Gesturing Toward the Infinite: Clark Ashton Smith and Modernism

Scott Connors

When Current Opinion reviewed Clark Ashton Smith's first book of poetry, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), they began by noting that "The appearance of a new poet ought to be of at least equal importance with the discovery of a new comet. For what have the comets ever done except to frighten us out of our wits in the past with their portents of disaster?" (150) Although CAS' collection was both a critical and financial success, these words were ominously prophetic. When his next major collection appeared, the reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner wrote that "A volume more at variance with the spirit of the poetry of today would be hard to conceive of" (20). During the ten-year period between The Star-Treader and Ebony and Crystal (1922), there occurred changes in American poetry that would greatly affect the artistic and personal fortunes of both Smith and his mentor, George Sterling.

American poetry at the turn of the century was in the grip of what George Santayana called "the genteel tradition," which referred to a perceived split in the nation's psyche:

America is . . . a country with two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations. In all the higher things of the mind-in religion, in literature, in the moral emotions-it is the hereditary spirit that still prevails. . . . The truth is that one-half of the American mind, that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained, I will not say high-and-dry, but slightly becalmed . . . while, alongside in invention and industry and social organization the other half was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids. This division may be found symbolized in American architecture . . . The American Will inhabits the sky- scraper, the American intellect inhabits the colonial mansion. The one is the sphere of the American man; the other, at least predominantly, of the American woman. The one is all aggressive enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition. ("The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy," pp. 39-40)

This split, which Santayana attributed to our Calvinist heritage, resulted in a situation where "culture was something reserved and refined for the Sunday people: women, ministers, university professors and the readers of genteel magazines" (Cowley, ii). Of these latter, Thomas Benediktsson observed that while the great literary periodicals of the nineteenth century were still regarded as sanctuaries of culture, the editors of these magazines exercised their role as a literary priesthood in a largely proscriptive manner, refusing to publish "anything that could not be read by the women of the family circle"(62). Magazine poetry of the best sort was characterized by traditional Romantic motifs of escape, antiquarianism, primitivism, and the supremacy of Beauty. But almost universally Romanticism supplied merely a stance or a choice of subject, because it was subordinated to genteel requirements of refinement, good manners, pleasant didacticism, and sentimentality . . . . The poets of the close of the century display generous quantities of optimism, conventional piety, and sentiment, but not, unfortunately, of originality or skill. (Benediktsson, 62-63)

The most popular poets of this period included the so-called "Fireside Poets:" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell. Two poets now thought of as among America's best from the nineteenth-century, Edgar Poe and Walt Whitman, were not part of the canon, the former being considered too morbid and the latter too earthy.

This is not to say that poetry which did not fit the description outlined in the preceding paragraph was not being written. There is certainly no way in which these lines from Stephen Crane's War Is Kind can be termed "optimistic" or "sentimental:"

  A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Unfortunately, editors responded in a similar manner when poets not willing to yield to their demands that poetry be uplifting and entertaining submitted work. While naturalist writers such as Frank Norris and Henry James might challenge its tenets in prose, the economic facts of life dictated that genteelism would exert a stifling influence over American poetry. This led H. L. Mencken to "sound a revolt against that puerile kittenishness which marks so much of latter day English poetry. Nine-tenths of our living makers and singers it would seem are women, and fully two-thirds of these women are ladies . . . . Our poets are afraid of passion; the realities of life alarm them . . . " (166).

In this "twilight interval" one of the few poets to challenge the status quo was George Sterling. Inspired by the critical principles of his friend and mentor, Ambrose Bierce, Sterling would assault the optimistic piety of the times in large part by making use of the discoveries of nineteenth- century science that were both a cause and a byproduct of the great change in the nation's character from agrarian republic to industrial democracy. Among the lessons learned from Bierce were a disdain for didacticism, which reduced the poem to a mere moral commonplace, and a belief that while it was the task of the poet to make the reader feel, an excess of sentiment detracted from the sublimity of the poem by making it "too human." When coupled with the scientific materialism of Ernst Haeckel's The Riddle of the Universe, which denied the concepts of Free Will, a personal deity, and the existence of an immortal human soul, Sterling became one of the first practioners of a literary school later called "Cosmicism" by a writer whose early stories he would later read with some bewilderment, H. P. Lovecraft. This was first evident in "The Testimony of the Suns" (written in 1902), but combined with a Schopenhauerian pessimism it would remain with Sterling to some degree until his death in 1926. Consider, for example, the sonnet "To Science," which Sterling apparently never collected:

And if thou slay Him, shall the ghost not rise?
Yea! if thou conquer Him thy enemy,
His specter from the dark shall visit thee-
Invincible, necessitous and wise,
The tyrant and mirage of human eyes,
Exhaled upon the spirit's darkened sea,
Shares He thy moment of Eternity,
Thy truth confronted ever with His lies.
Thy banners gleam a little, and are furled;
Against thy turrets surge His phantoms tow'rs;
Drugged with His opiates the nations nod,
Refusing still the beauty of thine hours;
And fragile is thy tenure of this world
Still haunted by the monstrous ghost of God.

When Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry" was published in the Hearst Cosmopolitan, among his readers was a youngster from Auburn, California (the subject of Bierce's satire "The Perverted Village") named Clark Ashton Smith. In Smith's words, "In the ruck of magazine verse it was a fire- opal of the Titans in a potato-bin; and, after finding it, I ransacked all available contemporary periodicals for verse by George Sterling, to be rewarded, not too frequently, with some marmoreal sonnet or 'molten golden' lyric" (PD 3). Smith soon began to write his own poetry, some of which found professional publication in The Overland Monthly. One of Smith's schoolteachers was personally acquainted with Sterling, and at her encouragement he began a correspondence and a friendship which would last until Sterling's death some fifteen years later.

Sterling soon was acting as Smith's mentor, dropping his name into assorted magazine interviews, arranging for stipends from wealthy friends to assist the penurious Smith family, assisting in the preparation of the manuscript for The Star-Treader, and in general returning the favor that Bierce did for him. When Sterling received a request for contributions from a proposed magazine in Chicago, he urged Smith to submit some of his work. Thus it happened that Smith was one of the first contributors to Harriet Monroe's Poetry, A Magazine of Verse.

There had been attempts to start a magazine completely devoted to poetry before Monroe launched her magazine, but her success in obtaining financial support from the Chicago business community ensured that Poetry would not be reliant upon its subscriptions for its continuance. In her flyer, she outlined three principles that would guide her policy. The first was an assurance that the restrictions imposed upon poets by popular periodicals would not apply, as the assumption was that Poetry's readers actually wanted to read poetry! The second was that Poetry would publish good poetry regardless of length, character, or style; all schools were welcome. The last, and by no means the least, was that contributors would be paid for their work-only ten dollars a page, but still they would be paid. The December 1912 issue of Poetry contained three poems by Sterling, including his sonnets  "At the Grand Cañon" and "Kindred,"
both of which contained elements of Cosmicism, as well as two poems by Smith,
"Remembered Light" and "Sorrowing of Winds," both later collected in Ebony
and Crystal
. In the "Notes and Announcements" section of the issue, Monroe
described her contributors thus:

Mr. George Sterling, of Carmel-by-the-Sea,
California, is well known to American readers of poetry through his two books of verse,
Wine of Wizardry and The House of Orchids. Mr. Clark Ashton Smith, also of California, is a
youth whose talent has been acclaimed quite recently by a few newspapers of his own state, and recognized by
one or two eastern publications. (99)

The April 1913 issue contained a brief review of
The Star-Treader in which Monroe found in the young poet "a rare spirit
and the promise of poetic art," although she qualified this by observing
it would be "idle to complain that his subjects
are chiefly astronomic" and that "Life will bring him down to earth, no doubt,
in her usual brusque manner." (31-32) This period of acceptance by the avant
was, however, short-lived. Smith wrote to Sterling that "Miss Monroe
of 'Poetry' has just returned a bunch of my late things with a gentle intimation
that she doesn't think much of 'em. What do you think of that editor and
that magazine, by the way? 'Poetry' seems to be getting badder and badder, what
with the Whitmanesque Hasidu in the last number."1 Sterling's response was "As to 'Poetry,' I agree with you
that it keeps getting worse. Miss Monro [sic] has been 'infected' by Ezra
Pound, who is rabid for a 'new form,' and she is letting poetry go by the
board . . . . If 'Poetry' were not subsidized, it would cease publication in a
very few months, as it represents only a clique of no- poets now."
(Sterling to CAS, July 30, 1913)

Despite the stated intention that all schools would be welcome in
Poetry, by 1913 it was obvious that the magazine had been largely taken
over by the followers of its London correspondent, Ezra Pound, who called
themselves the Imagists. Although Monroe would deny this, in a review of the
anthology Some Imagist Poets she pointedly mentions that "the finest
entries of its six poets . . . appeared in this magazine," and notes that "It is
pleasing to see so honorable a house as the great Boston firm [of Houghton
Mifflin Co.] falling into line behind us . . . ." (150). Imagism was defined by
two essays in the March 1913 issue by F. S. Flint and Pound. In the first, Flint
admitted that the Imagists were contemporaries of the Post Impressionists and
the Futurists, but denied any common ground with these schools, and insisted that their work
drew upon the best classical traditions of Sappho, Catullus, and Francois
Villon. He listed three rules, which Pound went on at length to explain. These

  1. Direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in
    sequence of a metronome. (Flint, 199)

Pound expounded upon these points, defining an "Image" as "that which
presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" (200).
Elsewhere Pound would differentiate between an "Image" and a "Symbol," holding
that the latter was inferior because
it fixes an existential value in a word and replaces a physical with an
intellectual (or mystical) value; the Symbolist then circulate the
substitution term as poetic currency. "The imagiste's images," on the other
hand, "have a variable significance, like the signs a, b, and
c in algebra," Pound said. The resilience of the image was its ability to
resist capture by whatever rhetoric a greedy politician or an incompetent poet
might dream up to exploit it. (Barbarese, 288-89)

Of course, the "semi-mystical doctrine of the symbol" was "at the centre of
the aesthetic theory" of Romanticism, for "within it, a whole set of conflicts
which were felt to be insoluble in ordinary life"
became reconcilable (Eagleton 19).2 Although Smith has often been called a Romantic
poet-sometimes even "The last of the great Romantic poets"-he at first resisted
the label, feeling perhaps that he was called that more for what he
wasn't than for what he was. He wrote that "I don't think much of
Cole Young Rice's classification of modern poets. I'm sick of classification,
anyway . . . . He'd call me a 'romanticist,' I suppose. Well, at a pinch, I'd
rather be called that than a 'realist'" (CAS to Sterling, January 29, 1920). He
would later reluctantly accept the label, writing that it was not worth even
submitting the manuscript for Ebony and Crystal to Henry Holt and Company
"if [Robert] Frost is their [poetry] advisor. He would doubtless live up to his
name, in respect to romantic poets like myself" (CAS to Sterling, March 16,

Unfortunately for Smith and Sterling, Pound's attitude was representative of
an emerging intellectual trend that disparaged Romanticism. Besides Pound and
the Imagists, other critics of Romanticism included Pound's protege, T. S.
Eliot; one of Eliot's Harvard professors, Irving Babbitt, who would later be a
leader in the New Humanist movement; and the followers of F. R. Leavis and the
English critical journal Scrutiny, who were also heavily influenced by
Eliot's thought. Eliot, perhaps influenced by Babbitt, identified Romanticism
with "excess:"

Romanticism stands for excess in any direction. It splits up into two
directions: escape from the world of fact, and devotion to brute fact. The two great
currents of the nineteenth-century-vague emotionalism and the apotheosis of
science (realism) alike spring from Rousseau. (Eliot, Syllabus of a Course of
Six Lectures on Modern French Language,
quoted in Rabate, 217)

In "The Function of Criticism," Eliot further equated Romanticism with
emotionalism and individualism. He looked back with approval on the time of the
Metaphysical poets, such as John Donne, in whom Eliot perceived thought and
emotion existing hand in hand,while blaming on the Romantics a "disassociation
of sensibility" which separated thinking and feeling, leading to language being
set adrift from experience. In his Harvard doctoral dissertation, Knowledge
and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley
, Eliot asserted that
"experience comes to us most directly through sensations, which then become
associated with feelings and are subsequently worked up into complex emotions.
Poetry should affect the reader a directly as a physical sensation" (Materer,
53). In "Hamlet and His Problems," Eliot described how this should occur:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an
"objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain
of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such
that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are
given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

Thus for Eliot a test of how "authentic" a poem was involved "how vividly a
poetic emotion seems to arise out of physical sensations or images linked to these sensations"
(Materer 53). Smith disputed the reliability of our sensory experiences, writing
to H. P. Lovecraft that "the bare truth about the nature of things may be more
fantastic than anything any of us have yet cooked up . . . . Five senses and
three dimensions hardly scratch the hither surface of infinitude" (42). In a
story unpublished in his lifetime, Smith wrote that
The fact that all so-called sane and normal people, possessed of sight,
hearing and the other senses, agreed substantially in their impressions of
outward phenomena, might prove only the existence of common flaws or limitations
in the sensory apparatus of the species. The thing called reality, perhaps, was
merely a communal hallucination; and certainly, as science itself had tended to
prove, man could lay claim to no finality of perception (SS 8).

Another story, "A Star Change," dealt with the revelation of "the conditional
nature of our perception of reality" when he is transported to another world
where his senses are altered by the inhabitants to withstand local conditions
(CAS-HPL 17). Upon his return to his own world, he experiences the earth through
his new senses and finds it unbearable. Smith's greatest poem, "The
Hashish-Eater," dealt with what would happen "if the infinite worlds of the
cosmos were opened to human vision . . . the visionary would be overwhelmed by
horror in the end" ("Letters from Auburn," 22). Smith's position was by no means
unique; philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Hume all had expressed
similar reservations. Hugh Elliot is perhaps the best such example; in Modern
Science and Materialism
, he wrote "Not only are our senses few, but they are
extremely limited
in their range" (quoted in Joshi, 84). In a letter to the magazine Wonder
CAS wrote "it is partly because of this shifting, unstable ground
on which the thing called realism stands, that I regard pure, frank fantasy as a
more valid and lasting art-expression of the human mind" (PD 21).

Eliot also based his theory of language upon sense perception. His early
criticism extolled the "superiority of the precise, clear, and definite" over
the "vague, general, and indefinite." Eliot attended Bertrand Russell's course
on Symbolic Logic while a graduate student at Harvard, and was tremendously
impressed by Russell's theories of language. These were referential theories
"where words get their meaning from the objects they refer to and where the
primary objects were sensations or 'sense-data'" (Shusterman 36-7). Therefore,
language was ultimately related to experience. However, the English language had
become "abstract and anemic:"

In really "English" writing, however, language "concretely enacted" such felt
experience . . . . This whole notion of language rested upon a naive mimeticism:
the theory was that word are somehow healthiest when they approach the condition
of things, and thus cease to be words at all. Language is alienated or
degenerate unless it is crammed with the physical textures of actual experience,
plumped with the rank juices of real life. Armed with this trust in essential
Englishness, latinate or verbally disembodied writers (Milton, Shelley) could be
shown the door, and pride of place assigned to the "dramatically concrete"
(Donne, Hopkins). (Eagleton 32)

It was for this reason that Harriet Monroe wrote of Sterling's "shameless
rhetoric . . . . Already the young poet's brilliant but too facile craftsmanship
was tempted by the worse excesses of the Tennysonian tradition: he never thinks-he deems; he does not
ask, but crave; he is fain for this and that; he deals in
emperies and auguries and antiphons, in causal
and lethal voids . . . " (309). This is also the reason why
Marjorie Farber said of Smith's prose style (in a review of Lost Worlds)
"Another feature of this style is its use of two words in place of one:
'consider or conjecture,' 'speed and celerity of motion.' Why Mr. Smith failed
to say a 'mouth of amazing and astounding capacity' I don't know; perhaps he was
in a hurry" (26). Smith's response to this was

I too was rather amused by the N. Y. Times review; especially by the
complacency with which the lady displays her ignorance of the finer shades of
meaning in English words. One might well 'consider' without conjecturing at all;
and vice versa. Even her attempt at sarcasm falls down, since 'amazing' is far
from synonymous with 'astounding,' the first meaning to perplex or confuse with
fear, terror, wonder, etc., and the latter to overwhelm or stun with awe, etc.
But of course such nuances are lost on the average reader . . . .3

It was in statements such as this that Smith's debt to Ambrose Bierce is most
evident. Cathy N. Davidson makes a strong case that Bierce was influenced by
another Harvard philosopher, C. S. Pierce, the founder of semiotics. Consider
this assessment by Bierce of William Dean Howell:

The other day in fulfillment of a promise, I took a random page of [Howell's]
work and in twenty minutes had marked forty solecisms-instances of the use of
words without a sense of their importance or a knowledge of their meaning-the
substitution of a word that he did not want for a word that he did not think of.
(Quoted in Davidson 7-8)

Pierce took an organicist approach to language, as opposed to the referential
approach Eliot derived from Russell: he "located meaning in the perceiver and
insisted that signs could be understood only with reference to other signs
(interpretants) previously held by the perceiver. A whole web of prior signs
gives meaning to the new sign and, in addition, becomes the self which
interprets new signs" (Davidson 9). Smith told Donald Wandrei about his first
reading of Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry:" "I first read it when it appeared in
the old 'Cosmopolitan," about 907, with an accompanying eulogy by Ambrose
Bierce, who ranked it among the greatest imaginative poems in literature."4Shortly thereafter Bierce published a rebuttal to criticism
of Sterling's poem and his own praises of it, "An Insurrection of the
Peasantry." One of the criticisms directed against Sterling was his use of
"strange, unfamiliar words." Bierce ridiculed these "critics" for their
ignorance, because "there are not a half-dozen words in the poem that are not in
common use by good authors, and none that any should man should not blush to say
that he does not understand" (201). He particularly signaled out for attack
those who objected to the lines

Infernal rubrics, sung to Satan's might,
Or chanted to the Dragon in his gyre.

After pointing out that it is not the poet's fault if the reader has
never heard of a "gyre," Bierce points out that "Gyre means, not a gyration, but
the path of a gyration, an orbit. And has the poor man no knowledge of a dragon
in the heavens?-the constellation Draco, to which, as to other stars, the
magicians of old chanted incantations?" (203 It is not surprising that when
Smith quit school his self-education consisted in large part reading through
Webster's Unabridged Dictionary and making a study of the meaning of each
word and their etymologies.

Smith had an understanding of language which paralleled certain theories held
by the Poststructuralists: "Language is far more unstable and mysterious, far
more given to radical undecidability, far more elusive than has previously been
thought" (Burleson 3). Smith wrote to the poetry journal
Epos concerning his work that "My prime requisites in poetry are
music and magic" (27). As to how he achieved this, he wrote Lovecraft "my own
conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an
impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black
magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile,
tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of
incantation" (16). A Deconstructionalist would make much of the fact that an
incantation implies both magic and music, ultimately deriving from
the Latin cantare, to sing. It is precisely for this reason that Smith
embraced the use of a Romantic language:

As to my own employment of an ornate style, using many words of classic
origin and exotic color, I can only say that [it] is designed to produce effects
of language and rhythm which could not possible be achieved by a vocabulary
restricted to what is known as "basic English." As Strachey points out, a style
composed largely of words of Anglo-Saxon origin tends to a spondaic rhythm, "which by some
mysterious law, reproduces the atmosphere of ordinary life." An atmosphere of
remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticism is more naturally evoked by a style
with an admixture of Latinity, lending itself to more varied and sonorous
rhythms, as well as to subtler shades, tints and nuances of meaning-all of
which, of course, are wasted or worse on the average reader, even if presumably
literate. ("Letters from Auburn," 22)

Smith's use of language, in direct opposition to Pound's Imagist aesthetics,
is related by Brian Stableford to the French Symbolists, harkening back to

[Smith] was a great exponent of the alchemy of words. He used his vocabulary
to transform descriptions into incantations directly evoking a sense of the
strange, a distortion of attitude and feeling. Smith's prose [and his poetry] is
geared to apply to the reader, an experiential wrench or jolt, to permit the
relief of 'seeing' words of the imagination-which might have gone stale along
with the hopeless world of mundanity-through a new linguistic lens. (239)

In other words, Smith bypassed totally a language grounded in the experience
of the senses in favor of one grounded in the imagination. Curiously enough, in
her review of The Star-Treader Harriet Monroe said of Smith that "he
shows an unusual imaginative power of visualizing these remote splendours until
they have the concrete definiteness of a personal experience [emphasis
added]." (31- 32). From a Modernist perspective there was no greater praise.

Eliot's stance on Romanticism was similar to that of his mentor, Irving
Babbitt, who came to lead a critical movement called the New Humanists. This
movement took Matthew Arnold as its model and attempted to uphold human dignity
and moral rectitude, and stressed the human elements of experience over
supernatural. The New Humanists attacked Romanticism for its embrace of
individualism and emotionalism, and stressed reason and respect for authority.
They regarded man as a moral creature, and emphasized the importance of ethics
in literature. Babbitt called for writers to "combine ethical insight" with
"excellence of form, or . . . high seriousness of substance," and stressed what
he called the "ethical imagination-the imagination that has accepted the veto
power" as opposed to the limitless imagination of a Shelley or a Sterling (274).
To Babbitt literature was most "vital" that was subordinate to the affirmation
of "a general nature, a core of normal experience" that was open to most normal
people (27)

As can be imagined, Clark Ashton Smith was not at all in agreement with any
of the tenets of the New Humanism. Surprisingly, Smith's great friend George
Sterling appeared somewhat receptive to portions of their program towards the
end of his life, telling Smith "As one grows older, one takes pleasure in
writing things that have a vital value, a human relationship, as apart from 'the
literature of escape' " (Sterling to CAS, October 16, 1925). Smith rankled at
the charge that imaginative poetry was somehow inferior, replying "I think the
current definition or delimitation of what constitutes life is worse than
ridiculous. Anything that the human imagination can conceive of becomes thereby
a part of life, and poetry such as mine, properly considered, is not an 'escape'
but an extension" (CAS to Sterling, October 27, 1926). Smith confessed to
Wandrei his frustration with these developments, but clung to the belief that
"Romanticism is revolt, the Promethean spirit ever seeking to overthrow the gods
of the commonplace-and the marketplace. The latest ruse of the forces of Law and
Order is to throw the Romantic-fantastic type of imagery out of court as being
'non-vital.' Even G. S. seems to be 'falling' for this." (CAS to Wandrei,
November 11, 1926)

After Sterling's death, Smith began to write the great body of his short
stories, and found himself under attack in the letter columns of Wonder
and Amazing Stories by readers who objected to the ultra
human nature of his fiction. Smith responded in a series of letters which were
really self-contained essays, wherein he defended his belief "that there is
absolutely no justification for literature unless it serves to release the
imagination from the bounds of every-day life" (CAS- HPL 14). When a reader
stated that the proper intent of a science fiction story was "to show a
cross-section of a man's life, at a point where he is faced with some problem"
and to portray "the breakdown or building up of his character, or the way he
reacts to the test . . ." (notes to PD, 81), Smith replied that this definition
of literature was "rather narrow and limited," and offered the opposing opinion
that "imaginative stories offer a welcome and salutary release from the somewhat
oppressive tyranny of the homocentric, and help to correct the deeply
introverted, ingrowing values that are fostered by present-day 'humanism' and
realistic literature with its unhealthy materialism and earth-bound trend" (PD
14). Smith argued that because of the limitations of our sensory apparatus
"fantasy of one kind or another is about all that is possible for us" (PD 21),
and that even so-called "realistic" writers were in fact writing a type of
fantasy, since "it is axiomatic that in thought or art we deal not with things
themselves, but with concepts of things . . . . The animals alone, being without
imagination, have no escape from reality" (PD 38-39). By discounting the powers
of the imagination, modern writers were in danger of perpetuating a "meaningless
Dreiserism, an inartistic heaping of superficial facts or alleged facts, which,
after all, through our perceptual limitations, may be erroneous, or, at least, too incomplete to permit the safe drawing of
dogmatic inference" (PD 21) by "abnegating the one gift that raises man above
the other animals" (PD 23). Smith saw the role of fantastic literature as
leading "the human imagination outward, to take it into the vast external
cosmos, and away from all that introversion and introspection, that
morbidly exaggerated prying into one's own vitals-and the vitals of others-which
Robinson Jeffers has so aptly symbolized as 'incest'" (PD 12). The danger
existed that such exaggerated introversion and introspection could lead to a
type of hubris or cosmic ethnocentrism, since "it [is] only the damnable,
preposterous and pernicious egomania of the race, which refuses to admit
anything but man's own feelings, desires, aims and actions as worthy of
consideration" (PD 16). Because of the anthropocentrism of modern literature,
Smith felt that it was desirable "for one genre, at least, to maintain what one
might call a centrifugal impetus, to make 'a gesture toward the infinite' rather
than toward the human intestines" (PD 19). Far from offering an escape from
reality, Smith saw ultra imaginative works of art resulting from "an impulse to
penetrate the verities which lie beneath the surface of things; to grapple with,
and to dominate, the awful mysteries of mortal existence" (PD 33).

Smith was not alone in scorning the lack of cosmic perspective in Modernism.
Conrad Aiken took Harriet Monroe and Poetry to task for being a
traditionalist "ethically and emotionally," and in fact for not being avant
at all:

The only answer is that Miss Monroe, if she is really a radical at all, is
chiefly so as regards form; as regards the material of poetry (and to any
genuine well-wisher of poetry this is the important thing), she suffers from
many of the curious inhibitions, for the most part moral, which played havoc
with the Victorians. The truth must not be told when it is disagreeable or
subversive. One's outlook on life must accord with the proprieties. Above all, one should be a somewhat sentimental idealist--
anthropocentric, deist, panpsychist, oe what not, but never, by any chance, a
detached or fearless observer. (390)

(This critique covered the period when Pound's influence on Monroe's policy
was at its height.) When Smith condemned Babbittism and "the 'vital' theory" for
being "the old didacticism in a new disguise" (CAS to Wandrei, November 13,
1926), he found himself unknowingly echoed by no less a philosopher than George
Santayana. In "The Genteel Tradition at Bay," Santayana argued that the program
of the New Humanists was nothing more than the old genteel tradition in new
dress. In discussing the "appeal to the supernatural" which he saw as forming
the ultimate basis for their ethical position, Santayana used language
remarkably similar to that used by Smith: "I am far from wishing to deny that
the infra-natural exists; that below the superficial order which our senses and
science find in the world, or impose upon it, there may not be an intractable
region of incalculable accident, chance novelties, or inexplicable collapses."
He even recognized that an interest in the "infra-natural ... positively
fascinates some ultra-romantic minds, that detest to be caged even in an
indefinite world, if there is any order in it" (171). Ultimately Santayana
concluded that Babbitt and the entire New Humanist movement were, to use
Lovecraft's description of August Derleth, "self- blinded little earth gazers,"
because "how shall any detached philosopher believe that the whole universe,
which may be infinite, is nothing but an enlarged edition, or an expurgated
edition, of human life?" (180)

This desire to transcend the bounds of human existence, more than his use of
traditional prosody or Latinate vocabulary, is probably the main reason for
Smith's lack of recognition. Other poets such as Edwin Arlington Robinson and
Robert Frost employed traditional forms, and Edna

St. Vincent Millay also used a difficult Latinate vocabulary. However, none
of these poets had any desire to tread the stars. "I am astonished to find how
few really grasp the sublimity and vastness of the stars and star-spaces," Smith
told Sterling early in their friendship. "One acquaintance did not think such
things suitable for poetic treatment, and from the indifference or bewilderment
with which most who have seen it regard my cosmic work, I must regard those
fitted to understand such things as being very rare" (October 6, 1911; in"My
dear Friend," 64) Consider the comments of the poet Wittner Bynner on the cosmic
elements of Sterling and Smith's poetry: "It is too stellar for me . . . There's
too much Aldebaran in it. It gives me cosmic indigestion. Someone at the
Bohemian jinks called Sterling and this young poet Clark Ashton Smith the Star
Dust Twins" (O'Day 7). Robert Frost's lines concluding "Desert Places" states
eloquently the Modernist objection to Cosmicism:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars-on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

As D. W. Harding put it, "For what is unintelligible, the judgment of
'abnormal' is available, serving to insulate the deviant behaviour or opinion,
denying it social relevance and excluding it from the network of mutual support
and mutual contact that makes up society" (33). The verdict of "deviant" was
handed down by those poets and critics who still thought of man in
precopernician terms. Nonetheless, Smith refused to bow to fashion: "perhaps I
am merely one of those unfortunate and perverse individuals who are
constitutionally 'agin the Government.' When fantasy is acclaimed by Irving
Babbitt ... I may take refuge in the writing of case histories!" (PD 22) As he
so well put it in the title poem of his first collection,

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!
(SP 11)


Aiken, Conrad. "The Monroe Doctrine in Poetry." The Dial, 62,
741 (May 3, 1917), 389-90.

Anonymous. "Recent Poetry [review of The Star-Treader and Other
]. Current Opinion (February 1913), 150.

Anonymous. "Boy Publishes More Poems." San Francisco Examiner
(December 17, 1922), 20.

Babbitt, Irving. Rousseau and Romanticism. New York: Meridian, 1955.

Barbarese, J. T. "Ezra Pound's Imagist Aesthetics," in The Columbia
History of American Poetry
, eds. Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier. New York:
Columbia U. P., 1993.

Benediktsson, Thomas E. George Sterling. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Bierce, Ambrose. "An Insurrection of the Peasantry," in The Collected
Works of Ambrose Bierce
, X. 1912; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1966

Burleson, Donald R. Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe. Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Cowley, Malcolm. After the Genteel Tradition. Carbondale: Southern
Illinois U. P., 1964.

Crane, Stephen. Excerpt from "War is Kind," in Three Centuries of American
, eds. Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson Jr. New York: Bantam
Books, 1999.

Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Elliot, T. S. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

Farber, Marjorie. "Atlantis, Xiccarph." New York Times Book Review
(November 19, 1944). Rpt. in Klarkash-Ton, 1 (June 1988),

Flint, F. S. "Imagisme." Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, 1, 6
(March 1917), 198-200.

Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed Edward Connery Lathem.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969.

Harding, D. W. "The Character of Literature from Blake to Byron," in From
Blake to Byron
, ed. Boris Ford. London: Penguin, 1976.

Joshi, S. T. H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West. Mercer Island:
Starmont House, 1990.

Materer, Timothy. "T. S. Eliot's Critical Program," in The Cambridge
Companion to T. S. Eliot
, ed. A. David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.,

Mencken, H. L. "The Merediths of Tomorrow." Smart Set, 33, 4
(April 1911), 161-164.

Monroe, Harriet. "Notes and Announcements." Poetry, A Magazine of
, 1, 3 (December 1912), 99.

-----. "The Poetry of George Sterling." Poetry, A Magazine of Verse,
8, 6 (March 1916), 307-313.

-----. [Review of The Star-Treader and Other Poems, by Clark Ashton
Smith.] Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, 2, 1 (April 1913), 31-32.

-----. [Review of Some Imagist Poets-An Anthology.] Poetry, A
Magazine of Verse
(June 1915), 150-153.

O'Day, Edward F. "Varied Types-XC: Witter Bynner." Town Talk, the Pacific
(September 7, 1912), 7, 21.

Pound, Ezra. "A Few Don't by an Imagiste." Poetry, A Magazine of
1, 6 (March 1913), 200- 206.

Rabate, Jean-Michel. "Tradition and T. S. Eliot,:" in The Cambridge
Companion to T. S. Eliot

Santayana, George. The Genteel Tradition, ed. Dougla L. Wilson.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Shusterman, Richard. "Eliot as Philosopher," in The Cambridge Companion to
T. S. Eliot.

Smith, Clark Ashton. Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H. P. Lovecraft,
ed. Steve Behrends. West Warwick: Necronomicon Press, 1987. (CAS-HPL)

-----. Genius Loci and Other Tales. London: Neville Spearman, 1972.

-----. Letter to"The Poet Speaks". Epos, 8, 1 (Fall 1956), 27.

-----. "Letters from Auburn." Klarkash-Ton, ( June
1988), 16-25.

-----. "My Dear Friend: Letters of Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling."
Mirage, 10 (1971), 63- 70.

-----. Planets and Dimensions: Collected Essays, ed. Charles K. Wolfe.
Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1973. (PD)

-----. Selected Poems. Sauk City: Arkham House, 1971.

-----. The Star-Treader and Other Poems. San Francisco: A. M.
Robertson, 1912.

-----. Strange Shadows, eds. Steve Behrends, Donald Sidney-Fryer, and
R. A. Hoffman. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1989. (SS)

Stableford, Brian. "Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of
Clark Ashton Smith," in American Supernatural Fiction, ed. Douglas
Roillard. New York: Garland, 1996.

Sterling, George. "To Science." The Sonnet, 2, 5
(July-August 1919),

Foot Notes

CAS to
Sterling, July 1, 1913 (Ms, New York Public Library). Unless otherwise noted,
all further citations from the Smith-Sterling correspondence refer to mss held
by NYPL, and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

Reconciliation was, however, an important
theme in Smith's work. Referring to suggested revisions of his "Ode to Music,"
he wrote "Some of your suggestions have more than doubled the value of the lines
in question, particularly the line: 'Her forms divine expressed in melody,' in
which you suggested the substitution of diverse for divine, thus
introducing the idea of reconciliation." (CAS to Sterling, May 21, 1911) The
line appears as "Her colors brights/And diverse forms expressed in harmony" in
The Star-Treader (30). "Ode to Music" was not collected by Smith in
Selected Poems.

CAS to August Derleth, December 13, 1944
(ms., State Historical Society of Wisconsin). This letter is quoted in editorial
annotation to the cited reprint of Farber's review.

CAS to Donald Wandrei, December 6, 1926 (ms,
Minnesota Historical Society). Smith's correspondence with Sterling and Wandrei,
as well as Sterling's "To Science," are courtesy of S. T. Joshi and David E.

Copyright 2001 by Scott Connors.  Appeared in Studies in Weird Fiction  25 (Summer 2001): 18-28.

Top of Page