Sunday, February 24, 2019

To the Darkness

Read "To the Darkness" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has a fatalistic bent, presenting an almost  nihilistic outlook with distinctly philosophical overtones.  

But first things first - the version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a significant typo at the beginning of the second stanza.  The first few lines of that stanza should read as follows, with my edit highlighted in bold on the third line:

Many men there were,
In the days that are now of thy realm,
That thou hast sealed with the seal of many deeps;
Their feet were as eagles' wings in the quest of Truth-—
Aye, mightily they desired her face,
Hunting her through the lands of life
As men in the blankness of the waste
That seek for a buried treasure-house of kings.

Moving on to further consideration of the poem's themes, there is powerful dark magic at work in these lines, and I think the heart of it is captured here:

But against them were the veils
That hands may not rend nor sabers pierce;
And Truth was withheld from them
As a water that is seen afar at dawn,
And at noon is lost in the sand
Before the feet of the traveller.
The world was a barrenness,
And the gardens were as the waste.

CAS' poems often deal with the pursuit of Beauty, and here he is dealing instead with the pursuit of Truth.  In this telling, men have been frustrated in that pursuit within their native world of light and life, leading them on to The Darkness:

They have looked on thy face,
And to them it is the countenance of Truth.
Thy silence is sweeter to them than the voice of love,
Thine embrace more dear than the clasp of the beloved.
They are fed with the emptiness past the veil,
And their hunger is filled;
They have found the waters of peace,
And are athirst no more.

As a reader, I am most interested in CAS' philosophy of life (more so than I am with technical aspects of his versifying).  "To the Darkness" is a powerful statement in that vein, suggesting that only in death can mankind find The Truth.  There are echoes here of morbid classics such as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conqueror Worm", and yet I find "To the Darkness" to be in sympathy with humanity's natural sense of striving and questing.  All those efforts may indeed lead only to The Darkness, yet at the very end of this poem CAS leaves us with comforting thoughts: "They have found the waters of peace, / And are athirst no more."  Here death is a release, not something to be dreaded.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Summer Moon

Read "The Summer Moon" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) which was subtly altered between its original publication in The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912) and the later inclusion in the career-spanning Selected Poems (1971).

The revised version of the complete poem (from Selected Poems) is as follows, with line numbers indicated in brackets at the end of each line:

How is it, O moon, that melting.    (1)
Unstintedly, prodigally,     (2)
On the peaks' hard majesty,     (3)
Till they seem diaphanous      (4)
And fluctuant as a veil,     (5)
And pouring thy rapturous light.    (6)
Through pine and oak and laurel,     (7)
Till the summer-sharpened green,     (8)
Softening and tremulous,     (9)
Is a luster of liquid silver—     (10)
How is it that I find,     (11)
When I turn again to thee,     (12)
That thy lost and wasted light.    (13)
Is regained in one magic breath?     (14)

The change is in one line only, line number 10, describing moonlight.  In The Star-Treader, the line is rendered as:

Is a lustrous miracle—

Decades later, the same line in Selected Poems read as:

Is a luster of liquid silver—

The edit is modest in scope, but significant in impact.  The lines preceding 10 contain rich adjectives such as "diaphanous", "rapturous", and "tremulous", which are echoed in the original version of line 10 by the word "lustrous".  

In the later version of the same line, the harmonious adjective "lustrous" is gone, and the moonlight is now "a luster of liquid silver".  The use of the adjective "liquid" echoes two earlier phrases: "How is it, O moon, that melting" (line 1) and "pouring thy rapturous light" (line 6).  Thus the moonlight which has previously been "melting" and "pouring" is now described as having the luster of "liquid silver", continuing the idea of the moonlight having fluid properties.

As I say, a small edit overall, but one that essentially completes a thought and an image that CAS set up at the very beginning of the poem, giving a pleasing structure to those first ten lines that was missing in the original version.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Soul of the Sea

Read "The Soul of the Sea" at The Eldritch Dark:

This short poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) rewards multiple readings, since the author has really captured both the motion and the sound of what seems to be an almost gale-force wind emanating from the sea.  Characterizing that wind as "the soul of the sea" lends it all of the mystery and the dangerous scope of the wild ocean, a beautifully poetic concept.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Song to Oblivion

Read "Song to Oblivion" at The Eldritch Dark:

This strikes me as a somewhat workmanlike poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  It touches on themes that are central to his artistic concerns, the language is clear and perhaps even clever, and there is an interesting use of rhyme and line lengths across these three stanzas.  Nonetheless, it's mediocre when compared to CAS' more significant achievements in poetry.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Song of the Stars

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

After being very impressed by "A Song of Dreams" (see my previous blog post) I find myself rather indifferent to "The Song of the Stars".  Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is well-known for his cosmic-themed poetry, and within that large grouping of his verses, "The Song of the Stars" is merely competent, but lacks any motivating energy or idea to really lift it off the page and make it come alive in the reader's mind.  Even the phrasing and vocabulary seems to be lifted from CAS' more vigorous verses, so I'm not surprised that he chose not to include this one in his career-spanning Selected Poems (1971).

Friday, February 15, 2019

A Song of Dreams

Read "A Song of Dreams" at The Eldritch Dark:

One of my all-time favorite poems is Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) "Desert Dweller", and my reading of that poem is what started me on the journey to read his entire poetic corpus (as documented on this blog).  So I was very pleasantly surprised to encounter "A Song of Dreams", which I have never read before, and which has obvious parallels to "Desert Dweller".

This is really a great piece of versifying from start to finish, but the second stanza is particularly strong, and I can't help quoting all of those wonderful lines:

Then spake I in answer, saying,
Of my dreams I have made a road,
And my soul goeth out thereon
To that unto which no eye has opened,
Nor ear become keen to hearken:
To the glories that are shut past all access
Of the keys of sense;
Whose walls are hidden by the air,
And whose doors are concealed with clarity
And the road is travelled of secret things,
Coming to me from afar;
Of bodiless powers,
And beauties without color or form
Holden by any loveliness seen of earth.
And of my dreams I have builded an inn
Wherein these are as guests.
And unto it come the dead
For a little rest and refuge
From the hollowness of the unharvestable wind,
And the burden of too great space.

Although this poem was written when CAS was still a teenager, it has a surety of purpose and a technical aplomb that confirms the maturity of CAS' artistic practice even at such an early age.  As an expression of his philosophy as an artist, it is wordier, but only slight less powerful, than the later work with which it is thematically aligned ("Desert Dweller").

My journey to read through all of CAS' extant poetry is a long one, and not everything I read is rewarding.  But when I come across gems like "A Song of Dreams", then I have no regrets - CAS was a truly gifted poet, and I find his worldview to be in sympathy with my own, so I continue the journey with pleasure and anticipation.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Snow-Blossoms

Read "The Snow-Blossoms" at The Eldritch Dark:

As it happens, I read this short poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) in the middle of an unusually significant snowstorm in the Seattle area (where I live).  So I had the enjoyable experience of looking out the window and seeing exactly what CAS was describing.  Add to this the poem's usage of the wonderful word " yestereve" and I am a very happy reader indeed!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Shadow of Nightmare

Read "Shadow of Nightmare" at The Eldritch Dark:

This sonnet by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is a vigorous description of a bad dream, but doesn't strike me as being much more than that.  Some of the imagery reminds me of early Hollywood horror films, although of course if was written well before Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff made their names.  All in all, it's not much of a standout in the poetic corpus of CAS.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Retribution

Read "The Retribution" at The Eldritch Dark:

I had to read this sonnet by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) several times in order to try and grasp the full meaning.  The poem is clear enough up until the final line: "And dreams that stood the ministers of Hell."

The opening octet describes deities who are no longer actively worshipped by humanity passing through the narrator's dream.  The closing sestet then opens with the phrase "Above my dream" which now suggests a reality for these divine beings, who are no longer simply characters in a dreamscape.  Here the poem's title comes into play, as we learn that "the gods outcast of time" have passed judgment on mankind.

The poem ends with this sentence:

They passed, and lo! a plague of darkness fell,
Unsleeping, and accurst with nameless things,
And dreams that stood the ministers of Hell.

The word "stood" in the final line suggests resistance or holding a position, seeming to indicate that these gods have seeded dreams (or more likely nightmares) that are unmoved by "the ministers of Hell."  I take it that those ministers are priests, the advocates of the prevailing religious system in CAS' early twentieth-century California.

So in the end, "The Retribution" seems to lament the passing of olden gods, but suggests that they retain a power to influence those who would resist contemporary religious culture.  This reminds me of two poems by CAS I read earlier about the American deist Thomas Paine, and his critiques of organized religion.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Price

Read "The Price" at The Eldritch Dark:

This quatrain from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) gets right to the point, lamenting the fact that "Beauty hath ever its cost".  It may be a short poem, but it seems to get right to the heart of CAS' worldview: the endless pursuit of the ideal of beauty as the reason for living, and the endless frustrations in realizing just how elusive that beauty is.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Pine Needles

Read "Pine Needles" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem is a simple nature study by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), but I enjoy the lightness of tone and subject matter.  Although CAS' characteristic cosmic themes are absent in these lines, they once again demonstrate that he was a versatile writer, and one well-attuned to the natural world.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Ode on Imagination

Read "Ode on Imagination" at The Eldritch Dark:

In my reading so far in the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), his odes have most often left me rather indifferent, since they have a rambling quality, jumping from one half-formed image to another with no discernible resolution of the scattered constituents.  I regret to say that I have the same reaction to "Ode on Imagination".  While no doubt a competent poem, it lacks the animating spark that seems present in so many of CAS' other verses.