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I am providence the life.., p.43

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 43


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

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  And ask’d but one thing—to be let alone!

  The use of the cross as the ultimate defence against the supernatural wolves—curious for an unbeliever—is merely a bow to weird tradition.

  Lovecraft is surprisingly effective in depicting the grief of the parents of little Jean:

  Around the corpse the holy candles burn’d,

  The mourners sigh’d, the parents dumbly yearn’d.

  Then one by one each sought his humble bed,

  And left the lonely mother with her dead.

  And sympathy is later extended even to Sieur De Blois as he contemplates the body of his wife, “By some assassin’s stroke most foully slain.”

  “Psychopompos” appeared in Cook’s Vagrant for October 1919. We have seen that Cook was not at all receptive to Lovecraft’s Georgian poetry; but he clearly appreciated both his weird tales and his weird poems, and a good many of the latter were published in the Vagrant, including “Psychopompos” and “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” (July 1918). I have not found much comment in the amateur papers on his weird verse, but it and the satiric poetry are easily the two most consistently meritorious branches of his poetic work.

  Weird fiction and poetry was, as I have suggested, still a relatively minor concern in Lovecraft’s life at this period; amateur politics, political events, relations with his mother, and his gradual emergence from the hermitry of his post-high-school years dominated his interests, and it is to these subjects that I shall now turn.

  9. Feverish and Incessant Scribbling

  (1917–1919 [II])

  Meanwhile political events were not failing to attract Lovecraft’s attention. Even if he could not himself serve in the Great War, he could at least closely follow the course of that conflict—especially America’s belated entry into it. Lovecraft predictably wrote a number of poems commemorating the United States’ joining of her “mother” England to battle Germany—“Iterum Conjunctae” (Tryout, May 1917), “An American to the British Flag” (Little Budget, December 1917), “The Link” (Tryout, July 1918)—or more generally urging on the British soldiers: “Britannia Victura” (Inspiration, April 1917), “Ad Britannos, 1918” (Tryout, April 1918). A number of these poems were reprinted in the professional National Enquirer. None of them amount to anything.

  A few political poems of this period address slightly more interesting issues. “To Greece, 1917” (Vagrant, November 1917) is a fiery broadside urging the Greeks to take action against the invading Germans. At the outset of the war Greece was very divided on its course of action, and Lovecraft upbraids King Constantine I for his pledge of neutrality (“Shame on thee, Constantinos! Reign no more, / Thou second Hippias of the Attic shore!”). Naturally, Lovecraft lauds Eleutherios Venizelos, the Greek premier since 1909, who had sided with the Allies and in 1916 had established a separate government, forcing Constantine to flee the country:

  Say not your plains of heroes are bereft,

  Nor cry that Clisthenes no heir hath left;

  False is the tongue that such a slander gives

  To Grecian soil, while VENIZELOS lives!

  If nothing else, it contains one memorable line, as it records how the Greeks at Thermopylae “Snatch’d infant Europe from a Persian grave.” This poem must have been written before June 1917, when the Greeks actually entered the war on the Allied side.

  “On a Battlefield in Picardy” (National Enquirer, May 30, 1918) is a poignant Pindaric ode about the devastation of France:

  Here all is dead.

  The charnel plain a spectral legion knows,

  That cannot find repose,

  And blank, grey vistas endless stretch ahead,


  And stain’d with red,

  Where Valour’s sons for Freedom bled.

  And in the scorching sky

  The carrion ravens fly,

  Scanning the treeless waste that rots around,

  Where trenches yawn, and craters pit the ground.

  And in the night the horn’d Astarte gleams,

  And sheds her evil beams.

  This and several other poems show what a fine (or, at least, respectable) poet Lovecraft could have been had he not been so slavishly addicted to the heroic couplet in his youth. Less successful is “To the Nurses of the Red Cross” (written in 1917[1] but apparently not published in Lovecraft’s lifetime), a maudlin poem about the “heav’n-descended train” who “ease the anguish and . . . purge the pain” of soldiers on the battlefield.

  Lovecraft’s most reprinted poem is “The Volunteer,” which first appeared in the Providence Evening News for February 1, 1918, and was then reprinted in the National Enquirer (February 7, 1918), Tryout (April 1918), the Appleton [Wis.] Post (surely at the instigation of Maurice W. Moe), the St. Petersburg [Fla.] Evening Independent (perhaps through John Russell?), and Trench and Camp, the military paper at San Antonio, Texas. The dates of the latter three appearances have not been ascertained. The poem was a reply to “Only a Volunteer” by Sergeant Hayes P. Miller, 17th Aero-Squadron, U.S.A., which appeared in the National Enquirer for January 17, 1918, and also in the Providence Evening News. Neither poem is exactly a stellar piece of work: Miller laments bitterly that his treatment as a volunteer is far inferior to that of the drafted men (“. . . the honor goes to the drafted man, / And the work to the volunteer!”), forcing Lovecraft to counter that the volunteer is the true patriot and will be so recognised by the people:

  We honour the ranks of the conscripts,

  For we know they are average men—

  The plumber and clerk snatched up from their work

  To be thrown in the dragon’s den;

  They are bearing their fate rather nobly,

  Who is perfect enough to sneer?

  But the laurels of fame and the patriot’s name

  Go first to the volunteer!

  This is worth comparing to a curious poem entitled “The Conscript,” written probably in 1918 but apparently not published at the time. Here we are taken into the mind of an ordinary conscript (“I am a peaceful working man— / I am not wise or strong . . .”) who has no idea why he has been “told . . . I must write my name / Upon a scroll of death”:

  I hate no man, and yet they say

  That I must fight and kill;

  That I must suffer day by day

  To please a master’s will.

  These are highly uncharacteristic remarks for Lovecraft to make—if, that is, the poem is not intended somehow parodically or cynically. It is, indeed, a little difficult to know what the drift of the poem is, or what the significance of the final stanza can be:

  Yet hark—some fibre is o’erwrought—

  A giddying wine I quaff—

  Things seem so odd, I can do naught

  But laugh, and laugh, and laugh!

  Does this mean that the conscript has suddenly gained a sense of his role in the great war machine? I am not at all clear as to the occasion or purpose of this poem.

  By December 1917 Lovecraft noted that “My questionnaire arrived yesterday, and I discussed it with the head physician of the local draft board.” At the advice of this individual—who was both a family friend and also a remote relative—Lovecraft, although he himself wished to place himself in Class I, put himself down in Class V, Division G—“totally and permanently unfit.”[2] Lovecraft observed poignantly that “It is not flattering to be reminded of my utter uselessness twice within the space of six months,” but realised that the doctor was correct in noting that “my lack of physical endurance would make me a hindrance rather than a help in any work requiring schedule and discipline.”

  In terms of the actual progress of the war, Lovecraft here remarked: “As to the general situation, it seems very discouraging just now. It may take a second war to adjust things properly.” This comment—seemingly but, surely, unwittingly prophetic—was made at the lowest point of the war for the Allies: the Germans were making considerable headway and seemed on the brink of winning the
war before the new American forces could be mobilised. It is therefore possible that Lovecraft was actually conceiving the possibility of a victory for the Germans, so that the “second war” would be one required to restore national borders to the pre-1914 state. Curiously enough, I cannot find any remark by Lovecraft on the actual end of the war; but this may only be because letters of the 1918–19 period have probably been lost or destroyed and the surviving ones have not on the whole been made available to me.

  Lovecraft’s ponderous essay, “The League” (Conservative, July 1919), on the League of Nations, shows that he was paying considerable attention to the peace conference at Versailles. The essay was published only two months after the covenant of the League was unanimously adopted on April 28, 1919. “The League” is nothing more than a broadside on the inevitability of war and the uselessness of treaties to prevent it. Opening pompously with a grandiose pseudo-philosophical rumination like that used in some of his stories (“Endless is the credulity of the human mind”), Lovecraft goes on to say: “Having just passed through a period of indescribable devastation caused by the rapacity and treachery of an unwisely trusted nation which caught civilisation unarmed and unawares, the world purposes once more to adopt a policy of sweet trustfulness, and to place its faith again in those imposing ‘scraps of paper’ known as treaties or covenants . . .” Lovecraft’s objections to the League focus on three issues: first, he does not see that it can genuinely do much to prevent war from occurring, since any nation that wants something badly enough will fight for it regardless of the consequences; second, the League’s goal of universal disarmament is dangerous unless there is some means of verifying that countries are not secretly hoarding arms; and third, if a serious conflict did arise, the League would quickly “be undermined by a score of clandestine inner leagues” based upon prior allegiance of the countries involved.

  These objections are a mixture of hard-headed common sense and right-wing paranoia. The principal means by which the League would have “prevented” war by a single determined country would be the imposition of economic sanctions. Lovecraft no doubt gained tremendous satisfaction that the United States in early 1920 refused to ratify American entry into the League, the brainchild of the hated President Wilson; but what Lovecraft did not know is that the withdrawal of what was already the world’s leading economic power effectively nullified the threat of economic sanctions, since the United States would always be theoretically capable of ignoring them against a country it supported. The point about disarmament is valid enough, and indeed the League’s World Disarmament Conference, which met periodically during the later 1920s, essentially fell apart after being unable to resolve the question of Hitler’s demand for rearmament in the early 1930s. The point about “clandestine inner leagues” does not seem borne out by the history of the League. In fact, the League of Nations worked quite well in resolving minor disputes in the 1920s, and the United States began half-officially participating in League business by the end of the decade. Lovecraft’s alternate recommendation—that the major powers (United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy) form a “simple and practical alliance” to prevent Germany or some other belligerent from starting another war sounds good on paper, even though he could not predict that in three years the rise of Mussolini would cause Italy to go in a very different direction from the other Allied powers. Lovecraft always liked to think of himself as a tough, unsentimental political realist; and the man who would say in 1923 that “The one sound power in the world is the power of a hairy muscular right arm”[3] was not likely to look kindly on an organisation he considered soft-headed and leftist.

  One comment in “The League” is very interesting: “It is to be a very nice and attractive League, we are told; brimful of safeguards against ordinary war, even though somewhat deficient in safeguards against Bolshevism.” This signifies Lovecraft’s predictable involvement in the “Red Scare” of the postwar period. I cannot find any remark contemporary with the October Revolution, but it was only in the immediate postwar period that the tendencies of Russian socialism became evident. In another essay in the July 1919 Conservative, “Bolshevism,” Lovecraft worries about the “alarming tendency observable in this age . . . a growing disregard for the established forces of law and order.” Some of this disregard is caused by the “noxious example of the almost sub-human Russian rabble,” but other factors are closer to home:

  . . . long-haired anarchists are preaching a social upheaval which means nothing more or less than a reversion to savagery or mediaeval barbarism. Even in this traditionally orderly nation the number of Bolsheviki, both open and veiled, is considerable enough to require remedial measures. The repeated and unreasonable strikes of important workers, seemingly with the object of indiscriminate extortion rather than rational wage increase, constitute a menace which should be checked.

  All one can say about something like this is that Lovecraft changed his tune considerably—indeed, antipodally—in a decade. It is unlikely that he himself had any personal knowledge of any “Bolsheviki,” either open or veiled; and as someone not in the workforce, he could of course have no conception of the appalling working conditions prevailing in many key industries at this period, and he is parroting many right-wing commentators in accepting the fantasy that labour unrest was largely led by foreign socialists. Once again, Lovecraft as an armchair political analyst proves himself to be naive, prejudiced, and fundamentally ignorant of the actual state of affairs in the nation.

  The remark about a “reversion to savagery” suggests the basic tenet of Lovecraft’s entire political philosophy at this juncture, one that was perhaps maintained throughout his life even if expressed slightly less hyperbolically. Lovecraft’s statement in 1929—“All that I care about is the civilisation—the state of development and organisation which is capable of gratifying the complex mental-emotional-aesthetic needs of highly evolved and acutely sensitive men”[4]—could serve as the core of his entire political thought. It may be true that his idea of a “civilisation” was a state of society that would make things comfortable for people like him; but most philosophy and politics tend to be self-serving, so that Lovecraft is not unique on this point. His prime concern was to prevent a collapse of civilisation, a concern that became very keen in the period directly following the world war, especially given his low view of humanity.

  The fact is, as Lovecraft states in “At the Root” (United Amateur, July 1918), we have not advanced very far from primitivism at all: “We must recognise the essential underlying savagery in the animal called man, and return to older and sounder principles of national life and defence. We must realise that man’s nature will remain the same so long as he remains man; that civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake.” Many things—liquor; war; Bolshevism—could bring about a collapse, and society must be constituted in such a way as to prevent a collapse from occurring. For Lovecraft, at this period (and, really, for his entire life, even during and after his conversion to moderate socialism), the answer was aristocracy. I shall examine this branch of his thought later.

  Right now we can tie in Lovecraft’s racism into the picture, since he manifestly regarded the influx of foreigners—who, to his mind, could not maintain the cultural standards he valued—as a threat to the dominant Anglo-Saxon civilisation of New England and the United States as a whole. The essay “Americanism” (United Amateur, July 1919) embodies this conception. For Lovecraft, Americanism is nothing more than “expanded Anglo-Saxondom”: “It is the spirit of England, transplanted to a soil of vast extent and diversity, and nourished for a time under pioneer conditions calculated to increase its democratic aspects without impairing its fundamental virtues. . . . It is the expression of the world’s highest race under the most favourable social, political, and geographical conditions.” None of this is, as we have already seen, especially new or unusual for someone in Lovecraft’s socioeconomic position. Nor, indeed, is
the complete rejection of the “melting-pot” idea:

  Most dangerous and fallacious of the several misconceptions of Americanism is that of the so-called “melting-pot” of races and traditions. It is true that this country has received a vast influx of non-English immigrants who come hither to enjoy without hardship the liberties which our British ancestors carved out in toil and bloodshed. It is also true that such of them as belong to the Teutonic and Celtic races are capable of assimilation to our English types and of becoming valuable acquisitions to the population. But from this it does not follow that a mixture of really alien blood or ideas has accomplished or can accomplish anything but harm. . . . Immigration cannot, perhaps, be cut off altogether, but it should be understood that aliens who choose America as their residence must accept the prevailing language and culture as their own; and neither try to modify our institutions, nor to keep alive their own in our midst.

  I repeat that this statement—offensive as it may be to many—was not in any way unusual amongst Yankees of Lovecraft’s class. Let us bypass the flagrant untruth that immigrants have somehow come here merely to enjoy the “liberties” carved out by those sturdy Saxons: again Lovecraft’s complete ignorance of the hardships willingly endured by immigrants to establish themselves in this country has betrayed him into clownish error. The critical term here is “assimilation”—the idea that foreign culture-streams should shed their own cultural heritage and adopt that of the prevailing (Anglo-Saxon) civilisation. Current thinking on this idea rejects the “melting-pot” idea as violently as Lovecraft did, although from a different direction. What Israel Zangwill envisioned in his play, The Melting-Pot (1909), was the fusing of cultures among the divergent culture-streams of America to produce a new civilisation unlike that of any of the separate cultures of Europe or Asia or Africa. Many of us now, evidently, wish to see ethnic or culture-groups retain their own folkways to produce a new metaphor—a “rainbow”; but it is by no means clear that the severe fragmentation of the American people along ethnic lines has produced much aside increased racial tensions and a fundamental lack of unity of purpose. In Lovecraft’s time it was expected that immigrants would “assimilate”; as one modern historian has noted: “The predominant expectation [in the early twentieth century] has been that the newcomer, no matter what his place of origin, would conform to Anglo-Saxon patterns of behavior.”[5] Lovecraft, although on the far right in his views on World War I and on the League of Nations, was a centrist in the matter of immigrant assimilation.

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