Sunday, June 30, 2019


Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote two poems with the title "Somnus", one of which was included in his omnibus Selected Poems (1971).  Under consideration here is the other one, and as it was unpublished in his lifetime, here's the full text:

The flowing silence of Lethe
Thro gulfs of more than Erebean gloom--
Beyond the fiery troubling of the stars
And moons made pale with travail
Or the loud seas exulting to the sun--
The lapse of oblivion--of night utterness.
The thunder-driven chariots of storm.
The sun, which in the golden lamp of noon,
Whose hours elude the groping light--
Lost in the hollow silence
Or dimmer than mirages of the moon--
In gloom declivous as to under-gloom--
Less than the foam of Lethe seem the worlds--
Softer than the fall of lotos-petals.

The line "The lapse of oblivion--of night utterness" is worth the price of admission by itself - who but CAS could write such a line?

This poem has an elusive nature, never quite establishing a concrete central image or scenario.  Nonetheless, CAS has created a very rich and rhythmic verse, with words using the long oo sound (gloom, moon, noon, etc) providing a rough pattern that draws the reader forward.  

For an unpublished poem, this one is impressive.  Although it feels more like a poetic sketch than a fully-formed sonnet, it nonetheless exhibits CAS' unique artistic voice, and its experimental nature makes it all the more interesting.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Read "Decadence" at The Eldritch Dark:

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) seemed to be quite attracted to the notion of the world-weary artist, and that particular topical vein is at the heart of this poem.  The closing lines are worth repeating:

How wearily, how humbly shall you crave
From the low Earth an everlasting grave,
And from the dust its ancient anodyne!

What else can the world-weary artist do but long for the sweet oblivion of death?  It may be something of a cliché, but few writers have tackled it with the same eloquence that CAS brought to the task.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Ministers of Law

Read "The Ministers of Law" at The Eldritch Dark:

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) often speaks to the theme of human vanity, the tendency of our species to drape ourselves in grandiloquence.  CAS was less then impressed by this stance,  and given his cosmic outlook, a poem like "The Ministers of Law" leaves little room for doubt:

Thou travelest brief ways that end and sink—
Urged by the hurrying planets; and the vast,
Prone-rushing constellations of the Law
Thunder and press behind thee at the brink.

I enjoy this aspect of CAS' writings (both in prose and poetry) tremendously, at least partly because I find myself in philosophical alignment with his own views.  That CAS also possessed the artistry to render these convictions with the beautiful music of his words makes the reading experience all the more worthwhile.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Sea-Gods

Read "The Sea-Gods" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is a somewhat slight poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), but it's interesting to compare the opening and closing quatrains:

First quatrain: 

Beneath the sunset and the sea
Their coral-builded cities be;
They keep an old forgotten reign,
A purple, far supremacy.

Last quatrain:

Known to their dim supremacy
The deep's forgotten secrets be;
Their old, eternal vestures are
The purples of the flowing sea.

Key items of repeated vocabulary ("forgotten", "purple(s)", "sea", "supremacy") between those two quatrains manage to capture the core of what the poem is about simply in those four words, given that CAS is using "purple(s)" in the adjectival sense denoting a being of royal rank.  

While the noun "supremacy" speaks to power and rank, CAS alters the standalone meaning of that word with his choice of associated adjectives: "far supremacy" and "dim supremacy", echoing the notion that these sea-gods have known better days.

I think that CAS would have had a stronger poem on his hands if he had reduced "The Sea-Gods" to a single quatrain.  Either the first or the last would do, although my personal preference is for the closing quatrain.  I think the four quatrains in the middle of the poem are essentially filler, and perhaps CAS was also dissatisfied with this work, since he never included it in any of his published collections.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Witch in the Graveyard

Read "The Witch in the Graveyard" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem somehow makes me think of classic horror films from Roger Corman, with its invocation of witches hatching their plots in a nighted graveyard.  Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) uses the form of the poetic dialogue to great effect in these lines, and although there is a slight element of camp and cliche in the scenario, CAS finds music in the potentially mundane:

Now I hear
The lich-owl, shrieking lethal prophecy;
And whimpering winds, the children of the air,
Lost in the glades of mystery and gloom.

So it is with some surprise that I note that CAS' mentor George Sterling had reservations about this poem, as expressed in a letter to CAS in August of 1913*:

"The Witch in the Graveyard" is grimly impressive.  I'd have been wild about it twelve years ago.  Now I rather deplore seeing so much imagination wasted on such a theme.  But there's great work in it.
I'd advise you to "go slow" on "horror" poems, and see your best energies along the lines of sheer beauty.  You do best then.  You could have used much of the material in this poem to make something weirdly beautiful instead of repulsive, however impressive.  But it may be wiser for you to follow your natural bent.  All anyone else can give you is a resumé of his own tastes or prejudices.

It's interesting that Sterling used the phrase "weirdly beautiful", since that seems to me a very apt description of this poem, although Sterling was suggesting that quality was lacking (in which case, I very much disagree with his assessment).  But in the end, Sterling redeemed his analysis by recognizing that CAS needed to follow his own creative path, and we readers are much the richer for it!

*See letter #91 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Years Restored

Read "The Years Restored" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem presents a rather morbid vision, as the speaker laments the inability to recover all that has been lost in years past.  The heart of this verse seems to be these lines from the opening octet:

Of the Past's great sum,
Our hands reach but the symbols recondite

In those brief lines, we get to the heart of the matter - we can never really know the glories of past ages; at best we can uncover some dim idea of what went before.  Certainly a universal truth, and expressed so eloquently, as only Clark Ashton Smith could.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Refuge of Beauty

Read "The Refuge of Beauty" at The Eldritch Dark:

One thing that strikes me right away about this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is the  lack of more demanding word choices.  CAS was well-known for having an extensive English vocabulary, and he often used that tool with great impact in both his poetry and his prose.  As a reader, I respect a craftsman who uses his tools well, and CAS' occasionally obscure vocabulary strikes me as entirely appropriate, just one aspect of the highly skilled work of master poet who had complete command of his language.

I read this poem as being spoken by the personification of death or oblivion, and who but CAS could lend such music to that voice:

Alas, for what have I to offer thee ? —
Chill halls of mind, dank rooms of memory

(Note that I fixed a small typo there - The Eldritch Dark incorrectly has "other" in place of "offer" in the first line I've quoted above).

I'm a sucker for a phrase like "Chill halls of mind", and "dank rooms of memory" ain't bad either.  This poem works because, like a fine wine, the pleasure is in slowing down, savoring the richness of CAS' language and technique, and allowing the words to wash over you.