Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Secret Love

Read "Secret Love" at The Eldritch Dark:


Once again, we have a poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) presented as the product of one of his pseudonyms, Christophe des Laurières.  In contrast to other poems of romance by CAS that I have read in the last few days, this one is really getting back on track to what he does best, by rendering an unconventional love steeped in darkness and mystery.

This sonnet has several interesting technical aspects, in evidence right from the opening lines:

Hung round with heavy silence fold on fold,
Thy love, within my veiled and votive heart,

The first line has a couple of internal rhymes built on the letters "h" and "f", and the technique is continued into the second line where the letter "v" anchors the rhyme.  This is an effective method of getting the reader into the flow of the language right from the start, and something that CAS does particularly well.

The other technique that catches my attention is the extended metaphor that makes up the entire work, that of a love "like a darkling Venus" hidden away in a remote and forgotten city out of mythic memory.  This is powerful stuff.

Monday, December 30, 2019


Read "Ecstasy" at The Eldritch Dark:


This is one of several romantic poems by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that I've read in the last few days, and as with the others, it's nothing particularly impressive.  Of course, it's good to see CAS applying his talents to subjects beyond the weird and the fantastic, but as a poet of love and romance, his efforts seem mediocre at best.

Sunday, December 29, 2019


Read "Nightfall" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was published in his hometown newspaper (the Auburn Journal) in 1924.  A slight romantic poem, I suspect CAS intentionally created a somewhat anodyne piece to appeal to the wide audience of a newspaper, but there's little in these lines to make the poem memorable or significant.

Saturday, December 28, 2019


Read "Cleopatra" at The Eldritch Dark:


As with many poems from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), "Cleopatra" contains references to classical mythology, exotic precious stones, and evocative images of bold colors.  Although these foundational elements are frequently used in other verses from CAS, in this particular case, the work seems unable to transcend those building blocks and emerge as a true poetic expression.  

This is one of the rare cases where I feel like I'm reading CAS on auto-pilot, with plenty of poetic technique in evidence, but with only marginal artistic results.

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Psalm to the Best Beloved

Read "A Psalm to the Best Beloved" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) verges into the erotic, especially in the closing lines:

Thy body is a secret Eden
Fed with lethean springs,
And the touch of thy flesh is like to the savor of lotos.
In thy hair is a perfume of ecstasy,
And a perfume of sleep;
Between thy thighs is a valley of delight,
And a valley of peace.

It's a powerful expression of the joys of physical love, and handled in a manner that is not the least bit titillating.  Living as I do in an age of over-sexualized media, as a reader I greatly appreciate CAS' ability to render the many dimensions of love without descending into the voyeuristic. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019


Read "Psalm" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is an interesting tribute to a lost love, rendered as only Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) could.  But ultimately it seems to be more a portrait of the narrator himself:

Ah, suffer me to dwell
Thereby, and forget the gilded cities of desire,
The domes of spectral gold,
That fled from horizon to horizon
Before me, and left my feet in the sinking vales and shifting plains of the desert,
Whose waters are green with corruption,
And bitter with the dust and ashes of death.

The lines quoted above reflect an image that CAS re-visited many times in his poetry and short fiction, and presents also something of a philosophical musing, especially in key phrases such as "forget the gilded cities of desire" with its inherent rejection of the material world.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

To Nora May French

There are two versions of Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) poem "To Nora May French" at The Eldritch Dark:

  1. http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/594/to-nora-may-french-%28i%29
  2. http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/593/to-nora-may-french-%28ii%29

The second version most closely matches what was published in both Ebony and Crystal (1922) and Selected Poems (1971), so my discussion is focused there.

CAS never met Nora May French, and she had already taken her own life by the time he became aware of her work.  Despite not knowing the poetess personally, CAS has written a very moving work inspired by the scattering of her ashes into the Pacific Ocean.  The second stanza in particular is something of incredible beauty, closing with these near-perfect lines:

If now thy voice
In any wise return, and word of thee,
It is a lost, incognizable sigh
Upon the wind's oblivious woe, or blown,
Antiphonal, from wave to plangent wave,
In the vast unhuman sorrow of the main
On tides that lave the city-laden shores
Of lands wherein the eternal vanities
Are served at many altars; tides that wash
Lemuria's unfathomable walls,
And idly sway the weed-involvèd oars
Rotting amid the moles of orichalchum
In deep Atlantis; tides resurgent ever
From coral-coffered bones of all the drowned,
And sunless tombs of pearl that krakens guard.

The association between French's life and verse is intertwined with the life force of the mysterious ocean, a truly beautiful conception:

The western wave is eloquent of thee,
And half the wine-like fragrance of the foam
Is attar of thy spirit, and the pines,
From breasts of darkling, melancholy green,
Release remembered echoes of thy song
To airs importunate. 

This work surprised me with its deeply emotional lyricism, something I have seldom encountered in CAS' verse.  But the abundance of feeling is handled with considerable technical skill, creating a genuine standout verse from the Bard of Auburn.

Sunday, December 8, 2019


Read "Requiescat" at The Eldritch Dark:


This is a rather insubstantial little poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), featuring easy-flowing short lines (in terms of metrical feet) and several word repetitions to reinforce the simple rhymes.  

There is not much that's very memorable here, and it makes sense that CAS was able to get it published in a general interest magazine (Smart Set in 1922), since it includes no hints of the weird and philosophical poetry that was more typical of CAS' work, but which would have less appeal to a broad audience.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Dream

"The Dream" is a long poem in quatrains from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that went unpublished in his lifetime. It is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here is the complete text:

It was a nest of horror, whimsy-wrought
With orts and shreds from old abysses caught;
An eyrie swung on swift ulterior awe,
Tangled on summits of mysterious thought.

Grotesque and vague, I watch the vision shift--
A bubble that a Titan's breath might lift,
Who drowns in seas more dark than his despair,
Fabrics of iron hue, whirling adrift,

Or like pellucid crystals dropt from hands
Of toying Gods, that fire my shadow-lands--
Then, like a sphere exalted past the sun,
It bursts!--while thought in eager question stands.

Conscious of gulfs down which I dare not gaze,
I grope on faltering and imperiled ways
To shores where hoary mountains dance and roar,
And silent oceans lie as in amaze.

The flames that wait against the End of things
Flutter and verge unto my wanderings.
Past numb and blanching regions loved of Death,
Aback I flee, floating on lifeless wings--

Past midnight deserts full of sorceries,
Yet levin-lit and bare as breathless seas,
Dreading the tiger-crough of deadly Shapes
Alert in the wilds of dim eternities.

Now, in a trice, it seems that Time is done:
Light still endures, whose touch I may not shun;
Though at my back I hear the lips of Night
Puff out the flaring beacon of the sun.

Upon a barren blink I reel to see
The lower Dark--while, thundering over me,
Dawn hurls therein the cinders of dead stars,
And shells of worlds that rattle emptily.

Each quatrain of this poem uses an interesting rhyme scheme of AABA, not something I have seen much previously in CAS' poetry.  Outside of that, the poem doesn't hold much interest, reading like something of a draft, which is not entirely surprising since CAS never published this one.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil

Read "The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil" at The Eldritch Dark:


Note that the version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark is riddled with typos, so it's worth reading this one in print if you have access to such.

I've been immersed in multiple re-readings of this epic poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), as well as some of the critical writings about it.  A few observations have stood out for me from all of this reading:

  • It's a remarkable poem, but not one of CAS' best works of poetry.
  • It's not easy to read in a single setting, since there are weak sections that slow the reader's momentum.  With some editing to eliminate weak passages, perhaps it could have been a stronger work.
  • It's a critical work from CAS that absolutely deserves the large reputation it has earned.

The first two points above reflect the fact that "The Hashish-Eater" feels like something of a first draft, although I don't doubt that CAS edited and re-worked it over time.  But I suspect that editing was minimal, because he wanted to retain the immediacy of the work, and didn't strive to "polish" it as much as some of his other works.  This is purely speculation on my part.

That said, there is no doubt that the large ambition of "The Hashish-Eater" makes up a great part of the reward in reading it.  This poem can be considered something of a difficult masterpiece, similar to Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams, or to choose an even more remote example, Trout Mask Replica from Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.  

In the preceding paragraph, I intentionally chose to link "The Hashish-Eater" to two works from media other than poetry, since I think they reflect similar artistic paradoxes.  In The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen delivers a narrative of ecstasy and despair, and the balance between those elements sometimes feels stretched to the point of awkwardness. Nonetheless, the novel is a brilliant rumination on the creative process, and absolutely worth reading despite its faults, since it is written with passion and a masterful use of the English language.

My musical example comes from a similar place.  Trout Mask Replica is a landmark album of experimental pop music, using unconventional compositional structures that challenge the listener to really pay attention and analyze what he or she is hearing.  For pure listening pleasure, the album is largely a failure.  As a wholly innovative approach to pop song deconstruction, it's a triumph.  Whether or not it appeals to an individual music fan depends on their willingness to embrace a work of art that demands real engagement.

And so back to "The Hashish-Eater".  There is most certainly real poetry in this work; here is an example from the second stanza:

                                                  I behold
In Ombos, where the fallen Titans dwell,
With mountain-builded walls, and gulfs for moat,
The secret cleft that cunning dwarves have dug
Beneath an alp-like buttress; and I list,
Too late, the clang of adamantine gongs
Dinned by their drowsy guardians, whose feet
Have felt the wasp-like sting of little knives
Embrued With slobber of the basilisk
Or the pale juice of wounded upas.

Moreover, this poem provides an interesting reflection on CAS' own personal views, as he articulated in a 1950 letter to Samuel J. Sackett, which is also available (with typos) on The Eldritch Dark:


In that letter, CAS writes (referring to "The Hashish-Eater"):

It is my own theory that if the infinite worlds of the cosmos were opened to human vision, the visionary would be overwhelmed by horror in the end, like the hero of this poem.

This relates back to a comment I made in my post about the Argument of 'The Hashish-Eater' where I pondered the poem's potential nihilistic quality.  Now having read the poem several times, I no longer think nihilism is the correct interpretation, but rather I think this work acknowledges the overwhelming vastness and indifference of the cosmos towards human affairs and concerns, a theme that occurs elsewhere in CAS' poetry.

So in the end, "The Hashish-Eater" strikes me as an unpolished gem, a work of vast scope and harsh resolution, executed with less formal technique than was the author's wont.  In its exotic visions of monstrosities and alien worlds, it points forward to the prose fiction that CAS would create in later years.  If the reading experience of "The Hashish-Eater" is uneven, it is nonetheless full of invention and grotesque magnificence, and is a major work of imaginative literature.