The Wine of Words: Inquisitioning the Verbiviniculture of Clark Ashton Smith

Simon Whitechapel

Das ewig-Wörtliche zog ihn hinan.

Goethe (adapted).1

Each writer is a barman at the Cacoethes Scribendi,2 mixing drinks to taste for his customers. Sometimes his bar is very long and the writer-barman mixes different drinks for different sections; sometimes it's very short and everybody gets the same drink in the same kind of glass. Clark Ashton Smith's bar was long: he served customers for fantasy, horror, and science fiction. But where did he drink himself when he was his own customer, simultaneously, by a Borgesian bifurcation, sitting at the bar and serving behind it? He answered the question in letters to H.P. Lovecraft:

I, too, am capable of observation; but I am far happier when I create everything in a story, including the milieu. This is why I do my best in work like "Satrampa Zeiros". Maybe I haven't enough love for, or interest in, real places to invest them with the atmosphere that I achieve in something purely imaginary. ... As for the problem of phantasy, my own standpoint is that there is absolutely no justification for literature unless it serves to release the imagination from the bounds of everyday life. I have undergone a complete revulsion against the purely realistic school, including the French, and can no longer stomach even Anatole France. ... Well, I must put a scientific - or at least a pseudo-scientific - curb on my fancy if I am to sell anything.3

When he served himself, CAS wanted the absinthe and chartreuse of the "purely imaginary": he drank vintages from invented worlds like Zothique, Hyperborea, and Averoigne. But he had learnt how to mix his fantasy by visiting the bars run by other writers, long-dead in reality but still serving at the Cacoethes by the magic of the written word. The Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) knew that he himself would die but predicted with perfect accuracy that in his writing exegi monumentum aere perennius - "I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze".4 He is still serving behind his bar at the Cacoethes Scribendi, in other words. So is Sir Thomas Browne:

To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and, being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment.5

CAS was a great fantasiste in part because he had visited the bars run by immortals like Horace and Browne, not confining himself to the highest and most recently built floor of the Cacoethes. He had then climbed the stairs back to his own bar, where he applied what he had learnt as he mixed drinks for his own customers. That is part of why the fantasy section of his bar is so worth visiting. 20th- and 21st-century writer-barmen who, like CAS, want their drinks to taste of the past often serve up revolting confections, mixed clumsily and with no true knowledge or understanding of the ingredients they are trying to use.

By bar-crawling on those lower floors, CAS acquired the necessary knowledge and understanding, but the bar-crawling was not enough in itself: he served his bar-man's apprenticeship in lesser works like The Sword of Zagan and Black Diamonds. One learns not merely by watching others work but by working oneself, and one of the best ways of enriching one's understanding of a writer is to imitate his work. One should watch others imitating it too. The imitation need not be serious or respectful: a brief pastiche or parody can distill an writer's essence more effectively than reams of literary criticism. G.K. Chesterton said more about Swinburne in four lines than many literary critics could say in four books:

He was defeated in several battles by the celebrated Arnhold brothers - the three guerilla patriots to whom Swinburne wrote a poem, you remember:

"Wolves with the hair of the ermine,
   Crows that are crowned and kings-
These things be many as vermin,
   Yet three shall abide these things."6

Similarly, the "Tributes Section" of the Eldritch Dark, Boyd Pearson's CAS-tribute site, can offer much more effective insights into CAS than the explicit criticism elsewhere. And a tribute to CAS does not have to be good or effective to succeed as an implicit critique, because by seeing how and why someone else fails one can understand better how CAS succeeds. Some of CAS's customers have set up bars of their own in the Cacoethes and served up drinks in his memory. Sometimes the drinks taste bitter or sickly or watery. Why? By understanding that you understand CAS better, whether you're a customer of the new barmen or one of the new barmen yourself.

The new barmen sample their own drinks, after all. I'm one of them, so I know whereof I speak. Trying to mix drinks like CAS deepens both one's respect for him, because creating good fantasy is very difficult, and one's understanding of him, because by seeing one's own motives one recognizes them more easily in CAS. There is, for example, an ingredient in CAS's fantasy liqueurs that I believe has been often overlooked: at the bottom of every glass he poured a fingerbreadth of a dark green and giddily potent exilir of love. But CAS wrote for love in two different ways: for love of women and for love of words. That is why he created his particular brand of fantasy: because it contained flavors of vocabulary and syntax long-since evaporated from the language used around him in 20th-century America.

English is, for example, the only major European language to have lost the subtle distinctions in the second person between singular and plural, formal and informal, intimate and distant. CAS could taste those flavors when he visited foreign bars in the Cacoethes, for French still has its tu and vous and Spanish its tu and Usted (not to mention its vosotros), but he could not mix them behind his own bar for English-speaking customers of any standard genre. But fantasy is not a standard genre:

"Behold, O Evagh," said the voice. "I have preserved thee from the doom of thy fellow-men, and have made thee as they that inhabit the bourn of coldness, and they that inhale the airless void. Wisdom ineffable shall be thine, and mastery beyond the conquest of mortals, if thou wilt but worship me and become my thrall. With me thou shalt voyage amid the kingdoms of the north, and shalt pass among the green southern islands, and see the white falling of death upon them in the light from Yikilth. Our coming shall bring eternal frost on their gardens, and shall set upon their people's flesh the seal of that gulf whose rigor paleth one by one the most ardent stars, and putteth rime at the core of suns. All this thou shalt witness, being as one of the lords of death, supernal and immortal; and in the end thou shalt return with me to that world beyond the uttermost pole, in which is mine abiding empire. For I am he whose coming even the gods may not oppose."7

The "thou" and "thee" and "thy" and "thine" are grains of spice dropped delicately into CAS's literary draft, enriching its flavor and potence. He could not have intoxicated his readers in this way with ingredients from modern English, which has been standardized and sterilized and is not the idiom by which to conjure vistas of eternity or to emphasize the narrowness and futility of human concerns and ambitions. Nor, of course, are many modern readers capable of being intoxicated when they sample CAS's fantasy prose. Their palates are too coarse, their brains too sodden to be affected by his subtle mixtures, as though they were meths-drinkers allowed into an oenophile's cellar.

How many nowadays, for example, fully taste the trickle of antique flavors in one of the lines quoted from CAS above: "whose rigor paleth one by one the most ardent stars"? Why are "rigor" and "ardent" so appropriate in speaking of ice overwhelming fire? Like CAS, one has to see the Latin roots of these words: "rigor" is from the verb rigeo, meaning "to stiffen with cold"; "ardent" is from the verb ardeo, meaning "to burn". For CAS words are not dead ingredients, desiccated and sterile, but grapes plucked from a living vine whose roots go deep into the past. He knew that word-grapes store the past, drawing it up from the roots, and that the skilful verbivinificator can preserve its flavors as he crushes the grapes for the wine of his stories.

Less skilful verbivinificators either do not know how deep the roots go or do not care, as CAS himself pointed out in a letter of 1950:

Blish, too, is obviously one of those who refuse to admit the ornate literary style (such as that of Sir Thomas Browne) as a legitimate form of art. On this point, I might quote Lytton Strachey, who thoroughly appreciates Browne and wrote a fine essay upon him. "There is a great gulf fixed between those who naturally like the ornate and those who naturally abhor it."8

The "fine essay" by Strachey might be apologizing for CAS's prose too when it addresses the extract already quoted from Browne:

...the long, rolling, almost turgid clauses, with their enormous Latin substantives, seem to carry the reader forward through an immense succession of ages, until at last, with a sudden change of the rhythm, the whole of recorded time crumbles and vanishes before his eyes. The entire effect depends upon the employment of a rhythmical complexity and subtlety which is utterly alien to Saxon prose. It would be foolish to claim a superiority for either of the two styles; it would be still more foolish to suppose that the effects of one might be produced by means of the other.9

A comparison between the writing of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard becomes instructive here. CAS's archaicism is baroque, fundamental to his style, REH's is rococco, ornamenting more or less standard English. And where CAS's best fantasy is wholly effective, transporting the reader entirely from standard history, REH's, even at its best, is a palimpsest written over an imperfectly erased original. His decision not to invent his names, but to borrow or slightly adapt them from standard history, greatly reduced the power of his fantasy, because it greatly weakened its verisimilitude. REH's Conan story "The Scarlet Citadel" (1933) is one of his most effective in part because its evil wizard Tsotha-lanti isn't shackled with a name from real history. If the shackles had been lifted off characters like Prospero and Publius too, let alone Conan himself, the story would been more effective still.

But REH, vigorous and readable as his stories remain, was lacking in other ways. He did not have the imagination to re-work his models as CAS did, creating something new and even more intoxicating, and Conan always has one foot in real history, whether Babylonian or Roman or Aztec or American. REH's models were swashbuckling historical novelists like Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) and swashbuckling Hollywood movies like Captain Blood (based on Sabatini's novel). CAS's were Sir Thomas Browne and Huysmans. The quality of the ingredients differed and so did what was mixed from them. But it wasn't merely that CAS served wine and absinthe at his bar in the Cacoethes, while REH served ale and mead at his. CAS at his best innovates and creates new flavors, new intoxications; REH, even at his best, only imitates and his flavors are almost always tainted with modernity.


1. Das ewig-Wörtliche zog ihn hinan literally means "The eternal Wordly drove him on" and is an adaptation of Goethe's Das ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan, "The eternal Feminine drives us on" (Faust: Der Tragödie zweiter Teil (1832), V).

2. Cacoethes scribendi, literally meaning "an incurable itch to write", is a phrase from Juvenal's Satires (VII, 52).

3. Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick (Rhode Island), 1987, "9 January 1930"; "c. early October 1930"; "c. early January 1931".

4. Horace's Odes, Book 3, 30, 1.

5. Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall (1658), chapter V.

6. "The Fairy Tale of Father Brown", in The Wisdom of Father Brown, pg. 306 of the 1983 Penguin Complete Father Brown.

7. Clark Ashton Smith, "The Coming of the White Worm" (1941).

8. Letter from Clark Ashton Smith to Samel [?] J. Sackett, Auburn, July 11th, 1950.

9. From Strachey's essay "Sir Thomas Browne" in Books and Characters (1922).

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