Strange Reflections:The Self-Image of Clark Ashton Smith

Henry J. Vester

Clark Ashton Smith did not like biographers — he referred to them as "ghouls" and "hyenas", and once told his friend, Robert Baker Elder, "I don't like what they write about me — they don't understand me." I think this must have been a pretty fair statement on Smith's part. He was an intensely private man and, even when writing short autobiographical pieces for one magazine or another, actually revealed almost nothing about the man he felt himself to be. However, we students and devotees of the work of Klarkash-Ton do have one recourse: the writings themselves.

Every work of art, whether a poem, a symphony, or a scratch on a rock, is an act of self-expression on the part of the artist. Depending on the form and content of a particular piece of work, either much or little of the artist's perspectives and self-image may be disclosed. Although Smith was almost as unrevealing in his poems, epigrams, and short stories as he was elsewhere, he did nonetheless give us an occasional glimpse into the soul and mind of the Emperor of Dreams. I have attempted, in this short disquisition, to allow Smith to speak for himself on a variety of subjects and issues. Aside from the selection and groupings of these excepts, I have done almost no interpretation. I hope that you, and the shade of Klarkash-Ton, will approve.

Call Him Ishmael

We know from a number of sources that Smith felt himself to be very much out of place in Auburn,in the Twentieth Century, and on the planet Earth. In his prose poem The Traveller he declares:

...forevermore I seek the city and the land of my former home: In the quest thereof I have wandered from the first immemorial years of my youth till now, and have mingled the dust of many realms, of many highways, in my garment's hem. ...Even the far, aerial walls of the cities of mirage, and the saffron meadows of sunset I have seen, but nevermore the city and land of my former home.

He seemed constantly to be seeking a way out — something that would free him (or at least free his imagination) from all that was common and petty in his world. In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft (c. 10/24/30) he wrote:

With me, though, there is no conscious desire to go back in time — only a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic, the utterly strange and ultra terrestrial. And this aspiration, as I know with a fatal foreknowledge, could never be satisfied by anything on earth or in actual life, but only through dream-ventures such as those in my poems, paintings, and stories.

And to August Derleth he wrote:

I have thought of quitting California...there is an increasing destruction and pollution of landscape beauties, and a growing influx of undesirable humans bringing with them filth and pestilence. ...California it would seem, must serve as a kind of sink or cess-pool for the whole U.S.Apart from this, the local attitude toward art and literature is discouraging. Perhaps, however, when I do go (or if I go) I shall make a clean jump out of the U.S. and perhaps wind up the in East Indies.

And fromThe Letter From Mohaun Los :

...I have never cared greatly for the material things ofearth. I have always been irked by the present age, have always been devoured by a sort of nostalgia for other times and places. It has seemed so oddly and capriciously arbitrary that I should be here and not otherwhere, in the infinite, eternal ranges of being...

Via Dolorosa

Although Clark Ashton Smith is most widely known for his short stories, he considered himself to be primarily a poet. His tales were a means of supplementing his always-meagre income, but his poetry was his art. However, the recognition which he felt was duly his never materialized, and he grew bitter, as demonstrated in these epigrams fromThe Devil's Notebook:

One can forgive the mob for its indifference to art. The people one cannot forgive are the supposedly intelligent, cultured classes, who, in theory, should recognize genius when they see it; but who, as a rule, are so timid, conventional and unimaginative that the new masterpiece either terrifies, offends, or leaves them cold and untouched. It is not the "swinish multitude", but the "swinish intelligentsia", who make the progress of an artist a Via Dolorosa of stones and thorns.

In art and literature, the jewel-merchants go a-begging.The financial rewards are all for the vendors of hogwash.


Time has been known to avenge many wrongs and injustices — even those inflicted upon poets.

But in the final analysis, Smith felt his art to be beyond all reckoning of financial value, and wrote in Desert Dweller:

  Men pity me for the scant gold I bring:
Unguessed within my heart the solar glare
On monstrous gems that lit my journeying.

They deem the desert flowerless and bare,
Who have not seen above their heads unfold
The vast, inverted lotus of blue air;

Nor the hanging gardens I behold
With half-shut eyes between the earth and moon
In topless iridescent tiers unrolled.

Don Juan

I would not use the name Don Juan in reference to Smith had he not used it first. Although little seems to be known about his romantic involvements in and around Auburn, the evidence clearly indicates that he had a great many of them. In his younger days he had a reputation — apparently an earned one — of being something of a Romeo-about town. A few gems from The Devil's Notebook:

The real artist in love is the man who can love whatever woman he happens to be with.

After all, why resist temptation? If one's temptations are scarce, one cannot afford to slight them; and if they are plentiful, one is sure to succumb sooner or later, anyhow.


"Live dangerously," said Nietzshe. One way to do that is to play the Don Juan in a small town.

Although Smith wrote a number of cynical observations regarding romance, he was no true cynic. FromThirteen Phantasms:

Many people called him a rake; but he knew, and had always known, that they were wrong. It was said that he had broken, or materially dented, the hearts of twelve women... Others might consider him a Don Juan: but he knew himself for a hopeless sentimentalist, if there ever had been one.

Phoenix Rising

We know very little about Smith's spiritual beliefs, except that he disdained religion and had strong leanings toward Buddhism. However, he appears to have had a keen sense of having lived past lives, and made several references to these impressions. The Star-Treaders derived entirely from this theme. He affirms this idea in the poem The Butterfly:

  Again I seem to know the tears
Of other lives, the woe and pain
Of days that dies; resurgent wane
The moons of countless bygone years.

From out the web of former lives,
The ancient, never-broken chain
Of love and sorrow, loss and gain,
One certain truth my heart derives —

Though beauty passes, this I know,
From change and death, this verity:
Her spirit lives eternally —
'Tis but her forms that come and go.

Cosmic Explorer

For me, perhaps Smith's most powerful image, which occurs throughout the body of his work, is that of the cosmic explorer, irresistibly drawn to seek out ever-weirder, more fantastic visions and experiences. The explorer theme occurs far too frequently in the poems and short stories for me to give even a partial list of titles, but it is perhaps most eloquently exemplified in the following selections:

From The Planet of the Dead:

...through his avocation he found a ready path to exotic realms in further space, to the only spheres where his fancy could dwell in freedom and his dreams could know contentment. For Melchior was one of those who are born with an immedicable distast for all that is present or near at hand; one of those who have drunk too lightly of oblivion and have not wholly forgotten the transcendent glories of other eons, and the worlds from which they were exiled into human birth; so that their furtive, restless thoughts and dim, unquenchable longings return obscurely toward the vanishing shores of a lost heritage.

And these glorious lines from The Star-Treader:

  Where no terrestrial dreams had trod
My vision entered undismayed
and Life her hidden realms displayed
To me as to a curious god.

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.

This, I think, is who Clark Ashton Smith most firmly believed himself to be, and how he would best like to be remembered.

Although this closing poem by Edgar Saltus was written in 1880, it seems to me to have been composed expressly to honor the immortal Star-Treader:

Who does not dream of those enchanted days,
When gods were known to tread the aisles of night-
And in the silent glades of Greece unite?
Yet of their dim retreats the legend says
That any mortal that should dare to gaze
Betwixt the bows and leaves, and so catch sight
Of god and goddess at their sacred rite-
Was turned to stone and so remained always.
The gods are dead we know, yet still whoe'er
Now lifts the veil of Truth , thereafter stands
As though of stone, transfixed as in the past,
And gauging life with one unchanging stare,
He still must gaze till Time's delinquent hands
Close down his haggard eyes in death at last.

From: Poppies and Mandragora,by Edgar Saltus

Article From: One Hundred Years of Klarkash-Ton, The Averon Press, 1996.
© Henry J. Vester III

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