Friday, February 25, 2022

"Not Altogether Sleep"

Read "Not Altogether Sleep" at The Eldritch Dark:

This sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) first appeared in the January 1952 issue of Weird Tales magazine, alongside another poem from CAS, "Sonnet for the Psychoanalysts".

The version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a significant typo in the twelfth line; the corrected text is shown below:

From suns expired and cycles yet to come-

The title of this poem is derived from a line in George Sterling's sonnet "Afterward". The complete stanza from Sterling's poem is shown below:

And ah! may then thy face, a changeless light,
Companion me thro' aeons of the night! —
            Filling that realm with marvel and desire
        And making death not altogether sleep,
        But rather as a gloom whose altars keep
    A timeless vision and a ghostly fire.

It's fascinating to examine the two poems together, since they share the same technical form (the sonnet) as well as the same subject matter: memories of a departed paramour that are much too treasured to surrender to death's dominion.

Of course, George Sterling was a significant mentor to the younger CAS, but what strikes me immediately is the vigorous quality of the student's language, rich with powerful visual and olfactory accents:

Wholly must I the rose-drawn essence lose
Upon unbalmed oblivion, and diffuse
Its odor on the dust? 

In contrast, Sterling's work features a sweeping use of language that is articulated in a grand and somewhat stiff manner:

One mercy would I beg from Time and Space—
    The final contemplation of thy face
Till Lethe sunder and the darkness fall.

Both poets draw from the lineage of Romantic poetry in English, but Sterling seems so determined to adhere to the tradition that his verse lacks animation and passion.  On the other hand, CAS manages to honor all that came before while injecting his own particular cosmic sensibility ("From suns expired and cycles yet to come") that invigorates "Not Altogether Sleep", something that Sterling's "Afterward" simply does not achieve.  

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