"The Anxiety of Necromancy": Teemu Manninen on Clark Ashton Smith

by on Nov.26, 2012

[This post was written by Teemu Manninen. Teemu was born in 1977 and is a poet, a literary critic, an editor for the co-op publishing house Poesia, a translator of comic books and an all round cultural activist who in his spare time produces the annual Helsinki Poetics Conference. Here’s a gallery of art inspired by Smith’s work.]

The Anxiety of Necromancy

Clark Ashton Smith, “the Keats of California”, can, for a good reason, be called an impossible poet: he is one of the first, if not the only poet in the history of (at least Western) poetry to be able to write genre poetry — horror, fantasy, science fiction — that successfully integrates this low-brow, non-Canonical material in an intimate and internally logical way with the Great Tradition.

Born in 1893 in Long Valley, California, Smith was home-schooled. His family was poor, and so was Smith for most of his life. He started writing at the age of 11, and sold his first short stories to pulp magazines at the age of 17. When he was 19 years old, the decadent San Francisco poet George Sterling became his mentor (Sterling himself had been the pupil of the famous horror writer Ambrose Bierce).

Even though he was first and foremost a poet, Smith – who also worked as an illustrator and a sculptor – is better known for his connections with the weird fiction movement gathering around such pulp magazines as Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, and Amazing Stories. Among his fantasy cycles are the far future Earth stories situated on the continent of Zothique, and the stories about the medieval Averoigne. Smith also collaborated with R.E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft; among his lovecraftian inventions are the cursed book of Eidon and the frog god Tsathoggua.

But what was Smith like as a poet? In a word, supernatural: his subjects are the laments of necromancers and wizards, the wisps of lotus mists, dream visions, far stars and the horror of the gulfs between galaxies, the atmospheres of weird planets and the pale, demonic nymphs who inhabit them.

But for all his breathless invention it can, perhaps a little paradoxically, be said that there is nothing original in Smith’s poetry. His work is entirely composed of pastiche. What more, this pastiche itself is a product of a kind of misreading, a literal-mindedness which amounts to a historical nearsightedness. For Smith developed his own poetic style out of imitating — not directly, but “through” his own pulp and genre context — the poets of the French decadent movement and the early surrealism and fantasism of writers such as Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse, Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval.

An illustrative example is provided by Smith’s sonnet “On Re-Reading Baudelaire”, which is of course itself a riff on Keat’s “On Reading Chapman’s Homer”:

Forgetting still what holier lilies bloom
Secure within the garden of lost years,
We water with the fitfulness of tears
Wan myrtles with an acrid sick perfume;
Lethean lotus, laurels of our doom,
Dark amarant with tall unswaying spears,
Await funereal autumn and its fears
In this grey land that sullen suns illume.
Ivy and rose and hellebore we twine.
Voluptuous as love, or keen as grief,
Some fleeing fragrance lures us in the gloom
To Paphian dells or vales of Proserpine. . . .
But all the flowers, with dark or pallid leaf,
Become at last a garland for the tomb.

Here the symbolic ennui of Baudelaire is gathered and condensed, all the regalia of the forebear collected and stored in a palace of memory, the poem which is a place unto itself, an imaginary, formal land. Here, Baudelaire’s flowers of evil bloom in a garden which is composed of and by the sonnet qua sonnet, through masterful command of rhythm, sound and sense: every line “loaded with ore”, as Keats suggested a poet should do.

This is not so much imitation as it is a kind of callida iunctura in the manner of medieval poets, whose imitative poetics Smith’s technique resembles more than any modern poet: it is a gathering of traditional topoi, the “places” of argumentation, imagery or description, which functions as an analysis of what, in that which is to be imitated, needs to be focused on, improved, or interpreted. It is a reading of a forebear as a catalogue of one’s own future projects.

In this sense Baudelaire’s “Benediction”, when translated by Smith himself, becomes at least in my mind a prediction of what Smith himself will write:

Man’s sorrow is a nobleness, I trust,
Untouchable by either earth or hell;
I know to weave my mystic crown I must
Tax all the times, the universe as well.

But treasure lost from old Palmyra’s wealth,
The unknown metals, pearls out of the sea,
Can’t equal, though you mounted them yourself,
This diadem of dazzling clarity,

Since it is perfect luminosity,
Drawn from the holy hearth of primal rays,
Of which men’s eyes, for all their majesty,
Are only mournful mirrors, dark and crazed!

Here we experience all of Smith’s themes: the sorrow of being lost to all previous systems of collective, cultural or historical meaning, and the relentless search for a new, primal meaning by ”taxing” all times and the universe itself; also the theme of ”lost” knowledge revealing the being of history as death; and the projection of symbolism’s obsession with material culture onto archaeological and anthropological material.

If we but gain one more level of experience (pun intended) we will be able to read this poem from the point of view of fantasy and science fiction, and end up with the poetic program of a Smithian poet: a kind of necromancy, where forgotten forms of life, the rotting corpses of literary history, become filled with a fantastic vitalism that is disconcerting because it represents the anxiety of influence itself, the anachronistic necrofilia of the poet.

My heart is made a necromancer’s glass,
Where homeless forms and exile phantoms teem,
Where faces of forgotten sorrows gleam
And dead despairs archaic peer and pass:
Grey longings of some weary heart that was
Possess me, and the multiple, supreme,
Unwildered hope and star-emblazoned dream
Of questing armies. . . Ancient queen and lass,
Risen vampire-like from out the wormy mould,
Deep in the magic mirror of my heart
Behold their perished beauty, and depart.
And now, from black aphelions far and cold,
Swimming in deathly light on charnel skies,
The enormous ghosts of bygone worlds arise.

– Smith, “Necromancy”

These “enormous ghosts of bygone worlds” illustrate what the science fiction author M. John Harrison has called the “literalization of metaphor”, or the “colonializing” appropriation of a literary forerunner’s poetic imagery or narrative worlds in order to “really live in them”. But whereas Harrison describes the literalization of metaphor as a process of adaptation decay (the process of ever-increasing banalization and commercialization through subsequent adaptations of a fictional world), Smith’s work is more in line with what Thomas M. Greene, in his book The Light In Troy has called heuristic imitation:

> Heuristic imitations come to us advertising their derivation from the subtexts they carry with them, but having done that, they proceed to distance themselves from the subtexts and force us to recognize the poetic distance traversed. (…) [an] informed reader notes the allusion but he notes simultaneously the gulf in the language, in sensibility, in cultural context, in world view, and in moral style. (Greene 1982, 40)

Greene is discussing the problem of anachronism and historical belatedness faced by a Renaissance humanist who aims to imitate a classical forebear, but his typology of imitation is actually quite useful for analysing any historical period where an earlier text from a culture which is incommensurate with one’s own time and place needs to be incorporated and adapted to fit with one’s own means and aims.

Heuristic imitation is a kind of modernizing, then: “The poem becomes a rite de passage between a specified past and an emergent present. (…) Thus the imitative poem (…) acts out its own coming into being [and] creates a bridge from one mundus significans to another.” (ibid. 41) This idea of heuristic imitation helps us to see why Smith, and the concoction he devised — science fiction poetry — was impossible.

In all periods there have been genres or at least ways of writing which appear, from the point of view of that period, and for reasons which aren’t always very obvious or clear cut, to be beyond the capabilities of the current literary devices as well as the imaginative abilities of contemporary writers. We do not find psychological realism or stream of consciousness in medieval romance, nor do we find epic poetry of the Homeric vein in our time.

The appearance of a new style, a new device, or indeed a new genre is therefore always a rupture in the literary system of a period: it marks a moment when something previously impossible has suddenly been made possible. But the appearance of this “something new” must always be contained already in the logics of the past, or it could not have developed at all; the anxiety of influence is a necromantic misreading, a spell gone wrong, it is Frankenstein’s monster that has been cobbled together out of the discarded corpses of yesterday.

In this manner Smith succeeded in literalising into imagined worlds that which for his French forebears was either sensual illusion or a too-intensely experienced reality. In other words, he did what heuristic imitation often does to its examples, and, in a way, what popular literature often does to high art: turned into psychological realism that which was linguistic fantasy. He described as livable those worlds and places which had originally been merely argumentative, illustrative topoi for the agonism between imagination and reality.

Such an interpretation is made ironic by the fact that the French poets Smith was imitating had themselves arrived at their aesthetic approach at least in part by a heuristic misreading of the horror and fantasy tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Then again, we could also claim that Smith’s early and original fan fiction is something new in the history of poetry. In his best poems, such as ”The Star-Treader”, he forgets to imitate a style and almost accidentally creates his own, an intense, linguistically revisionary naivete drunk on the dark reaches of the imagination, something which was fast becoming impossible in a much more desperately new way from the point of view of the modernist literary system of his time.

The Star-Treader

A voice cried to me in a dawn of dreams,
Saying, “Make haste: the webs of death and birth
Are brushed away, and all the threads of earth
Wear to the breaking; spaceward gleams
Thine ancient pathway of the suns,
Whose flame is part of thee;
And the deep gulfs abide coevally
Whose darkness runs
Through all thy spirit’s mystery.
Go forth, and tread unharmed the blaze
Of stars wherethrough thou camest in old days;
Pierce without fear each vast
Whose hugeness crushed thee not within the past.
A hand strikes off the chains of Time,
A hand swings back the door of years;
Now fall earth’s bonds of gladness and of tears,
And opens the strait dream to space sublime”


Who rides a dream, what hand shall stay !
What eye shall note or measure mete
His passage on a purpose fleet,
The thread and weaving of his way !
It caught me from the clasping world,
And swept beyond the brink of Sense,
My soul was flung, and poised, and whirled
Like to a planet chained and hurled
With solar lightning strong and tense.
Swift as communicated rays
That leap from severed suns a gloom
Within whose waste no suns illume,
The winged dream fulfilled its ways.
Through years reversed and lit again
I followed that unending chain
Wherein the suns are links of light;
Retraced through lineal, ordered spheres
The twisting of the threads of years
In weavings wrought of noon and night;
Through stars and deeps I watched the dream unroll,
Those folds that form the raiment of the soul.


Enkindling dawns of memory,
Each sun had radiance to relume
A sealed, disused, and darkened room
Within the soul’s immensity.
Their alien ciphers shown and lit,
I understood what each had writ
Upon my spirit’s scroll;
Again I wore mine ancient lives,
And knew the freedom and the gyves
That formed and marked my soul.


I delved in each forgotten mind,
The units that had builded me,
Whose deepnesses before were blind
And formless as infinity—
Knowing again each former world—
From planet unto planet whirled
Through gulfs that mightily divide
Like to an intervital sleep.
One world I found, where souls abide
Like winds that rest upon a rose;
Thereto they creep
To loose all burden of old woes.
And one there was, a garden-close
Whose blooms are grown of ancient sin
And death the sap that wells and flows:
The spirits weep that dwelt therein.
And one I knew, where chords of pain
With stridors fill the Senses’ lyre;
And one, where Beauty’s olden chain
Is forged anew with stranger loveliness,
In flame-soft links of never-quenched desire
And ineluctable duress.


Where no terrestrial dreams had trod
My vision entered undismayed,
And Life her hidden realms displayed
To me as to a curious god.
Where colored suns of systems triplicate
Bestow on planets weird, ineffable,
Green light that orbs them like an outer sea,
And large auroral noons that alternate
With skies like sunset held without abate,
Life’s touch renewed incomprehensibly
The strains of mirth and grief’s harmonious spell.
Dead passions like to stars relit
Shone in the gloom of ways forgot;
Where crownless gods in darkness sit
The day was full on altars hot.
I heard—enisled in those melodic seas—
The central music of the Pleiades,
And to Alcyone my soul
Swayed with the stars that own her song’s control.
Unchallenged, glad, I trod, a revenant
In worlds Edenic longly lost;
Or dwelt in spheres that sing to those,
Through space no light has crossed,
Diverse as Hell’s mad antiphone uptossed
To Heaven’s angelic chant.


What vasts the dream went out to find !
I seemed beyond the world’s recall
In gulfs where darkness is a wall
To render strong Antares blind !
In unimagined spheres I found
The sequence of my being’s round—
Some life where firstling meed of Song,
The strange imperishable leaf,
Was placed on brows that starry Grief
Had crowned, and. Pain anointed long;
Some avatar where Love
Sang like the last great star at morn
Ere the pale orb of Death filled all its sky;
Some life in fresher years unworn
Upon a world whereof
Peace was a robe like to the calms that lie
On pools aglow with latter spring:
There Time’s pellucid surface took
Clear image of all things, nor shook
Till the black cleaving of Oblivion’s wing;
Some earlier awakening
In pristine years, when giant strife
Of forces darkly whirled
First forged the thing called Life—
Hot from the furnace of the suns—
Upon the anvil of a world.


Thus knew I those anterior ones
Whose lives in mine were blent;
Till, lo! my dream, that held a night
Where Rigel sends no message of his might,
Was emptied of the trodden stars,
And dwindled to the sun’s extent—
The brain’s familiar prison-bars,
And raiment of the sorrow and the mirth
Wrought by the shuttles intricate of earth.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

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