith's protagonists are generally bold beings who try to survive and fight for their lives before death, or some dark allurement, takes its hold on them, so maybe it isn't so strange after all.

    1. Your connection between this poem "Contra Mortem" and CAS' prose work from the same time period is not something I had considered. It is interesting to ponder the different ways CAS reacts to the idea of Death throughout his body of work, and it feels like there is a more investigation that could be done on that very point. Maybe one day...