I am providence the life.., p.13

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 13


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

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  The imprint of this book is “The Providence Press” and the price is 25¢. The preface reads as follows:

  I submit to the publick these idle lines, hoping they will please.

  They form a sort of series with my Odyssey, Iliad, Æneid, and the like.


  454 Angell St.

  Prov. R.I. Sep. 1902.

  That second statement is a little ambiguous, for in the catalogue appended to the volume the three works cited in the preface are listed in the category “Works for Children,” while “The Hermit,” “The Argonauts,” and the two volumes of Poemata Minora are listed in the category “Other Verses.” This leads me to think that those first three works are paraphrases of actual ancient works while the others are poems or poem-cycles inspired by classical themes. In other words, “The Argonauts” (15¢) may not in fact be a paraphrase of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (a work with which Lovecraft was never very familiar), but a loose take-off on the voyage of the Argonauts, perhaps derived solely or largely from Bulfinch. “The Hermit” (25¢) may not be a classically inspired work at all; its price suggests that it was substantial.

  The poems in Poemata Minora reveal considerable originality, and few can be traced to any specific works of classical poetry. Lovecraft was endlessly fond of citing the fourth and final stanza of “Ode to Selene or Diana” as prototypical of his disharmony with the modern age:

  Take heed, Diana, of my humble plea.

  Convey me where my happiness may last.

  Draw me against the tide of time’s rough sea

  And let my spirit rest amid the past.

  But the third stanza is more significant as a sociological commentary:

  The modern world, with all it’s care & pain,

  The smoky streets, the hideous clanging mills,

  Fade ’neath thy beams, Selene and again

  We dream like shepherds on Chaldaea’s hills.

  I’m not sure where Lovecraft heard any “hideous clanging mills”: it is true that his native state had pioneered the use of mills for manufacturing, but that was far in the past. And yet, the “plea” is nonetheless sincere for all that.

  “To the Old Pagan Religion” begins boldly:

  Olympian Gods! How can I let ye go

  And pin my faith to this new Christian creed?

  Can I resign the deities I know

  For him who on a cross for man did bleed?

  This reminds me of a remark in “A Confession of Unfaith”: “In this period [c. 1899] I read much in Egyptian, Hindoo, and Teutonic mythology, and tried experiments in pretending to believe each one, to see which might contain the greatest truth. I had, it will be noted, immediately adopted the method and manner of science!” The apparent upshot of this informal course in comparative religion was both a renewed faith in the Graeco-Roman religion—it was so much prettier than the gloomy Christian faith practised by his Baptist family—and a still more pronounced rejection of Christianity, something his studies in astronomy beginning later in the year only augmented. But at the moment it was not secularism so much as wistful pathos at the passing of the ancient pantheon that seemed to affect him:

  How in my weakness can my hopes depend

  On one lone God, though mighty be his pow’r?

  Why can Jove’s host no more assistance lend,

  To soothe my pains, and cheer my troubled hour?

  I have no doubt that Lovecraft actually felt the “pains” he cites here; to someone so imbued with the spirit of classicism—and so isolated from his fellows that he fails to observe that that spirit is an anomaly—the awareness that Jove and his minions are no longer living objects of faith might well have been a cause of genuine anguish.

  “On the Ruin of Rome” is a more conventional lament on the passing of the Roman empire. It is made distinctive only by a curious sort of dactylic pentameter line that is perhaps an attempt to imitate the dactylic hexameter of ancient epic poetry:

  How dost thou lie, O Rome, neath the foot of the Teuton

  Slaves are thy men, and bent to the will of the conqueror:

  Whither hath gone, great city, the race that gave law to all nations,

  Knew not defeat, but gave it to all who attack’d thee?

  “To Pan” is a pleasing little lyric in quatrains (with an odd couplet thrown in before the last stanza) telling of seeing Pan playing on his pipes—perhaps an echo of the vision of fauns and dryads Lovecraft claimed to have had at the age of seven. “On the Vanity of Human Ambition” is a ten-line poem that betrays the influence of three separate authors: Samuel Johnson (the title of whose The Vanity of Human Wishes has been adapted here), Ovid (whose tale of Apollo and Daphne from Metamorphoses 1.452–567 is condensed in the first two lines), and Juvenal (whose mens sana in corpore sano is echoed in the final two lines: “True bliss, methinks, a man can only find / In virtuous life, & cultivated mind”). Otherwise the poem is a conventional attack on greed and the dissatisfaction that inevitably results from the attainment of some long-sought prize. It is the only poem in the book written in heroic couplets.

  Something should be said about the illustrations in Poemata Minora. Each poem bears an illustration in pencil with accompanying Latin mottos. The illustrations are for the most part unremarkable, and the Latin occasionally erroneous but on the whole clever and pertinent. The illustration for “To the Old Pagan Religion” shows a figure (a pagan, one supposes, although he looks more like an Arab) bowing before an altar to Zeus, with a Latin tag noting how the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius suppressed the pagan religion. The illustration for “On the Vanity of Human Ambition” is a little more disturbing: it shows an obviously Jewish figure (there are Hebrew letters next to him) with the Latin inscription: “HIC.HOMO. EST.AVARISSIMVS.ET.TVRPISSIMVS.IUDAEVS” (“This man is a most greedy and filthy Jew”). Consider the inscription on the illustration for “On the Ruin of Rome”: “ROMA.REGINA.ORBIS.TERRARVM. DECEDEBAT. CVM.ROMANI.SVCCEDEBANTVR.A.GENTIBVS.INFERIORIBVS” (“Rome, queen of the world, declined when the Romans were succeeded by inferior peoples”). The poem indeed refers to “we, base Italians,” and it is interesting to note—in light of Lovecraft’s later vaunting of the Teuton—that the Teuton is here blamed for the destruction of Rome. It would be another three years before Lovecraft wrote an explicitly racist poem, and his early racial views should be discussed at that time.

  Poemata Minora, Volume II is a pleasing little product, fully worth the 25¢ Lovecraft was charging. Volume I is likely to have been equally substantial, as an advertisement in Volume II offers it for 25¢ also. But this volume is the final product of Lovecraft’s classicism. Although he would continue to draw upon the ancients for aesthetic and even philosophical inspiration, a new interest would for a time eclipse all others and impel an overhauling of his entire world view. For it was in the winter of 1902–03 that Lovecraft discovered astronomy.

  4. What of Unknown Africa?


  The most poignant sensations of my existence are those of 1896, when I discovered the Hellenic world, and of 1902, when I discovered the myriad suns and worlds of infinite space. Sometimes I think the latter event the greater, for the grandeur of that growing conception of the universe still excites a thrill hardly to be duplicated. I made of astronomy my principal scientific study, obtaining larger and larger telescopes, collecting astronomical books to the number of 61, and writing copiously on the subject in the form of special and monthly articles in the local press. (“A Confession of Unfaith”)

  This remark, made around 1921, is a sufficient indication of the degree to which the discovery of astronomy affected Lovecraft’s entire world view. I shall pursue the philosophical ramifications of his astronomical studies later; here it is worth pursuing in detail how he came upon the science and what immediate literary products it engendered. In the winter of 1902 Lovecraft was attending the Slater Avenue School, but his statements lead one to believe that he stumbled upon astronomy largely of his own ac
cord. The majority of his astronomy volumes were inherited from his maternal grandmother Robie Phillips’s collection,[1] and he notes that the first new astronomy book he purchased was in February 1903: Charles Augustus Young’s Lessons in Astronomy Including Uranography (rev. ed. 1903)[2] (his library also contains the first edition of this book [1893], presumably an inheritance from his grandmother). Of the sixty-one books he claims to have had in his library in 1921, only about thirty-five were found after his death, when his library was catalogued; and some of these are rather old and elementary school manuals: George F. Chambers’s The Story of the Stars, Simply Told for General Readers (1895), Thomas Dick’s The Practical Astronomer (1846), a 30th edition of Joseph Guy’s Elements of Astronomy (1871), Simon Newcomb’s Popular Astronomy (1880), John A. Westwood Oliver’s Astronomy for Amateurs (1888), Joel Dorman Steele’s A Fourteen Weeks Course in Descriptive Astronomy (1873), and the like. These books are too old to have been used at Slater Avenue or at Hope Street High School (Lovecraft did not, in any event, take astronomy courses at Hope Street, even though they were offered), and some at least must have come from Robie’s library. Of course, Lovecraft, ever the ardent used-bookstore hunter, could have picked up some of these titles on various book-hunting expeditions throughout his life.

  As with so many of his other early interests, Lovecraft’s family was very obliging in supply the materials necessary for his pursuit of astronomy. His first telescope, acquired in February 1903, was a 99¢ affair from a mail-order house, Kirtland Brothers & Co. in New York City. In July of that year, however, he acquired a 2¼-inch telescope from Kirtland for $16.50, plus a tripod made by a local craftsman for $8.00. Then in the summer of 1906 (and recall that this was after the financial crash following the death of Whipple Phillips in 1904) Lovecraft obtained a Bardon 3" from Montgomery Ward & Co.—for $50.00. “It came on a pillar-&-claw table stand, but I shifted it to the old tripod . . .”[3] He retained this telescope to the end of his life, and it is now in the possession of the August Derleth Society.

  Lovecraft’s initial concerns as an astronomer were not very ambitious. In a 1918 letter to Alfred Galpin he states that began a survey of the heavens after securing his second telescope, and was content merely to familiarise himself with the solar system and constellations:

  My observations . . . were confined mostly to the moon and the planet Venus. You will ask, why the latter, since its markings are doubtful even in the largest instruments? I answer—this very MYSTERY was what attracted me. In boyish egotism I fancied I might light upon something with my poor 2¼ inch telescope which had eluded the users of the 40-inch Yerkes telescope!! And to tell the truth, I think the moon interested me more than anything else—the very nearest object. I used to sit night after night absorbing the minutest details of the lunar surface, till today I can tell you of every peak and crater as though they were the topographical features of my own neighbourhood. I was highly angry at Nature for withholding from my gaze the other side of our satellite![4]

  He did, however, manage to see Borelli’s comet in August 1903—the first comet he observed.[5]

  Lovecraft’s interests were, in their way, not wholly dissimilar from those of the professional astronomers of his day. He discovered astronomy just before the time when it was beginning to transform itself into astrophysics and enter the realm of philosophy with Einstein’s formulation of the theory of relativity in 1905. The eighth planet of the solar system, Neptune, had been discovered in 1846, and in 1902 the discovery of Pluto was still almost thirty years away. Pierre Simon de Laplace had articulated the nebular hypothesis in Système du monde (1796), and it was not seriously questioned as an account of the formation of the solar system until very early in the twentieth century. The great eighteenth-century astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738–1822) was still regarded as the greatest astronomer in Western history; he had discovered Uranus in 1781. His work in the discovery of nebulae, double stars, and the like was carried on by his son, John Herschel (1792–1871), who discovered the Magellanic Clouds around 1835.[6] In other words, the heavens were still being charted and the basic features of novae, nebulae, and the Milky Way were still not fully understood.[7]

  As with his previous intellectual interests, Lovecraft’s discovery of astronomy led eventually to writing—in this case, to an unprecedented quantity of writing. He does not seem to have commenced astronomical writing until the late summer of 1903, but when he did, he did so with gusto. Perhaps one of his earliest pieces is “My Opinion as to the Lunar Canals,”[8] a brief discourse on the curiously regular canals on the moon, similar to the more celebrated Martian canals. (A date of 1903 has been written on the text, but it is not in Lovecraft’s handwriting.) Lovecraft conjectures that they were “matter volcanically ejected from the moon’s interior in past ages” and that they are, accordingly, “but natural curiosities.” He then launches into a bold attack on some illustrious astronomical contemporaries: “As to Prof. Pickering’s theory—i.e.—That they are streaks of vegetation, I have but to say that any intelligent astronomer would consider it unworthy of notice, as our satellite is wanting in both water and atmosphere, the two essentials for life either animal or vegetable. Of course Lowell’s theory (that they are artificial) is perfectly ridiculous.” Lovecraft later had an amusing encounter with Percival Lowell.

  Among the treatises Lovecraft produced around this time is “The Science Library,” a nine-volume series probably written in 1903 or 1904. The list of volumes are as follows: 1. Naked Eye Selenography; 2. The Telescope; 3. Galileo; 4. Herschel (revised); 5. On Saturn and His Ring; 6. Selections from author’s “Astronomy”; 7. The Moon, Part I; 8. The Moon, Part II; 9. On Optics. Of these, nos. 1, 2, and 5 survive. My guess is that no. 4 does not refer to Sir William Herschel but rather to the planet Uranus, which Lovecraft through much of his early astronomical work refers to as Herschel, even though this designation had not been in common use since the eighteenth century.

  The surviving items are all about 3 × 4 inches in dimensions and eight pages long (four sheets folded in half); they combine Lovecraft’s astronomical and antiquarian interests by being written in archaic English, with the long s. The hand lettering attempts to imitate print (including italics), although the lines are not very even or straight. They are all profusely illustrated, and the one on the telescope contains a number of fairly complicated diagrams explaining the construction of telescopes by Galileo, Huygens, Herschel, and others. This volume also contains an advertisement for one R. L. Allen at 33 Eddy Street (on the West Side, just across the Providence River), who is selling telescopes ranging from $40.00 to $200. Perhaps this is the local craftsman who made Lovecraft’s tripod. The title of the treatise on Saturn identifies only one ring around that planet, but the text itself makes clear that Lovecraft is aware of at least three rings, the third of which is “actually transparent.” The volume on naked-eye selenography contains, on its last page (the back cover), a list of the nine volumes in “The Science Library” and a sort of coupon:


  Of the three surviving specimens, the first is priced at 1 gr. (groat?) and .05, the second at 1 gr., and the third (a bargain) at .005; perhaps this is the case because this volume is taken from the author’s Astronomy.

  One item that survives only in a transcript prepared by Arkham House is “The Moon.” This substantial item was written on November 26, 1903, and may perhaps be a version of Volumes 7 and 8 of “The Science Library”; this copy is a 7th edition prepared in 1906. The preface to the first edition declares: “The author’s object in bringing this little work before the public is to acquaint all with the principal facts concerning our moon. The ignorance displayed by otherwise educated persons is apalling, [sic] but I hope that this volume will do at least something to remove the clouds that have hitherto shrouded moon-study.”

  Astronomy and the Monthly Almanack survive in nine issues, from August 1903 to Februar
y 1904; sometimes they are combined with each other. These issues are not of compelling interest, consisting largely of data on the moon’s phases for that month, planetary aspects, drawings of the planets, and the like. The issue for November 1903 features an article, “Annual of Astronomy ’03”:

  The Year 1903 has been quite good for astronomy, many clear nights prevailing. The most important discovery was that of a comet on Jn. 21., by Prof. Borelly. The comet was visible to the naked eye from Jul. 17 to Aug. 2nd inclusive., and had a tail, which, however, was not visible to the unassisted eye. . . . During it’s visibility it travelled from Cygnus to Urs. Maj. A lunar eclipse that was nearly total occured on Apl. 11. 11 digits was the maximum totality. The dark part was hardly visible.

  And so on. All issues are, again, profusely illustrated.

  The Planet survived for only one issue (August 29, 1903). In appearance this looks like most of Lovecraft’s other juvenile scientific periodicals, being about 4 × 7 inches in dimensions and written in two long vertical columns per page. Amusingly enough, this periodical combines scientific information with dime-novel sensationalism, as the titles of the articles are frequently followed by exclamation marks: “Jupiter Visible!” “Venus Has Gone!” “Telescopes!” A “Notice!” informs us of what we might have suspected: “This number is only an experiment, possibly no more will be issued.”

  A good many of these periodicals were reproduced using a process called the hectograph (or hektograph). This was a sheet of gelatin in a pan rendered hard by glycerine. A master page is prepared either in written form by the use of special hectograph inks or in typed form using hectograph typewriter ribbon; artwork of all sorts could also be drawn upon it. The surface of the pan would then be moistened and the master page pressed down upon it; this page would then be removed and sheets of paper would be pressed upon the gelatin surface, which had now picked up whatever writing or art had been on the master. The surface would be good for up to 50 copies, at which time the impression would begin to fade. Different colours could also be used.[9] Lovecraft must have had more than one such pan, since no more than one page could be hectographed in a day, as the inks must be given time to settle to the bottom. Although the hectograph was a relatively inexpensive reproductive process, the sheer quantity of work Lovecraft was running off must have come to no small expense—inks, carbon paper, gelatin, pans, and the like. No doubt his mother and grandfather were happy to foot the bill, given the precocity and enthusiasm Lovecraft must have exhibited.

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