I am providence the life.., p.110

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 110


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood

  “[Novel of] The White Powder” by Arthur Machen

  “The White People” by Arthur Machen

  “[Novel of] The Black Seal” by Arthur Machen

  “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe

  “The House of Sounds” by M. P. Shiel

  “The Yellow Sign” by Robert W. Chambers

  A group of second choices includes:

  “Count Magnus” by M. R. James

  “The Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce

  “The Suitable Surroundings” by Ambrose Bierce

  “Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare

  This is very similar to a list published as “Favorite Weird Stories of H. P. Lovecraft” (Fantasy Fan, October 1934), and would make an excellent anthology in spite of the number of Machen items listed.

  Lovecraft was tickled by his appearance in the paper. He did not ordinarily like to obtrude himself as a persistent bombarder of letters to the editorial page, feeling it callow and self-promotional; but around this time another matter far more pressing to him than an academic discussion of weird fiction forced him once again into a vigorous letter-writing campaign. In spring it had been announced that the old warehouses along South Water Street would be torn down to make way for what was announced as a new hall of records (adjacent to the fine neo-Georgian court house, built in 1928–33, at the corner of College and North Main Streets). Lovecraft had already written a letter three years earlier in which, amidst a general paean to the archaic wonders of Providence, he had specifically praised these structures (“the incomparable colorful row of 1816 warehouses in South Water street”[76]); this letter, written on October 5, 1926, appeared in the Sunday Journal for October 10. Now, appalled at the threatened destruction, he wrote a long letter on March 20, 1929 (titled by Lovecraft “The Old Brick Row,” published in the Providence Sunday Journal for March 24 in abridged form as “Retain Historic ‘Old Brick Row’”), appealing almost frantically to the city government not to destroy the buildings. In his letter Lovecraft chided those who declared them “shabby, ramshackle old rookeries”; but the fact of the matter is that these utilitarian structures really had reached a state of decrepitude, and—since it was decades before the restoration of colonial sites in the city would begin—there was little option but to tear them down. On September 24 the City Council approved a measure to condemn the buildings.[77] Lovecraft tried to keep up a brave front, urging Morton to write to the Journal also. Morton did so on December 17 (it was published in the Sunday Journal for December 22); but Lovecraft must have known that the fate of the warehouses was sealed.

  As a final ploy Lovecraft resurrected his rusty poetic skills and wrote the poignant twelve-stanza poem, “The East India Brick Row,” on December 12:

  They are the sills that hold the lights of home;

  The links that join us to the years before;

  The haven of old questing wraiths that roam

  Down long, dim aisles to a familiar shore.

  They store the charm that years build, cell by cell,

  Like coral, from our lives, our past, our land;

  Beauty that dreamers know and cherish well,

  But hard eyes slight, too dulled to understand.

  But Lovecraft knew the end was coming, and so he concluded:

  So if at last a callous age must tear

  These jewels from the old town’s quiet dress,

  I think the harbour streets will always wear

  A puzzled look of wistful emptiness.

  This poem appeared in the Providence Journal as “Brick Row” on January 8, 1930. It received such a favourable response that the editor wrote a cordial letter to Lovecraft about it;[78] but it was too late. The Brick Row must have come down about this time, although ironically the hall of records was never built; instead, the land became a park dedicated to the memory of Henry B. Gardner, Jr, a Providence lawyer.

  “The East India Brick Row” was written in the midst of an unexpected burst of poetry at the end of 1929. At the very beginning of the year, or perhaps in late 1928, Lovecraft had written the powerful weird poem “The Wood” (Tryout, January 1929), telling of the cutting down of an ancient wood and the building of a lavish city on its site:

  Forests may fall, but not the dusk they shield;

  So on the spot where that proud city stood,

  The shuddering dawn no single stone reveal’d,

  But fled the blackness of a primal wood.

  This may be nothing more than a refined version of the shudder-mongering of earlier poems such as “The Rutted Road” or “Nemesis,” but at least it is artfully done—and, what is more, it is finally beginning to exemplify those principles of poetry as a living language that Lovecraft had now embraced and was inculcating to Elizabeth Toldridge and others.

  One other poem, written apparently in the summer,[79] prefaced the flood of verse at the end of the year—a 212-line mock-epic entitled “An Epistle to the Rt. Honble Maurice Winter Moe, Esq. of Zythopolis, in the Northwest Territory of His Majesty’s American Dominions,” written both as a sort of versified letter to Moe (Zythopolis is a neo-Greek compound meaning “Beer-City,” i.e., Milwaukee) and as a celebration of the year 1904. It was evidently designed for inclusion in a memorial booklet for the twenty-fifth reunion of the Class of 1904 at the University of Wisconsin; this item has not turned up, so I am not sure whether the poem actually appeared there. What the poem shows, if anything, is how completely Lovecraft had come to use his once-beloved heroic couplets for the purpose of self-parody.

  “The Outpost,” written on November 26, inaugurates the poetic outburst. It is not a great success and was rejected by Farnsworth Wright as being too long (it is in thirteen quatrains).[80] It speaks of the “great King who fears to dream” in a palace in Zimbabwe. The poem seems clearly inspired by various anecdotes told to Lovecraft by Edward Lloyd Sechrist, who had actually been to the ruins of Zimbabwe in Africa. One evening when Lovecraft met Sechrist in Washington in May 1929

  he shewed me many rare curiosities such as rare woods, rhinoceras-hide, &c. &c.—& especially a prehistoric bird-idol of strangely crude design found near the cryptical & mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe (remnants of a vanished & unknown race & civilisation) in the jungle, & resembling the colossal bird-idols found on the walls of that baffling & fancy-provoking town. I made a sketch of this, for it at once suggested a multiplicity of ideas for weird fictional development.[81]

  No bird or bird-idol actually figures in the poem, but I have no doubt that at least some of the imagery derives from Lovecraft’s talks with Sechrist.

  At this point B. K. Hart reenters the scene. The discussion of weird fiction had about died down when Hart stumbled upon a copy of Harré’s Beware After Dark! containing “The Call of Cthulhu.” While enjoying the tale, he was startled to note that Wilcox’s residence at 7 Thomas Street was one he himself had once occupied. Hart, in a column published in the Journal for November 30, pretended to take umbrage (“I won’t have it. My own little ghost shadows, slinking home to the sun in the healthy dawn, are quite enough for Thomas street, and I reject these sinister brutes from the other side of the beyond, cluttering up the traffic with their gargantuan bulk”) and made a dire threat: “. . . I shall not be happy until, joining league with wraiths and ghouls, I have plumped down at least one large and abiding ghost by way of reprisal upon his own doorstep in Barnes street. . . . I think I shall teach it to moan in a minor dissonance every morning at 3 o’clock sharp, with a clinking of chains.”[82] What else could Lovecraft do but, that night at 3 A.M., write “The Messenger”?

  The thing, he said, would come that night at three

  From the old churchyard on the hill below;

  But crouching by an oak fire’s wholesome glow,

  I tried to tell myself it could not be.

  Surely, I mused, it was a pleasantry

  Devised by one who did not truly know

  The Elder Sign, bequeathed from long ago,

  That sets the fumbling forms of darkness free.

  He had not meant it—no—but still I lit

  Another lamp as starry Leo climbed

  Out of the Seekonk, and a steeple chimed

  Three—and the firelight faded, bit by bit.

  Then at the door that cautious rattling came—

  And the mad truth devoured me like a flame!

  Winfield Townley Scott—he who had referred to the bulk of Lovecraft’s verse as “eighteenth-century rubbish”—calls this “perhaps as wholly satisfactory as any poem he ever wrote.”[83] I am not entirely certain of this—the poem seems again simply an extraordinarily skilled shudder, but with no depth of thought behind it—but somehow Lovecraft had suddenly come to master a poetic idiom beyond that of the stilted heroic couplet. Both the remarkable simplicity and naturalness of the language and the unusually frequent enjambement (lack of end-stopping) are to be noted. B. K. Hart must have been pleased with the piece, for he printed it in his column for December 3, 1929.

  “The East India Brick Row” followed in early December, after which Lovecraft wrote what I might regard as his single most successful poem, “The Ancient Track.” “There was no hand to hold me back / That night I found the ancient track,” begins—and ends—this brooding, pensive lyric, written in Poe-esque iambic trimeter. The narrator seems to remember the area in which he has entered (“There was a milestone that I knew— / ‘Two miles to Dunwich’ . . .”—the only other reference to Dunwich in all Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry), but once he reaches the crest he sees nothing but “A valley of the lost and dead” and a fog

  Whose curling talons mocked the thought

  That I had ever known this spot.

  Too well I saw from the mad scene

  That my loved past had never been—

  But nevertheless, “There was no hand to hold me back / That night I found the ancient track.” This poem readily sold to Weird Tales, where it appeared in the March 1930 issue and for which Lovecraft received $11.00.[84]

  Then, in the remarkable week between December 27 and January 4, Lovecraft wrote Fungi from Yuggoth. The thirty-six sonnets that make up this sequence are generally regarded as his most sustained weird poetic work, and the cycle has accordingly generated a considerable body of criticism. Before studying the text itself, it may be well to consider some of the factors that may have led to this tremendous outburst of weird verse.

  The most general influence, perhaps, is Clark Ashton Smith. While it is true that fiction had, by around 1921, already come at least to equal poetry as Lovecraft’s major aesthetic outlet, it can also be no accident that the virtual surcease of his poetic output from 1922 to 1928 commenced at the very time he came in touch with Smith. Here was a poet who was writing dense, vigorous weird and cosmic poetry in a vibrant, vital manner as far removed as possible from the eighteenth century or even from the poetry of Poe. Lovecraft, who had long realised, in an abstract way, the deficiencies of his own poetry but had rarely encountered a living poet doing work he could admire and even envy, now came upon just such a poet. Lovecraft’s verse during this period accordingly descends to harmless birthday odes or other occasional verse, with rare exceptions such as the powerful “The Cats,” “Primavera,” or “Festival” (“Yule Horror”).

  Then, around 1928, Lovecraft began work on Moe’s Doorways to Poetry. After a long period of quiescence, he was forced to turn his attention again to the theory of poetry, and—at least in a small way (as in the “Sonnet Study”)—to its practice. It was at this time that he began voicing his new theory of poetry as simple, straightforward diction that uses the language of its own day to convey its message. A random comment made just after writing “The Outpost” suggests that Lovecraft had at least a nebulous idea that these two factors (Clark Ashton Smith and the Doorways) had had their effect: “Meanwhile some malign influence—prob’ly revising that Moe text book on poetick appreciation—has got me invadin’ one of Klarkash-Ton’s provinces . . .”[85]

  The immediate influence on the Fungi, however, clearly seems to be Wandrei’s Sonnets of the Midnight Hours, which Lovecraft read no later than November 1927.[86] It is difficult to know which or how many of these Lovecraft read: there are at least twenty-eight of them, but only twenty-six appear in their final (and presumably definitive) appearance in Wandrei’s Poems for Midnight (1964); Wandrei excluded two that had earlier appeared in Weird Tales, perhaps because he was not satisfied with their quality. In any event, this cycle—in which all the poems are written in the first person and all are inspired by actual dreams by Wandrei—is certainly very powerful, but does not seem to me quite as polished or as cumulatively affecting as Lovecraft’s. Nevertheless, Lovecraft clearly derived the basic idea of a sonnet cycle from this work, even though his differs considerably from it in actual execution.

  Winfield Townley Scott and Edmund Wilson independently believed that the Fungi may have been influenced by Edwin Arlington Robinson, but I cannot verify that Lovecraft had read Robinson by this time, or in fact ever read him. He is not mentioned in any correspondence I have seen prior to 1935. The parallels in diction adduced by Scott seem to be of a very general sort and do not establish a sound case for any such influence.

  We now come to the vexed question of what Fungi from Yuggoth actually is. Is it a strictly unified poem that reveals some sort of continuity, or is it merely a random collection of sonnets flitting from topic to topic with little order or sequence? I remain inclined toward the latter view. No one can possibly believe that there is any actual plot to this work, in spite of various critics’ laboured attempts to find such a thing; and other critics’ claims for a kind of “unity” based on structure or theme or imagery are similarly unconvincing because the “unity” so discovered does not seem at all systematic or coherent. My conclusion remains that the Fungi sonnets provided Lovecraft with an opportunity to crystallise various conceptions, types of imagery, and fragments of dreams that could not have found creative expression in fiction—a sort of imaginative housecleaning. The fact that he so exhaustively used ideas from his commonplace book for the sonnets supports this conclusion.

  Certainly, the number of autobiographical features—relating both to specific details of imagery and to the overall philosophical thrust—in the Fungi is very large. The very first sonnet, “The Book,” speaks of a man who enters a bookstore with books piled to the ceiling (“crumbling elder lore at little cost”) but with evidently no “seller old in craft” tending the place. This immediately recalls Lovecraft’s stream-of-consciousness recollection of various bookstalls he visited in New York (“the mystic bookstalls with their hellish bearded guardians . . . monstrous books from nightmare lands for sale at a song if one might chance to pick the right one from mouldering, ceiling-high piles”[87]). “The Pigeon-Flyers” (X) is a literal account of a strange custom in the “‘Hell’s Kitchen’ slum of New York, where bonfire-building & pigeon-flying are the two leading recreations of youth.”[88] Such examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely.

  Some of the sonnets seem to be reworkings of some of the dominant conceptions of previous stories. “Nyarlathotep” (XXI) is a close retelling of the prose poem of 1920; “The Elder Pharos” (XXVII) speaks of a figure who “wears a silken mask,” whom we first saw in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath; “Alienation” (XXXII) seems roughly based upon “The Strange High House in the Mist.” More significantly, some poems seem to be anticipations of stories Lovecraft would write in later years, making the Fungi a sort of recapitulation of what he had written before and a presage of his subsequent work.

  It may be true that many of the sonnets, like so much of Lovecraft’s weird verse, have no purpose but sending a chill up one’s spine; but toward the middle and end of the sequence some very different poems begin to appear, which have either beauty as their keynote or pensive autobiography. “Hesperia” (XIII) is the first such item, speaking of a “land whe
re beauty’s meaning flowers,” but concluding bitterly that “human tread has never soiled these streets.” “The Gardens of Yin” (XVIII) attempts to depict what was for Lovecraft the quintessence of beauty (“There would be terraced gardens, rich with flowers, / And flutter of bird and butterfly and bee. / There would be walks, and bridges arching over / Warm lotos-pools reflecting temple eaves”); some of this imagery seems to derive from Robert W. Chambers’s novelette “The Maker of Moons” (in the 1896 collection of that title). The best of this type is “Background” (XXX):

  I never can be tied to raw, new things,

  For I first saw the light in an old town,

  Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down

  To a quaint harbour rich with visionings.

  Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams

  Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,

  And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes—

  These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.

  These lines are now embossed on the H. P. Lovecraft memorial plaque at the John Hay Library in Providence, R.I.

  The cycle is fittingly concluded with “Continuity” (XXXVI), which attempts to account for Lovecraft’s cosmic orientation:

  There is in some ancient things a trace

  Of some dim essence—more than form or weight;

  A tenuous aether, indeterminate,

  Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.

  A faint, veiled sign of continuities

  That outward eyes can never quite descry;

  Of locked dimensions harbouring years gone by,

  And out of reach except for hidden keys.

  It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow

  On old farm buildings set against a hill,

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