Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916): Vision (1883)
The name of George Sterling (1869 – 1926) has not figured for a long time in the educated consciousness perhaps because the educated consciousness suffers from a contraction of its horizon. The name of Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) possesses more currency today than that of Sterling, but only within a circle of genre fanatics. Ironically, Sterling more or less discovered the young Smith, encouraged him to write, and found venues for his early poetry. After Sterling’s suicide, Clark made a frugal living by selling his prose to the pulps, tales of necromantic extravagance mainly, and amalgams of horror and science fiction, written for the most part for Weird Tales, one of the specialist sub-genre-journals of the mid-Twentieth Century. Smith’s name circulates more widely today than it did in his lifetime in that his complete work in poetry, prose, and correspondence is available in print. Very little of Sterling’s output remains in print; he is a phenomenon, more or less, of the antiquarian book market. In Sterling’s lifetime however he stood at the head of the California Symbolist School, which, centered on San Francisco, took its cues from the verse of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Ambrose Bierce and Jack London praised Sterling in his lifetime. Sterling enjoyed the reputation of being the “King” of California’s “Bohemia.” Young poets looked to him for guidance, which he gave generously. Anticipating the Beats, he indulged in alcohol, marijuana, and other, stronger drugs whereupon the toll of vice, not least mounting debt, led him to the taking of his own life by cyanide. Smith’s modus vivendi no doubt protected him from a similar imbroglio. Sticking to remote Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Smith avoided the citified pressure that exacerbated Sterling’s difficulties. Sterling’s personality, more egocentric than Smith’s, carried a trace, unfortunately, of snobbism; he criticized Smith for his ambition to publish in the pulps and even for reading them. Smith’s taste ran catholic – he would eventually translate almost the entirety of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal into English, knew Greek and Latin literature well, but delighted also in the stories of his fellow Weird Tales contributors.
Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961): Clouds (Date Unknown – Probably the 1940s)
After Sterling’s death, Smith wrote a number of essays concerning his former mentor, correspondent, and friend. “George Sterling: An Appreciation” appeared in Overland Monthly, a California journal, for March 1927 and “George Sterling: Poet and Friend” in Mirage, for Winter 1963 – 1964, the latter written at the end of Smith’s life and published posthumously. In “An Appreciation,” reacting still with some immediacy to Sterling’s demise, Smith writes how at age thirteen he discovered the verse of Edgar Allan Poe. He quotes from Sterling’s poetic drama Lilith (1920) the phrase “fringing flames of marvel” to convey the effect on him of Poe’s “Raven” and “Bells.” The encounter signaled the awakening of Smith’s aesthetic consciousness. “Likewise memorable,” Smith continues, “and touched with more than the glamour of childhood dreams, was my first reading, two years later, of ‘A Wine of Wizardry’ in the pages of the old Cosmopolitan.” “A Wine of Wizardry” (1908), influenced by Baudelaire’s sense of a cosmic and demonic presence in the louche alleys of Paris, stood in the day as the suite of verses by which Sterling had made himself known beyond California to a national audience. As Smith attests, “The poem, with its necromantic music, and splendors as of sunset on jewels and cathedral windows, was veritably all that its title implied.” Moreover, “there was the knowledge that it had been written in my own time, by someone who lived little more than a hundred miles away.” Smith would soon receive an invitation from Sterling to visit him in Carmel, where he had found refuge from San Francisco. “I like to remember him,” Smith muses, “pounding abalones on a boulder in the back yard, or mixing pineapple punch… or paying a round of matutinal visits among assorted friends.” Smith adds, “Always to me, as to others, he was a very gentle and faithful friend, and the kindest of mentors.”
In “George Sterling: Poet and Friend,” Smith reminisces how Sterling “was always my companion and cicerone” when he made visits to San Francisco. In Smith’s judgment, Lilith “truly… is a magnificent thing” of “tremendous import and poetic opulence.” Lilith qualifies, Smith avers, as “without parallel in modern literature, apart from the poetic plays of Swinburne and D’Annunzio.” One might also mention Robert Browning’s monologues as the model for some of Sterling’s poems. Smith’s heirs found the manuscript of “Poet and Friend” in the burnt-out ruins of his Auburn cabin (he had been living with his wife in middle class Ocean View on the Monterey Peninsula since 1954); the arson-fire had consumed several pages including the last page. On these scorched sheets Smith produces a paragraph that recounts his last visit with Sterling, who lived at the time in a room at the Bohemian Club, on Taylor Street, in San Francisco: “The last time that my friend and I met face to face was during __________, between Christmas and New Years. He was ill in bed at the Bohemian Club, the result of an over-successful Yuletide celebration.” Smith writes that, “I remarked then at the semi-monastic bareness of his room, aside from the pictured constellations of feminine beauty on the walls.” Smith noticed only a “few books” in the room whereas previously Sterling, a bibliophile, actively collected. Sterling as Smith narrates “told me that he no longer cared to accumulate many possessions.” Sterling had obviously entered his final askesis, as though he designedly foresaw his suicide and wished as little nuisance on his survivors as possible. The exception – easy do deal with for those who would cleanse the room after the deed – took the form of those sketches and photographs of his female companions down through the years that decorated the walls of his bed-sitter. Those icons point back to the poem that Smith mentions as his ecstatic introduction to Sterling’s art, “A Wine of Wizardry,” with its motile heroine, “Fancy,” a muse, a sprite, a white witch, a cousin of Lilith, no doubt, and the quintessence of femaleness as Sterling saw it with his Swinburnean-D’Annunziesque eyes.
“A Wine of Wizardry”: Sterling prefaces his poem with an epigraph from his friend Ambrose Bierce: “When mountains were stained as with wine / By the dawning of Time, and as wine / Were the seas.” These lines originate in Bierce’s short lyric “Geotheos,” from his collection Shapes of Clay (1903), which celebrates the ritual and magical origins of poetry. Bierce’s primitive responds almost unwittingly, but with deep emotion, to novel appearances in nature. His last three lines link the sound of waves on the shore to “the pulse of the poet’s line.” Where Bierce’s poem needs thirty lines to make its point, Sterling’s “Wine of Wizardry” extends its lyric ambition to about two hundred lines. “A Wine of Wizardry” qualifies technically as a first-person lyric, which “Geotheos” is not, although after the first five lines, corresponding to a ritual of libation, the lyric subject recites the saga of Fancy in her cosmic search for the fantastic, or better yet, the eldritch, sublime and the poem shifts to third-person narrative. Yet the link between the poet and the demigoddess runs strong. He will see what she will see. What awes her will awe him. The poet offers his libation at the moment when “the battlements of sunset shine” and in sight of the “domes the sea-winds rear and overwhelm,” presumably the white-caps between the horizon and the shore. The poet decants a “dusky wine” into a vessel of “crystal.” The “ruddy gloom” of the setting sun illuminates the smoky liquid in a manner that “haunts” it in its goblet of carven glass, as though the fermentation glowed with a phosphor of its own. In his condensed Golden Bough (1922), James G. Frazer derives the vinous libation from the much more primitive ritual of drinking the blood of a sacrificial victim or sprinkling it on an altar. “And so by eating the bread and drinking the wine,” Frazer writes, “the worshipper partakes of the real body and blood of his god.” Thus it is that “the drinking of the wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus is not an act of revelry, it is a solemn sacrament.”
Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916): Chrysalis (1900)
The Flights of Fancy in “A Wine of Wizardry” resemble an archaeological dig which, beginning with the present day of poetic usage, researches the underlying layers that supervene on a basis, deep down, of the primordial sacred to show the metamorphic continuity from the ancient sacrificial foundation to the modern aesthetic superstructure. The ruddily radiating chalice will recur in every scene that Fancy in her itinerary visits in the poem, vindicating the title and thus also the unity of Sterling’s outré verses. In light of Frazer, sunset itself symbolizes an immolation, with its transient purple-vermilion display as it sinks below the horizon. As to the many iterations of the wine goblet, the reader will find its variations in “red pyres of muffled light,” “red-embered rubies [smoldering] in the gloom,” “winy agates,” “bloody light,” “Circe’s wine,” and “icy philters [brimming] with scarlet foam” – among others. Fancy’s expedition takes her to exotic locations around the globe and finally into the cosmos. She “awakes with brow caressed by poppy-bloom” as soon as the lyric ego pours the wine into the glass. Constant motion is her major attribute: She seeks what will “please” her, but her quest takes her to sights and scenes that leave her “trembling,” as when she gazes on “A grotto rosy-sparred, / Where wattled monsters redly gape.” These “guard / A cowled magician peering on the damned / Thro’ vials wherein a splendid poison burns, / Sifting Satanic gules athwart his brow.” She refuses to look “with him,” sensing a trap, and wanders “to an iceberg oriflammed.” The charm of Sterling’s verse derives in part from his deliberately affected vocabulary. Oriflamme, for example, is a term of heraldry referring to a golden banner; and pushing the adjective splendid against the noun poison generates turbulence in the reception although neither splendid nor poison is exotic alone.
Fancy shows no impulse to evil but she repeatedly observes and recoils from evil-doers and their evil deeds. The “cowled magician” is one. Next in the sequence come the Titans in Tartarus, organizing “to storm Olympus’ throne”; and next “perturbed men” in “some red City of the Djinns” who sitting under “garnet-crusted lamps” do “tremble at a sound, / And ponder words on ghastly vellum writ, / In viper’s blood, to whispers from the night – / Infernal rubrics, sung to Satan’s might, / or chaunted to the Dragon in his gyre.” Fancy, despite looking on these panoramas, “would blot from memory the sight.” Earlier in an “immortal garden of the eastern hours” Sterling’s heroine “spurns / The revel” of an elfin festivity with “blazoned banners” in a comfortable “woodland shade.” Is the elfin festivity so different really from the murderous spell of the “perturbed men”? There is a spot of “silence” in the festal goings-on where the wind has passed, leaving emptiness; elsewhere “some mad girl” hurls apotropaic tokens at predatory monsters, vainly as it seems, and “red pyres of muffled light” burn balefully. The Arabic script written in viper’s blood and the incantations thereon constitute an overt attempt to immolate a victim by conjuration. The fall-guy or fall-gal in the fairy holiday perishes by contrast in concealment, away from the crowd that considers itself innocent of any wrong-doing. The open-air activities, the banners and the dancing, attract attention to themselves and thus away from the killing or killings. Fancy spurns the revel because she senses its underlying brutality. Fancy yearns for actual rather than false transcendence; and this yearning can only emerge through skepticism regarding the sacred. The “process” of “A Wine of Wizardry” is serial doubt and serial dissimulation. The word wizard designates the possession of wisdom, which, in the Western or Socratic tradition, is linked to skepticism.
Sterling, despite having had a Catholic higher education, held the usual Bohemian attitudes concerning institutions, especially those of religion. Sterling probably sympathizes with the Titans, just as Percy Shelley did, in their revolutionary zeal to overthrow Olympus. Nevertheless – Satan emblematizes the lie, and Sterling invokes him and his lieutenants four or five times in his poem precisely to call attention to a dissimulation. Between the cirque du foire of the fairies and the episode of the “city of the Djinns,” for example, Sterling makes reference to Ashtaroth, Satan’s viceroy of false accusation hence a key figure in scapegoating or collaborative murder under a mendacious rationale. The phrase “infernal rubrics” serves for one of Sterling’s metaphors for the justification (that is, the lie) of sacrifice in “A Wine of Wizardry.” Fancy’s purely creative character makes her veer from “words on ghastly vellum writ.” So on glimpsing such action she heads south, “Where crafty gnomes with scarlet eyes conspire / To quench Aldebaran’s affronting fire.” The symptoms of decadence and perversion multiply. Sterling gives the reader “lamps that nurse a sullen flame,” “livid roots [that] writhe,” and “moaning airs [that] invoke the conquered rust / of lordly helms made equal in the dust.” Fancy encounters “silent ghouls, / Whose king hath digged a somber carcanet,” which betrays a murder to whose site the perpetrator returns. Then “affrighted by his gaze,” Fancy “flies to a violet headland of the West.” North, south, east, and west – this is the pattern of Fancy’s traversal of the Earth: The constant turning-away. When Satan appears, he “fondles a screaming thing his fiends have flayed.” Swiftly, Satan metamorphoses into “Siva,” the Hindu god, but “fancy’s wings forsake the Asian skies.” The “splendid plumes” carry her at ninety degrees to the surface of the earth, upward, until she has “fled to a star above the sunset lees.” Sterling re-introduces the first person: “And I, albeit Merlin-sage hath said, / ‘a viper lurketh in ye wine-cup redde,’ / Gaze pensively upon the way she went, / Drink at her font, and smile as one content.”
Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961): Plants (Date Unknown – Probably the 1940s)
Three overlapping patterns show themselves in the advancing lines of “A Wine of Wizardry.” The transformations of the goblet of vinous liquid, is one; eldritch conspiracies to murder and the discovery of ritual murder are another; and Fancy’s repulsion from homicidal-necromantic cabals is the third. Ambiguity inveigles the goblet of vinous liquid, which, though it resembles the Eucharist, is said, in the concluding lines, to harbor a serpent. Since the wine is Fancy and since Fancy finds herself averse to toxic behavior and since she ultimately turns her back on this fallen world, it seems that what the “Merlin-sage hath said” it has said untruly; and that to drink at Fancy’s font is to renew oneself rather than to immure oneself in fallenness of this world all the more. Fancy’s wine is not Circe’s wine. The two are immiscible. The setting adds to the connotation. Sterling follows Fancy in imagination around the world and down through the layers of culture whereas his physical limitations confine him to the shore at Carmel. He therefore draws inspiration from Fancy’s final hyperbole into the empyrean while ascribing to himself the rather unspectacular term “content.” Fancy reveals the possibility of transcendence. She reveals, however, that transcendence cannot be conjured, but rather, that it can only be awaited in a mood of calm non-expectation. A phrase from the first half of the poem applies: “Ere Faith return.” A sort of pre-transcendence lurks in the serenity of the shoreline at the twilight of a summer’s day in Northern California. The wine in the glass is self-purifying: Like Fancy herself, the wine, which is a living essence, rejects its sacrificial transformations and finally is only what it is. The wine makes contemplation easier; its porphyric fluidity subtly eases the reception of Grace, for whose effect the poet sits waiting.
Mircea Eliade writes in The Sacred and the Profane (1957) that: “For religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from other… There is, then, a sacred space.” Of the foregoing, quasi-Girardian reading of “A Wine of Wizardry” the leading scholars of George Sterling in the present day would likely be unconvinced. As S. T. Joshi remarks in an introduction to Sterling’s poems, the poet professed atheism in a sonnet. The fourteen lines never affirm the non-existence of “God,” by which Sterling implies the Christian God, for “If thou slay Him, shall the ghost not rise?” Sterling even borrows from Marx the notion that, “Drugged with His opiates the nations nod… / Still haunted by the monstrous ghost of God.” The God of the sonnet more resembles the idols and conjurations of “A Wine of Wizardry” than it does “the star above the sunset lees” to which Fancy orients her perpendicular motion in the same poem. To modify Eliade’s words, there is then – for Sterling – a sacred space whose quality is not that of a monster, but something radically different. Of course, Sterling gave vent to a Nietzschean view of religion, but the Nietzschean view of religion is itself full of ambiguity. Sterling’s protégé Smith can be characterized in the same fashion: Hostile to institutional religion but sensitive to an ethical conception of the cosmos; fascinated by evil and willing to document its modus operandi, but fond nevertheless of the Pax Vobiscum. I have set forth arguments in re Smith in my article for The Orthosphere, Clark Ashton Smith’s Representation of Evil. My discussion of Smith’s Dark Eidolon makes a good preface to the following discussion of his “Hashish Eater.”
“The Hashish Eater”: In a letter (10 June 1920), Sterling wrote to Smith: “‘The Hashish Eater’ is indeed an amazing production,” while adding that, “My friends will have none of it claiming it reads like an extension of ‘A Wine of Wizardry.’” Smith had sent the poem to Sterling with a cover letter (29 March 1920) in which he apologized for having “no personal knowledge of the effect of hashish”; he reminisces however, that, “I remember you telling me that the effect was often disappointing, at least to Occidentals.” Sterling’s reply includes a sentence to the effect that hashish belongs to the realm of literary tropes and that personal experience is unnecessary, as long as the poetic vision of the writer is literarily informed. The Smith-Sterling correspondence supports the general claim of Sterling’s ability to restrain his ego in criticizing the work of younger aspirants to the station of laureate. “The Hashish Eater” obviously takes off from the runway of “A Wine of Wizardry,” and Smith’s poem – virtuosic and thrilling though it is – lifts a heavy cargo of the late Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence into the sky. On the other hand, Smith came down hard on himself: In his letters to Sterling around this time he disparages his effort, letting on that he forced it to too many lines and that indeed “A Wine of Wizardry” dogged him in the composition of his verses. He fears he is a mere poetaster in comparison with the master. In “A Wine of Wizardry” Sterling framed a substantial narrative between a few verses in the lyrical first person. “The Hashish Eater” more than doubles the number of lines in Sterling’s poem. Smith writes it as a first-person declaration that tells a story obliquely rather than directly. The tone is imperious, but also desperate. The opening phrase is: “Bow down.” All the same, “The Hashish Eater” deals in cosmic-eldritch imagery that baroquely self-transforms and proliferates. “The Hashish Eater” foreshadows Smith’s prose-compositions for Weird Tales of the 1930s.
Odilon Redon (1840 -1916): Crying Spider (1881)
“The Hashish Eater” carries a subtitle: “The Apocalypse of Evil.” Twentieth Century people generally misunderstand the word apocalypse; they confuse it with another Biblical term, Armageddon, which in popular fiction and cinema means a generic catastrophe, either man-made or geological. Armageddon denotes an ancient Near-Eastern battle displaced by the compilers of the New Testament into the eschaton or Last Days before the Final Judgment. Apocalypse as a word belongs to Greek, not to Aramaic or Hebrew, and signifies what Latin calls revelation; literally apocalypse means lifting the lid (calypton) off a pot. Smith’s subtitle therefore implies neither the victory nor the defeat of evil but a glimpse into evil’s cause and essence. Like Fancy in Sterling’s “Wine of Wizardry,” Smith’s Hashish Eater pursues a quest – for “culminant omniscience” as he calls it – while at the same time he dodges a demonic chase. The poem takes for its own a setting of cosmic exotica and grotesquerie. The voice of the poem introduces himself as “the emperor of dreams” and later on as “at once the vision and the seer.” He says early in the poem how “I crown me with the million-colored sun / Of secret worlds incredible, and take / Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar.” Envious powers dog him when he quests: “Like rampant monsters roaring for their glut, / The fiery-crested oceans rise and rise, / By jealous moons maliciously urged / To follow me forever.” He names his enemies as “sorcerers” and “evil kings” who with “worm-like runes… would stay me.” If the Hashish Eater gained his goal, these pursuing powers would rob him of it; and if they obtained it from him, they would murder their victim so that no one else would possess it but them. Failing that, in another variant of covetousness, they would stymie the Hashish Eater’s attainment of gnosis.
Smith’s protagonist compares himself to Odysseus, one of many Classical allusions in Smith’s poem: “The sirens of the stars, / With foam-like songs from silver fragrance wrought, / Would lure me to their crystal reefs.” In the stages of his quest, unfulfilled at the end of the poem, the Hashish Eater takes on the lives of other people. He sits on a throne as king. He mingles, he says, “with my ever-streaming pomps, / And still abide their suzerain.” He can thus become “the neophyte who serves a nameless god, / Within whose fane the fanes of Hecatompylos / Were arks the Titan worshippers might bear, / Or flags to pave the threshold” – and simultaneously execute the office of monarch, “who holds with scepter-dropping hand / the helm of some great barge of orichalcum, / Sailing on an amethystine sea / to isles of timeless summer.” Occult, heraldic, theological, and paradisiacal imagery mix in Smith’s rhetorical figurations. The Hashish Eater becomes a “page” (that is, a palace servant) “to an emperor who reigns ten thousand years.” Undertaking a royal errand, the page, or rather the Hashish Eater, wanders “through… labyrinthine palace-rooms, / Through courts and colonnades and balconies / Wherein immensity itself is mazed, / I seek the golden gorget he hath lost.” The labyrinth and the maze function as key symbols in the kaleidoscopic spectacle. Both labyrinth and maze have a sacrificial connotation. Both of them trap and confuse the victim, leading him to his death, wherein usually some monster, like the Minotaur, plays a role. Of monsters the Hashish Eater’s universe has plenty. “On the throne / There lolls a wan, enormous worm, whose bulk, / Tumid with all the rottenness of kings, / Overflows its arms with fold on creasèd fold / Obscenely bloating.” There are “octopi / Like blazing moons with countless arms of fire,” “griffin-mounted gods,” and “Titanic scorpions.” The Hashish Eater’s monstrous pursuers have not caught him yet, but they constantly hunt him along his trail. They seem to gain on him as the poem closes on its finale.
The commentary on “The Hashish Eater” insists, in fairness, on its contents as “Cosmic Vision.” Authorial statements back up this insistence. What if, however, the cosmos of Smith’s poem were an anthropomorphic cosmos? The imagery of “The Hashish Eater” certainly supports such a supposition. The poem’s seer-prophet many times detects consciousness in celestial phenomena. His aim of “culminant omniscience” implies the assumption of a minded universe. If the cosmos were conflictual, it would reflect the conflict that wracks the human community. Girard’s notion of imitative or mimetic conflict is useful here. Desire itself inspires imitation and when imitative desire converges on an object, conflict follows inevitably. No object outdoes “culminant omniscience,” by which presumably one might regulate the stars and galaxies, in metaphysical allure. The Hashish Eater announces his object; he makes a great drama about his quest, and it should surprise the reader of the poem not at all that those who prick up their ears will make themselves competitors in the project. Do the moons pull the tides when the Hashish Eater sets out on his metaphysical chase? He pulls the tides. As conflict destroys the community, that which spurs conflict is evil. This brings one back to envy and covetousness. Smith led an ascetic life. He preferred agnosticism, where his Hashish Eater prefers gnosis, but he was never a materialist or a positivist. But now one faces a paradox: The ascetic metaphysician who keeps apart from society and speaks in gnomic utterances will call attention to himself – so that, in times of conflict, he will recommend himself as a scapegoat. In later years this thought haunted Smith. In a letter to Donald Wandrei written seventeen years after “The Hashish Eater,” Smith argues that this was Poe’s fate. Smith remarks, “I don’t wish to be killed by the country that killed Poe, Lovecraft, and [the painter] A. P. Ryder.”
Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961): Alien (Date Unknown – Probably from the 1940s)
At the beginning of the poem, the theme is “ascendance,” as the seer propels himself through space and among the planets and stars by sheer force of thought. At the end of the poem, the Hashish Eater he finds himself heading in the direction of “nadir-founded night / Where fall the streams of ruin.” He must “measure with [his] gaze the dread descent.” The verb to bloat suggests that his rival the worm-king has caught up with him. A “hueless orb” appears before him. Is it a star or a face? Is it his face, doubled? A maw opens, as if, at the center of the labyrinth, to swallow the questor whole. Smith wrote to Sterling (4 November 1926): “I suppose I’m hopelessly ‘inadaptable’; but I simply can’t attain to that faith in material values professed by the humanists and other Babbits… Indeed, my fondest dream is to find a Hyperborea beyond Hyperborea, in the realm of imaginative poetry.” In Smith’s observation, “The present orgy of materialism will exhaust itself sooner or later, and perhaps end in a great social debacle.” As ambiguous as it is, Smith’s “Hashish Eater” fulfills its promise on at least one level: Smith wrote some of the densest imagery ever conceived into his erudite verses. I think it not false or improbable to say that “The Hashish Eater” rivals the verse of many a canonical modern. Of course, Smith never shied from rhyme, which would make him seem reactionary to a contemporary assistant professor in a college English department. The concentration required by “The Hashish Eater” could likely not be conjured by a newly graduated Ph.D. – because “The Hashish Eater” never addresses the material concerns that dominate thinking (so-called) in the present day. Anyone who wants to try his mind should try the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith.