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.

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