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.


  1. I wonder what CAS meant by "true cosmic vastness." His stories obviously delve into distant worlds and vast chasms of chaos, but I always felt that CAS and Poe were much more closely aligned with human ordeals and human matters than Lovecraft.

    I can safely consider Lovecraft a "cosmic" author because many of his stories revolve around feelings of inhuman vastness and how they affect the human protagonists, but Poe and CAS tend to write fairly fleshed out human characters who go through emotionally intense dramas, even in weirder stories such as "The Door to Saturn", "Vulthoom", and "The Seven Geases." Even his alien characters tend to have much more humanly relatable personalities and dialogue, whereas Lovecraft's aliens are properly alien enough to be difficult to moralize, empathize with, etc. And toward the tail-end of his writing career, many of CAS' stories would focus even less on cosmicism and even more on satirized human folly.

    I agree that Poe and CAS reach cosmic heights, and that Baudelaire was not generally a "cosmic" author in the sense that they or Lovecraft are, but I always felt that CAS gazed upon humans and earthliness so much more than Lovecraft ever did, to the point that sex, romance, chivalry, and misanthropy are common players in his fiction.

    1. You raise a good point about CAS having much more of an orientation to "humans and earthliness" than Lovecraft ever did; this is particularly evident in CAS' works of fiction and prose poetry, as well as his mature poetry.

      For me as a reader, I encounter CAS' cosmic orientation much more in his early poetry (the Star-Treader era) than elsewhere in his works. That said, there are still traces of that orientation in the short fiction, as in "Ubbo-Sathla".

      I think that at least part of the reason I find CAS to be a more compelling writer than HPL is his ability to address a broader spectrum of subjects, using a more dynamic set of tools (character development being just one of these). So even given his comments on Baudelaire in the letter quoted above, it seems to me that CAS retained the ability to address both the cosmic and the internal in his own creative output, although I think it's true that Baudelaire himself was largely interested only in the latter.

  2. And I wonder what CAS thinks is the difference between the "internal gulf" and "true cosmic vastness", because when I read his poetry, and some of his stories, it seems to me that his idea of cosmic vastness is closely allied with his own internal gulf, his own wistful yearnings and visceral fears. Many of his poems turn demons, stars, planets, abysms, and death into metaphors that are significant to him on an emotional level. Many of his romantic poems more or less align vast cosmic powers or vistas with whatever woman or muse he is writing about.

  3. I assume that CAS saw the "internal gulf" expressed in Baudelaire as something of an obsessive dwelling on the more base aspects of human existence (such as in the poem "Une Charogne" / "A Carcass") and the alienating affect that could have on both the poet and his readers.

    As you point out, CAS took a different route, and you capture that brilliantly: "Many of his poems turn demons, stars, planets, abysms, and death into metaphors that are significant to him on an emotional level."

    As I noted in my previous comment, I think CAS really had the ability to treat both thee cosmic and the internal in his own creative work. So I suspect that what he was expressing in the letter to August Derleth was a dissatisfaction with the limitations of the French models he was familiar with, Baudelaire in particular.