On the Alleged Influence of Lord Dunsany on Clark Ashton Smith

Donald Sidney-Fryer

Fritz Leiber has recently brought to my attention the article "Conan's Great—Grandfather" by L. Sprague de Camp in Amra v 2 It 17. In this article Mr. de Camp states in passing that Lord Dunsany influenced the writings of Clark Ashton Smith. Since Mr. de Camp has mentioned this in print on at least three other occasions (Science Fiction Handbook, Hermitage House, New York, 1953, page 79; Lost Continents, Gnome Press, New York, 1954, page 260; Anra v Z It 13, in the review of Smith's collection The Abominations of Yondo under the heading "Scrolls & Such"), I assume it is a carefully considered opinion, and as such worthy of serious attention. I would, however, like to present a divergent point of view.

In the Lost Continents citation Mr. de Camp states that Smith's style is "based ultimately on Poe and Dunsany". While I admit to something of a superficial similarity between the respective subject—matters of Dunsany and Smith, I cannot admit to the style of Smith being based on that of Dunsany. However. Mr. de Camp is correct in singling out Poe as one of the authentic stylistic influences on Smith, as Smith himself acknowledged the influence of Poe, as well as that of Baudelaire.

Smith once told me that he first read some of Dunsany's output about 1920. but a mere reading is not sufficient to act as a profound influence on a writer--—especially such a writer as Clark Ashton Smith, who chose his literary models very carefully--—and Dunsany simply was not among them. Long before 1920, Smith had been creating poems where-- in are many themes and backgrounds similar to those of his later tales —circa 1925--1937.

There is a logical and unmistakable evolution in Smith's writing from his first juvenile efforts in prose (at the age of 11 Smith wrote imitations of fairy tales and The Arabian Nights, and later "long adventure novels dealing with Oriental life"), through his first professional short stories ("The Malay Krise", "The Ghost of Mohammed Din", "The Mahout", "The Rajah and the Tiger" in The Overland Monthly and The Black Cat, 1910--1912), through his published poetry, through his poems in prose, and finally on through his later tales, many of which are extended poems in prose. By the time Smith read Lord Dunsany, he was already gravitating toward the creation of tales set in imaginary worlds. He may have noted how Dunsany handled his materials and how Dunsany's style helped him to present his imaginary worlds, but Smith had already formed his prose style well before 1920—at least as early as 1914—and by 1920 he had already perceived, even if somewhat vaguely, the subject—matter for his later tales (to judge from the poems in prose of his Ebony and Crystal).

The superficial similarity of Dunsany and Smith forms an example of independent and (almost) parallel evolution. Such examples are not rare in the field of literature. For example, Alexander Montgomery and Edmund Spenser evolved a similar sonnet form of interlinking rhymes quite independently of each other. Many of the themes and backgrounds which appear in Smith's three major poetry collections--The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), Ebony and Crystal (1922), Sandalwood (1924)—reappear in his later tales, and this logical development in Smith's creative evolution had nothing to do with any influence of Dunsany. Space would not permit the citation of all possible examples from the three aforementioned collections and the comparison of same with examples in Smith's later tales, and so a few generalizations will have to suffice, and two or three examples.

Through all three collections runs the theme of what may be called the cosmic—astronomic—this theme was undoubtedly suggested to Smith by the example of the poems of a similar nature by George Sterling-- or the interplanetary and the interstellar; but the theme is treated most expansively by Smith in The Star—Treader. Also present are many poems dealing powerfully with the themes of death, destruction, and night, especially in The Star-Treader and Ebony and Crystal. Ebony and Crystal and especially Sandalwood contain many poems dealing with love in a manner of rare poignancy. And in all three are poems dealing with figures of classical (i.e., Gracco—Roman) mythology, as well as a few poems dealing with the "lost continents" of Atlantis and Lemuria (The Star-Treader: the sonnet "Atlantis"; Ebony and Crystal: the sonnet "In Lemuria"; Sandalwood: the quatrain "Lemurienne", this last added later to the printed volume; and in bits and snatches of other poems in all volumes).

Thus, Smith's preoccupation with death and imageries of death began very early in his literary career, and continued not illogically in the majority of his tales. When Smith came to write in the 1930's what may nominally be termed science fiction, a science fiction of interplanetary and interstellar themes and backgrounds. he was merely utilizing material he had handled fifteen to twenty years earlier. From handling figures and gods of classical mythology in his poems, it was but a short and simple step for Smith to utilize in his tales. Whenever the need or inspiration or both presented itself, gods of his own creation. And almost needless to mention, Smith uses lost continents as backgrounds for about one—fourth to one—third of his later tales.

Let me cite an example of continuity of theme, that of the Gorgon Medusa. In The Star-Treader there are the poem "Medusa" and the sonnet "The Medusa of the Skies", and in Ebony and Crystal there is the sonnet "The Medusa of Despair". And among Smith's later tales we find "The Gorgon".

Let me cite an example of continuity of background, that background of Smith's creation which features multiple suns. In the title poem of The Star—Treader Smith mentions a world "Where colored skies of systems triplicate / Bestow on planets weird, ineffable, / Green light that orbs them like an outer sea, I And large auroral noons that alternate I With skies like sunset held without abate "--—and in Ebony and Crystal we have "Triple Aspect" (dealing obviously enough with three suns—each of a different hue) and in the sonnet "Desire of Vastness" Smith mentions a "trinal noon" (indicating a noontime of triple suns). For a continuation of background with multiple suns among his later tales, see "The City of the Singing Flame" and the Inner Sphere wherein the sky is "filled with many—coloured suns, like those that might shine on a world of some multiple solar system"; see "The Curse of Aforgomon" and the planet Hestan with its "four small suns"; see "The Maze of the Enchanter and "The Flower—Women" and the three suns of amber, emerald, and carmine; see "The Demon of the Flower" and the planet Lophai with the double suns of "jade green and balsa—ruby orange".

Finally as an example of continuity of character—type, let me cite from Ebony and Crystal the poem "The Nereid", who "dwells for-- ever, ocean—thralled, / Soul of the sea's vast emerald." Consult the tale "Sadastor" and compare the above nereid with the nereid-- like siren Lyspial, who—born of the. waters of the planet Sadastor-- must die with those same waters.

Generally Overlooked is the fact that a great many of Smith's so-- called "tales of horror" are just as much tales of love. The theme of love so powerfully sounded in Ebony and Crystal and Sandalwood continues with equal force in his later tales, especially in such extended poems in prose as "A Night in Malneant", "The Planet of the Dead", and others.

As for the crowning poem in Ebony and Crystal--—a poem only describable as a telescoped epic—The Hashish-- Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil": it is a veritable catalogue of things to come in Smith's later tales. The tremendous efflorescence of imagination in Smith's later tales, especially those of 1930-- 1934, is strikingly and unmistakably prefigured in the seemingly exhaustless flood of invented wonders presented in this, the longest of his poems. To liar subject—matter and was episodes (many of which are conpressed tales in themselves) would "The be like reading an author's common-- place book, so pregnant is it with themes and backgrounds used in his later tales. The cosmic—astronomic element seen here is combined with extrapolations of monsters of classical mythology and with an entire repertory of objects of evil used by Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Symbolists; the whole poem being unified by the central figure of the Hashish—Eater, i.e. , "the emperor of dreams" (which figure has its analogies with "the Man—God" of Baudelaire, actually a very ancient concept). This extraordinary poem may have been composed after 1920, but its preview of things to come in later tales owes nothing to Dunsany. Something of its imagery and structure was suggested to Smith by George Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry", which poem Smith first read in 1907 when he was almost 15, two years after Smith discovered the poetry of Poe.

Perhaps even more significant to the student of Smith's later tales is the inclusion in Ebony and Crystal of the twenty—nine poems in prose, a number of which Smith had composed prior to 1920, such as "Ennui", first published in 1918 in The Smart Set. Already much of the characteristic subject—matter of Smith's later tales is foreshadowed as a few titles will show: "The Traveller". "The Flower-Devil", "The Princess Almeena", "In Cocaigne" (this French—medieval imaginary land of idleness and luxury has its obvious analogies with Atlantis), and "From the Crypts of Memory". In fact, two of these-- A "The Flower-Devil" and "From the Crypts of Memory"—later served as the nuclei for the tales or extended poems in prose, "The Demon of the Flower" and "The Planet of the Dead", respectively.

From these poems in prose it was but a short step to the creation of the extended poems in prose, "The Abominations of Yondo" and "Sadastor", both composed in 1925, and from them to Smith's later tales. The first of these does have a slight Dunsanian flavor in its first paragraph, especially in the phrase "Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim", and in the first paragraph's concluding sentence: "Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well—ordered lands [which seems a especially Dunsanian]; but there are no such gods on Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished, and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells [but this phrase has more a flavor of the wit of Voltaire or William Beckford than that of Dunsany].

This brings us to a discussion of certain essential differences between Dunsany's tales and those of Smith, differences in style and subject—matter. First, note the of dissimilarity between the imaginary worlds created by Dunsany as background for his tales and those created by Smith for his. Dunsany's worlds or lands are "beyond the East" and "at the edge of the world"; they are deliberately vague, but with no pretension of geographical existence, on our globe or any other. Despite their fabulous creatures and events, Smith's worlds could exist or could have existed as real places on our planet (given as true that Atlantis—type lost continents existed). As for Smith's tales not laid on lost continents, they are placed either in real locales or in interplanetary, interstellar, or interdimensional lands that, while imaginary, pretend to exist as definite places.

To point up a further difference between Dunsany and Smith, consider a passage from Mr. de Camp's article "Conan's Great Grandfather": "Dunsany was a master of the trick or surprise ending. Many of his stories are mere anecdotes built around such an ending." The trick or surprise ending per se is rare in Smith's tales. While an ending might come as a surprise to the reader, the effect of surprise is subordinated to the overall mood of the tale. Smith usually sought to tell a story with the most rigid control; and the effect of inevitability, the result of such control, is what gives many of Smith's tales their characteristic power and impact, which could scarcely have been achieved with purely trick or surprise endings.

Mr. de Camp's definition of Dunsany a tales as "children's fairy tales but on a sophisticated adult level" is a very apt one. What saves Smith's tales from becoming such, despite their outward trappings, is the extraordinarily intense conviction of belief and the depth of feeling they carry. Such conviction of belief and such depth of feeling are usually lacking in Dunsany, who seems to have the air of a worldly—wise and ingenious raconteur relating agreeable entertainments to a sophisticated audience. This is true not only of Dunsany's later Jorkens tall tales but even of much of his earlier and more sincerely intended prose, wherein Dunsany's creation of an elaborate mythology often appears to be an ingenious game, a game which doesn't evoke deep emotions in the reader. On the other hand, while one cannot systematically consider Smith's tales in their entireties as allegories (although they might be such in part), yet are many of his tales somber and stately parables of death, destruction, and darkness: of love, beauty, and wonder; of grief and nostalgia; of horror, terror, and fear; of hate and revenge; and of destiny and deity; and with many of these themes, especially those of love and death, combined in poignant and baroque synthesis, spiced occasionally with a strange humor and a merciless irony.

Dunsany's style, particularly of his earlier and perhaps best work, was modelled directly upon the King James Version of the Bible Smith's style, while it may offer some slight affinities with a "Biblical" style, was manifestly not modelled after Dunsany, but after Poe (see especially Poe's "Shadow-- a Parable", "Silence—a Fable"' and above all "The Masque of the Red Death", which is the closest thing in the canon of Poe's works to a tale by Smith) and after Baudelaire (see particularly the Petits Poemes en prose). Dunsany's prose style at its beat achieves a gossamer quality. Smith's general prose style is one of serious and very stately pomp. Many of his tales, viewed theoretically as short stories, might indeed seem written in an "euphuistic" style. However, viewed as extended poems in prose. the tales no longer seem written in such a style but in one perfectly suited to the subject-- matter. True euphuism a la John Lyly's Euphues often deliberately twists the subject—matter to suit the rhetorical extravagances; Smith manipulates his seeming "rhetorical extravagances" to suit the subject-- matter. In Smith, the form exists for the subject, not the reverse. (Apropos Smith's style, it is in-- reresting to observe that the last chapter of Sir Thomas Brown's Hydrioraphia has often been cited as the ultimate in stately splendor of style. Yet Smith in many, many instances easily surpasses Browne in this regard.) Smith's style, for all its depth of feeling or "Romantic" affinities, may best be described, I believe, in view of its rigid control and elaborate rhetoric, as "baroque".

I do not mean to disparage the literary achievement of Lord Dunsany. His important innovation, in my estimation, was the creation of a body of romance with his own deities taking the place of the gods of classical or other mythology, all with a system of proper names more elaborate and more scientific than the nomenclature systems of his predecessors. However, Dunsany. contrary to many of his predecessors, was not content merely to use an occasional god in his stories; his earliest volumes have as their manifest purpose the creation of an entire mythology. Smith's tales, although they may occasionally feature some invented deities, do not have as their purpose the creation of a mythology per se. Surely the superficial similarity of kings, queens, kingdoms, palaces, temples, etc., in the works of both men is not enough to warrant calling Smith's tales "Dunsanian", merely because Dunsany preceded Smith by one or two decades.

As a final example of the essential differences between Smith and Dunsany, consider the difference in their attitude toward death. Smith relentlessly emphasizes the carnal qualities of death and dying; Dunsany does so never. In Dunsany, he change from life to death seems no more than the casting off of a garment. While Dunsany may make use of witches, be does not feature necromancers and necromancy in his ales as Smith does in many of his. Actually the importance of necromancy in Smith's works cannot be over—emphasized; it is another manifestation of "the Man—God", one of the principal themes unifying the entire output of Smith from The Star-Treader and Other Poems to his last published volume of poetry, Spells and Philtres. Since necromancers have the power to raise the dead and bring them back to a pseudo—life, a life that is not life (a baroque ambiguity), and since the bringing back of the dead to life or pseudo—life is presumably one of the prerogatives of deity; necromancers may be considered, the least in part, further versions of the Man—God.

Mr. de Camp has not been the only commentator who has alleged an influence of Dunsany on Smith. Edward Wagenknecht, well—known man of letters, once called Smith Dunsany's "American disciple (after a fashion)". To Anthony Boucher "the echoes of Lovecraft and Dunsany drown Out [Smith'sl own voice". In view of Smith's own creative evolution, whereby he came to the writing of his later and most characteristic tales as a logical development which had nothing to do with Lord Dunsany, I find myself unable to agree with Messrs. de Camp, Wagenknechr. and Boucher. And I must conclude that they came to their opinion because they lacked sufficient knowledge of Smith's earlier creative evolution. Smith's tales are no more "Dunsanian" than they are, say, "Arthurian" or "Spenserian"; and to describe them as such is misleading to the uninformed reader.

From: Klarkash-Ton: The Journal of Smith Studies, #1, 1988, Cryptic Publications.

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