I am providence the life.., p.7

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 7

 

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



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  Lovecraft’s absorption of classical antiquity did not occur entirely through the medium of books. In a late letter he speaks of the multifarious influences, going back several years, that led him to the ancient world:

  . . . the chance circumstance that a child’s reader which I devoured at the age of 6 had a very alluring selection about Rome & Pompeii—the equally chance circumstance that at 3 or 4 I was impressed by the great railway viaduct at Canton, between Providence & Boston, which has great masonry arches like a Roman aqueduct . . . & that my mother, in connexion with it, told me that arches were first extensively used by the Romans, & described the great aqueducts . . . which latter I soon saw in pictures—& so on, & so on.[91]

  Whipple Phillips also assisted in fostering Lovecraft’s love of Rome: “He had loved to muse amidst the ruins of the ancient city, & had brought from Italy a wealth of mosaics, . . . paintings, & other objets d’art whose theme was more often classically Roman than Italian. He always wore a pair of mosaics in his cuffs for buttons—one a view of the Coliseum (so tiny yet so faithful); the other of the Forum.”[92] Whipple brought home from his travels pictures of Roman ruins and some Roman coins: “I cannot begin to suggest the feeling of awe and anomalous familiarity which those coins—the actual products of Roman engravers and mints, and actually passed from Roman hand to Roman hand twenty centuries ago—awaked in me.”[93] The downstairs parlour of 454 Angell Street had a life-size Roman bust on a gilded pedestal. No doubt all this was part of the reason why Lovecraft always preferred the culture of Rome to that of Greece, although other philosophical, aesthetic, and temperamental factors eventually entered into it. Writing in 1931 to Robert E. Howard—that great champion of barbarism—he admitted: “I realise that the Romans were an extremely prosaic race; given to all the practical and utilitarian precepts I detest, and without any of the genius of the Greek or glamour of the Northern barbarian. And yet—I can’t manage to think behind 450 A.D. except as a Roman!”[94]

  In the short term the effect of reading Hawthorne, Bulfinch, and Garth’s Ovid was that “My Bagdad name and affiliations disappeared at once, for the magic of silks and colours faded before that of fragrant templed groves, faun-peopled meadows in the twilight, and the blue, beckoning Mediterranean” (“A Confession of Unfaith”). A more important result is that Lovecraft became a writer.

  It is not entirely clear what Lovecraft’s first literary work was. He dates the commencement of his writing to the age of six, remarking: “My attempts at versification, of which I made the first at the age of six, now took on a crude, internally rhyming ballad metre, and I sang of the exploits of Gods and Heroes.”[95] In context this appears to suggest that Lovecraft had begun to write verse prior to his discovery of classical antiquity, but that his fascination with the ancient world impelled him toward renewed poetic composition, this time on classical themes. None of this pre-classical verse survives, and the first poetical work we do have is the “second edition” of “The Poem of Ulysses; or, The Odyssey: Written for Young People.” This elaborate little book contains a preface, a copyright notice, and an internal title page reading:

  THE YOUNG FOLKS’

  ULYSSES

  or the Odyssey in plain

  OLDEN ENGLISH VERSE

  An Epick Poem Writ

  by

  Howard Lovecraft, Gent.

  This is dated to November 8, 1897, in the preface, and I have to believe that the “first edition” dated to earlier in the year, prior to Lovecraft’s seventh birthday on August 20, 1897.

  On the copyright page Lovecraft writes: “Acknowledgements are due to Popes Odyssey and Bulfinch’s Mythology and Harpers Half Hour Series.” Then, helpfully, “Homer first writ the poem.” Harper’s Half-Hour Series was a series of small books of essays, poetry, plays, and other short works selling for a quarter—the idea being, presumably, that they could each be read in half an hour. There does not seem to have been any edition (even an abridged one) of Homer or of the Odyssey, and I suspect the work in question was Eugene Lawrence’s A Primer of Greek Literature (1879), which may have had a summary of the Odyssey. In “A Confession of Unfaith” Lovecraft describes the volume as a “tiny book in the private library of my elder aunt” (i.e., Lillian D. Phillips). It is remarkable to think that Lovecraft had already read the whole of Pope’s Odyssey by the age of seven (one cannot know whether a similar acknowledgment appeared in the “first edition”); but it becomes immediately obvious that Lovecraft in his 88-line poem could not possibly have been dependent upon Pope’s 14,000-line translation either metrically or even in terms of the story line. Here is how Lovecraft’s poem begins:

  The nighte was darke! O readers, Hark!

  And see Ulysses’ fleet!

  From trumpets sound back homeward bound

  He hopes his spouse to greet.

  This is certainly not Pope; what, in fact, does it remind one of? How about this?

  And through the drifts the snowy clifts

  Did send a dismal sheen:

  Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—

  The lee was all between.[96]

  It’s our old friend the Ancient Mariner. Indeed, Lovecraft has done Coleridge one better by internally rhyming every iambic heptameter line (Coleridge sometimes becomes lax and does only every other one, or sometimes none at all), and he abandons Coleridge’s stanzaic divisions. Lovecraft, in his surprisingly frequent discussions of “The Poem of Ulysses” in essays and letters, never suggests Coleridge as the metrical model of the work. In 1926 Lovecraft remarked that “My 6-year-old ‘verse’ was pretty bad, and I had recited enough poetry to know that it was so”; he goes on to say that what helped him to improve his prosody was a very careful study of Abner Alden’s The Reader (1797), of which he had a third edition (1808), and which he declares “was so utterly and absolutely the very thing I had been looking for, that I attacked it with almost savage violence.”[97] After a month or so, Lovecraft asserts, he produced “The Poem of Ulysses.”

  If nothing else, the work is a remarkable example of concision: in 88 lines Lovecraft has compressed the 12,000 lines of Homer’s Odyssey. Even Bulfinch’s prose account takes up thirty pages in the Modern Library edition. Lovecraft achieves this compression by deftly omitting relatively inessential portions of the story—in particular, the entire first four books (the Adventures of Telemachos) and, perhaps surprisingly, book eleven (the descent into Hades)—and, more importantly, by retelling the entire story in chronological sequence, from Odysseus’ sailing from Troy to his final return home to Ithaca, rather than in the elaborately convoluted way in which Homer’s Odysseus narrates his adventures. Much later Lovecraft made this distinction between order of occurrence and order of narration a pillar of his technique of weird fiction, and it is remarkable that he had gained a practical knowledge of it so early. Perhaps the Harper’s Half-Hour Series had performed the feat for him in this instance, but nevertheless Lovecraft’s utilisation of it is striking.

  “The Poem of Ulysses” is a delight. There are only a small number of grammatical errors (“it’s” for “its”; false archaisms such as “storme” and “darke”), some dubious rhymes (storme/harme), and one actually false rhyme (first/nurse), but otherwise it is charming from beginning to end. Consider Ulysses’ defeat of the Cyclops:

  By crafty ruse he can confuse

  The stupid giant’s mind

  Puts out his eye with dreadful cry

  And leaves the wretch behind.

  Or his wrath at Circe for turning his men into pigs:

  Unhappy he his men to see

  Engaged in swinish bliss.

  He drew his sword and spake harsh word

  To Circe standing there

  “My men set free”, in wrath quoth he

  “Thy damage quick repair”!!!

  And if Lovecraft genuinely saw an internal rhyme in “He’ll ne’er roam far from Ithaca,” it may give us some idea of his New England pronunciation.

  Perhaps the most intere
sting thing about “The Poem of Ulysses” is a sort of catalogue or notice for “Providence Classics” of the Providence Press Co. appended to the poem. The list is as follows:

  MYTHOLOGY FOR THE YOUNG 25¢

  ULYSSES FOR YOUNG FOLKS IN VERSE 5¢

  AN OLD EGYPTIAN MYTH PREPARED

  SPECIALLY FOR SMALL CHILDREN 5¢

  SOON TO BE PUBLISHED

  THE YOUNG FOLKS ILIAD IN VERSE 5¢

  THE ÆNEID 5¢

  OVIDS METAMORPHOSES 25¢

  This suggests that “Mythology for the Young” and “An Old Egyptian Myth . . .” have already been written; they do not, so far as is known, survive. There is another, more extensive catalogue at the end of Poemata Minora, Volume II (1902), which lists all three of the “Soon to Be Published” works cited above. The first two have apparently perished; they too are likely to have been paraphrased from Bulfinch. And, of course, one must keep in mind that Lovecraft might have read Pope’s translation of the former and Dryden’s of the latter. Of “Ovid’s Metamorphoses” I shall have more to say later.

  The fact that “Mythology for the Young” is priced at 25¢ suggests that it was a fairly substantial document; it appears to be Lovecraft’s first prose work, perhaps a sort of paraphrase of some of Bulfinch. Chapter 34 of The Age of Fable has a relatively brief discussion of some Egyptian myths, mostly the myth of Isis and Osiris, and I suspect that this is where Lovecraft derived the source material for “An Old Egyptian Myth . . .” At 5¢, it is likely to have been a very short work. The 1902 catalogue lists something called “Egyptian Myths” at 25¢, probably an expansion of the original work.

  The elaborate “publishing” efforts involved in “The Poem of Ulysses”—illustrations, title and copyright pages, catalogue, price—certainly suggest that Lovecraft, so early as the age of seven, is determined to make a career of writing. A “P.S.” after the preface notes: “The later works may be much better than this because the author will have more practice.” Lovecraft had not yet learnt the use of the hectograph, so if he “sold” copies of “The Poem of Ulysses” (and he may well have done so to members of his family, who would no doubt have provided encouragement), he would presumably have written out a fresh copy for each sale.

  Classical antiquity was, however, more than a literary experience for Lovecraft; it was both a personal and even a quasi-religious one. He speaks warmly of going to the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design (the college situated at the foot of College Hill, mostly along Benefit Street) in 1897–99 (the museum had in fact only opened in 1897[98]); at that time the museum was, as Lovecraft notes, housed in the “awkward & inadequate basement of the main building” at 11 Waterman Street (destroyed to make way for the bus tunnel of 1914), but nevertheless it

  . . . was an enchanted world for me—a true magick grotto where unfolded before me the glory that was Greece & the grandeur that was Rome. I have since seen many other museums of art, & am now sojourning but a five-cent fare from the next-greatest in the world [i.e., the Metropolitan Museum in New York]; yet I vow that none has ever moved me so much, or given me so close & vivid a sense of contact with the ancient world, as that modest basement on Waterman St. hill with its meagre plaster casts![99]

  No doubt his mother or his grandfather took him there. Elsewhere Lovecraft says that “Before long I was fairly familiar with the principal classical art museums of Providence and Boston”[100] (by which he presumably refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Fogg Museum at Harvard) and that he had begun a collection of small plaster casts of Greek sculptures. The result was an infatuation with the classical world and then a kind of religious epiphany. Let Lovecraft tell it in his own inimitable way:

  When about seven or eight I was a genuine pagan, so intoxicated with the beauty of Greece that I acquired a half-sincere belief in the old gods and Nature-spirits. I have in literal truth built altars to Pan, Apollo, Diana, and Athena, and have watched for dryads and satyrs in the woods and fields at dusk. Once I firmly thought I beheld some of these sylvan creatures dancing under autumnal oaks; a kind of “religious experience” as true in its way as the subjective ecstasies of any Christian. If a Christian tell me he has felt the reality of his Jesus or Jahveh, I can reply that I have seen the hoofed Pan and the sisters of the Hesperian Phaëthusa. (“A Confession of Unfaith”)

  This certainly puts the lie to Bulfinch, who solemnly declared at the very beginning of The Age of Fable: “The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct. The so-called divinities of Olympus have not a single worshipper among living men.”[101]

  In writing the above passage Lovecraft was clearly wishing to show that his scepticism and anticlericalism were of very early origin; but he may be guilty of some exaggeration. Earlier in this essay he reports that “I was instructed in the legends of the Bible and of Saint Nicholas at the age of about two, and gave to both a passive acceptance not especially distinguished either for its critical keenness or its enthusiastic comprehension.” He then declares that just before the age of five he was told that Santa Claus does not exist, and that he thereupon countered with the query as to “why God is not equally a myth.” “Not long afterwards,” he continues, he was placed in a Sunday school at the First Baptist Church, but became so pestiferous an iconoclast that he was allowed to discontinue attendance. Elsewhere, however, he declares that this incident occurred at the age of twelve.[102] When we examine Lovecraft’s philosophical development, the likelihood is that the Sunday school incident indeed took place at the age of twelve, and not at five. But clearly there was an earlier Sunday school stint for Lovecraft, and here his growing attachment for Rome did seem to get him into a little trouble:

  When Rome was presented to me from . . . [an] unfavourable angle—the Sunday-School horror of Nero and the persecution of Christians—I could never quite sympathise in the least with the teachers. I felt that one good Roman pagan was worth any six dozen of the cringing scum riff-raff who took up with a fanatical foreign belief, and was frankly sorry that the Syrian superstition was not stamped out. . . . When it came to the repressive measures of Marcus Aurelius and Diocletianus, I was in complete sympathy with the government and had not a shred of use for the Christian herd. To try to get me to identify myself with that herd seemed in my mind ridiculous.[103]

  This leads to the charming admission that “at seven I sported the adopted name of L. VALERIUS MESSALA & tortured imaginary Christians in amphitheatres.”[104]

  By the age of seven Lovecraft had already begun to read—Grimm’s Fairy Tales at four, the Arabian Nights at five, and classical antiquity at six or seven—gone through two pseudonyms (Abdul Alhazred and L. Valerius Messala), begun to write poetry and prose nonfiction, and gained what would prove to be a lifelong love of England and of the past. But his imaginative appetite was not complete; for he claims that in the winter of 1896 yet another interest emerged: the theatre. The first play he saw was “one of Denman Thompson’s minor efforts,”[105] The Sunshine of Paradise Alley, which featured a slum scene that fascinated him. Shortly thereafter he was enjoying the “well-made” plays of Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero;[106] but the next year his taste was improved by seeing his first Shakespearean play, Cymbeline, at the Providence Opera House. Lovecraft’s memory was good enough in 1916 to remember that the Christmas matinee he attended in 1897 was on a Saturday.[107] He set up a little toy theatre in his room, hand-painted the scenery, and played Cymbeline for weeks. Lovecraft’s interest in drama continued sporadically for at least the next fifteen to twenty years; around 1910 he saw Robert Mantell’s company perform King John in Providence, with the young Fritz Leiber, Sr, as Faulconbridge.[108] Lovecraft was also a very early enthusiast of film, and throughout his life we will find selected films influencing some of his most significant writing.

  From the age of three onward—while his father was slowly deteriorating both physically and mentally in Butler Hospital—the young Howard Phillips Lovecraft was encountering one intellectual and imag
inative stimulus after the other: first the colonial antiquities of Providence, then Grimm’s Fairy Tales, then the Arabian Nights, then Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, then eighteenth-century belles-lettres, then the theatre and Shakespeare, and finally Hawthorne, Bulfinch, and the classical world. It is a remarkable sequence, and many of these stimuli would be of lifelong duration. But there remained one further influence that would definitively turn Lovecraft into the man and writer we know: “Then I struck EDGAR ALLAN POE!! It was my downfall, and at the age of eight I saw the blue firmament of Argos and Sicily darkened by the miasmal exhalations of the tomb!”[109]

  3. Black Woods & Unfathomed Caves

  (1898–1902)

  The history of what Lovecraft called weird fiction up to 1898 is a fascinating one, and Lovecraft himself has written perhaps the ablest historical account of it in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927). The use of the “supernatural” in Western literature can, of course, be traced back to the Iliad with the intervention of the gods in the affairs of men; but Lovecraft is correct in maintaining that weird fiction as such can only be a product of an age that has ceased to believe generally in the existence of the supernatural. The ghost in Hamlet inspires fear and awe not by what he says or does but by his mere existence: he represents a defiance or contravention of what we have understood to be the unvarying laws of Nature. It is, therefore, not surprising that the first canonical work of supernatural fiction was written by a prototype of the eighteenth-century English Enlightenment, one who had no awareness that the story he wrote down in two months based on a dream of a mediaeval castle would assist in subverting the rationalism he otherwise so cherished.

  And yet, it is not often realised that when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto from his press at Strawberry Hill on Christmas Day 1764, there was no immediate literary sea-change. Although Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777) was a direct imitation (and, in part, a rebuke) of Walpole’s little novel, it required the added impetus of German Romanticism actually to launch the “Gothic” movement in literature in the 1790s. It was then that Ann Radcliffe published The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Italian (1797), and other of her novels, becoming for a time the most popular writer in the English-speaking world. It was also then that twenty-year-old Matthew Gregory Lewis published The Monk (1796); a little later Charles Robert Maturin published the first of his novels, The Fatal Revenge (1807), and culminated the Gothic tradition with Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin are only the dominant figures of the English Gothic, and they were surrounded by dozens of imitators, parodists, and hacks—a phenomenon very similar to the horror “boom” of the 1980s. Frederick S. Frank’s definitive treatment of Gothic fiction lists a total of 422 novels up to 1820, most of them having long ago attained merciful oblivion.[1] (The eccentric William Beckford’s Vathek [1786] is in a somewhat separate class, owing more to the Arabian tale and Johnson’s Rasselas than to Walpole.)

 

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