Clark Ashton Smith: Emperor of Shadows

Benjamin DeCasseres

When I received from Clark Ashton Smith his Ebony and Crystals in 1923, I had not read far before I was conscious that I was in the presence of one of the rare company of the Brotherhood of the Unearthly Imagination.

He is brother-prince to Poe, Baudelaire, Shelley, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Leconte de Lisle, Keats, Chopin, BIake and El Greco.

Like Goya's skeleton, Clark Ashton Smith has written across the stars Nada!-Nothing! But he has written it with a finger dipped in the multi-colored fluid that tows only from the breast of Aphrodite- and the dark milk of Proserpina.

He is, in a manner, a far greater anomaly in America hard-bitten, realistic America-than was Edgar Allan Poe. Poe lived in a time when America was still somewhat romantic, when the iron collar of industrialism and the ball-and-chain of machinery had not been fastened upon us, before the stench of "proletarian" literature had yet arisen from the privies of mental and spiritual sterility.

Ashton Smith hovers over the corpse of matter like a beautiful, ironic Chimera over a Sphinx that is silent because it has nothing but imbecility in its eyes and an eternal vacuity in its brain the Sphinx of "modernity".

You will find nothing of today or yesterday or tomorrow in the four volumes of Ashton Smith's poetry. Nothing but beauty, immortal, speechless beauty, and the record of the dust of worlds and the decomposed illusions of man.

He is a sheer Nihilist, a devaluer of all values in the alembic of an "Olympian ecstasy" and "the darkness that is God".

He is a rebel and his lord is Lucifer, the fallen angel, the Morning Star that heralds the last day when space shall roll up like a carpet and time shrivel to a moveless, sterile point in the center of an omnipotent darkness.

There is no variation in the poems of Ashton Smith. His song is of the death of Maya, emergence from the Fiery Wheel and hypostatic union with Buddha in Nirvana.

Humor? Yes vast and terrible. The humor of the mocker, but a mocker whose head is crowned with thorns and from whose eyes flow tears of ice.

The Hashish-Eater, one of his longest poems, is a glut of beauty that leaves me breathless in one continuous reading. Here are magnificent words piled on words until the keyboard of sounds seems exhausted; vast visions that open, as always in the poetry of Ashton Smith, on perilous nightmares in super-terrestrial fairylands accursed until we come upon those final lines of a black apocalypse:

A huge white eyeless Face
That fills the void and fills the universe,
And bloats against the limbs of the world
With lips of flame that open. . .

I could quote endlessly from his poems-a useless task. They must be read, and read only by those who from birth have seen what he has seen, felt what he has felt, and know what he knows.

Here is a profound sincerity, a perfect artistry and a vision that comes only to the rare and superfluous-sons of Asmodeus and Ashtoreth.

Like Baudelaire, Poe and Blake, he has seen profoundly into another world. In that world he is immortal, one of the Rishis that sit behind the suns and write the epitaph of all living things in the waveless sands of eternity.

From: Selected Poems, Clark Ashton Smith. Arkham House 1971

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