Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Dream of Vathek

Among Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) juvenilia is a long poetic dialogue titled "A Dream of Vathek".  The protagonist is drawn straight from William Beckford's novel Vathek, which CAS is known to have admired.

Compared to similar poetic dialogues from CAS' mature period, "A Dream of Vathek" is nothing remarkable, but at almost four hundred lines, it's an impressive effort from the young artist.  The most interesting lines from this work are those spoken by "two choruses of Caucasian slave girls" who "lull him (Vathek) to sleep with their songs."  A bit of sample verse from one of the choruses:

The zephyrs stir,
The palm-fronds move.
They whirr, they whirr,
Sleep on, o love.
The sun shines down,
It cannot reach thee.
Do not frown
If we teach thee
Our burning love.
We would that it might softly fan thy brow,
So that thou might more sweetly slumber.
Softly we swing, to and fro,
In rhythmic measured number.
Sleep on, sleep on till night.
Be thy sleep calm and deep
Be the noisy world hid from thy sight.
Sleep, sleep,
And be thy slumbers deep.

Although the fragment quoted above does not amount to very technically accomplished poetry, there is nonetheless a distinctly musical flow at work, lending the reading of these lines a strong rhythmic pulse.  Even from such a work of juvenilia, CAS' emerging talent as a poet is obvious.

Saturday, April 18, 2020


The first volume of The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith from Hippocampus Press ends with a generous collection of juvenilia.  As I'm reading through these youthful poems, it's not surprising that most of them are not very good, but it's impressive how much poetry Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote even before he was seventeen.

Many of the poems have an exotic flavor, with titles such as "The City of the Djinn" and "Arabian Love-Song".  This subject matter parallels CAS's youthful prose writings, which Hippocampus Press has published in the collections The Black Diamonds and The Sword Of Zagan And Other Writings.  Technically speaking, there isn't much to say about these poems, since they are quite clearly not equal to CAS' mature work.  They are really only of interest to CAS completists (like me!).

Sunday, April 12, 2020

After Armageddon

Read "After Armageddon" at The Eldritch Dark:


Most every poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that I have read has its rewarding elements.  CAS was a truly gifted poet, and even his weakest efforts offer vivid imagery and musical language that will compensate for any less-developed elements.

However, there are some CAS verses that do little for me as a reader, and "After Armageddon" is one of them.  Although the poem features a strong vein of the apocalyptic and the indifference of the deity to his own powers of destruction, all is rendered without much energy or feeling, more like a draft of something greater to come.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

To George Sterling: A Valediction

Read "To George Sterling: A Valediction" at The Eldritch Dark:


This is not the first tribute to George Sterling that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) wrote, although this one has added weight from being written after Sterling's suicide in 1926.  As with most of the poetic tributes to individual people I have ever read, this one is interesting but not quite complete as a work of poetry.  

There is beauty here, but significant bitterness as well:

Thou hast departed — and the dog and swine abide,
The fetid-fingered ghouls will delve, on many a morrow
In charnel, urn and grave: the sun shall lantern these,
Oblivious, till they too have faltered and have died,
And are no more than pestilential breath that flees
On air unwalled and wide.

To CAS' credit, he repudiates those same feelings in a later stanza:

Peace, peace! for grief and bitterness avails not ever,
And sorrow wrongs thy sleep:
Better it is to be as thou, who art forever
As part and parcel of the infinite fair deep—
Who dwellest now in mystery, with days hesternal
And time that is not time: we have no need to weep,
For woe may not befall, where thou in ways supernal
Hast found the perfect love that is oblivion,
The poppy-tender lips of her that reigns, eternal,
In realms not of the sun.

All-in-all, it's a long and heartfelt tribute to the memory of Sterling, but somewhat mediocre as poetry.  Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile read simply to understand the great impact that Sterling's passing had on the younger poet whom he had graciously mentored in better days.

Friday, April 10, 2020

À Mi-Chemin

The title of this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) translates into English as "Halfway".  The poem was unpublished in CAS' lifetime, and it's not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:

The dreams that are over-dim,
The chimeras all too vague,
The lackadaisical blasphemies 
And the hypocritical sins--

All, all are thine, old craven:
Thou knowest not the fairer heavens
Or the tombs infernal--
Thou hidest thyself in limbo.

But, ere thy heart
Shall lose the stranger hope,
Mount, mount the wall

Where drowse the angels;
Or clasp, in their abysms, 
The lowliest succubi.

I like the invocation of the imagination that the narrator commands; a sort of call-to-arms to capture what might be before it slips away forever.  Although the poem itself is a minor work from CAS, it is strong with the spirit of poetry.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Sonnet lunaire

Here is a another unpublished poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that is not available on The Eldritch Dark.  The title translates to  "Lunar Sonnet".  Here is the complete text:

A pale moon kindles in my kingdom,
In mine olden kingdom, eloigned by the years:
From her clouds, across uncovering veils,
She illumines a wood perfumed by olden April.

From valleys green there wanders the old aroma
Of all the meads in their first flowerings;
And the south-wind has mingled with their most simple incense
The magisterial perfumes of sandalwood and amomum.

No leaf has flown from the woods of memory,
And there, no flower sheds even one last petal;
The moon of the past, inevitable and fabulous,

Is the same forever...But the love of olden days,
Magically, perfectly, must needs become
The face again kissed of my final love.

This paean to the memory of "mine olden kingdom" shimmers with an idealized pastorality  that makes me think of the poetry of John Keats.  I certainly have a weak spot for these sort of Arcadian yearnings, since they speak to an unavoidable regret at living in a world despoiled by human greed and indifference.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Idylle paîenne

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:

I know an ancient land,
Where the feignèd birds, long dreamt of us, 
Float all alone in the pagan water;
Where the wind is oftentime so gentle
That it sows not to the idle wave 
The frail flowers of the bushes green
That grow above the seas
From the height of the massive shore.

It is a land where the olden gods
Have flown not toward other skies;
Where famishing lamias
Allure us to their hidden covert;
Where drowsy dryads
Lie in the shade that is touched 
By a golden sun through the willow-wood;
Where the siren in the bay
From the glaucous gulf profound
Swims indolently at full noon.

There are no crumbled shrines,
There are no broken laurel-trees:
Here one shall find the by-gone days
And the nights long flowed away.
For us, who come full tardily
Unto its vales, unto its groves,
This land remains imperishable,
Sleeping a sleep chimerical
And bathed by the enchantment
Of its never-failing yellow dawn.

A rough English translation of the poem's title would be "Pagan idyll", which certainly is a match for the wistful contents.  I love the lines "It is a land where the olden gods / Have flown not toward other skies", with its clear intimation that those same gods have indeed fled the world we know.

It's hard not to feel the same yearnings that CAS expresses in these lines - magic and wonder are not absent from our earthly reality, but they are strangers here, and often unwelcome in our public life.  So much the sadder for us!

Sunday, April 5, 2020


Read "Apostrophe" at The Eldritch Dark: 


This is a rather grim little verse from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  It's not the first of his poems I've read that deals with lassitude and indifference to worldly affairs, and unfortunately, it's not much of a standout among those thematically related works.  It reads somewhat like a first draft, due to awkward enjambment and suspect word choices.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Saturnienne

Read "The Saturnienne" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was published in Weird Tales magazine in 1927.  Prior to that, in 1925, CAS sent a draft of the poem to his mentor George Sterling, who commented*:

This "Saturnienne" is in your best vein.  As often, I had to consult the dictionary, and am by so much the wiser.  I recall Bierce writing somewhere in praise of archaic words, commenting on their poetic value.

There is no doubt that "The Saturnienne" is a showpiece for CAS' extensive English vocabulary, but in the service of the exotic scenario, the vocabulary is highly effective:

Amid her agate courts,
Like to a demon ichor, towering proud and tall,
A scarlet fountain spurts,
To fall upon parterres of dwale and deathly hebenon.

If a reader makes the effort to look up words such as "dwale" and "hebenon", those lines have a startlingly potent impact that would not have been possible with a mundane diction.

*See letter #346 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Madrigal

Read "A Madrigal" at The Eldritch Dark:


This is another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that he rendered in both English and French versions.  

Read in English, it's a rather minor love poem, and yet the last stanza does have a wonderful lyricism that transcends the mundane subject matter:

My dreams are olden songs
Sung on a clouded evening,
That mount among the petals
Of pale and perfumed roses
Falling at thy shadowy shutters.

The sense of languid upward motion is beautifully articulated in those five lines.