I am providence the life.., p.52

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 52


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

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  By the time Lovecraft discovered him, Dunsany had published much of the fiction and drama that would gain him fame, even adulation, on both sides of the Atlantic: Time and the Gods (1906); The Sword of Welleran (1908); A Dreamer’s Tales (1910); The Book of Wonder (1912); Five Plays (1914); Fifty-one Tales (1915); The Last Book of Wonder (1916); Plays of Gods and Men (1917). Tales of Three Hemispheres would appear at the very end of 1919, marking the definite end of this phase of his work. By this time, however, Dunsany had achieved idolatrous fame in America, thanks in part to the editions of his work published by John W. Luce & Co. in Boston. In 1916 he became the only playwright to have five plays simultaneously produced in New York, as each of the Five Plays appeared in a different “little” theatre. His work was appearing in the most sophisticated and highbrow magazines—Vanity Fair, the Smart Set, Harper’s, and (a little later) the Golden Book. By 1919 Dunsany would probably have been considered one of the ten greatest living writers in the English-speaking world. Shaw Desmond’s article on him in the November 1923 Bookman, “Dunsany, Yeats and Shaw: Trinity of Magic,” places him ahead of two now canonical figures.

  It is difficult to specify in brief compass the principal characteristics of even this early work of Dunsany’s, to say nothing of the novels, tales, and plays he wrote during the remaining four decades of his career; but Dunsany himself provides a few clues as to the basic import of all his work in Patches of Sunlight, as he recounts how at an early age he saw a hare in a garden: “If ever I have written of Pan, out in the evening, as though I had really seen him, it is mostly a memory of that hare. If I thought that I was a gifted individual whose inspirations came sheer from outside earth and transcended common things, I should not write this book; but I believe that the wildest flights of the fancies of any of us have their homes with Mother Earth . . .[4] Lovecraft would have been taken aback by this utterance, since it was precisely the apparent remoteness of Dunsany’s realm—a realm of pure fantasy with no connexion with the human world—that initially captivated him; and, strangely enough, Lovecraft came to express dissatisfaction at what he thought was the “dilution” of this otherworldliness in Dunsany’s later work, when in fact his own creative writing of the 1920s and 1930s was on a largely similar path to Dunsany’s in its greater topographical realism and evocation of the natural world.

  But many readers can be excused for seeing the early Dunsany in this light, since the pure exoticism and lack of any significant reference to the “real” world in his early volumes appeared to signal it as virtually the creation of some non-human imagination. The realm of Pegana (which is featured in The Gods of Pegana and Time and the Gods, and in those volumes only) is wholly distinct from the “real” world; the first sentence of The Gods of Pegana seems to refer to the temporal priority of Dunsany’s God Mana-Yood-Sushai to the Graeco-Roman or Islamic gods, but beyond this citation there is no allusion to the “real” world at all. Dunsany himself, in his autobiography, remarks that his early tales were written “as though I were an inhabitant of an entirely different planet,”[5] something Lovecraft no doubt found very captivating, given his own cosmicism; but Dunsany could not keep this up for long, and already by The Sword of Welleran the real world has entered, as it would continue increasingly to do in his later writing. Indeed, it could be said that the uneasy mingling of the real and the unreal in The Sword of Welleran and A Dreamer’s Tales produces some of the most distinctive work in Dunsany’s entire canon.

  It should, however, not be thought that Dunsany’s early work is uniform either in import or in quality. By the time A Dreamer’s Tales was published, he seems to have reached a certain exhaustion of imagination. Most of the tales in The Book of Wonder were written around pictures drawn by Sidney H. Sime, who had illustrated most of Dunsany’s earlier volumes; and these tales show a regrettable tendency toward self-parody and ponderously owlish humour. The result is a sort of snickering sarcasm and cheap satire sadly out of keeping with the high seriousness of his early work. Lovecraft, in a late letter, put his finger directly on the problem:

  As he gained in age and sophistication, he lost in freshness and simplicity. He was ashamed to be uncritically naive, and began to step aside from his tales and visibly smile at them even as they unfolded. Instead of remaining what the true fantaisiste must be—a child in a child’s world of dream—he became anxious to shew that he was really an adult good-naturedly pretending to be a child in a child’s world. This hardening-up began to shew, I think, in The Book of Wonder . . .[6]

  Lovecraft is exactly right on the result but not, I think, on the cause: it was not, certainly, that Dunsany was “uncritically naive” in his early work, for that work clearly displays his sophisticated awareness of the symbolic function of fantasy for the conveying of philosophical conceptions; it is simply that now Dunsany no longer wished to preserve the illusion of naiveté as he had done in the Gods of Pegana period. The Last Book of Wonder, some of which was written during the early stages of the war, is a little more in line with his earlier manner, but Tales of Three Hemispheres is easily his weakest collection, containing many ephemeral and insignificant items. It was just as well that, after a few years, Dunsany found a new direction with his early novels.

  An examination of Dunsany’s early tales and plays reveals many thematic and philosophical similarities with Lovecraft: cosmicism (largely restricted to The Gods of Pegana); the exaltation of Nature; hostility to industrialism; the power of dream to transform the mundane world into a realm of gorgeously exotic beauty; the awesome role of Time in human and divine affairs; and, of course, the evocative use of language. It is scarcely to be wondered at that Lovecraft felt for a time that Dunsany had said all he had wished to say in a given literary and philosophical direction.

  Lovecraft could hardly have been unaware of Dunsany’s reputation. He admits to knowing of him well before he read him in 1919, but he had passed him off as a writer of whimsical, benign fantasy of the J. M. Barrie sort. The first work he read was not Dunsany’s own first volume, The Gods of Pegana, but A Dreamer’s Tales, which may well be his best single short story collection in its diversity of contents and its several powerful tales of horror (“Poor Old Bill,” “The Unhappy Body,” “Bethmoora”). Lovecraft admits: “The book had been recommended to me by one whose judgment I did not highly esteem . . .”[7] This person was Alice M. Hamlet, an amateur journalist residing in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and probably a member of Winifred Virginia Jackson’s informal coterie of writers. Some months later Lovecraft acknowledged Hamlet in a poem, “With a Copy of Wilde’s Fairy Tales” (July 1920):

  Madam, in whom benignant gods have join’d

  The gifts of fancy, melody, and mind;

  Whose kindly guidance first enrich’d my sight

  With great DUNSANY’S Heliconian light . . .

  Lovecraft’s present of Wilde’s fairy tales was a small recompense for the realms of wonder Hamlet had opened up in introducing him to Dunsany, for Lovecraft would repeatedly say, even late in life, that Dunsany “has certainly influenced me more than any other living writer.”[8] The first paragraph of A Dreamer’s Tales “arrested me as with an electrick shock, & I had not read two pages before I became a Dunsany devotee for life.”[9]

  Hamlet had given Lovecraft A Dreamer’s Tales in anticipation of Dunsany’s lecture at the Copley Plaza in Boston on October 20, 1919, part of his extensive American tour. Lovecraft read the book about a month or so before the visit, for he later remarks that he first encountered Dunsany in September.[10] In a letter of November 9 to Rheinhart Kleiner describing the lecture he states that “a party consisting of Miss H[amlet], her aunt, young Lee, and L. Theobald set out for the great event.”[11] I do not know who young Lee is. There must have been others whom Lovecraft met in Boston prior to the lecture; in particular, at some point he met Kleiner, and with him wrote a series of light-hearted poems that I have grouped together under the title “On Collaboration” (derived from one poem so titled). One of these,
written to Verna McGeoch, runs as follows:

  Madam, behold with startled eyes

  A source of wonder and surprise;

  Your humble serfs are two of many

  Who will this night hear Ld DUNSANY!

  “Wonder” presumably prefers to Dunsany’s Book of Wonder. But Kleiner clearly could not have accompanied Lovecraft and the others to the lecture, else Lovecraft would not have had to write to him about it in his letter. In any case, the group secured seats in the very front row, “not ten feet” from Dunsany; it was the closest Lovecraft would ever come to meeting one of his literary idols, since he was too diffident to meet or correspond with Machen, Blackwood, or M. R. James. Lovecraft describes Dunsany aptly: “He is of Galpinian build—6 ft. 2 in. in height, and very slender. His face is fair and pleasing, though marred by a slight moustache. In manner he is boyish and a trifle awkward; and his smile is winning and infectious. His hair is light brown. His voice is mellow and cultivated, and very clearly British. He pronounces were as wair, etc.” After an account of his literary principles Dunsany read his magnificent short play, The Queen’s Enemies (in Plays of Gods and Men), then an exquisite parody of himself, “Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn” (in The Last Book of Wonder). After the lecture “Dunsany was encircled by autograph-seekers. Egged on by her aunt, Miss Hamlet almost mustered up courage enough to ask for an autograph, but weakened at the last moment. . . . For mine own part, I did not need a signature; for I detest fawning upon the great.” Dunsany’s own account of this lecture scarcely occupies more than a few sentences in his second autobiography, While the Sirens Slept: “At Boston in a big hall called the Copley Plaza the chair was taken for me by Mr. Baker, lecturer on the drama at Harvard . . . There Mr. Ellery Sedgewick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, entertained us in what, as I said there was one word that I would not use here again, I may call the American way.”[12] Clearly he was entirely unaware that the lanky, lantern-jawed gentleman in the front row would become his greatest disciple and a significant force in the preservation of his own work.

  Alice Hamlet, however, could not give up the idea of an autograph by Dunsany, so she wrote him a personal letter, enclosing as a present an original letter by Abraham Lincoln. Dunsany acknowledged this gift with customary graciousness (“It is a stately letter, and above all, it is full of human kindness; and I doubt if any of us by any means can achieve anything better than that”).[13] Perhaps it was this that led Dunsany to agree to act as Laureate Judge of Poetry of the UAPA for the 1919–20 term. In this function Dunsany probably read some of Lovecraft’s poetry published during that period, but in his letter to UAPA President Mary Faye Durr announcing his decision he makes no reference to any work by Lovecraft; instead, he grants top honours to a poem by Arthur Goodenough, second place to one by John Milton Samples, and third place to one by S. Lilian McMullen, also mentioning work by Rheinhart Kleiner and Winifred Jackson.[14]

  Another gift to Dunsany by Hamlet was the Tryout for November 1919, which contained one of two poems written on Dunsany by Lovecraft. “To Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany” (Tryout, November 1919) must have been written very shortly after Lovecraft’s attendance of the lecture; it is a dreadful, wooden poem that starkly reveals the drawbacks of using the Georgian style for subjects manifestly unsuited to it:

  As when the sun above a dusky wold

  Springs into sight, and turns the gloom to gold,

  Lights with his magic beams the dew-deck’d bow’rs,

  And wakes to life the gay responsive flow’rs;

  So now o’er realms where dark’ning dulness lies,

  In solar state see shining Plunkett rise!

  And so on for another sixty lines. Dunsany, however, remarked charitably in a letter published in the Tryout that the tribute was “magnificent” and that “I am most grateful to the author of that poem for his warm and generous enthusiasm, crystallised in verse.”[15]

  And yet, a few months later Lovecraft wrote a much better tribute in three simple stanzas of quatrains, “On Reading Lord Dunsany’s Book of Wonder” (Silver Clarion, March 1920). Here is the last stanza:

  The lonely room no more is there—

  For to the sight in pomp appear

  Temples and cities pois’d in air,

  And blazing glories—sphere on sphere.

  Dunsany apparently never read this poem.

  Lovecraft very quickly acquired and read most or all of Dunsany’s published books: The Gods of Pegana (given to him by his mother[16]); two Modern Library editions, one containing A Dreamer’s Tales and The Sword of Welleran (1917), the other containing The Book of Wonder and Time and the Gods (1918); Five Plays; Fifty-one Tales; The Last Book of Wonder; Plays of Gods and Men; Tales of Three Hemispheres; and Unhappy Far-Off Things (1919), Dunsany’s pensive reflections on the end of the war. Lovecraft’s edition of Five Plays dates to 1923, but he had probably read the contents earlier. He never seems to have acquired the non-fantastic Tales of War (1918), although he probably read it. For the rest of his life Lovecraft continued to acquire (or, at least, read) almost all of Dunsany’s new books as they came out, in spite of his dwindling enthusiasm for Dunsany’s later work.

  It is easy to see why a figure like Dunsany would have had an immediate appeal for Lovecraft: his yearning for the unmechanised past, his purely aesthetic creation of a gorgeously evocative ersatz mythology, and his “crystalline singing prose” (as Lovecraft would memorably characterise it in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) made Lovecraft think that he had found a spiritual twin in the Irish fantaisiste. As late as 1923 he was still maintaining that “Dunsany is myself . . . His cosmic realm is the realm in which I live; his distant, emotionless vistas of the beauty of moonlight on quaint and ancient roofs are the vistas I know and cherish.”[17] And one must also conjecture that Dunsany’s position as an independently wealthy nobleman who wrote what he chose and paid no heed to popular expectations exercised a powerful fascination for Lovecraft: here was an “amateur” writer who had achieved tremendous popular and critical success; here was a case where the aristocracy of blood and the aristocracy of intellect were conjoined.

  It is, of course, the prose style of those early works that is so fatally alluring, and it is this, more than the philosophy or themes in Dunsany’s work, that Lovecraft first attempted to mimic. There is much truth in C. L. Moore’s comment: “No one can imitate Dunsany, and probably everyone who’s ever read him has tried.”[18] Lovecraft’s first consciously Dunsanian story is “The White Ship,” which was probably written in October 1919. In early December he remarked to Kleiner: “As you infer, ‘The White Ship’ is in part influenced by my new Dunsanian studies.”[19] The phrase “in part” is interesting, and in fact quite accurate: although it strives to imitate Dunsany’s prose-poetic style, it is also in large part a philosophical allegory that reflects Lovecraft’s, not Dunsany’s, world view.

  “The White Ship” tells of Basil Elton, “keeper of the North Point light,” who one day “walk[s] out over the waters . . . on a bridge of moonbeams” to a White Ship that has come from the South, captained by an aged bearded man. They sail to various fantastic realms: the Land of Zar, “where dwell all the dreams and thoughts of beauty that come to men once and then are forgotten”; the Land of Thalarion, “the City of a Thousand Wonders, wherein reside all those mysteries that man has striven in vain to fathom”; Xura, “the Land of Pleasures Unattained”; and finally Sona-Nyl, in which “there is neither time nor space, neither suffering nor death.” Although Elton spends “many aeons” there in evident contentment, he gradually finds himself yearning for the realm of Cathuria, the Land of Hope, beyond the basalt pillars of the West, which he believes to be an even more wondrous realm than Sona-Nyl. The captain warns him against pursuing Cathuria, but Elton is adamant and compels the captain to launch his ship once more. But they discover that beyond the basalt pillars of the West is only a “monstrous cataract, wherein the oceans of the world
drop down to abysmal nothingness.” As their ship is destroyed, Elton finds himself on the platform of his lighthouse. The White Ship comes to him no more.

  The surface plot of “The White Ship” is clearly derived from Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” (in A Dreamer’s Tales). The resemblance is, however, quite superficial, for Dunsany’s delightful tale tells only of a dream-voyage by a man who boards a ship, the Bird of the River, and encounters one magical land after another; there is no significant philosophical content in these realms, and their principal function is merely an evocation of fantastic beauty. (Dunsany wrote the story in anticipation of a boat trip down the Nile.) Lovecraft’s tale is meant to be interpreted allegorically or symbolically, and as such enunciates several central tenets of his philosophical thought.

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