Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The Poetry of the Lovecraft Circle
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The remarkable outpouring of weird verse engendered by Lovecraft and his colleagues is a singular phenomenon not equalled in any period of literary history, past or present. Lovecraft himself claimed that he persuaded the first editor of Weird Tales, Edwin Baird, to accept weird poetry, especially that of Clark Ashton Smith. It was, indeed, Smith who became the preeminent weird poet in world literature; but his devotion to formal metre (even with the writing of several scintillating and metrically irregular odes in his early years) doomed him to relative insignificance in the wake of the Modernist poetry movement that championed Imagism, free verse, and the obscurantism of Pound and Eliot. But Smith, Lovecraft, Wandrei, Long, and others maintained their adherence to an older poetic model, and their work generally benefits from it.
The wealth of Smith’s poetry—now on display in a new three-volume edition of his collected poetry and translations—is such that even a summary is difficult. Suffice it to say that he treated every phase of weirdness, from breathtaking cosmicism (“The Star-Treader,” “Ode to the Abyss”) to poems about baleful entities such as ghouls and witches (“The Medusa of the Skies,” “The Witch in the Graveyard”) to poems about weird locales (“The Eldritch Dark,” “The Kingdom of Shadows”) to dream-fantasies (“The Dream-Bridge”) to poems exquisitely fusing romance or eroticism and terror (“The Tears of Lilith,” “Lamia”). The linguistic exoticism that can seem at times strained in Smith’s prose becomes a natural and potent element in his verse, as we can see in “Desire of Vastness”:
Supreme with night, what high mysteriarch—
The undreamt-of god beyond the trinal noon
Of elder suns empyreal—past the moon
Circling some wild world outmost in the dark—
Lays on me this unfathomed wish to hark
What central sea with plume-plucked midnight strewn,
Plangent to what enormous plenilune
That lifts in silence, hinderless and stark?
The brazen empire of the bournless waste,
The unstayed dominions of the brazen sky—
These I desire, and all things wide and deep;
And, lifted past the level years, would taste
The cup of an Olympian ecstasy,
Titanic dreams, and Cyclopean sleep. (Last Oblivion 42)
Smith also excelled in the prose-poem, becoming perhaps its most accomplished practitioner in English. Many of his prose-poems are elegiac, lyrical, and philosophical, but a fair proportion are weird, and they constitute some of his most artistically finished work.
Lovecraft was much inferior to Smith as a poet, because his rigid adherence to eighteenth-century metrical conventions crippled much of his early work by robbing it of vitality and sincerity. Late in life, however—and probably inspired at least in part by Smith’s example—Lovecraft at last shed his poetic archaism and wrote some striking weird verse, including such things as the flawless sonnet “The Messenger,” the brooding “The Ancient Track,” and the influential sonnet cycle Fungi from Yuggoth (1929—30), where many stray conceptions, moods, and images found in his commonplace book were artistically versified.
The direct inspiration for Fungi from Yuggoth was the cycle Sonnets of the Midnight Hours (1927) by his younger colleague Donald Wandrei, a striking sequence in which all the sonnets are written in the first person and all are inspired by Wandrei’s bizarre dreams. It is a matter of debate which cycle is the more powerful or accomplished. Wandrei, like Smith (his first literary mentor), wrote some vivid prose-poems, and his collected weird poetry and prose poetry, Sanctity and Sin (2008), contains much sound work.
Frank Belknap Long wrote a relatively modest body of weird verse, but much of it is meritorious. Long excelled in the ballad (“A Man from Genoa,” “The Marriage of Sir John de Mandeville”) as well as the sonnet: his sonnets to Lovecraft and Machen are among his most poignant works. Robert E. Howard wrote a substantial amount of lively, rollicking verse inspired by Kipling and other manly poets, but now and then a dark, brooding quality enters his poetry and results in powerful weird effects. Overall, his weird poetry may be aesthetically superior to most of his prose.
Derleth wrote a great deal of poetry, but little of it is weird. His most significant achievement in this realm was the landmark historical anthology Dark of the Moon: Poems of Fantasy and the Macabre (1947), which exhibited the great wealth of weird verse from the Middle Ages to its own day. (Many of the selections, it appears, were actually made by Donald Wandrei, whose knowledge of weird poetry excelled Derleth’s.) Later, Derleth compiled Fire and Sleet and Candlelight (1961), a newer anthology of weird poetry, but it is considerably more variable in quality. Derleth also published several worthy collections of weird verse with Arkham House—preeminently the work of Clark Ashton Smith, but also the work of Lovecraft, Wandrei, Long, Howard, Joseph Payne Brennan, Stanley McNail, and several others.
H. P. Lovecraft has, in the past thirty years, inspired more criticism and scholarship than any other weird writer in history, including Poe. Much of this work is of substantial merit, revealing the inexhaustible depths of Lovecraft’s work and thought and justifying the high standing he now occupies in weird literature and general literature. Lovecraft’s influence extended not only to the writers treated in this chapter but to several younger colleagues who will be dealt with in the next chapter; and beyond that, his work has continued to resonate with writers throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries—not merely those who have, in many cases, rather mechanically elaborated upon his pseudomythology, but those who, especially in recent years, have probed the depths of his work and seen in it a reflection of the philosophical alienation of an insignificant and transient human race lost in the vortices of space and time. Even those writers who have consciously eschewed the Lovecraft influence betray his significance in that very act. More so than even the titans Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, and James, from whom he learned so much, H. P. Lovecraft is the inescapable figure in twentieth-century weird literature.