I am providence the life.., p.74
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 74
Lovecraft, because of his early absorption in an anterior literary tradition, did not find this effort as difficult as many of his contemporaries; in fact, it might be said that his Decadent phase was really a means of retaining as much genuine classicism as he could in light of new scientific information.
Consider the issue of didacticism. Lovecraft had in fact never subscribed to classical notions of literature as a teacher or guide to behaviour; when he trumpeted classical ideals of “taste” and “elegance,” he restricted their scope purely to matters of style and content (avoidance of slang and of “low” subject-matter), stripping them of their heavy moral overtones. In his early years, then, Lovecraft did not so much rebel against classical didacticism as simply ignore it. With his Decadent phase the rebellion became conscious; but, interestingly, Lovecraft chose to use Victorianism rather than Augustanism as his whipping-boy, probably because the actual morality preached by the latter was, as he came to realise, very much his own whereas the former was not. As he wrote in “In the Editor’s Study” (Conservative, July 1923):
It is time . . . definitely to challenge the sterile and exhausted Victorian ideal which blighted Anglo-Saxon culture for three quarters of a century and produced a milky “poetry” of shopworn sentimentalities and puffy platitudes; a dull-grey prose fiction of misplaced didacticism and insipid artificiality; an appallingly hideous system of formal manners, costume, and decoration; and worst of all, an artistically blasphemous architecture whose uninspired nondescriptness transcends tolerance, comprehension, and profanity alike.
Nothing is spared here—prose, poetry, architecture, social customs. Lovecraft was not always so harsh on the Victorians on this last point (in 1927 he would speak approvingly of the Victorians’ “manners and conceptions of life as a fine art”), but for his present purposes a uniform condemnation was much more rhetorically satisfying.
If there is any literary source for any of these views, it is Oscar Wilde. It is not likely that Wilde actually generated Lovecraft’s views; rather, Lovecraft found Wilde a highly articulate spokesman for the sort of views he was nebulously coming to adopt. In “Final Words” (September 1921) he quotes the following sentences from Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891):
No artist desires to prove anything. . . . No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. All art is at once surface and symbol. . . . Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. . . . It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. . . . All art is quite useless.
Lovecraft found this especially helpful in his defence of the weird tale, as we shall see presently. In “The Defence Reopens!” he denies John Ravenor Bullen’s claim that “The White Ship” was an allegory (or, rather, while not denying it, maintains that it was an “exception” in his work) by stating: “like Dunsany I protest that except in a few cases I have no thought of teaching.” Lovecraft had gained this view of Dunsany from the appendix to Edward Hale Bierstadt’s Dunsany the Dramatist (1917; rev. 1919), which printed several letters by Dunsany to various of his American supporters. One letter, to Emma Garrett Boyd, states bluntly: “Don’t let them hunt for allegories. I may have written an allegory at some time, but if I have, it was a quite obvious one, and as a general rule, I have nothing to do with allegories.” Dunsany may have been a little disingenuous in this claim, for many of his tales—especially the prose-poems in Fifty-one Tales (1915)—are clear parables emphasising moral and aesthetic issues fundamental to his thought; but if this was what he wished to believe of his work, his disciple Lovecraft would willingly follow him.
There are two general caveats that should be borne in mind when studying Lovecraft’s Decadent stance: first, he clearly wished to believe that his position did not commit himself entirely, or at all, to the avant-garde; and second, he had no wish to follow the Decadents in the repudiation of Victorianism on the level of personal conduct. As to the first point, let me quote in full that statement from “In the Editor’s Study” of July 1923 which I cited earlier:
What is art but a matter of impressions, of pictures, emotions, and symmetrical sensations? It must have poignancy and beauty, but nothing else counts. It may or may not have coherence. If concerned with large externals or simple fancies, or produced in a simple age, it is likely to be of a clear and continuous pattern; but if concerned with individual reactions to life in a complex and analytical age, as most modern art is, it tends to break up into detached transcripts of hidden sensation and offer a loosely joined fabric which demands from the spectator a discriminating duplication of the artist’s mood.
This statement—particularly the remark about “life in a complex and analytical age”—is remarkably similar to T. S. Eliot’s celebrated definition and justification of Modernism, as expressed in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921):
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
I do not think it is likely that Lovecraft was aware of this statement; if he had been, he would by no means have agreed with it. His own utterance seems to be as complete a repudiation of classicism—notably in the sense of clarity, unity, and “coherence”—as can be imagined. But Lovecraft pulls back at the last; perhaps aware that his amateur audience would be dumbfounded by the perception of the antiquated fossil Lovecraft becoming avant-garde, he hastily adds that he is “no convert to Dadaism,” concluding:
Nothing, on the contrary, seems more certain . . . than that the bulk of radical prose and verse represents merely the extravagant extreme of a tendency whose truly artistic application is vastly more limited. Traces of this tendency, whereby pictorial methods are used, and words and images employed without conventional connexions to excite sensations, may be found throughout literature; especially in Keats, William Blake, and the French symbolists. This broader conception of art does not outrage any eternal tradition, but honours all creations of the past or present which can shew genuine ecstatic fire and a glamour not tawdrily founded on utterly commonplace emotions.
Lovecraft is slowly carving out a place for himself between Victorian conventionality and Modernist radicalism: in this way he can continue to fulminate against such things as free verse, stream-of-consciousness, or the chaoticism of Eliot and Joyce as illegitimate extensions of his Decadent principles. Lovecraft seeks to unite his new views with what he saw as the best traditions of Western art in a provocative statement in “The Work of Frank Belknap Long, Jr.”:
Literary revolutions are not new. Elderly people who smirk complacently and predict the rapid subsidence of modernism forget utterly the Renaissance and even the romantic revival of the early nineteenth century. As in those times, the world has received a colossal influx of new ideas well calculated to remould all our impressions and recast all our utterances. We see the hollowness of things we believed before, and above all the disconnectedness of things we once thought indissolubly joined. It is the birth of a new aesthetic, grounded on the old but going beyond it, and demanding poignant, beautiful, and genuine sensation as the essence of artistic endeavour.
The fact that this utterance occurs in an essay on Long suggests that this young new colleague may have been instrumental in effecting this shift in Lovecraft’s vision. Lovecraft himself describes Long as “a sincere and intelligent disciple of Poe, Baudelaire, and the French decadents.”
The second point in this entire issue—Decadence as a mode of conduct—is clarified in Lovecraft’s discussion with Long in 1923–24 about the merits of Puritanism. This discussion occasionally becomes a little frivolous, and Lovec
Physical life and experience, with the narrowings of artistic vision they create in the majority, are the objects of my most profound contempt. It is for this reason that I despise Bohemians, who think it essential to art to lead wild lives. My loathing is not from the standpoint of Puritan morality, but from that of aesthetic independence—I revolt at the notion that physical life is of any value or significance.
The extravagance of that last utterance—especially when it is followed by the sentence “To me the ideal artist is a gentleman who shows his contempt for life by continuing in the quiet ways of his ancestors, leaving his fancy free to explore refulgent and amazing spheres”—suggests that Lovecraft is not being entirely straightforward here, and that his objections to Bohemianism are not founded in aesthetics but in ethics and social conduct. This becomes evident in a later comment:
An intellectual Puritan is a fool—almost as much of a fool as is an anti-Puritan—but a Puritan in the conduct of life is the only kind of man one may honestly respect. I have no respect or reverence whatever for any person who does not live abstemiously and purely—I can like him and tolerate him, and admit him to be a social equal as I do Clark Ashton Smith and Mortonius and Kleiner and others like that, but in my heart I feel him to be my inferior—nearer the abysmal amoeba and the Neanderthal man—and at times cannot veil a sort of condescension and sardonic contempt for him, no matter how much my aesthetick and intellectual superior he may be.
Now we are getting to the root of the matter. Of course, the various code words in this utterance (“abstemiously,” “purely”) are a thin veil for restraint in sexual behaviour; the mentions of Smith and Kleiner—both of whom were openly fond of female companionship—are also telling. Lovecraft attempted to warn Long away from pornography or modern literature that explores sexual relations without Victorian inhibitions (“There is no more true sense and artistick discrimination in a modern coxcomb’s praise of Jurgen or Ulysses . . . than there is in a small boy’s praise of the dirty words which a bigger boy has dared to chalk up on the back wall of the stable”), and copied over a poem he had written in 1921 to Kleiner, “The Pathetick History of Sir Wilful Wildrake,” about a seventeenth-century rake who reforms late in life and becomes a loving husband and father. This poem is (along with a 1923 specimen, “Damon and Lycë,” another squib on Alfred Galpin’s love affairs) as close to sexual explicitness as Lovecraft ever got—
’Tis he that rails with righteous Zest
At Modern Nymphs in Style undrest
With shrinking Petticoats and naked Breast.
—but the message is quite the reverse of lasciviousness. Lovecraft had, therefore, sloughed off (or, in reality, never really adopted) the aesthetics of Victorianism but could not—or did not wish to—relinquish the sexual Puritanism he had no doubt gained at his mother’s knee.
The middle ground that Lovecraft wished to occupy between a stale conventionalism and eccentric radicalism is evident in an amateur controversy of the early 1920s that linked him, Long, and Samuel Loveman with some of the old mossbacks of the amateur world. The source of the contretemps appears to have been a review of the first issue of Sonia Greene’s Rainbow in the “Bureau of Critics” column in the National Amateur for March 1922. This review, although unsigned, is unquestionably by Lovecraft; and it goes on at great length praising Loveman’s poem “A Triumph in Eternity” and Loveman’s verse in general: “Samuel Loveman is the last of the Hellenes—a golden god of the elder world fallen among pygmies. Genius of the most poignant authenticity is his, opening in his mind a diamond-paned window which looks out clearly upon rarefied realms of dreams and scenes of immortal beauty seldom and dimly glimpsed by the modern age.” And so on. (I would remind readers who might be put off by this extravagant praise that Loveman really is a fine poet in a delicate fin de siècle sort of way.)
To this review one Michael Oscar White of Dorchester, Massachusetts—one of the members of the Hub Club, whom Lovecraft met on more than one occasion during his Boston visits of 1923—took issue in an article published in the Oracle (edited by Clyde G. Townsend) for December 1922. Writing on Loveman as the third instalment of a series on “Poets of Amateur Journalism,” White—not knowing that Lovecraft was the author of the puff of Loveman in the National Amateur—criticised the review for praising a poet who was deliberately obscure, whose “insincere misanthropic” views tainted his work, and whose use of pagan gods was not only antiquated but possibly sacrilegious; remarking in particular of “A Triumph of Eternity,” he wrote: “In anyone but an amateur poet with an amateur perception of things held sacred in a Christian country the whole piece would be considered blasphemous.” White’s article really is a piece of ham-fisted asininity, as he expects delicate poetry to follow the rules of prose syntax and logic. He concluded by saying that Loveman might win a following if he came down from Olympus and “adds his protest against the evils of the age.”
White’s article was in turn attacked by Long in “An Amateur Humorist,” in the March 1923 Conservative, and by Alfred Galpin in the August 1923 issue of the Oracle. Both articles are extraordinarily vicious. Galpin, dripping with sarcasm, finally concludes: “It would seem as if Mr. White did not know what he was talking about.” Long’s response compares White to a court jester: “One characteristic of a jester is his utter lack of all sense of beauty. The divinest strain from the most enchanted lyre drives him to a gnashing of teeth and an insane stamping of feet. His appreciation of the arts is limited. He is in a small measure interested in ‘thought’ . . . And yet it is certain that all of the nuances and subtleties of thought escape him.” And so on for four full pages. This article itself inspired a rebuttal by Edward H. Cole (in the “Bureau of Critics” column of the National Amateur for March 1923)—not so much a defence of White as a rebuke to Long for his sarcasm. Lovecraft remarked to Loveman that “Cole has a touch of New-England narrowness, but is not in any way a barbarian like that ass White. He really appreciates your poetry, & fully understands the absurd limitations of his dense fellow-townsman. What Cole disliked was the first half of Belknap’s article, & that alone.” Nevertheless, Lovecraft no doubt took rich satisfaction in printing Loveman’s superb ode “To Satan” on the cover of the July 1923 Conservative as a further tweaking of White’s nose, although the bulk of this issue like its predecessor had been planned long before the controversy erupted.
Lovecraft himself made an actual response to White on at least two occasions: first, in a section of the “Bureau of Critics” column following Cole’s piece (if this section, labelled “Contributed,” is by Lovecraft, as I believe it is) and in “In the Editor’s Study” in the July 1923 Conservative. The former is studiously polite; the latter, which I have quoted on several occasions as typifying his condemnation of Victorian moral and aesthetic standards, is very much the opposite, and it is now evident that this new aesthetic stance was, at least superficially, being adopted as a stick with which to beat White over the head. There is no question of Lovecraft’s sincerity in his views; but he found in them a convenient weapon against the naive moral criticism that White was putting forth. Lovecraft writes: “Certainly the position of Mr. White’s circle is flawless if we are to accept art as an affair of the external intellect and commonplace, unanalysed emotions alone. The Conservative dissents only because he believes with most of the contemporary world that the actual foundations of art differ widely from those which the prim nineteenth century took for granted.” So Lovecraft now welcomes the thought of being “contemporary”!
And yet, Lovecraft was by no means in the modernist camp. Several intensely interesting documents of this period bear this out with much emphasis. It
But well before this date, Lovecraft had written one or both of his responses to The Waste Land. The first is an editorial in the March 1923 Conservative headed “Rudis Indigestaque Moles” (taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “A rough and unfinished mass”). Beginning by lambasting the amateurs in general for their “complacent indifference . . . toward the present state of literature and general aesthetics,” Lovecraft then turns to his argument that science has radically changed our attitude to the world, hence our attitude toward art. “The old heroics, pieties, and sentimentalities are dead amongst the sophisticated; and even some of our appreciations of natural beauty are threatened.” The Waste Land is one result of this state of confusion and turbulence:
We here behold a practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general; offered to the public (whether or not as a hoax) as something justified by our modern mind with its recent comprehension of its own chaotic triviality and disorganisation. And we behold th[e] public, or a considerable part of it, receiving this hilarious melange as something vital and typical; as “a poem of profound significance,” to quote its sponsors.
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