I am providence the life.., p.31

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 31

 

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



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  Here sport a merry train of young and old;

  Aunts, uncles, cousins, kindred shy and bold;

  The ample supper ev’ry care dispels,

  And each glad guest in happy concord dwells.

  This could only have been written by one who has not attended many family gatherings. Nevertheless, the sheer geniality of the poem eventually wins one over if one can endure the antiquated diction. At times self-parodic humour enters in (“Assist, gay gastronomic Muse, whilst I / In noble strains sing pork and Christmas pie!”); and even when Lovecraft pays an obligatory tribute—which he clearly did not feel—to Christianity (“An age still newer blends the heathen glee / With the glad rites of Christ’s Nativity”), he gently dynamites it by depicting the guests anxious to begin the feast (“Th’ impatient throng half grudge the pious space / That the good Squire consumes in saying grace”). The pun on “consumes” is very nice.

  Years later this poem received some very welcome praise from a Canadian associate of Lovecraft’s, John Ravenor Bullen, who had spent much time in England. Commenting on the work when Lovecraft submitted it in 1921 to the Anglo-American correspondence group called the Transatlantic Circulator, Bullen remarked that the poem was “English in every respect” and went on to say about Lovecraft’s poetry generally:

  May I point out that poets of each period have forged their lines in the temper and accent of their age, whereas Mr Lovecraft purposefully “plates over” his poetical works with “the impenetrable rococo” of his predecessors’ days, thereby running geat risks. But it may be that his discerning eyes perceive that many modern methods are mongrel and ephemeral. His devotion to Queen Anne style may make his compositions seem artificial, rhetorical descriptions to contemporary critics, but the ever-growing charm of eloquence (to which assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeic sound and rhythm, and tone colour contribute their entrancing effect) displayed in the poem under analysis, proclaims Mr Lovecraft a genuine poet, and “Old Christmas” an example of poetical architecture well-equipped to stand the test of time.[10]

  This is, indeed, a very charitable assessment, but on the whole it is an accurate one. In later years Lovecraft produced some of his most unaffectedly delightful verse by writing original Christmas poems to friends and family; these poems, brief and humble as they are meant to be, contain some of his most heart-warming metrical work.

  It should already be evident that the bulk of Lovecraft’s poetry was published in the amateur press; and in many instances it appears that he was anxious to keep various magazines well supplied with copy to fill up a page. Lack of contributions was a constant problem in amateur circles, and Lovecraft was determined to counteract it as best he could. Hence he wrote “On the Cowboys of the West” for his colleague Ira A. Cole’s paper, the Plainsman (December 1915). Naturally, Lovecraft had no first-hand acquaintance with any cowboys, and all he knew of them came from what Cole had presumably told him in correspondence; so he allowed himself to imagine that in them (as the subtitle of the poem states) “Is Embodied the Nature-Worshipping Spirit of Classical Antiquity.” Cole, interestingly enough, agreed with Lovecraft’s poetical assessment; writing in a note following the poem:

  Of a certainty, Mr. Lovecraft has described with a beautiful exactitude the fearless, carefree men who were my boyhood companions. . . . I can think of no better comparison, no more appropriate name than the poet has given them. “Children”—yes, they were children; they were young gods, they were heroes. . . . Only such fellows as I, who were boys among them, are left to tell their story, and as spokesman between their time and the present I feel it a great honor that words of mine should inspire so worthy poet [sic] as Howard P. Lovecraft to the writing of lines like the above.[11]

  This sort of writing to order may account for some anomalies in the poetry, especially those instances where thoughts and conceptions quite alien to Lovecraft are expressed with apparent sincerity. In some instances this is sheer hypocrisy (as in “Lines on the 25th. Anniversary of the Providence Evening News, 1892–1917,” where he champions that paper as “the people’s friend” and as “The chosen mouthpiece of Democracy,” even though he never believed in democracy); in other instances one may perhaps take a milder view. “Wisdom” (Silver Clarion, November 1918) contains an introductory note: “The 28th or ‘Gold-Miner’s’ Chapter of Job, paraphrased from a literal translation of the original Hebrew text, supplied by Dr. S. Hall Young.” Sure enough, this is a verse paraphrase of chapter 28 of the Book of Job, contrasting the value of gold, silver, and precious gems and the value of wisdom; it concludes:

  Then did He see and search, and then proclaim

  The truth supreme, that He alone could frame:

  “Behold,” He cries unto the mortal throng,

  “This is the Wisdom ye have sought so long:

  To reverence the Lord, and leave the paths of wrong!”

  This is not something Lovecraft the atheist would have written of his own accord. But in fact he seems to have developed a half-patronising fondness for John Milton Samples, whose simple piety as editor of the Silver Clarion somehow affected him. Lovecraft wrote an evaluation of the magazine, entitled “Comment” (Silver Clarion, June 1918), in which he remarks that the paper is “an able and consistent exponent of that literary mildness and wholesomeness which in the professional world are exemplified by the Youth’s Companion and the better grade of religious publications.” A number of Lovecraft’s more “wholesome” poems appeared in this paper.

  Among the more delightful of Lovecraft’s occasional poems are those that focon books and writers. Here he is in his element, for in his early years books were his life and his life was books. “The Bookstall” (United Official Quarterly, January 1916), dedicated to Rheinhart Kleiner, is one of the earliest and best of these. Casting off the modern age, Lovecraft’s “fancy beckons me to nobler days”:

  Say, waking Muse, where ages best unfold,

  And tales of times forgotten most are told;

  Where weary pedants, dryer than the dust,

  Like some lov’d incense scent their letter’d must;

  Where crumbling tomes upon the groaning shelves

  Cast their lost centuries about ourselves.

  Lovecraft uses this poem to cite some of the curiouser books in his own library: “With Wittie’s aid to count the Zodiac host” (referring to Robert Wittie’s Ouronoskopia; or, A Survey of the Heavens [1681], at this time the oldest book he owned), “O’er Mather’s prosy page, half dreaming, pore” (referring to his ancestral copy of the first edition of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana [1702]), and, most delightful of all, “Go smell the drugs in Garth’s Dispensary!” (referring to his copy of Sir Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary [1699]). That last line is worth nearly all his other archaistic verse put together. And how can we not be touched by the little paean to the cat?

  Upon the floor, in Sol’s enfeebled blaze,

  The coal-black puss with youthful ardour plays;

  Yet what more ancient symbol may we scan

  Than puss, the age-long satellite of Man?

  Egyptian days a feline worship knew,

  And Roman consuls heard the plaintive mew:

  The glossy mite can win a scholar’s glance,

  Whilst sages pause to watch a kitten prance.

  If Lovecraft had written more of this sort of thing, he could have deflected Winfield Townley Scott’s severe but quite justified branding of his poetry as “eighteenth-century rubbish.”[12]

  Another poem of this sort is “To Mr. Kleiner, on Receiving from Him the Poetical Works of Addison, Gay, and Somerville” (dated on the manuscript April 10, 1918), evidently not published in Lovecraft’s lifetime. Although he had by this time been corresponding with Kleiner for three years, Lovecraft still felt obligated to write a thank-you note in verse for so welcome and appropriate a gift. (The book was not found among Lovecraft’s effects upon his death, hence is not listed in my compilation of his library.) There is another deli
ghtful image of ancient authors languishing in a dingy bookstall:

  The shadowy cave, within whose depths are mass’d

  The ling’ring relicts of a lustrous past:

  Where drowse the ancients, free from modern strife,

  That crusty pedants fain would wake to life!

  Lovecraft goes on to describe, in a very felicitous way, the respective poetical merits of Joseph Addison, John Gay, and William Somerville.

  Two facets of Lovecraft’s poetry that must be passed over in merciful brevity are his classical imitations and his philosophical poetry. Lovecraft seemed endlessly fond of producing flaccid imitations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—one of his first poetic loves, let us recall—including such things as “Hylas and Myrrha: A Tale” (Tryout, May 1919), “Myrrha and Strephon” (Tryout, July 1919), and several others. Of the early philosophical poetry, only two are notable. “Inspiration” (Conservative, October 1916) is a delicate two-stanza poem on literary inspiration coming to a writer at an unexpected moment. It is of importance largely because it is the very first piece of professionally published poetry by Lovecraft outside of local newspaper appearances: it was reprinted in the National Magazine of Boston in November 1916. Lovecraft had a number of poems printed in this magazine over the next several years; I do not know what remuneration he received for them, but he clearly states that it was a professional magazine and he must have received at least a token payment. “Brotherhood” (Tryout, December 1916) is a genuinely meritorious poem and a surprising one for Lovecraft at this stage of his career to have written. We have already seen many instances of his social snobbery, so that it is no surprise that this poem begins:

  In prideful scorn I watch’d the farmer stride

  With step uncouth o’er road and mossy lane;

  How could I help but distantly deride

  The churlish, callous’d, coarse-clad country swain?

  The narrator determines that he is “no kin to such as he”; but then he is taken aback to observe the farmer delicately avoiding stepping on the flowers in his path, and concludes:

  And while I gaz’d, my spirit swell’d apace;

  With the crude swain I own’d the human tie;

  The tend’rest impulse of a noble race

  Had prov’d the boor a finer man than I!

  How sincere Lovecraft is in this poem is another matter; it would take him a long time to renounce distinctions of class and breeding, and in some ways—even as a socialist—he never did so. But “Brotherhood” is a poignant poem nonetheless.

  As the years passed, it became evident to Lovecraft’s readers in the amateur press (as it was always evident to Lovecraft himself) that in his poetry he was a self-consciously antiquated fossil with admirable technical skill but no real poetical feeling. Even W. Paul Cook, who so ardently encouraged Lovecraft the fiction-writer, said of his poetry in 1919: “I cannot fully appreciate Mr. Lovecraft as a poet . . . To me, most of his verse is too formal, too artificial, too stilted in phraseology and form.”[13] Eventually Lovecraft began to poke fun at himself on this score; one of the most delightful of such specimens is “On the Death of a Rhyming Critic” (Toledo Amateur, July 1917). The satire here is emphatically double-edged. Speaking of the death of one Macer, the narrator of the poem remarks in tripping octosyllabics (the metre of choice of Samuel Butler and Swift, and also of Rheinhart Kleiner and John Russell):

  A curious fellow in his time,

  Fond of old books and prone to rhyme—

  A scribbling pedant, of the sort

  That scorn the age, and write for sport.

  A little wit he sometimes had,

  But half of what he wrote was bad;

  In metre he was very fair;

  Of rhetoric he had his share—

  But of the past so much he’d prate,

  That he was always out of date!

  This and a later passage (“His numbers smooth enough would roll, / But after all—he had no soul!”) show once again that Lovecraft was fully cognisant of his own deficiencies as a poet; but toward the end of the poem things take an unexpected turn. Lovecraft now plays upon his skill as a corrector of bad poetry—he had probably already by this time commenced his occupation as literary revisionist, as I shall explore later—by having the poem’s narrator stumble incompetently toward the end. He must write an elegy on Macer for the Morning Sun; but who will help him with it? The poem literally disintegrates:

  So many strugglers he befriended,

  That rougher bards on him depended:

  His death will still more pens than his—

  I wonder where the fellow is!

  He’s in a better land—or worse—

  (I wonder who’ll revise this verse?)

  A later poem, “The Dead Bookworm” (United Amateur, September 1919), deals somewhat with the same subject. Here the subject of mock-eulogy is someone simply named Bookworm—a “Temp’rance crank—confounded ass!,” and one who “never seemed to thrive / I guess he was but half alive.”

  Well, now it’s over! (Hello, Jack!

  Enjoy your trip? I’m glad you’re back!)

  Yes—Bookworm’s dead—what’s that? Go slow!

  Thought he was dead a year ago?

  And so on. The sprightliness and colloquialism of this poem are highly unusual for Lovecraft, and may bespeak the influence of the vers de société of Rheinhart Kleiner, an unjustly forgotten master of this light form.

  Lovecraft was as willing to parody others as himself. An amateur poet named James Laurence Crowley particularly irked Lovecraft, who roundly condemned him in the “Department of Public Criticism” (United Amateur, April 1916): “‘My Dear, Sweet Southern Blossom’ . . . is a saccharine and sentimental piece of verse reminiscent of the popular ballads which flourished ten or more years ago. Triteness is the cardinal defect, for each gentle image is what our discerning private critic Mr. Moe would call a ‘rubber-stamp’ phrase.” Not content with delivering such an Olympian pronouncement, Lovecraft parodied him in a poem entitled “My Lost Love,” written in late spring 1916:[14]

  When the evening shadows come

  Then my fancies they do roam

  Round the dear old rustic cottage by the lane,

  Where in days that are no more

  Liv’d the maid I did adore,

  Liv’d my own beloved sweetheart, darling Jane!

  (Chorus)

  O my dearest, sweetest pride,

  Thou couldst never be my bride,

  For the angels snatch’d you up one summer day;

  Yet my heart is ever true,

  And I love you yes I do,

  And I’ll mourn for you until I pine away!

  I—pine—a—way— (by 1st Tenor).

  No doubt this is the sort of stuff Lovecraft and his pals used to caterwaul in high school. Lovecraft did not in fact publish this poem, but he did write several poems under the obviously parodic name “Ames Dorrance Rowley,” one of which—“Laeta; a Lament” (Tryout, February 1918)—is another parody, although a little more restrained than the above. A few years later Lovecraft expressed some regret at treating Crowley in this fashion, and he ended up revising Crowley’s verse, probably without pay.[15]

  In other instances Lovecraft did not so much write parodies as mere responses to verses by others. To Olive G. Owen’s “The Modern Business Man to His Love” (Tryout, October 1916) Lovecraft countered with “The Nymph’s Reply to the Modern Business Man” (Tryout, February 1917):

  Your silks and sapphires rouse my heart,

  But I can penetrate your art—

  My seventh husband fool’d my taste

  With shoddy silks and stones of paste!

  Rheinhart Kleiner’s “To Mary of the Movies” (Piper, September 1915) inspired Lovecraft’s “To Charlie of the Comics.” Kleiner’s “To a Movie Star” brought forth Lovecraft’s “To Mistress Sophia Simple, Queen of the Cinema”; both were published in the United Amateur for November 1919. I shall study both these poems a little lat
er.

  This brings us to Lovecraft’s satiric poetry, which not only ranges over a very wide array of subject-matter but is clearly the only facet of his poetry aside from his weird verse that is of any account. Kleiner made this point in “A Note on Howard P. Lovecraft’s Verse” (United Amateur, March 1919), the first critical article on Lovecraft:

  Many who cannot read his longer and more ambitious productions find Mr. Lovecraft’s light or humorous verse decidedly refreshing. As a satirist along familiar lines, particularly those laid down by Butler, Swift and Pope, he is most himself—paradoxical as it seems. In reading his satires one cannot help but feel the zest with which the author has composed them. They are admirable for the way in which they reveal the depth and intensity of Mr. Lovecraft’s convictions, while the wit, irony, sarcasm and humour to be found in them serve as an indication of his powers as a controversialist. The almost relentless ferocity of his satires is constantly relieved by an attendant broad humour which has the merit of causing the reader to chuckle more than once in the perusal of some attack levelled against the particular person or policy which may have incurred Mr. Lovecraft’s displeasure.[16]

  This analysis is exactly on target. Lovecraft himself remarked in 1921: “Whatever merriment I have is always derived from the satirical principle . . .”[17]

  Fellow-amateurs were frequently an object of attack, since they left themselves open to ridicule on so many fronts. One of the first of his victims was one W. E. Griffin, who contributed a light-hearted article to the Blarney-Stone for May–June 1914 entitled “My Favorite Pastime—Flirting.” Lovecraft, with his puritanical views about women and sex, was not about to let this go unpunished. He first wrote a short poem, “On a Modern Lothario” (Blarney-Stone, July–August 1914), attacking Griffin (“A dozen faces must he daily see / Red with the blush of maiden modesty”), then decided to make a pun on Griffin’s name in a much longer poem, “Gryphus in Asinum Mutatus; or, How a Griffin Became an Ass.” This poem bears the subtitle “(after the manner of Ovid’s Metamorphoses)” and is one of the few instances where Lovecraft used Ovid in a skilful and original way. I am not sure whether any real event is related in the poem—which speaks of a griffin who sets his eyes on the virgin goddess Diana but is turned by her into an ass—but the satire is sharp. The poem is undated, but was probably written late 1914; it remained in manuscript, so far as I know, so perhaps Lovecraft considered the satire a little too pungent for publication.

 
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