I am providence the life.., p.32

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 32


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

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  Literary faults or literary modernism (much the same thing to Lovecraft) are also the target of many satires. When Charles D. Isaacson in his amateur journal In a Minor Key championed Walt Whitman as the “Greatest American Thinker,” Lovecraft responded with a sizzling rebuttal in prose entitled “In a Major Key” (Conservative, July 1915) in which he included an untitled poem on Whitman:

  Behold great Whitman, whose licentious line

  Delights the rake, and warms the souls of swine;

  Whose fever’d fancy shuns the measur’d place,

  And copies Ovid’s filth without his grace.

  And so on. Whitman was the perfect anathema for Lovecraft at this time, not only in his scornful abandonment of traditional metre but in his frank discussions of both homosexual and heterosexual sex. It is not clear to me how much of Whitman Lovecraft actually read: he owned a volume of Selections from Whitman, but it dates to 1927. In any case, Lovecraft says in “In a Major Key” that the squib on Whitman was “written several years ago as part of an essay on the modern poets.” I would give much to have this work, which I take to be a mixture of prose and verse; as it is, the only other piece that can be attributed to it is a satire on Browning quoted by Lovecraft in a letter:

  Thy lyrics, gifted Browning, charm the ear,

  And ev’ry mark of classic polish bear.

  With subtile raptures they enchain the heart;

  To soul and mind a mystic thrill impart:

  Yet would their rhythmic magic be more keen,

  If we could but discover what they mean![18]

  This is a little more on the mark than the polemic on Whitman.

  Isaacson, incidentally, was not about to take Lovecraft’s attack on Whitman lying down, and he delivered a crushing rebuttal directed against Lovecraft’s entire antiquated literary style:

  Mr. Lovecraft writes couplets in good rhyme against Whitman.

  I am impelled to inquire if Mr. Lovecraft ever really read Whitman.

  . . .

  I have said that Mr. Lovecraft’s writings smell of the library. They are literary. They are of the play-world. Everything is so unreal about everything in the Conservative’s writings.

  If only Mr. Lovecraft would come out into the open and breathe deeply of the ozone I am sure he would open himself.[19]

  Toward the end of 1914 Maurice W. Moe urged Lovecraft to abandon the heroic couplet and attempt other metrical forms. Lovecraft replied:

  I have written in iambic octosyllabics like those of Swift, in decasyllabic quatrains, as in Gray’s Elegy, in the old ballad metre of Chevy-Chase, in blank verse like Young’s and Thomson’s, and even in anapaests like those in Beattie’s Hermit, but only in the formal couplet of Dryden and Pope can I really express myself. Once I privately tried imitations of modern poets, but turned away in distaste.[20]

  Some of these metrical experiments do not appear to survive, and in other cases Lovecraft seems to be referring to his very early juvenile verse. “Ode to Selene or Diana” and “To the Old Pagan Religion” (from Poemata Minora, Volume II, 1902) are written in decasyllabic quatrains; by the “old ballad metre of Chevy-Chase” Lovecraft is perhaps referring to “On the Ruin of Rome”; “Frustra Praemunitus” (an apparently unpublished satire on John Russell) is in iambic octosyllabics; but I find no surviving instances prior to December 1914 of blank verse or of anapaests. Nor do I know what the “imitations of modern poets” could be: it cannot be the aforementioned “essay” on modern poets, since the poems on Browning and Whitman are not written in the manner of Browning or Whitman but are Popean satires on them.

  In any event, this discussion with Moe seems ultimately to have led to the writing of a series of four poems under the general title “Perverted Poesie; or, Modern Metre.” The four poems are: “The Introduction”; “The Bride of the Sea”; “The Peace Advocate”; and “A Summer Sunset and Evening.” These poems appeared together only in the O-Wash-Ta-Nong for December 1937; the second and third appeared separately in 1916 and 1917, respectively. I am not clear whether all four were conceived as a unit, and if so, when. “The Bride of the Sea” is quoted in a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner of September 30, 1915,[21] with the following heading:


  Or, The Bride of the Sea.


  Respectfully Dedicated without Permission to



  A Dull, Dark, Drear, Dactylic Delirium in Sixteen Silly,

  Senseless, Sickly Stanzas


  ($5000.00 Reward for the Apprehension, Alive or Dead, of the Person or Persons who can prove that This is the Work of


  The poem as quoted in this letter—as well as in its first appearance, in the Providence Amateur for February 1916—does not include an “Epilogue” in heroic couplets found at the conclusion of the O-Wash-Ta-Nong appearance; without the epilogue (and without the bombastic and self-parodic subtitle, which also was omitted from the Providence Amateur appearance), it actually becomes difficult to tell that this poem is in fact a parody of the Romantic ballad of the Byron or Thomas Moore type. “A Summer Sunset and Evening” is subtitled “In the Metre (though Perchance not the Manner) of the ‘Poly-Olbion’ of MIKE DRAYTON, ESQ.”—hardly a parody of a “modern” form, since the Poly-Olbion of Michael Drayton (1563–1631) is an Elizabethan geographical poem. “The Peace Advocate” is not a parody at all but merely a satire on pacifism. But “The Introduction” attempts to link the three following poems together:

  Wise Doctor Moe prescribeth

  That I should change my Rhyming;

  So let him, pray, peruse each Lay,

  None with the other chiming.

  As for my lov’d Heroicks,

  Destroy ’em if you can, Sir!

  These silly Strains and wild Refrains

  Are but your Victim’s Answer.

  One curious specimen of this type is “Nathicana,” which was probably written no later than 1920 although first published only in W. Paul Cook’s much-delayed final issue of the Vagrant (Spring 1927). Lovecraft later stated that the poem was a “joke concocted by Galpin & myself in the old days—a parody on those stylistic excesses which really have no basic meaning.”[22] The fact that the poem is a collaboration accounts for the pseudonym, Albert Frederick Willie, which Lovecraft in the same letter explains as “a Galpinian synthesis—Al(bert) fred(erick)—& ‘Willie’ is a variant of Willy, which is Galpin’s mother’s maiden name.” It is now difficult to know which parts were written by which collaborator, but in its overall effect the poem proves to be a parody of Poe with his sonorous repetition:

  And here in the swirl of the vapours

  I saw the divine Nathicana;

  The garlanded, white Nathicana;

  The slender, black-hair’d Nathicana;

  The sloe-ey’d, red-lipp’d Nathicana;

  The silver-voic’d, sweet Nathicana;

  The pale-rob’d, belov’d Nathicana.

  Taken out of context this indeed sounds absurd; but there is actually something to be said for the view of a later colleague (Donald Wandrei) who noted: “It is a rare and curious kind of literary freak, a satire too good, so that, instead of parodying, it possesses, the original.”[23]

  Lovecraft ordinarily chose to satirise literary trends he did not care for not by parody but by simple condemnation. Occasionally these can be amusing. “The State of Poetry” (Conservative, October 1915) is an attack on bad (but not necessarily modern) poetry which has some clever bits. False rhymes are skewered wittily:

  How might we praise the lines so soft and sweet,

  Were they not lame in their poetic feet!

  Just as the reader’s heart bursts into flame,

  The fire is quenched by rhyming “gain” with “name”,

  And ecstasy becomes no easy task

  When fields of “grass” in Sol’s bright radiance “bask”!

; Lovecraft’s repeated strictures on the subject in the “Department of Public Criticism” had apparently gone for naught. “The Magazine Poet” (United Amateur, October 1915) is an amusing squib on hack writing:

  The modern bard restrains poetic rage,

  To fit his couplets to a quarter-page.

  Who now regards his skill, or taste, or strength,

  When verse is writ and printed for its length?

  His soaring sentiment he needs must pinch,

  And sing his Amaryllis by the inch.

  But Lovecraft’s greatest poem in this regard is “Amissa Minerva” (Toledo Amateur, May 1919). Steven J. Mariconda has written a thorough commentary on this poem, and has illuminated many of its distinctive features.[24] After supplying a highly encapsulated history of poetry from Homer to Swinburne, Lovecraft launches upon a systematic attack on modern poetry, mentioning Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and others by name. (One “Gould” is unidentified; it could perhaps be John Gould Fletcher, although why Lovecraft would refer to him by his middle name is a mystery.) Here is an excerpt:

  Yet see on ev’ry hand the antic train

  That swarm uncheck’d, and gibber o’er the plain.

  Here Librist, Cubist, Spectrist forms arise;

  With foetid vapours cloud the crystal skies;

  Or led by transient madness, rend the air

  With shrieks of bliss and whinings of despair.

  The subject-matter of modern poetry offends Lovecraft (“Exempt from wit, each dullard pours his ink / In odes to bathtubs, or the kitchen sink”) as much as its abandonment of traditional rhyme and metre. The former point is the subject of a poem (not published in Lovecraft’s lifetime) included in the Kleicomolo correspondence cycle, “Ad Balneum” (“To the Bathtub”).[25]

  Actually, Lovecraft’s first exposure to poetic radicalism had occurred some years before. “I have lately been amusing myself by a perusal of some of the ‘Imagism’ nonsense of the day,” he wrote in August 1916.[26] “As a species of pathological phenomena it is interesting.” This provides a sufficient indication of Lovecraft’s attitude toward free verse in general and Imagism in particular. I am not sure what works Lovecraft read at this time; perhaps he read some of the three anthologies entitled Some Imagist Poets, which appeared between 1915 and 1917 and which Lovecraft might have found at the Providence Public Library. He continues in his letter:

  There is absolutely no artistic principle in their effusions; ugliness replaces beauty, and chaos supplies the vacant chair of sense. Some of the stuff, though, would mean something if neatly arranged and read as prose. Of the major portion no criticism is necessary, or even possible. It is the product of hopelessly decayed taste, and arouses a feeling of sympathetic sadness, rather than of mere contempt.

  These arguments are repeated in “The Vers Libre Epidemic” (Conservative, January 1917). Here Lovecraft distinguishes between two forms of radicalism, one of mere form, the other of thought and ideals. For the first, Lovecraft cites a fellow-amateur, Anne Tillery Renshaw, whom he admired greatly for her energies toward the amateur cause but whose poetic theories he found every opportunity to rebut. He frequently remarks that, for all the metrical novelty of her poetry, it very often lapses in spite of itself into fairly orthodox forms. In “Metrical Regularity” (Conservative, July 1915) Lovecraft paraphrases her theory (“the truly inspired bard must chant forth his feelings independently of form or language, permitting each changing impulse to alter the rhythm of his lay, and blindly resigning his reason to the ‘fine frenzy’ of his mood”) as expressed in an article in her amateur journal, Ole Miss’, for May 1915; to which Lovecraft makes the pointed response: “The ‘language of the heart’ must be clarified and made intelligible to other hearts, else its purport will forever be confined to its creator.” This single sentence could serve as an adequate indictment of the entire tendency of twentieth-century poetry.

  The second, more disturbing type of radicalism—of both thought and ideals—is treated more harshly. In “The Vers Libre Epidemic” this school is said to be represented by “Amy Lowell at her worst”: “a motley horde of hysterical and half-witted rhapsodists whose basic principle is the recording of their momentary moods and psychopathic phenomena in whatever amorphous and meaningless phrases may come to their tongues or pens at the moment of inspirational (or epileptic) seizure.” This is fine polemic, but not very good reasoned argument. Lovecraft, however, goes on to assert: “The type of impression they receive and record is abnormal, and cannot be transmitted to persons of normal psychology; wherefore there is no true art or even the rudiments of artistic impulse in their effusions. These radicals are animated by mental or emotional processes other than poetic.” This allows Lovecraft to conclude: “They are not in any sense poets, and their work, being wholly alien to poetry, cannot be cited as an indication of poetical decadence.” This is a clever rhetorical ploy, but that is all, and Lovecraft was probably aware of it. His contention that Imagism or free verse in general was not the vanguard of the future may have been a case of wishful thinking, even though the major poets of the day were still on the whole metrically orthodox. Lovecraft would carry on the battle against avant-garde poetry for the rest of his life, although one imagines that by the thirties he was beginning to feel that the struggle was hopeless. But this did not alter his devotion to conservative poetry, although in his later arguments he modified his position considerably and advocated the view that poetry must speak straightforwardly, but elegantly and coherently, in the language of its own day.

  Curiously, Lovecraft himself was accused of being lax—not in metre, but in rhyme—by Rheinhart Kleiner. In the May 1915 issue of his amateur journal, the Piper, Kleiner noted that Lovecraft in his critical utterances “is inclined to be a little too lenient, perhaps, in the case of ‘allowable’ rhymes, using the standards of another day, in fact, as his authority”; he continued, in reference to “The Simple Speller’s Tale”: “. . . the word ‘art’ is rhymed with ‘shot.’ This could not be considered ‘allowable’ even by a very liberal interpretation of the poet’s own theory.”[27]

  Lovecraft was not about to take this sitting down, although as a friend of Kleiner’s he did not wish to deal with him harshly. Lovecraft was aware that the “allowable rhyme”—the use of such rhymes as sky and company, or love and grove—was a hallmark of the poetry of Dryden and his successors, and that the absolute uniformity of rhyming sounds stressed by Kleiner emerged only in the poetical generation of Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and the whole nineteenth century. This is the burden of “The Allowable Rhyme” (Conservative, October 1915), which like “The Simple Spelling Mania” presents a history of the subject and correctly stresses the fact that Dryden’s reformation of English metre made his use of the allowable rhyme far more pardonable than that of his predecessors. Lovecraft concludes with an obviously personal plea for leniency: “But exceptions should and must be made in the case of a few who have somehow absorbed the atmosphere of other days, and who long in their hearts for the stately sound of the old classic cadences.” Truly, “I am certainly a relic of the 18th century both in prose and in verse.”[28]

  I have noted Lovecraft’s use of the pseudonym “Ames Dorrance Rowley” to parody the work of James Laurence Crowley, at least in the one instance of “Laeta; a Lament.” (Oddly enough, the three other poems published under this pseudonym—“To Maj.-Gen. Omar Bundy, U.S.A.”; “The Last Pagan Speaks” [= “To the Old Pagan Religion”]; “The Volunteer”—are in no way parodies of Crowley.) The whole issue of Lovecraft’s use of pseudonyms is a very large one: so far we have seen him use the pseudonym “Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr.” for the attacks on the astrologer J. F. Hartmann and “El Imparcial” for some articles on amateur journalism, but Lovecraft’s pseudonyms are otherwise almost entirely restricted to poetry. A total of about twenty pseudonyms have been identified, and there may even be one or two more lurking in the amateur press. Only a few, however, were used with any regularity:
Humphry Littlewit, Esq.; Henry Paget-Lowe; Ward Phillips; Edward Softly; and, most frequent of all, Lewis Theobald, Jun. Some of these names are scarcely very concealing of Lovecraft’s identity. The Lewis Theobald pseudonym, of course, derives from the hapless Shakespearean scholar whom Pope pilloried in the first version (1728) of The Dunciad.

  In some cases Lovecraft used pseudonyms merely because he was contributing poetry so voluminously to the amateur press—especially to C. W. Smith’s Tryout—that he perhaps did not wish to create the impression that he was hogging more space than he deserved. In other instances, he may have genuinely wished to disguise his identity because of the anomalous content of the poem involved: hence the curiously religious poem “Wisdom” appeared under the name Archibald Maynwaring, a name that only someone well-versed in eighteenth-century poetry—and familiar with Lovecraft’s fondness for it—could trace to the minor Augustan poet Arthur Mainwaring, who translated a portion of the Metamorphoses for “Garth’s Ovid.” But it becomes very difficult to characterise some of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms, especially those under which a large number of works were published, and Lovecraft evidently used them merely as the spirit moved him and without much thought of creating any sort of genuine persona for the pseudonyms in question.[29] I shall have occasion to comment on specific pseudonyms as they are coined for later works.

  Many of Lovecraft’s early poems were on political subjects. Political events of the period 1914–17 offered abundant opportunities for his polemical pen, given his early attitudes on race, social class, and militarism. Lovecraft could of course not know that his entry into amateur journalism in April 1914 would occur only four months before the outbreak of World War I; but once the war did commence, and once he saw that his country was not about to enter it anytime soon to stand with his beloved England, Lovecraft’s ire was stirred. For prose attacks on world affairs his chosen vehicle was the Conservative; his verses on world affairs were scattered far and wide throughout amateurdom.

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