Friday, November 30, 2018

Ode to Music

Read "Ode to Music" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/398/ode-to-music

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was included in his first published collection (The Star-Treader and Other Poems) as well as seeing publication in a local newspaper in Placer County, California.  In addition, "Ode to Music" was praised by George Sterling, who was just in the process of becoming a mentor to CAS at the time.  

Considering that pedigree, I am surprised to find that this particular poem does not do much for me.  So much so that I went back and re-read "The Pageant of Music", another early poem from CAS that I first encountered a few months ago.  That earlier poem is a sonnet, so it is quite a bit shorter than the 81 lines of "Ode to Music".  But I think it also handles the same topic of the experience of music much more effectively than this ode does.

This is not to say that "Ode to Music" lacks CAS' usual verbal magic; there are some great lines herein, such as:


And e'en as dews of morning fill
The opened flower, into his soul shall flow
High melodies, like tears that angels weep.


But in many ways this ode reads to me as a bit of a run-on, with lots of cascading ideas that don't really seem to build to upon each other, such that the poem's final sentence (making up the last seven lines) feels very awkward, including the cumbersome phrase "Time's intertexturings".  

I feel like I've missed something in failing to see what George Sterling apparently saw in "Ode to Music", but I suppose that's the nature of personal opinion, and a testament to the fact that different people experience the same work of art in different ways.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Nocturne


Here is another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was apparently unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark:


Intensified and re-enforced with clouds,
          In searchless secrecy descends the night;
          Against the shrinking lakes of western light,
The hills ambiguous stand, disguised with shrouds
Of mist-inwoven and unfeatured gloom;
          A little and engulfed from sight, they sink
          In rising tides of dark upon whose brink,
Of chartless waves no beacon-stars illume.

Lost utterly are earth and firmament,
          As in some final night of doubts and fears,
                    Wherein the abysses of Oblivion lie.
Till, lo! the heaven-eclipsing clouds are rent,
          And through the rift a lone, bright star brightly peers,
Like some great watchful and unsleeping Eye.


"Nocturne" really is the perfect title for this poem, since it has the quality of an oil painting, although executed with words.  The language of this poem is beautiful, and the second line ("In searchless secrecy descends the night") has such a strong visual character that I feel as though I can envision exactly what CAS was seeing in his own mind's eye when he wrote this.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Moonlight Desert

Read "The Moonlight Desert" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/667/the-moonlight-desert

Along with "The Eternal Snows" which I read yesterday, "The Moonlight Desert" is among a batch of early poems that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) sent to his eventual mentor George Sterling.  However, the poem remained unpublished in CAS' lifetime.

This poem makes me think of CAS' short story "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" which is one of my favorite pieces of fiction.  Although there are no references to specific characters or events from that story in the poem, both pieces share a moonlight desert setting.  One of my favorite passages from the story is:

A saffron-yellow and lopsided moon was soaring above the wall, and he knew by this that he had been absent overlong from his vigil with Cushara. All, however, seemed tranquil: the drowsing animals had not stirred; and the monastery was dark and soundless.

That emphasis on moonlight and silence in the story's desert setting creates a strong connection between the two works.

This poem ends with the description of the desert as "A dead, unutterably ancient land", and so again we have a thematic connection between these two pieces by the same author.  The story was written more than two decades after the poem, but for me it suggests that CAS developed recurring imaginative landscapes that he re-visited throughout his career.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Eternal Snows


Read "The Eternal Snows" at The Eldritch Dark:


Among other things, this poem has taught me that "hieroglyphed" is a valid transitive verb, which I never knew up until this reading.  The sentence in which that word features is worth repeating:


Pure they lie,
Beyond all earthly dreams of purity,
And hieroglyphed with Beauty's mystic sign.


One can vividly imagine the scarred and fissured peaks that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is describing in this sonnet, and the choice of that word "hieroglyphed" really adds a humanized element of antiquity and mystery that makes this abstract nature study easier for the reader to embrace.

CAS enhances that approach in the poem's closing lines, where the narrator comes to the fore:


Thou art to me as some Ideal sublime,
That from its eminence unwon and pure
Speaks with the voice of what my soul might be.


There is a crystalline purity to that final expression, and one really hears the voice of a poet shining through.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Last Night

Read "The Last Night" at The Eldritch Dark:


Here we have a poem that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) included in two of his milestone collections of published poetry, beginning with his first volume of verse, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912).  Perhaps more significantly, he also chose this work for inclusion in his career-spanning Selected Poems (1971).

CAS received early praise for this poem from George Sterling, very shortly after the two writers initiated their relationship via postal mail*.  It's no surprise that Sterling took a shine to these lines, since CAS has clearly mastered the sonnet form, and moreover presents a compelling vision of a dying sun defeated by Night, the victor in "that war of gulf-born Titans".

At least one commenter has identified "The Last Night" as a source of inspiration for CAS' Zothique cycle of short stories**, which would begin to see publication twenty years after this poem first appeared in print.  


*These letters can be found in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

**See Jim Rockhill's essay "As Shadows Wait Upon the Sun: Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique" in The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith also from Hippocampus Press.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Poetry


Once again, we have an early poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) not published in his lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so I'll begin with the text itself:


O poetry, not on the written page
Alone mayst those be found, for ocean tides
Have pulsing rhythm and the tempests rage
And gentle breeze thy rhyming flow abides;
One hears thee in the seaward pilgrimage 
Of streams, and where adown the mountain sides
Water rills in cataracts, and out in space
The planets ceaseless swing with rhythmic pace.


This is a lyrical evocation of the sources of poetry that exist all around us in the natural world.  Reading this enhances my appreciation of CAS as a poet who was equally at home writing about the landscape of the physical world as he was writing about fantastic cosmic phenomenon and gothic dreamscapes.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Antony to Cleopatra

Here is another early poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was never published during his lifetime:


Lie still: the sultry, large, Egyptian moon,
An amber face with hair of trailing flame,
Hath found the breasted hills beyond the Nile,
And rests a little.  Let thy royal head
Upon my bosom find a kindred peace,
This interim of languor-laden dreams,
Which is the truce of passion: Turn thy lips,
Flower-like, and lay them on thy weary flesh,
And veins o'erworn of pleasure; let thy hair,
Enwound about our mingled arms, run on,
Nor disentwine the happy knees and thighs
Our long delight hath wedded...We shall lie
And deep within subsiding pulses feel
A drowsy joy that is not ecstasy
And wakeful peace, more dear than Lethe's draught
Like welling from out the central fount of Love,
A wine with poppies laden, while we dream
Of blissful nights that were, and things to be.
Star by star
The splendid night of our desire goes down
To join the nights of Babylon and Ur,
And stately worlds forgotten; Dawn shall rise,
A hueless nenuphar in heavenly pools, 
With Tyrian shores of cloud land circled round.
And flames ardent and crimson, opening
Its wide and magic petals, measureless,
Whose perfume is the balmy wind that blows
From Syria, and the Persian incense-bearing shores
Of all the royal East. 


The languid sensuality of this poem is intoxicating, as the author sets a stately pace imbued with a narcotic sensibility.  He plays up the romantic legend of the famous classical lovers, saturated with all the indolence and luxury of their unique station.  The lovers seem to have found a brief respite from their turbulent lives, and CAS captures all the sultry glory of the moment.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Waning Moon


Read "The Waning Moon" at the Eldritch Dark:


This is one of several early poems by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) built around the diurnal cycle, a theme that seems well-suited to his particular strengths as a writer.  

This sonnet makes effective use of the formal split between the opening octet and the closing sestet, and the contrasts between those two stanzas are striking.  In the first stanza, the Moon is described as "a haggard shade", seemingly happy to surrender her temporary dominion over the skies.

The mood shifts in the second stanza, where the poet invokes the inevitable return of the Moon to her throne, where she will be "robed anew / In gleaming splendours of thy fuller light" as she regains her "court supreme".  

Not a complicated poem at all, but rich with lush imagery and the palpable motion of the cycle of day and night.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Vampire Night

Here we have another early poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the text itself:


Sunset as of the world's concluding day:
Vain struggles of the sun to climb once more
The irremeable sky with reddening light;
And then, abrupt and unavoidable,
The drop of his exhausted, flameless orb
Into the cold ultimity of space.
Bereft, bewildered, lost, the planet lies,
Wrapt with the tightening grave-cloth of the gloom;
And silence comes, deliberate, assured,
Like Lethe at the feet of gods that stand,
Unkingdomed, disenabled, on its brink.

What change is this that quickens awe confirmed
To live, pulsating fear?  Upon the chords
Of the tense trees, what eldritch hand is laid
That startles into sound such latent dread
As of the damned, within Hell's spacious murk
Eddying invisibly?  Or is the wind
Fraught with a resurrection of the dead--
Ghosts lately born, that knowing not themselves
As phantoms, cry a common fear, and shriek 
Each from the other?  Lo, I seem to hark
The gabblings of the grave, where speak anights
The neighbouring dead; strange outcry of the corpse
Unhallowed by the ghoul's disturbing hand, 
And mumblings out of brainless skulls.

The darkness speaks, her echoing word the wind
That shudders through the stillness like a fear.
All dreams of terror inexpressible
Crowd on the gloom at that invoking voice--
Phantasmal terrors, imageless, to sight
That incommunicably limn themselves
Upon the mind; and maleficent powers
Whose eddyings intensify the dusk,
Albeit bodiless.  About the soul 
They surge with unseen hands that grope and claw,
Felt as the clutch of metal by the mind,
Though light as silence to the shrinking clay.

With fingers of eternal dread the dark
Reaches, and claims its prey; who ventures forth 
The vampire night shall drink his very soul
And leave a living fear within its place!


For starters, "Hell's spacious murk" (line 16) is one of the most memorable phrases that I have read in quite a while.  The entire passage containing that phrase is worth re-visiting:


Upon the chords
Of the tense trees, what eldritch hand is laid
That startles into sound such latent dread
As of the damned, within Hell's spacious murk
Eddying invisibly?


CAS involves the sensory inputs of sound, touch, and sight in this passage, as the "tense trees" experience something dark and twisted.  This approach is used throughout the poem, which ends with something of a bang in the last four lines, wherein we are indirectly warned to stay inside after the sun goes down!

For a poem that was never published while he lived, this work is another indication of just how strong CAS' poetical powers were, even in verses that were probably seen by few other people.  There are some slightly awkward transitions in these lines, but there is also a lot of rich language and potent imagery that is remarkable given that CAS was still a teenager when he wrote this.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Twilight Woods


Read "The Twilight Woods" at the Eldritch Dark:


This sonnet by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has a much stronger sense of narrative than is typical of his early poetry.  This is in fact the first of his early verses in which the narrator is referred to by the pronoun "I", which immediately denotes the words in this poem as originating from a clear human voice. 

In the opening octet, the narrator proceeds with a sense of caution, but feels pensive, not frightened.  As CAS takes us into the closing sestet, he alters the tone with the phrase "darkening twilight is a sorcery", and continues to build on that mood with words like "weird", "strange", and "fantastic".

Nothing particularly dramatic occurs in this poetic narrative, and yet CAS has built up a sense of mystery and perhaps even danger in the encroaching twilight as experienced in the depths of the forest.  This sonnet combines CAS' strengths as a nature poet and a weird poet into one potent work, and is a wonderful surprise to discover amongst those verses that were not published in his lifetime.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Twilight

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


Of his great realm, the mighty sovereign Day
Doth for a space his pinioned flight delay 
Ere he his scepter to the night resign.
Now all is silent, save that in the pine
The wind laments the passing daylight's sway
In low, sad notes.  Now all is turning gray
As slowly doth the fading reign decline
And dim, uncertain, in the world. How far
And faint one solitary little star
Doth on the azure robe of evening shine
To herald with its lonely gleam of light
As deep'ning dusk doth with the dark combine
The stately coming of the queenly Night.
As doth the morning star foreshadow Day.



This is one of several poems by CAS that I have read recently having to do with the diurnal cycle.  This particular poem is perfectly competent, but doesn't stand out in any way compared to related works from CAS' formative period. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

To Thomas Paine

As with the poem of the same name that I discussed in yesterday's blog post, here Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) once again presents an ode to the author of The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (see the Wikipedia article for more information on that work).


O priest of truth and herald of the light,
Thou didst proclaim as might the morning star,
That shining trumpet at the lips of dawn,
The fading of the priests and powers of gloom.
Yet have they striven to cast upon thy ray 
The mist exhaled from Superstition's mire--
A breath of scum still foul upon the earth,
Still making blind the gaze that else might see.
It shall not hide thy light forever thus;
And though it hang between thee and men's eyes,
Stainless art thou: no marsh can harm a star.


In the first few lines, this poem has a less uplifting tone than the earlier companion piece (discussed yesterday).  Through line 8 ("Still making blind the gaze that else might see"), the reader is left with the feeling that Paine's enlightened doctrine has been defeated by the "priests and powers of gloom."  

But the last three lines turn things around, and the ending phrase "no marsh can harm a star" is beautifully lyrical and uplifting, leaving us with the notion that truth and reason will win out in the end.

Neither of these poems dedicated to Thomas Paine were published in CAS' lifetime.  At least in the case of today's entry, that surprises me, since this is a powerful work.  Given that the subject matter is not typical for CAS' poetry, I wonder if he simply felt this particular verse did not mesh well with his broader body of work, and thus chose to exclude it from his published collections.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

To Thomas Paine

This is one of two poems with the same title that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote, but neither of them were published in his lifetime.  I'll look at the companion work tomorrow, but here's the first of the pair:


O thou who dared the sacred truth proclaim
Who took the stand alone but unafraid
By calumny and danger undismayed
How have they soiled and trampled on thy fame!
How ignorance doth execrate thy name,
Superstition taught, whose minions laid
Gainst thee the charge of infidel and made
Thy name its synonym.  But all the blame
By hierophant and layman on thee placed
Shall yet be theirs, as men who helped delay
The righteous cause of Truth and Liberty,
And when the rule of superstition is abased
No name of kings (than thou) upon that day
Shall higher stand, as one who made men free.


This is an unusual subject for CAS.  Among the over one hundred poems by CAS that I have read so far, he has never addressed a topic or person from American history, and I don't believe he did much more in this vein in his later poetic career.

So that point alone makes this a very interesting poem, which apparently references Thomas Paine's treatise The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (see the Wikipedia article for more background on that work).  Paine's popular but controversial best-seller advanced his personal philosophy of deism, and denounced organized religion as well as the Bible itself.

The sentiments expressed by Paine in The Age of Reason do seem to be a perfect match for what little I know of CAS' own philosophy of religion.  The phrase that ends this poem ("as one who made men free") is especially poignant, since it establishes Paine as a significant figure by right of his arguments against the "superstition" associated with a corrupt Christian church and its embrace of the concept of miracles.

This I like.  CAS was a determined individual who pursued his own unique path through this life, and was apparently not a fan of cant or accepted doctrines, especially those associated with the sad and debilitating practice of organized religion.  For CAS to admire the philosophy of Thomas Paine makes sense, and makes me admire CAS all the more for the intelligent free thinker that he was.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

To the Morning Star

Read "To the Morning Star" at the Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/600/to-the-morning-star

For anyone who is familiar with sleepless nights, this is certainly a powerful work that evokes the quest for some sort of relief from that state.  It's an attractive idea that the restless narrator can embody hope of respite in the appearance of the Morning Star, and look forward to "slumber deep" with the breaking dawn.

Friday, November 16, 2018

To the Crescent Moon


Here we have another early poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the text itself:


I am half-wearied by the moon's wide flight,
          Yet too complete were evening's offered rest:
          Come thou upon the still and sleeping west
And wash the shadows with a dream of light.

Make thou for me such twilight as of Sleep,
          And fill with visions borne on filmy wings
          That borderland--with dreamy flutterings
That vaguely venture as from Slumber's deep.


This is an interesting incantatory effect at work here, as each line of this poem contains a word or phrase that references the states of dreaming or sleeping:


  • Line 1: "half-wearied"
  • Line 2: "rest"
  • Line 3: "sleeping"
  • Line 4: "dream"
  • Line 5: "Sleep"
  • Line 6: "visions borne on filmy wings"
  • Line 7: "dreamy flutterings"
  • Line 8: "Slumber's deep"


For me as a reader, those repeated effects do encourage a slower reading pace, as the narrator invokes some of the magic of dreams to visit him in "That borderland" while he sits between wakefulness and sleep.  One gets the sense of a sorcerer working a spell to call upon the rich storehouse of the subconscious.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

To Ambition

Here is another early poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was never published in his lifetime, so let's begin with the text itself:


Achievement's spur, a spirit thou of fire
That in the bosoms of the high and great
Hath ever fiercely burned, without abate;
Whose flame hath made the lowly day aspire
To royal thrones, and lifted myriads higher;
Thou mak'st and unmak'st dynasty and state,
And oft on thee hath hung an empire's fate.
For all advance is to thy urging due
And mighty evils in thy path ensue.
The pages of all history to stain
Thy sprit doth both good and bad imbue
<And drives them on> to seek their ends amain.


In general terms, this is a minor item from the poetic corpus of CAS.  But it's an interesting reflection on his personal philosophy, acknowledging the positive and negative aspects of ambition.  This stance would seem to be somewhat in contrast to the overarching national myth of the United States, which tends not to recognize any negative aspects in the drive for achievement.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

To a Snowdrop

Galanthus nivalis.jpg



Here is another early poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) not published in his lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so I'll begin with the text itself:


Dainty flower, snowy-white,
Shrinking modestly from sight,
Here within the woodland's heart,
As a lantern shaped thou art--
Such a lamp as elf or fay
Bear to light them on their way
To some dell where in a ring 
At midnight, they dance and sing.


As with "To A Mariposa Lily", which I read yesterday, this is a fairly straightforward poem in honor of a particular floral species.  As can be seen from the photo above, CAS' characterization of the snowdrop as being "lantern shaped" is spot on, and his whimsical invocation of a fairy dance is charming and just a little bit magical.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

To A Mariposa Lily

Club-haired Calochortus (Calochortus clavatus).jpg


Read "To A Mariposa Lily" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/584/to-a-mariposa-lily

As per the photo shown above, I'm guessing that in this poem Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was referring to Calochortus clavatus, or the "clubhair mariposa lily" found widely in his native California, and particularly in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  That particular species has yellow petals, which would seem to match the flower that CAS describes.

While this is a simple nature poem, it's quite effective.  The opening phrase "Thou art the chalice of the sun" sets things up beautifully with the image of the flower as a goblet, waiting to be filled with the sun's radiance, wonderfully imagined as "the fountains of his light".  


Monday, November 12, 2018

To a Cloud


Here is an early long poem not published in the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS):


O cloud in the sky, 
You will and you can
Be a mountain or camel--
Why not a man?

O cloud in the sky, 
Be a castle alight for the woman I love,
With the splendour of sunset inviting the night.
Be a terrace of palms lifting crowns in the air,
Tossing kisses to stars in the ether so rare--
But holding the earth with a thousand of thongs,
And singing through centuries love-burdened songs
Because of your grip in the soil!
Be strong down below to the gentle above.

Be a chariot of fire!
Let your steed be the flame
Of the sun in his ire--
Of the sun in his sweep
From deep unto deep
In the measureless march of the limitless arch
That is lost for a name.
And there is in the heat of your fervency beat--
Beat out the crown she should wear.
Oh, crown her, and carry her far
From the hush of the noon to the still life of the star.

Oh cloud, be a boat;
And with sails a-spread, float--
Don't drive--only drift with the tide
Of a pulsating world
That rises and falls as the primal need calls
With the sensuous sweep of soft breezes at play
With her ordorous hair,
With her lips and her eyes--
Where mystery lies--
With the dark skin a-hint of the Tubal Cain tint--
With the lips which are copper-hued coffers of kisses,
Each pledge of bewildering blessing of blisses,
Oh, play with her gently, swift winds of the west,
Make her couch on that quarter-deck royal with rest.

Oh cloud, if you can be a mouse or a mountain,
Be wise! Be a man.
Touch tenderly
Ivory arms fashioned slenderly,
Caress with a palm a-promuse [sic] with passion
The rare curve of the cheek,
And bury within that adorable chin
The kisses a painter could dream but not paint.
And strip from the shoulder the drapery's ban.
Let the matchless bust dawn on the eyes of a man!
Then sweep from the sight the last vestige of light,
And wrap that warm form in the clasp of delight,
And bathe her with kisses while blessing the night.


This is something of an outlier amongst the early poems by CAS that I have been reading in my more-or-less chronological journey through his oeuvre.  So much so that if I had not encountered this work in a published collection of his poetry, I would never have guessed it was written by CAS!

It's clearly a minor item from CAS' poetic catalogue, the amusingly romantic reflection of a cloud-gazer who is clearly in love.  The reference to the biblical figure of Tubal-cain is curious, and seems a bit out-of-place in an otherwise light and breezy poem.

While this particular poem doesn't have much to offer the reader, it's interesting as a striking contrast to so much of CAS' other work in the same medium, and reinforces the idea that he was not a one-dimensional writer.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Time

Here's another poem unpublished in the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so let's start with the text itself:


O Time, great satrap of Eternity, 
Gigantic sifter of our destinies,
To whose stern, inexorable decrees
Both king and mendicant must bow the knee,
Thine is an all-embracing sovereignty;
All men must go their life and striving cease
At thy strong bidding; nothing may appease
Or stay thy doom; none may evade or flee.

Thou sitt'st apart, thy glass within thy hand,
The glass wherein the grains of death and fate
Drop silently, as flees each wingéd hour.
And irrevocably doth fall that gleaming sand
A never-ceasing stream, on which do wait
The tides of life and death, and wealth and power.


This sonnet is a fairly straightforward ode to Time, personified as a potentate with power over all things.  The first few lines of the sestet are especially good, where CAS gives us the image of Time seated, forever holding the hourglass that measures out the span of our days. While this is not a major item from CAS' body of work, it is nonetheless solid and effective.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Throne of Winter

Read "The Throne of Winter" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/580/the-throne-of-winter

This is a minor item from the poetic oeuvre of Clark Ashton Smith.  About the only thing that stands out for me from this sonnet is the phrase "the West's stupendous coronet" describing mountainous peaks, which is effective even if the word "stupendous" is a wee bit overwrought.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Temple of Night

This early poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was not published is his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here is the text of the poem itself:


Fear-encompassing, night's temple arches high,

          Indefinitely doming hill and plain,
          With massive walls that comprehend that main
And clasp the distances of sand that lie
Forgot and desolate.  Against the sky
          It rises bold and vast, with towers that gain
          The ether's desert and immense domain
And in the wastes of outer sunlight die. 

Lo! This is beauty's fellest, perfect shrine
          Her consecrated temple, pure, divine,
With wind-swung flower censers rendered sweet.
The moon and star, her steadfast symbols gleam,
          And wistful-sighing wind and cadenced stream,
          With lyric symphonies the goddess greet.


The opening octet of this sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) delivers a really striking image of an immense temple, and the opening line of the sestet ("Lo! This is beauty's fellest, perfect shrine") challenges traditional ideas of beauty, which is generally thought to describe something that is pleasing or delightful.  CAS builds on that idea in following lines of the sestet by using words such as "pure" and "sweet".


What I like about this sonnet is that in the octet, the temple itself is described in somewhat foreboding terms ("Fear-encompassing", "Forgot and desolate"), but in the sestet CAS switches to a slightly cheerier tone.*  So in the end he reinforces the association between beauty and the night, a slight trick of perspective that is handled with authority.


*One might quibble with the inclusion of the word "fellest" in describing the sestet as having a cheerier tone.  However, "fell" as an adjective has several definitions, one of which is "Exceedingly great, mighty."

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Tartarus of the Suns

Read "The Tartarus of the Suns" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/564/the-tartarus-of-the-suns

This sonnet really finds Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) playing to his strengths, with a mixture of Greek mythology, cosmic scope, and forbidding doom.  This description of "the nadir of all space", or a graveyard of planets and suns is thrilling for both its brevity and its immense scope.  

Moreover, there is some gorgeous language herein, really classic CAS phrases such as "Dethroned and aimless suns" and well as the epic closer, "And Night succeed unto their flaming thrones".  Few poets that I have read can deliver such a breathtaking experience in fourteen short lines of blank verse.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Sphinx of the Infinite

Read "The Sphinx of the Infinite" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/543/the-sphinx-of-the-infinite

For the most part, I've been pretty impressed with all of the early poetry by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that I have read in my more-or-less chronological journey through the oeuvre.  However, there have been a handful of clunkers along the way, and I think that "The Sphinx of the Infinite" is one of them.

My primary objection to this poem is that the central idea is not really developed, and CAS uses some fairly hesitant language ("Sees an eternal dawn upon the dark / Which is the curtain of impending sleep") which is not his usual style at all.  I presume this poem was more of a draft than anything else, and not surprisingly was not published in CAS' lifetime.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Sphinx and Medusa

Read "Sphinx And Medusa" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/542/sphinx-and-medusa


This is a wicked little poem, wherein Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has combined his love of mythology with a doomed vision of mankind's ultimate fate.  The closing lines are especially effective:



When from the spaces of Eternity,
Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns
On the lost world the stress of her regard.


The use of commas in the middle quoted line (line 13 in the complete poem) creates pauses which encourage the reader to imagine Silence, personified as Medusa, slowly turning and gazing with "the stress of her regard."  Given what happens to those who make eye contact with one of the Gorgons, things do not bode well for our "lost world"!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sonnet to the Sphinx

This early sonnet by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so I'll start with the text of the poem itself:


O riddle of the years, that is this desert place
O'er Egypt's desolation guard doth keep--
Here where her shattered glories buried sleep,--
Upon thy sealèd lips and mocking face 
Which holds the secrets grim of Time and Space,
We look, and question thee.  Before thee creep
How many, and from out their darkness deep
Crave light and knowledge!  Ne'er in any case 
Dost thou an answer make, for on thine eyes
And lips hath Silence laid her awful seal,--
          Her order and her spell inviolate.
But oh! If thou should speak, who art all wise
          Heeding at last our myriad-voiced appeal,
What might we learn, of life, and death, and fate!


This seems like a relatively minor item in CAS' poetic oeuvre, technically faultless but lacking in any very original ideas.  

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sonnet on Oblivion

This is another sonnet unpublished in the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the poem itself:


Not as a sea of flame whose waves and deeps
          Shall gulf the suns and worlds--but as a night,
          A darkness and a silence past all light,
Beyond all sound, Oblivion waits and sleeps.
Within its absolute encircling sweeps
          The universe--a stream of stars that sight
          Deems countless, but upon whose gleaming flight
Like some eternal tide, Oblivion creeps.

A darkness and a silence! There shall draw
          To one eclipse the systems and disperse
          This strange and troubled dream of Time and Place.
Then, sun nor world shall be nor light nor law--
          But endless night and emptiness of space--
A vast nirvana of the universe.


The personification of Oblivion is very interesting in this poem.  With the phrases "Oblivion waits and sleeps" and "Oblivion creeps" we have distinct actions joined by a rhyme which makes Oblivion an active living force that animates the sestet.

CAS intriguingly ends this sonnet with the line "A vast nirvana of the universe."  The word "nirvana" implies a release from the physical realm of life, with Oblivion acting as a catalyst for achieving that state.  This anticipates Sigmund Freud's articulation of the "nirvana principle" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a book that wasn't published until 1920 (evidence suggests that CAS wrote "Sonnet on Oblivion" in either 1911 or 1912).

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Sonnet on Music

Here's another poem unpublished in the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS):


Strange melodies unplayed my spirit hears

          Through lyric flute and soft guitar, or in
          The harmonious sobbing of the violin.
Music of laughter greets my subtler ears,
Or of the pain and anguish of the years.
          From stirring harp, or lute's melodious din,
          Or some cathedral organ's tone, I win
The larger music of the circling spheres.

Forever through the outer melodies 

Come subtle hints of vaster harmonies:
          In rhythm of torrents and of brooks I dream
          Faint echoes of life's everlasting Stream,
And in the ocean's sound, of earth supreme,
The resonance of mightier wider Seas.


The line "The larger music of the circling spheres" at the end of the octet sets the reader up perfectly for the "resolution" in the sestet, where CAS gives us striking phrases such as "outer melodies", "vaster harmonies", and "mightier wider Seas".  This sonnet is a strong evocation both of the power of music and of the broader cosmic scope of CAS' imagination.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Song of the Worlds

Read "The Song of the Worlds" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/530/the-song-of-the-worlds

There are a couple of typos in the transcription of this poem on The Eldritch Dark which I'll note here, since they do make for nonsensical reading (corrected words in bold below).


  • Line 9 should read: Across the hyaline profound
  • Line 39 should read: Where dreamt horizon-lines elude,


With typos corrected, this early poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) reads quite beautifully, and the idea of planets voicing these lines is wonderful.  CAS is of course known for a "cosmic outlook" which would be considerably extended in later works, but even in this early poem we encounter phrases like "marginless immensity" and "Time's infinity" that signal the huge scope of the poet's imagination.

The central theme of planets yearning to break free from their gravitational destinies is paired with the metaphysical quandary "O universe, unto what aim / Thine orbit-streaming quest?"  This is great stuff, and really presents CAS playing to his strengths both in terms of prosody and philosophy.