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.

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