I am providence the life.., p.42
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 42
Although he is a “bard by choice,” Lucullus is merely a “grocer’s clerk” by actual trade. Then one day he stumbles upon a set of Poe; charmed by the “cheerful horrors there display’d,” he turns his attention to the writing of horrific verse. In this, however, he has little success until one day he overindulges at a meal and experiences the wild nightmare related in the blank verse section. This comic introduction really is quite clever, directing genial but sharp barbs at the hungry poetaster. Here is the description of the meal that brought on the Poe-et’s nightmare:
Tho’ it were too prosaic to relate
Th’ exact particulars of what he ate
(Such long-drawn lists the hasty reader skips,
Like Homer’s well-known catalogue of ships),
This much we swear: that as adjournment near’d,
A monstrous lot of cake had disappear’d!
One of the best strokes is an exquisite parody of Shakespeare: “. . . or cast a warning spell / On those who dine not wisely, but too well.”
With the 192 lines in blank verse the mood changes abruptly—perhaps a little too abruptly. Here Lucullus narrates in the first person how his soul drifts into space and encounters a cosmic spirit who promises to unveil to him the secrets of the universe. This scenario allows Lovecraft to express his cosmicism in its purest form:
Alone in space, I view’d a feeble fleck
Of silvern light, marking the narrow ken
Which mortals call the boundless universe.
On ev’ry side, each as a tiny star,
Shone more creations, vaster than our own,
And teeming with unnumber’d forms of life;
Tho’ we as life would recognise it not,
Being bound to earthy thoughts of human mould.
And yet, the cosmic spirit tells Lucullus that “all the universes in my view / Form’d but an atom in infinity . . .” The fundamental message of this section—that the universe is boundless both in time and in space; that there may be other forms of intelligent life in the universe aside from ourselves, life that we would scarcely recognise as such—is exactly that found in his early letters. This vision leads Lucullus to the contemplation of our own planet:
Then turn’d my musings to that speck of dust
Whereon my form corporeal took its rise;
That speck, born but a second, which must die
In one brief second more; that fragile earth;
That crude experiment; that cosmic sport
Which holds our proud, aspiring race of mites
And mortal vermin; those presuming mites
Whom ignorance with empty pomp adorns,
And misinstructs in specious dignity . . .
Lucullus (and Lovecraft) gain contempt for humanity because of its “presumption” of cosmic importance in the universe. A letter of August 1916 exactly echoes these ideas:
How arrogant of us, creatures of the moment, whose very species is but an experiment of the Deus Naturae, to arrogate to ourselves an immortal future and considerable status! . . . How do we know that that form of atomic and molecular motion called “life” is the highest of all forms? Perhaps the dominant creature—the most rational and God-like of all beings—is an invisible gas!
This section of “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” embodies Lovecraft’s early cosmic views as compactly as any work in his oeuvre. Lucullus, in any event, is horrified at this spectacle—truly it is to him a “frightful truth”—but the cosmic spirit now offers to unveil to him a still greater secret:
Yet changing now his mien, he bade me scan
The wid’ning rift that clave the walls of space;
He bade me search it for the ultimate;
He bade me find the Truth I sought so long;
He bade me brave th’ unutterable Thing,
The final Truth of moving entity.
But the dream-Lucullus withdraws in fear, his spirit “shrieking in silence thro’ the gibbering deeps.”
At this point Lucullus wakes up, and the third-person heroic couplets resume. The narrator now ponderously relates the lesson Lucullus has learned: “He vows to all the Pantheon, high and low, / No more to feed on cake, or pie, or Poe.” He is now glad to be a humble grocer’s clerk; and the narrator warns other bad poets (who “bay the moon in numbers strange and new”) to think before they write: “Reflect, ere ye the draught Pierian take, / What worthy clerks or plumbers ye might make . . .”
All this is clever too, but to my mind it has the effect of dynamiting the cosmicism of the previous section, rendering it retroactively parodic. Note especially these lines, where Lucullus “thanks his stars—or cosmoses—or such / That he survives the noxious nightmare’s clutch.” I think Lovecraft was trying to do too much here: he has produced both a piece of terrifying cosmicism and a satire against poetasters; but the two do not work well together. Lovecraft ultimately came to realise this. Toward the end of his life, when R. H. Barlow wished to include “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” in a collection of Lovecraft’s verse, he advised Barlow to omit the comic framework.
It should be pointed out that “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” is not influenced by Poe. For all his fondness for Poe, Lovecraft came to realise that his mentor fundamentally lacked the cosmic sense; relatively little of his poetry is, in any case, horrific or fantastic, and there is not even the remotest parallel in Poe for this extended use of blank verse. If there is any influence at all on that central section, it is Lucretius, as certain lines in Lovecraft’s poem—“. . . whirling ether bore in eddying streams / The hot, unfinish’d stuff of nascent worlds”—make clear. Although Lucretius, in his fervent exposition of the atomic theory and the making of the worlds (especially in Books I and II of the De Rerum Natura), finds only awe and not horror in the contemplation of infinite space, both poets see in the vastness of the cosmos a refutation of human self-importance. As we examine Lovecraft’s philosophy, it will become evident that he gained both the fundamentals of materialism and a sense of the cosmic in part from the line of ancient atomists beginning with Leucippus and Democritus and continuing through Epicurus and Lucretius.
Another, less striking anticipation of Lovecraft’s later attempts in weird verse is the recently discovered “The Unknown.” Actually, it is not the poem but its attribution that has only now come to light; for it appeared in the Conservative for October 1916, but under the byline of Elizabeth Berkeley (pseudonym of Winifred Virginia Jackson). In a later letter Lovecraft explains that he allowed this poem (as well as “The Peace Advocate” in the Tryout for May 1917) to appear under Jackson’s pseudonym “in an effort to mystify the [amateur] public by having widely dissimilar work from the same nominal hand”; and in a still later letter he clearly acknowledges the work as “another of my old attempts at weird verse.” This very short three-stanza poem, in an iambic metre Lovecraft had never used before and would never use again, is a purely imagistic vignette that speaks of a “seething sky,” a “mottled moon,” and “Wild clouds a-reel”; it concludes:
Thro’ rift is shot
The moon’s wan grace—
But God! That blot
Upon its face!
As an experiment in mood and metre it is interesting, but is too insubstantial to be of much account.
Later poems seek, like “The Poe-et’s Nightmare,” to unite a moral and a horrific message. There is in several poems a sense of the insignificance, even the vileness, of humanity even in the absence of a cosmic framework. Many poems unfortunately tend, however, toward stock images or contrived shudders. “The Rutted Road” (Tryout, January 1917) speaks of a man who, like Lucullus Languish, fears some revelation at the end of his traversing of a rutted road: “What lies ahead, my weary soul to greet? / Why is it that I do not wish to know?” But the preceding stanzas have been so contentless that one has not even the remotest sense of what such a revelation could be. Similarly, in “Astrophobos” (United Amateur, January 1918) the narrator hopes to find “Worlds of happi
I have whirl’d with the earth at the dawning,
When the sky was a vaporous flame,
I have heard the dark universe yawning,
Where the black planets roll without aim;
Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name.
This is quite effective, and Lovecraft is justified in using some of these lines as the epigraph to his late tale “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935); but what, ultimately, is their import? Like many of Lovecraft’s poems, “Nemesis” is open to Winfield Townley Scott’s brutal charge: “To scare is a slim purpose in poetry.”
Fortunately, some poems go beyond this shudder-coining. “The Eidolon” (Tryout, October 1918) may be superficially derived in part from Poe (Lovecraft speaks of a quest to find “the Eidolon call’d Life,” while Poe in “Dream-Land” makes note of “an Eidolon, named Night”), but beyond this, and the use of the octosyllabic metre, the resemblances to Poe are not strong. Here the narrator, “at a nameless hour of night,” fancies he looks upon a beauteous landscape:
Fair beyond words the mountain stood,
Its base encircled by a wood;
Adown its side a brooklet bright
Ran dancing in the spectral light.
Each city that adorn’d the crest
Seem’d anxious to outvie the rest,
For carven columns, domes, and fanes
Gleam’d rich and lovely o’er the plains.
But the daylight shows a grimmer scene:
The East is hideous with the flare
Of blood-hued light—a garish glare—
While ghastly grey the mountain stands,
The terror of the neighb’ring lands.
Lovecraft is careful to indicate that the horror is more than a spook or a haunted wood:
Aloft the light of knowledge crawls,
Staining the crumbling city walls
Thro’ which in troops ungainly squirm
The foetid lizard and the worm.
Repelled by the sight, the narrator asks to see “the living glory—Man!” But an even more loathsome sight greets his eyes:
Now on the streets the houses spew
A loathsome pestilence, a crew
Of things I cannot, dare not name,
So vile their form, so black their shame.
In its way “The Eidolon” is as nihilistic as “The Poe-et’s Nightmare,” although lacking its cosmic scope. What is more interesting is the notion—which we have already seen in “Dagon”—that knowledge (here symbolised by the light of day) is in itself a source of horror and tragedy. This same conception is found in another fine poem, “Revelation” (Tryout, March 1919). The narrator, “in a vale of light and laughter,” decides to scan “the naked skies of Jove”; but the result is that he emerges “ever wiser, ever sadder” from a realisation of his lowly place in the cosmic scheme of things. Seeking to return to earth, he now finds that the blight of revelation has poisoned it also:
But my downward glance, returning,
Shrank in fright from what it spy’d;
Slopes in hideous torment burning,
Terror in the brooklet’s ride;
For the dell, of shade denuded
By my desecrating hand,
’Neath the bare sky blaz’d and brooded
As a lost, accursed land.
Many later stories will harp on this theme: the inability to derive any pleasure from existence once the horrors of the cosmos are known.
Other weird poems of this period are less substantial but pleasant enough to read: a trilogy of poems entitled “A Cycle of Verse” (“Oceanus,” “Clouds,” and “Mother Earth”; Tryout, July 1919); “The House” (Philosopher, December 1920; written July 16, 1919) and “The City” (Vagrant, October 1919), which adapt the metre of “Nemesis”—itself derived, of course, from Swinburne’s “Hertha.” “The House” is based upon the same house at 135 Benefit Street that later inspired “The Shunned House” (1924).
One long weird poem that may be worth a little consideration is “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme.” This 312-line poem was begun in the fall of 1917 but not completed until May or June of 1918. Unlike the bulk of Lovecraft’s weird verse written up to this time, the apparent influence on this poem—the second-longest single poem Lovecraft ever wrote, just shorter than “Old Christmas” and just longer than “The Poe-et’s Nightmare”—is not Poe but the ballads of Sir Walter Scott, although I have not found any single work in Scott exactly analogous to “Psychompos.” In this poem an aged grandam, Mère Allard, tells the story of Sieur and Dame De Blois, who occupy a shunned castle in the Auvergne region of France. They have developed a bad reputation because of whispered rumours about them: that they do not worship the god of the Christians; that the Dame has an evil eye and a serpentine gait. One Candlemas, the bailiff’s son Jean falls ill and dies; it is then recalled that Dame De Blois had passed by the other day and spotted the child (“Nor did they like the smile which seem’d to trace / New lines of evil on her proud, dark face”). That night, when Jean’s grieving parents are holding a vigil over their dead son, a huge snake suddenly appears and makes for the corpse; but the bailiff’s wife springs to action—“With ready axe the serpent’s head she cleaves,” and it crawls away with a mortal wound.
Later people notice a change in Sieur De Blois’s bearing. He hears the gossip about the incident with the bailiff’s wife and the snake, and “low’ring rode away, / Nor was he seen again for many a day.” That summer the Dame is found in some shrubbery, her head cleaved with an axe. The body is brought to the castle of Sieur De Blois, where it is received “with anger, more than with surprise.” The next Candlemas arrives, and that evening the bailiff and his family are startled to notice that their home is surrounded by a pack of anomalously intelligent wolves. The leader of the wolfpack bursts through the window and attacks the bailiff’s wife, but her husband strikes the creature down with the same axe used on the hideous serpent. The wolf falls dead, but the rest of the pack begin to close in around the house as a furious storm rises. But at the sight of the shining cross on the chimney each wolf “Drops, fades, and vanishes in empty air!”
The listener, wearied of the confused story of Mère Allard, thinks that two stories have been intertwined into one—the tale of the De Blois’s, and the tale of the wolfpack. But he receives little clarification from the grandam, who concludes: “For Sieur De Blois . . . / Was lost to sight for evermore.”
Few readers will be so dense as the listener of this “tale in rhyme”; they will have quickly realised that the snake killed by the bailiff’s wife was Dame De Blois and that the leader of the wolfpack was Sieur De Blois. In effect, they were werewolves or shapeshifters. This work is, in fact, the only instance of Lovecraft’s use of this conventional myth (at least, in its orthodox form); and the general mediaeval setting of the poem makes “Psychopompos” a sort of versified Gothic tale. I am not clear what the significance of the title is: psychopomps (from the Greek psychopompos, “conveyer of the dead” [i.e., to the underworld]) are used in some later tales, but werewolves have never been regarded as psychopomps. Interestingly, Lovecraft himself seems to have classified the work among his prose tales, as it is found on several lists of his short stories.
I have pointed to the general influence of Scott on this poem; bu
I am He who howls in the night;
I am He who moans in the snow;
I am He who hath never seen light;
I am He who mounts from below.
My car is the car of Death;
My wings are the wings of dread;
My breath is the north wind’s breath;
My prey are the cold and the dead.
This is manifestly an echo of the first stanza of a poem, “Insomnia,” by Winifred Virginia Jordan (later Jackson), published by Lovecraft in his Conservative for October 1916:
The Thing, am I, that rides the Night,
That clips the wings of Sleep;
The Thing, am I, in sunshine bright
That goads, with hag-mind, deep;
The Thing, am I, with forked knife
That prods the weary brain,
And snarls when Pleasure strives for life
Within my haunts of Pain.
It is possible that Lovecraft revised this poem for Jackson, but she was herself an accomplished poet and probably did not require much help from Lovecraft. Another small point can be noted: the name De Blois is derived from a set of tombstones bearing this name in the churchyard of St John’s Episcopal Church in Providence, a favourite haunt of Lovecraft’s.
Regardless of its literary influences and the intentional obviousness of its plot, “Psychopompos” is a triumph, full of deft and subtle touches. The narrative opens as if in sympathy with the reclusiveness of the De Bloises: it is natural that evil legends would accrue against people who (like Lovecraft) were not conventionally religious and kept to themselves:
So liv’d the pair, like many another two
That shun the crowd, and shrink from public view.
They scorn’d the doubts by ev’ry peasant shewn,
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