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.


  1. I want to let you know that this blog is a treasure for fans of Smith's poetry. It's fascinating considering the merits of each of his poems, and your interpretations help expand my own!

    I never knew Smith made a poem based on Beckford's Vathek. It doesn't appear to be available anywhere online. Are you able to share the whole thing, whether by transcribing it or even just taking photos? As an admirer of Smith's poetry and a fan of Vathek, I'd love to see this in its entirety!

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    "A Dream of Vathek" is included in the Hippocampus Press edition of The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith, which includes a collection of juvenilia in the first volume of the 3-volume set.

    As far as I know, most of those juvenile poems from CAS are not available online, as they were transcribed from manuscripts by the editors of The Complete Poetry and Translations.

    If you want to contact me directly at jeffreyehall at gmail dot com, I'll see if I can get you a copy of the poem.

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  3. At last I have read "A Dream of Vathek." It's true that it doesn't stand among the heights of his later efforts; the language is far more simple, and the phantasmic imagery far more tame, than anything he would later publish. But it was also competent, clear, and even lyrical at parts, and it was above all fun to see how Smith expanded on the world and characters of the Vathek novel. This was a great treat for me, and for fun and preservation's sake I might just transcribe the whole thing onto a file.

    A part of me wishes that Smith had written this when he was older, when his imagination and writing style were much more in league with Beckford's sense of fantasy. It also might have made a good short story too. After all, Smith did an excellent job finishing Beckford's Third Episode of Vathek, where he really allowed his talents and imagination to run wild with the subterranean palace, the marble resembling human flesh, and the demonic baboon with its burning tail!