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I am providence the life.., p.30

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 30


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

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  The March 1917 astronomy article for the News begins rather awkwardly: “To many readers of these monthly chronicles of the heavens, certain technical terms used in describing the apparent motions of the planets have doubtless seemed obscure and meaningless. It is accordingly the writer’s design to attempt an explanation of those which most frequently occur in articles of this sort.” This was a somewhat belated attempt to convey systematic instruction to the layman, and one would have expected such a thing to have occurred at the very commencement of the series. Perhaps readers had actually written to the paper complaining of the unexplained use of technical terms; indeed, it may have been complaints of this kind that led the editor, a year later, to demand that Lovecraft simplify his language, although after the above article he does not appear to have made much effort to do so.

  Two years earlier Lovecraft was given a chance to begin a series more auspiciously, and he took full advantage of it. A series of fourteen articles entitled “Mysteries of the Heavens Revealed by Astronomy” appeared in the Asheville (N.C.) Gazette-News from February to May 1915, although part of the thirteenth and the fourteenth article have not come to light. What we have, however, is a systematic and elementary treatise on all phases of astronomy for the complete novice. As Lovecraft announced at the head of the first article:

  The series beginning with this article is designed for persons having no previous knowledge of astronomy. Only the simplest and most interesting parts of the subject have here been included. It is hoped that this series may help in a small way to diffuse a knowledge of the heavens amongst the readers of The Gazette-News, to destroy in their minds the pernicious and contemptible superstition of judicial astrology, and to lead at least a few of them to a more particular study of astronomical science. (“The Sky and Its Contents,” February 16, 1915)

  The allusion to the J. F. Hartmann controversy, then concluded only a few months previously, is of note, as is the almost desperate attempt to avoid any of the technicalities of the subject; in the Providence Evening News article of September 1915 he would speak of the benefits of astronomical knowledge “disencumbered of its dull mathematical complexities,” a bittersweet reference to the principal cause of his own failure to become a professional astronomer. “Mysteries of the Heavens” is, then, a good example of what Lovecraft might have done had he decided to become merely a popular science writer. Mildly interesting as the series is, it is good for the sake of literature that he did not so limit his horizons.

  But how did Lovecraft arrange to write an astronomy series for a newspaper in Asheville, North Carolina? The solution appears in Lovecraft’s early article “Introducing Mr. Chester Pierce Munroe” (1915), where we are told that Lovecraft’s boyhood friend has now “established himself at the Grove Park Inn, Asheville.” I have little doubt that Chester, wishing to give his friend some remunerative work (Lovecraft is almost certain to have been paid for the series), spoke with the editor of the Gazette-News, perhaps even offering him some of Lovecraft’s Providence Evening News articles as samples.

  The result is an orderly and workmanlike series discussing, in sequence, the solar system (including specific discussions of the sun and each of the planets), comets and meteors, the stars, clusters and nebulae, the constellations, and telescopes and observatories. Some of the articles were split into two or more parts and were not always published in sequence: in one anomalous instance, the first part of “The Outer Planets” was followed by the first part of “Comets and Meteors,” followed by two segments of “The Stars,” followed by the second parts, respectively, of “The Outer Planets” and “Comets and Meteors.” A segment was published every three to six days in the paper. The last surviving article, “Telescopes and Observatories,” appeared in two parts in the issues for May 11 and 17, 1915, and the second part ends with “(TO BE CONTINUED)” prominently displayed; but some issues subsequent to May 17 appear to be no longer extant, so that we have either lost the end of this article (the thirteenth) or—if “Telescopes and Observatories” concluded here—the fourteenth. My feeling is that there should be another segment of the thirteenth article in addition to an entire fourteenth article, since this final segment only broaches the topic of observatories, concluding after a single lengthy paragraph on the subject.

  There is not much one can say about the Asheville Gazette-News save that they are competent pieces of popular science. Naturally, Lovecraft harps on some of his favourite topics, especially cosmicism. In speaking of the possibility that the farthest known star may be 578,000 light-years away, he notes:

  Our intellects cannot adequately imagine such a quantity as this. . . . Yet is it not improbable that all the great universe unfolded to our eyes is but an illimitable heven studded with an infinite number of other and perhaps vastly larger clustes? To what mean and ridiculous proportions is thus reduced our tiny globe, with its vain, pompous inhabitants and arrogant, quarrelsome nations! (“[The Stars, Part II],” March 23, 1915)

  As with the later Evening News articles, Lovecraft gradually introduced larger cosmological conceptions such as the nebular hypothesis and entropy, something I shall discuss in the context of his philosophical development. Otherwise the Gazette-News articles are dry and undistinguished. Toward the end of his life Lovecraft dug up the articles from his files; “their obsoleteness completely bowled me over.”[41] If anything, they—and the amateur journalism work—show that Lovecraft had still not realised where his true literary strengths lay: it would be two years before he would recommence the writing of fiction.

  7. Metrical Mechanic

  (1914–1917 [II])

  If Lovecraft’s views on prose style were conservative and old-fashioned, in poetry they were still more so, both in precept and in practice. We have seen that the prose of his teenage years bears a self-consciously antiquated cast, and is in some ways more archaistic than even some of his juvenile verse, which (as in the “Attempted Journey”) at least features some contemporaneousness in subject.

  The interesting thing is that, right from the beginning, Lovecraft was aware that his poetry had relatively little intrinsic merit aside from academic correctness in metre and rhyme. Writing in 1914 to Maurice W. Moe, a high-school English teacher and one of his earliest amateur colleagues, he stated in defence of his inveterate use of the heroic couplet: “Take the form away, and nothing remains. I have no real poetic ability, and all that saves my verse from utter worthlessness is the care which I bestow on its metrical construction.”[1] He goes on to say:

  Now I am perfectly aware that this is no more than downright perverted taste. I know as well as any man that the beauties of poetry lie not in the tinsel of flowing metre, or the veneer of epigrammatical couplets; but in the real richness of images, delicacy of imagination, and keenness of perception, which are independent of outward form or superficial brilliancy; yet I were false and hypocritical, should I not admit my actual preference for the old resounding decasyllabics. Verily, I ought to be wearing a powdered wig and knee-breeches.

  That last remark is telling, as we shall see in a moment. What the above comment generally reveals is Lovecraft’s keenness as a critic of poetry but his utter inability to exemplify its fundamental principles in his own work. One wonders why he wrote the 250 to 300 poems he did over his career, most of them in the eighteenth-century mode. In 1918, after supplying an exhaustive list of the amateur publications of his poetry, he adds an entirely sound summation: “What a mess of mediocre & miserable junk. He hath sharp eyes indeed, who can discover any trace of merit in so worthless an array of bad verse.”[2] Lovecraft seems to have derived a sort of masochistic thrill in flagellating himself over the wretchedness of his own poetry.

  In 1929 Lovecraft articulated perhaps the soundest evaluation of his verse-writing career that it is possible to give:

  In my metrical novitiate I was, alas, a chronic & inveterate mimic; allowing my antiquarian tendencies to get the better of my abstract poetic feeling. As a result, the whole purpose of m
y writing soon became distorted—till at length I wrote only as a means of re-creating around me the atmosphere of my 18th century favourites. Self-expression as such sank out of sight, & my sole test of excellence was the degree with which I approached the style of Mr. Pope, Dr. Young, Mr. Thomson, Mr. Addison, Mr. Tickell, Mr. Parnell, Dr. Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, & so on. My verse lost every vestige of originality & sincerity, its only core being to reproduce the typical forms & sentiments of the Georgian scene amidst which it was supposed to be produced. Language, vocabulary, ideas, imagery—everything succumbed to my own intense purpose of thinking & dreaming myself back into that world of periwigs & long s’s which for some odd reason seemed to me the normal world.[3]

  To this analysis very little need be added. What it demonstrates is that Lovecraft utilised poetry not for aesthetic but for psychological ends: as a means of tricking himself into believing that the eighteenth century still existed—or, at the very least, that he was a product of the eighteenth century who had somehow been transported into an alien and repulsive era. And if the “sole test of excellence” of Lovecraft’s verse was its success in duplicating the style of the great Georgian poets, then it must flatly be declared that his poetry is a resounding failure.

  Lovecraft did, indeed, have an enviable array of works by late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets in his library, beginning with Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, the poetical works of Dryden (including his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid), Samuel Garth’s Dispensary (1699), and, of course, Milton, and moving on to the poetical works of Joseph Addison, James Beattie, Robert Bloomfield (The Farmer’s Boy), Thomas Chatterton, William Collins, William Cowper, George Crabbe, Erasmus Darwin (The Botanick Garden), William Falconer (The Shipwreck), Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Gray, “Ossian” (James Macpherson), Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior, William Shenstone, Robert Tannahill, James Thomson, “Peter Pindar” (John Wolcot), and Edward Young, along with several anthologies of eighteenth-century poetry. He also had the poems of the early American poet John Trumbull and was familiar with the work of Joel Barlow,[4] although he did not own it. This list does not include some of the authors cited in the above letter (Thomas Tickell, Thomas Parnell), but no doubt Lovecraft read these and still other poets at the Providence Public Library or elsewhere. In other words, Lovecraft was, for a layman, a near-authority on eighteenth-century poetry.

  It should not be thought that Lovecraft was striving to imitate specific eighteenth-century poems in his own metrical work; such similarities are uncommon and imprecise. He early stated that he had “made a close study of Pope’s Dunciad,”[5] but we need not have been told of the fact after reading “Ad Criticos”; although perhaps that poem, with its unusually direct attacks on various individuals, owes more to Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe” than it does to Pope. In fact, much of Lovecraft’s poetry is really more similar to the casual occasional poetry of Dryden than it is to Pope, whose compact and scintillating poetical rhetoric Lovecraft could not hope to match. His many seasonal poems may perhaps owe something to Thomson’s The Seasons, but again Lovecraft never succeeded in the use of seemingly conventional descriptions of seasons for the conveying of moral or philosophical messages that gives such substance to Thomson’s work. The one case of clear imitation that I have found (and even this may be unconscious) is the first stanza of “Sunset” (1917):

  The cloudless day is richer at its close;

  A golden glory settles on the lea;

  Soft, stealing shadows hint of cool repose

  To mellowing landscape, and to calming sea.

  No reader can fail to recall the opening of Gray’s Elegy:

  The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

  The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

  The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

  And leaves the world to darkness and to me.[6]

  “Sunset,” incidentally, was reprinted in, of all places, the Presbyterian Advocate for April 18, 1918—one of the earliest instances where his work appeared outside the narrow confines of amateurdom.

  Lovecraft’s poetry falls into a number of groupings differentiated generally by subject-matter. The bulk of his verse must fall under the broad rubric of occasional poetry; within this class there are such things as poems to friends and associates, seasonal poems, poems on amateur affairs, imitations of classical poetry (especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses), and other miscellaneous verse. There is, at least up to about 1919, a large array of political or patriotic verse, almost entirely worthless. There is also a small group of mediocre philosophical or didactic verse. Satiric poetry bulks large in Lovecraft’s early period, and this is perhaps the most consistently meritorious of his early metrical output. Weird verse does not become extensive until 1917—the precise time when Lovecraft resumed the writing of weird fiction—so shall be considered later. These categories of course overlap: some of the satiric poetry is directed toward colleagues or individuals in the amateur circle, or is on political subjects. The poetry of 1914–17 exemplifies nearly all the above types with the exception of the weird verse.

  Of the occasional poetry in general it is difficult to speak kindly. In many instances one quite is literally at a loss to wonder what Lovecraft was attempting to accomplish with such verse. These poems appear frequently to have served merely as the equivalents of letters. Indeed, Lovecraft once confessed that “In youth I scarcely did any letter-writing—thanking anybody for a present was so much of an ordeal that I would rather have written a two-hundred-fifty-line pastoral or a twenty-page treatise on the rings of Saturn.”[7] Thankfully for us, the following was not 250 lines, but it served the same purpose:

  Dear Madam (laugh not at the formal way

  Of one who celebrates your natal day):

  Receive the tribute of a stilted bard,

  Rememb’ring not his style, but his regard.

  Increasing joy, and added talent true,

  Each bright auspicious birthday brings to you;

  May they grow many, yet appear but few!

  This poem—“To an Accomplished Young Gentlewoman on Her Birthday, Decr. 2, 1914”—is of course an acrostic. I do not know who Dorrie M. is. This poem was not published, so far as I know, in Lovecraft’s lifetime. In any event, poems of this sort are lamentably common in Lovecraft’s early work, many of them much longer and more tedious than this. “To the Rev. James Pyke” (United Official Quarterly, November 1914) is a poem to a neighbour, a retired Congregational minister, who (as Lovecraft writes in a brief note following the poem) “declines absolutely to have his works published. He has written verse since early boyhood, and has in manuscript enough lyrics, dramas, epics, sacred poems, and the like to fill about ten good-sized volumes.” At least as regards publication, one wishes Lovecraft had exercised restraint of this sort.

  There are any number of poems on amateur matters. Lovecraft was keen on giving encouragement to individual amateurs or amateur press clubs, especially if the latter consisted of younger members. “To the Members of the Pin-Feathers on the Merits of Their Organisation, and on Their New Publication, The Pinfeather,” appeared in the first issue of the Pin-Feather (November 1914). The Pin-Feathers appear to have been a women’s amateur press club (“Hail! learned ladies, banded to protect / The lib’ral arts from undeserv’d neglect”); I know nothing more about them. An evidently unpublished poem, “To ‘The Scribblers’” (1915), pays tribute to a club apparently under the supervision of Edward F. Daas, as Lovecraft makes mention of Milwaukee, Daas’s place of residence. “To Samuel Loveman, Esquire, on His Poetry and Drama, Writ in the Elizabethan Style” (Dowdell’s Bearcat, December 1915), is a tribute to an old-time amateur with whom Lovecraft was not at this time acquainted. Later Loveman would become one of Lovecraft’s closest friends.

  Of the seasonal poems very little can be said. There are poems on almost every month of the year, as well as each of the individual seasons; but all are trite, mechanical, and quite without genuine feeling. One recently discovered poem,
New England,” appeared in the Providence Evening News for December 18, 1914, along with John Russell’s “Florida” (reprinted from the Tampa Times) under the general heading “Heat and Cold”; it shows, at least, that Lovecraft continued to keep in touch with his All-Story nemesis. The poem itself—aside from the use of a very long iambic line—is entirely undistinguished. A somewhat later poem, “Spring” (Tryout, April 1919), had a curious genesis, as the subtitle reveals: “Paraphrased from the Prose of Clifford Raymond, Esq., in the Chicago Tribune.” I have not attempted to find the article by Raymond in the Tribune; but this poem makes us think of what Lovecraft wrote in an early letter: “Impromptu verse, or ‘poetry’ to order, is easy only when approached in the coolly prosaic spirit. Given something to say, a metrical mechanic like myself can easily hammer the matter into technically correct verse, substituting formal poetic diction for real inspiration of thought.”[8] One early poem, “A Mississippi Autumn” (Ole Miss’, December 1915), was actually signed “Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Metrical Mechanic.” Lovecraft in his letter goes on to say that the ten-line poem “On Receiving a Picture of Swans” (Conservative, January 1916) was written in about ten minutes.

  One heroic work—in more ways than one—that requires some consideration is “Old Christmas” (Tryout, December 1918; written in late 1917[9]), a 332-line monstrosity that is Lovecraft’s single longest poem. Actually, if one can accept the premise of this poem—a re-creation of a typical Christmas night in the England of Queen Anne’s time—then one can derive considerable enjoyment from its resolutely wholesome and cheerful couplets. Occasionally Lovecraft’s desire to maintain sprightliness to the bitter end leads him astray, as when he depicts the family gathered in the old manor house:

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