Monday, November 30, 2020

Two poems on T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"

Here are a couple of oddities from the poetic canon of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  Both were unpublished in his lifetime, and the surviving copy of the first was damaged in a fire, so it is incomplete.

I group these two short poems together since they are both critiques of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, a sequence of connected poems published in a collected edition in 1943.  CAS apparently wrote his own poems shortly after Eliot's volume first became available in the U.S.

On Trying to Read Four Quartets

There is a bard name T. S. Eliot
(Perhaps the British call him Heliot).
To one like me, like mind ingenuous
His poems seem too fine and ten[uous.]
In fact, the stuff's so dessicated [sic]
I half suspect he's constipated.
Methinks the beggar needs a _______
I find more pleasure in Ella's _______.

Greek Epigram

There is a bard name T. S. Eliot
(Perhaps the British call him Heliot).
He writes a tough untoothsome line,
I'd rather read a Valentine.

The "Ella" in the first of these poems apparently refers to Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a popular poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose sentimental verses were sometimes mocked by more "serious" littérateurs.

While both of these are clearly casual poems, making partial use of the limerick form, they expand on a critique of Eliot captured in The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith.  The following is entry number 164 from the Arkham House edition of 1979:

Poetry, though its proper concerns are not primarily intellectual, is none the worse for having behind it a keen and firm intelligence.  But intelligence alone does not make poetry, as glaringly exemplified by the latter works of T. S. Eliot, which, while no doubt profound from a philosophical standpoint, has little or nothing of the bardic magic and mystery; all such elements having been ruthlessly sacrificed, leaving an obscurity which, unlike that of Gérard de Nerval, is devoid of color, glamour, and the allurement of new imaginative meanings and analogies which would justify obscurity.

The Four Quartets are Eliot's last major work of poetry, so it's safe to assume that the passage from The Black Book quoted above does apply to them.

While I enjoy T. S. Eliot's poetry myself, I can't disagree with CAS that the Four Quartets have a certain philosophical dryness and muddled religiosity that sap some of the power of Eliot's quite beautiful language.  The poems that Eliot included in this collection were written during World War II, and were something of a "back to God" exercise intended to inspire the British people during the difficult years of The Blitz and beyond.

I've never read anything by Gérard de Nerval, but based on CAS' comments quoted above, I'll have rectify that!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

For An Antique Lyre

Read "For An Antique Lyre" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) returns to a theme woven throughout the verses included in The Hill of Dionysus (1962): the bucolic ideal of the legendary days of Classical Greek mythology:

And happiness had been
A siren singing only
On shores unsought and lonely
Where Vesper falls to some untraveled visne.

The end of the poem refers to "A sleeping Venus hidden...Within her undiscovered hollow hill."  In his short story "The Disinterment of Venus", CAS makes the same association in describing the marble effigy unearthed by the Benedictine monks of the Perigon Abbey:

It was the masterpiece of an unknown, decadent sculptor; not the noble, maternal Venus of heroic times, but the sly and cruelly voluptuous Cytherean of dark orgies, ready for her descent into the Hollow Hill.

I'm assuming that CAS is deriving that association from stanza XV of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Ave Atque Vale":

And one weeps with him in the ways Lethean, 
      And stains with tears her changing bosom chill: 
      That obscure Venus of the hollow hill, 
That thing transformed which was the Cytherean, 
      With lips that lost their Grecian laugh divine 
      Long since, and face no more called Erycine; 
A ghost, a bitter and luxurious god. 

Here, Swinburne describes the dark side of the mythical goddess of love, which Edith Hamilton summarized in her classic text Mythology (1942): "In later poems she is usually shown as treacherous and malicious, exerting a deadly and destructive power over men."

To circle back around to the last stanza of "For An Antique Lyre":

And joy had tarried still,
A sleeping Venus hidden
In sunless halls forbidden
Within her undiscovered hollow hill.

Assuming I'm correctly interpreting CAS' intent in this stanza, I take it that since the malign Cytherean Venus lies inert in "her undiscovered hollow hill" that her dark designs cannot impede the jubilant spirit expressed throughout the rest of "For An Antique Lyre".

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Knoll

Read "The Knoll" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is another poem from The Hill of Dionysus cycle authored by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), celebrating his friendship with the dancer Madelynne Greene and the poet Eric Barker.  As with many of the poems in that cycle, CAS paints a bucolic picture evoking the glories of Classical Greek mythology:

From this high knoll against the brine
Like those about Dodona's shrine:
For here Apollo still is god
And living dryads tread the sod
And love is Grecian and divine.

As I read through CAS' poems from the early 1940's (many of which were included in the published version of The Hill of Dionysus), I keep encountering the idealism that the author associates with the world of Greek myth.  With this particular poem, he exalts that upon the knoll "dwells the fair antiquity / Glad and august and pagan still."  

I am particularly intrigued by the celebration of the pagan.  All of this plays into my evolving theory of CAS' mature point-of-view, which it seems to me had moved far beyond the cosmic visions of his youthful works.  

In modern terms, this might be termed an "uncivilized" viewpoint, an evolution from Robinson Jeffers' philosophy of "inhumanism" (with which CAS was familiar).

That's a larger topic for another blog post, but "The Knoll" seems like a work that reveals something interesting about the man who wrote the words, and that is worth exploring in more depth.

Friday, November 27, 2020


Read "Cambion" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) marks a strong return to the realm of the weird, a theme that he was not writing about so much in the early 1940's.  

The speaker is one of the cursed offspring referred to in the poem's title: "I am that spawn of witch and demon".  His mission is of ill intent, much like the incubus who fathered him:

I am that swart, unseen pursuer
Whose lust begets a changeling breed:
All women know me for their wooer:
Mine is the whisper the maidens heed
At twilight; mine the spells that lead
The matron to the nighted moor.

CAS takes things up a notch in the last stanza, where the cambion's designs go much further than simply propagating his wicked bloodline, as he seeks "To plot...The bale of realms, the planet's fall."  

I can't help wondering if CAS considered submitting this poem for publication in Weird Tales magazine; although it never appeared in those pages, it seems like it would have been a natural fit for The Unique Magazine if he had sent it in.

Thursday, November 26, 2020


Read "Moly" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is named for the legendary plant that plays an important role in Book X of Homer's Odyssey.  As the hero Odysseus seeks to free his men from the sorceries of the enchantress Circe, the god Hermes (aka Mercury) comes to his aid with a magic herb:

This said, he gave his antidote to me,
Which from the earth he pluck’d, and told me all
The virtue of it, with what Deities call
The name it bears; and Moly they impose
For name to it. The root is hard to loose
From hold of earth by mortals; but God’s pow’r
Can all things do.

The English translation quoted above is that of George Chapman from 1614.

In line with with Homer's contention that mere mortals cannot harvest this botanical countermeasure, CAS' poem suggests that it is out-of-reach to those living in the earthly realm:

Seek no more! seek no more!
Not on mountain, moor or shore,
Not by noon, nor under moon,
Blows the plant of magic boon,
Not with eyes shall any find it
Nor with fingers pluck and wind it:
From the dust of limbs and heart
Shall the roots of moly start,
Over thy forgetful grave
Shall the flower of moly wave.

I read CAS' "Moly" as an allegory for the inability of the heterosexual male of the species to resist the charms of the fair ladies; for while moly is the "Flower that wards the flesh and heart / From beguileful Circe's art" it is unobtainable to those within the mortal coil. 

The author's use of short lines with near-perfect end rhymes enhances the prophetic nature of this poem ("Seek no more! seek no more!") and makes it a real pleasure to read.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Even in Slumber

Read "Even in Slumber" at The Eldritch Dark:

This short poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has a distinctly nightmarish quality, amplifying the experience of separation from a loved one.  These lines from the opening stanza are particularly fatalistic:

Even in slumber I am fated
To seek thee in vast throngs and dreamlands desolated—
And find thee nevermore.

Despite being so short, "Even in Slumber" packs a haunting punch as it recalls a bad dream with frightening precision.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020


Read "Omniety" at The Eldritch Dark:

There is a slight difference in the published versions of this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  When it was included in The Hill of Dionysus (1962), published shortly after his death, the last line of the first stanza read "And Hades opened honeyed wells."

When the same poem was included in the omnibus Selected Poems (1971), the last line of the first stanza read as it appears on The Eldritch Dark: "And Dis unseals Hyblaean wells."

It's a rather mysterious poem, beginning with the title, which is an archaic variant spelling of the word "omneity".  The speaker appears to be an omniscient former lover, recently come back from the dead, who declares himself:

Loosed from the coils of space and number,
I am the shadowy self who stands
Kissing your lips, holding your hands,
Warding your labor and your slumber.

Although the speaker's motivation may originate from a deep sense of everlasting love, his agenda has a creepy slant: "Dream not to escape me, day or night".  I don't think I've ever read a poem from CAS that has such an unusual combination of the romantic and the unsettling.   

Monday, November 23, 2020


Read "Illumination" at The Eldritch Dark:

This sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is resplendent with the power of love to reanimate the recipient:

Remembering now your tresses' heavy mesh
A little harsh beneath my pillowed face;
The savor of your bosom and the scent;
Your warmth, a blissful essence immanent,
Flooding my veins in the long unstirred embrace;

I'm often resistant to the charms of CAS' love poems; likely a combination of the inherent clichéd nature of romantic poetry and my own dour personality.  But "Illumination" wins me over with sheer beauty and heartfelt appreciation for the ability of one human being to uplift another.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Midnight Beach

Read "Midnight Beach" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) infuses the memory of a terrestrial reverie with elements of the weird purposed as powerful metaphors:

Some great, unspoken gramarie
Had exorcised that incubus,
The world, that fell away from us. . . .
Reborn, and dear, and perilous,
The past arose beside the sea.

The speaker relates the exultant feeling of release two lovers experienced at the meeting of the land and the water, and by describing that which they have been released from as "that incubus, / The world" CAS greatly enhances the feeling of ecstasy that informs this poem.  

This points directly at one of the reasons I think CAS was an unusually talented writer, able to reach well beyond the clichés of the fantasy and science fiction genres with which he is most associated.  The "weird" elements in CAS' writings are never employed solely to tell a fantastic tale, but are always used at least somewhat metaphorically to explore larger issues of the human role in the cosmos.  

This is not to say that his writings are always deeply philosophical, but rather that he used his tools carefully to create works that resonate beyond what is on the page, and point towards larger concerns that are never explicitly addressed, but almost always lingering in the background for the willing reader to explore further. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

De Profundis

Read "De Profundis" at The Eldritch Dark:

The bibliographic citation provided for this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a significant mistake: it is described as being a translation of a work by Charles Baudelaire.  That is not correct.

The confusion is not totally surprising, since Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) did indeed create an English translation of Baudelaire's "De profundis clamavi", poem XXXI from the 1868 edition of Les fleurs du mal.  However, the poem linked above is not that translation, but rather an original verse authored by CAS himself.

The Latin title can be translated as "From the Depths".  Whether or not CAS took any sort of inspiration from Oscar Wilde's work of the same title is not clear, although both works are profound expressions of love, so there is some continuity between them.

In this poem, CAS invests the spirit of romantic yearning with touches of the weird and the fantastic, as only he could do:

For her I have arisen
From many a broken tomb,
From out the darkling prison
Of sunken worlds and avatars of doom.

Despite the dark imagery used in the stanza quoted above, "De Profundis" ends on a hopeful note:

O Flame that shall not fail
In voids of time and space,
At last you shall avail
To light my feet to her abiding-place.

It's a rather uplifting conclusion for CAS, and shows that his predilection for the weird did not always result in grim finales. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Strange Girl

Read "Strange Girl" at The Eldritch Dark:

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) commented on this poem in a letter to August Derleth from 1943: 

Here's a poem (Strange Girl).  The girl claimed to be a cousin of Jack London and a niece of the late Henry Van Dyke--a combination of blood-strains that would drive anyone to the devil!

This poem relates a more earthy romantic encounter than we typically see from the pen of CAS, and the letter excerpt quoted above indicates that it was based on a real person.  

Although the poem contains the sort of references to classical mythology that often feature in CAS' love poems, he uses those elements sparingly, as in the fourth stanza:

Upon the delicate chin you turned
Venus had set her cloven sign.
Like embers seen through darkest wine
Your unextinguished tresses burned.

Overall, "Strange Girl" is quite a passionate ode to an apparently brief encounter, ending with the creation of a undeniably strong bond:

Sister you seemed to all the woe
My heart has known but never sung. . . .
Was it for this your fingers clung
To mine, as loath to let me go?

It's quite a bit more moving than CAS' more grandiose verses of romance, with the action located in a "familiar bar" rather than a bucolic woodland hideaway.  Even with his predilection for formal, metrical poetry, CAS could still write verse with a contemporary feel, and "Strange Girl" is an excellent example of that.

Thursday, November 19, 2020


Read "Postlude" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) revisits his common theme of ruminating on a past romance.  I think "Postlude" is one of the better examples of this sort of verse from CAS, since he uses the connection between two people as a metaphor for larger concerns about the place of the individual within human society:

What have you found amid the many faces?
Nothing remains for me, save the spent echoes
Of words we said in falcon-hovered places.

From a technical point of view, there are a couple of effective uses of repetition, creating slight refrains that reinforce the musical character implied by the poem's title:

  • Third stanza: "O tryst too long delayed, too long denied!"
  • Fourth stanza: "Empty the forest now, empty the stream;"

Although there are just two such occurrences of repetition in a twelve-line poem, CAS plants them strategically at the opening of each of the last two stanzas, giving the reading a rhythmic uplift as it comes to a close.  These small but careful uses of literary devices seem to be characteristic of CAS' very best verses, a group into which I place "Postlude".

Wednesday, November 18, 2020


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:

Ah! silent is my love
For stress of all the words can never say,
Of all that lovers prove
Only with endless kisses, or delay
Of some supreme caress before the day.

No more of speech or song,
No more of music now: my lips are mute,
Wanting your lips too long:
For what the lute-player without the lute?
The flutist, vainly seeking his flute?

On ways not yet forgot.
Return, O nimble feet that stray too far:
If April brings you not,
Black are the days and false the calendar. . . .
I wait you as the twilight waits the stars.   

"Interval" is a fairly straightforward poem of romantic yearning, but I like the musical references that compare the isolation of the speaker from his partner with "the lute-player without the lute" and "The flutist, vainly seeking his flute".  The suggestion that the reunited lovers will make sweet music together is effective, if not entirely original!

Tuesday, November 17, 2020


Read "Amor" at The Eldritch Dark:

In this sonnet, Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) leans heavily on Greek mythology, so much so that it required a few visits to Wikipedia for me to catch all of the references!

What is most effective in these lines is the way that CAS uses fire and light as metaphors for romantic passion.  In the first stanza, those images of illumination have a somewhat muted quality, as with "Selene's light about the Latmian boy" (i.e. moonlight shining on Endymion as he sleeps on Mount Latmus).  This is continued through the end of the octet: "The spark still burning in the stoppered urn."

With the transition to the sestet, the light of love takes on a greater intensity, described as "witch-fire" so intense it "has outburned Walpurgis and the moon".  The poem then closes with an indelible image as the fervor of love "lifts in quenchless rose to a cloudy noon."

Although this poem is challenging at first for a reader than does not have a full command of the legends on which it is built, it's worth the research to trace how elegantly CAS builds his blaze with those mythological elements, and then exits with an expansive vision of the power of love to overcome inclement circumstances.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Before Dawn

Read "Before Dawn" at The Eldritch Dark:

As someone who often wakes early in the morning before the sun is up, I can easily relate to what the speaker is describing in this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS):

The moon's late-risen ray
Through paling panes is shed. . . .
From dreams uncomforted
I rouse before the day.

The poem gains much of its effectiveness from the use of trimeter (rather than the pentameter that is more common in English poetry) deployed in quatrains, so that each stanza reads very smoothly, much like the lyrics of a pop song.  

CAS enhances that effect through simplified diction, avoiding the "big vocabulary" that some of his detractors zero in on; "halcyon" is about the most exotic word choice in these lines, and that's not really an uncommon word.

All of this makes "Before Dawn" an uncharacteristically uncomplicated poem from CAS, and I quite admire it, both as an enjoyable poem to read in its own right, and as an example of the artist demonstrating the range of his technical skills.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Hill of Dionysus

Read "The Hill of Dionysus" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) provided the title for a collection planned late in his life, but published only after his death.  The Hill of Dionysus: A Selection (1962) brought together his verses commemorating his friendship with the poet Eric Barker and the dancer Madelynne Greene.  

As an aside, I'm lucky enough to own a copy of that letterpress volume, purchased from the one and only Scott Connors.  The publication was prepared by Roy Squires and Clyde Beck, and is a wonderful example of the bookmaker's art.

The poem itself is wonderfully lyrical, and full of the Dionysian pleasures that the title implies.  CAS gives us the taste of the "Dionysian wine" and the music of "a broken flute", but more than that, his verse evokes the celebratory and seasonal rites associated with the god Dionysus:

These things have happened even thus of yore,
These things are part of all futurity;
And she and I and he,
Returning as before,
Participate in some unfinished mystery.

This provides a beautiful continuity from the "fabled years and presences of Eld" to "things forevermore to be".  For a writer sometimes (wrongly!) labeled a misanthrope, this exaltation shows that CAS could revel in the company of his fellow human beings, and see the through line initiated in mythology and carried forth through all the ages of human existence.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

A diversion: CAS on Baudelaire

I've started reading through the Hippocampus Press edition of the letters between Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) and August Derleth.  While much of the correspondence concerns mundane details of story submission and editorial whims, there are some interesting observations from CAS in these pages on the art and practice of writing.

CAS began an English translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleur du Mal in 1929.  He never finished that work, but in a letter* to Derleth from 1931, he expressed a concise summary of Baudelaire's particular appeal:

Funny - I seem to have lost interest to a large extent, in French writings and translations.  My Gothic side has been cropping out more and more, so that the French genius seems rather too earth-bound and concrete and realistic for my present taste.  Baudelaire, it is true, has a sense of the gulf; but it seems to be an internal gulf, rather than the true cosmic vastness which I find in Poe and Lovecraft.

That notion of "an internal gulf" is spot-on, and captures in a very few words the essence that drives Baudelaire's poetry, and makes him unique from his great muse Edgar Allan Poe.  And of course, CAS' preference for the "cosmic vastness" of Poe and Lovecraft makes perfect sense in light of his own creative output.

*See letter #46 in Eccentric, Impractical Devils: The Letters of August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Anodyne of Autumn

Read "Anodyne of Autumn" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) revisits several themes that are found throughout his poetic corpus.  Most prominently featured here is the memory of a romantic dalliance that provides a comfort in the waning days of fall.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like CAS had anything very interesting to offer in "Anodyne of Autumn"; the poem's approach to its subject matter is quite pedestrian.  Moreover, the almost perfect pattern of two lines of trimeter followed by one line of pentameter gives the reading a staccato rhythm that seems to defy the meditative quality that the speaker's rumination implies.

Thursday, November 12, 2020


Read "Erato" at The Eldritch Dark:

The title of this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) refers to the muse of love poetry from Greek mythology.  She is often depicted holding a lyre, and CAS' poem adheres to that tradition with its reference to "the lyre's revibrant strings".

"Erato" is written in a grand romantic style that is somewhat unusual for CAS' mature verses.  I can't say that this poem does much for me as a reader, since there is a certain coldness in the way it evokes the passions of love.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020


Read "Supplication" at The Eldritch Dark:

The version of this poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) at The Eldritch Dark has a significant typo in line 15; the last word of that line should be "hold" (not "bold").

There are several references to narcotic and poisonous plants throughout the poem:

  • mandragore (aka mandrake)
  • poppy
  • hemlock
  • dwale (an infusion of Atropa belladonna, aka deadly nightshade)

Taken together, these give the proceedings a malodorous edge, which is further enhanced by the apocalyptic tone of the middle stanza:

Tender thou art, and kind:
Unto thy place we came
Through dolorous realms by roads of dust and flame:
Our eyes, in twilight sweetly lost,
Are shut like poppy-buds against the wind
From heavens of holocaust.

Escaping from that tumult, the speaker makes an ultimate request:

With deadliest dwale bedew thy kiss
To leave a Stygian stillness in the heart
That begs no later bliss.

Thus it seems the "supplication" referred to in the poem's title is an appeal for transcendence beyond the mortal realm.  

This poem plays to all of CAS' strengths as a writer, with its stately but foreboding mix of the lethal and the turbulent, so carefully constructed that the verse itself almost becomes the "poppied vintage" that it invokes.  Great stuff!

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Twilight Song

Read "Twilight Song" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) does a wonderful job of establishing a temporal setting. Through the succession of each of the four stanzas, the speaker establishes the time of day:

  • First stanza: "Below the vesper star"
  • Second stanza: "On winds of sunset gone"
  • Third stanza: "Mute evening wanes in mist"
  • Fourth stanza: "O night! upon thy stream"

That last stanza sets the speaker's hope that dreams will let him reconnect with a lost love:

O night! upon thy stream
Obliviously to float
And haply find in westward-flowing dream
Her place and face remote.

CAS was writing a lot of romantic poems in the early 1940's (this one is from September 1942) and not all of those stand the test of time, but "Twilight Song" has a carefully crafted simplicity which has the plaintive quality of a melancholy love song.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Classic Epigram

Read "Classic Epigram" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was attributed to his pseudonym Christophe des Laurières.  It was included the 1976 letterpress edition of Seer of the Cycles with the alternate title "Adjuration".

The reference to "Lesbia", the muse at the heart of the poetry of the Roman writer Catullus, immediately gives "Classic Epigram" a mythic depth.  But given that this poem was supposedly penned by that great libertine des Laurières, reading between the lines reveals what is really going on, as the sweet words of a seducer prepare his lover for the end of the dalliance as he moves on in quest of new romantic adventures.  

It all fits perfectly into the model of an epigram, and it's something of a curiosity that CAS did not use this particular form more often.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Nocturne: Grant Avenue

Read "Nocturne: Grant Avenue" at The Eldritch Dark:

In this poem, Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) name checks Charles Baudelaire, and indeed these lines murmur with the dark magic of that notorious French poet.  

In the second stanza, the narrator speaks of quoting Baudelaire, and although the specific source is not named, I assume he is referring to "Recueillement" (poem CIV from the 1868 edition of Les Fleurs du mal).  That poem has most frequently been translated into English with the title "Meditation", although when CAS himself translated it into prose, he used the title "Contemplation".

Although I'm partial to Robert Lowell's English translation of "Recueillement", the opening of CAS' own rendering of the same poem is worth quoting:

Be wise, my Sorrow, and be tranquil; thou woulds't reclaim the evening; it descends; behold: an obscure atmosphere envelopes the city, bearing peace to some and care to others.

The uneasy mood of that opening permeates the early stanzas of "Nocturne: Grant Avenue":

I saw your face by subtler dreams illumed,
And heard you speak
Of how, amid that multifold parterre,
Beauty and mystery and evil softly bloomed.

The conflict between the commonplace dreariness of the populated town and the bucolic joys found "When all the forest fountains sang unheard of us" underlies this poem, and the apogee occurs when the lovers find they can retain the essence of the latter even when they find themselves walled in by the former:

And, through the city's glare and sound,
What ghosts of faint hesternal flowers blew
And freshness home from woodlands far away:
Until, anew,
At parting in your long, deep kiss I found
The savor of sweet balm and spiced immortal bay.

CAS wrote many poems of love built around memories of pastoral trysts, but "Nocturne: Grant Avenue" stands out from the pack for its subtle use of a "tension of place" that masterfully invokes the spirit of Baudelaire.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

In Another August

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime.  The editors of the Hippocampus Press edition of The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith speculate that this poem was intended to be a part of The Hill of Dionysus cycle, but it was not included in the selection of that cycle published in 1962.

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

How often must my steps retrieve 
The lonely and memorial way
Of that receding yesterday!
While flesh and spirit darkly grieve
For loveliness that could not stay.

Why is it that you are not here
In the loved place where you have lain?
How can your beauty disappear
Out of the still-returning sphere 
That brings again the stars and rain?

That brings again the tawny grass,
The summer sky, the summer tree,
And makes the pines' long shadow pass
Adown the hill, as once, alas!
Upon the loves of you and me.

Though suns return, and love delay,
Here in the wood my spirit waits,
In faithful trysting fain to stay
Till cyclic time restore the day
Alone allotted by the Fates.

"In Another August" pairs well with "Wine of Summer", which I read yesterday. After the ecstasies of the sunniest season celebrated in the latter poem, here the speaker ruminates on the joys of those days past, but also casts his thoughts forward to the other side of the coming winter:

Here in the wood my spirit waits,
In faithful trysting fain to stay
Till cyclic time restore the day
Alone allotted by the Fates.

As with "Wine of Summer", "In Another August" is not a complicated poem, but the celebration of love and the changing seasons is still enjoyable, even if these sorts of verses were not really CAS' forte. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Wine of Summer

Read "Wine of Summer" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) first appeared in the summer 1942 issue of Wings: a Quarterly of Verse.  It makes effective use of wine as a metaphor for the memory of romantic summer interludes, and the attendant sadness of nursing a "bottle" by oneself:

O love! no other lips than ours have known
How sweet the wine, how sweet
With honey and soft heat
Mingling within that blissful magistral . . .
And yet how sadly fall
The slow, slow drops for him that drinks alone.

It's a simple poem, but makes for good reading in the dreary depths of November!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Future Pastoral

Read "Future Pastoral" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is a charming poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that almost reads like a letter to a beloved.  The speaker's enthusiasm for "A lonely spot, such as we two have loved", and his wish to share it with his partner ripples with the joy of a new discovery.  

CAS uses alliteration and assonance to subtly transform that discovery into something more akin to a revelation, especially in the second stanza:

A green and gentle fell
That steepens to a rugged canyon's rim,
Where voices of vague waters fall and swell
And pines far down in sky-blue dimness swim.

Written in February 1942, "Future Pastoral" is an excellent of example of CAS' maturing poetic skills one year shy of his fiftieth birthday.  There is nothing incredibly dramatic in this poem, but it has a seductive beauty and a vivid appreciation for life and love that speaks to some of the best characteristics of the poetic arts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"All is Dross that is not Helena"

Read "All is Dross that is not Helena" at The Eldritch Dark:

The title of this sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is taken from scene XIII of Christopher Marlowe's 17th-century play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.  The relevant lines are spoken by the main protagonist (John Faustus):

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul - see, where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips
And all is dross that is not Helena.

Building on Marlowe's reference to Helen of Ilium (aka Troy) and her legendary beauty, CAS' poem speaks to an unnamed lover with the same tones of reverence with which Faustus addressed his own paramour:

You are the supreme boon, the only good
To one, who finds despair in solitude,
And weariness of heart amid the throng.

It's certainly not my favorite poem from CAS, but I like the way he pulls his narrative thread from the pages of Homer through Marlowe's blank verse and into a modern casting of the legends invoked by that thread.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Amor Hesternalis

Read "Amor Hesternalis" at The Eldritch Dark:

The title of this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) can be translated from the Latin as "Yesterday's Love".  It uses the quintilla form with an ABBAA rhyme scheme and almost identical first and last lines in each stanza.

CAS had an undeniable talent for invoking the glories of the mythic past, a talent that he shared with John Keats (among others):

Our lot is with the lost and old:
We live, as in some fabulous
Fair idyl of Theocritus
Or tale by Heliodorus told—
Our home is with the lost and old.

As in the stanza quoted above, "Amor Hesternalis" contains several references to notable poets of the classical era, especially those who wrote more of earthly concerns than of the epic adventures of the gods.   

Rather than dwelling exclusively in the past, the poem ends on a premonition of a rebirth:

We are the specters of past years:
But soon Atlantis from the main
Shall lift; and Sappho bring again,
Risen from ancient brine and tears,
The living Lesbos of past years.

The visions of a resurgent Atlantis and a reinvigorated Lesbos (ancient home of the poetess Sappho) speak to glories yet to come, something we can all hope to foster in ourselves even when the world around us seems to have other plans!

Monday, November 2, 2020

To George Sterling

Read "To George Sterling" at The Eldritch Dark:

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote a half-dozen tributes to his poetic mentor over the course of his writing life, all with the same title.  This last in the series, written in 1941, came fifteen years after Sterling's suicide.  It was apparently commissioned by the Stanford University Press, although I'm not aware it ever saw publication from the same institution.

The epigraph for this sonnet comes from the last line of Sterling's own "Venus Letalis", the Latin title of which could be translated as "The Lethal Venus".  

In CAS' poem, Sterling becomes a character in his own imagined setting on the edge of "the dark sea, where swimmers drown", and it speaks to a distressed state that brought the elder poet to that grim place:

Strange shells are found along that silent strand:
Thou too hast often held them to thine ear
And heard the baffled murmur of thy blood.

While some of the earlier tributes that CAS wrote with the title "To George Sterling" struck me as a bit cold and overwrought, this version has a powerful emotional grip.  By placing his recollection of Sterling directly within the setting of "Venus Letalis", CAS extends the meaning of Sterling's own work into the realm of tribute.  It's a quite an impressive feat, somewhat reminiscent of the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald and his explorations of memory as a dominant force in the human psyche.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Sorceror to his Love

Read "The Sorceror to his Love" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) originally appeared in the September 1945 issue of Weird Tales magazine.

It's a simple but enchanting poem, capturing the feeling of safety and protection to be found within the arms of a lover.  It also reminds the reader of the power that can be found in imaginary names, as in these lines:

The horror that Zimimar brings
Between his vast and vampire wings

"Zimimar" is CAS' invention, but as with so many of his invented names, it's hardly random: there's an undeniable hint of the exotic and the mysterious in that name, as there is in "Maâl Dweb", "Zothique" and all the others.