George Sterling - An Appreciation

Clark Ashton Smith

Among the various literary fervors and enthusiasms of my early youth, there are two that have not faded as such things most often fade, but still retain in these latter years a modicum of their "fringing flames of marvel." Unique, and never to be forgotten, was the thrill with which, at the age of thirteen, I discovered for myself the poems of Poe in a grammar-school library; and, despite the objurgations of the librarian, who considered Poe "unwholesome," carried the priceless volume home to revel for enchanted days in its undreamt-of melodies. Here, indeed, was "balm in Gilcad," here was a "kind nepenthe." Likewise memorable, and touched with more than the glamour of childhood dreams, was my first reading, two years later, of "A Wine of Wizardry," in the pages of the old Cosmopolitan. The poem, with its necromantic music, and splendours as of sunset on jewels and cathedral windows, was veritably all that its title implied; and—to pile marvel upon enchantment—there was the knowledge that it had been written in my own time, by someone who lived little more than a hundred miles away. 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. I am sure that I more than agreed, at the time, with the dictum of Ambrose Bierce, who placed "A Wine of Wizardry" with the best work of Keats, Poe and Coleridge; and I still hold, in the teeth of our new Didactic School, the protagonists of the "human" and the "vital," that Bierce's judgment will be the ultimate one regarding this poem, as well as Sterling's work in general. Bierce, whose own fine qualities as a poet are mentioned with singular infrequency, was an almost infallible critic.

Several years later—when I was eighteen, to be precise—a few of my own verses were submitted to Sterling for criticism, through the offices of a mutual friend; and his favorable verdict led to a correspondence, and, later, an invitation to visit him in Carmel, where I spent a most idle and most happy month. I like to remember him, pounding abalones on a boulder in the back yard, or mixing pineapple punch (for which I was allowed to purvey the mint from a nearby meadow), or paying a round of matutinal visits among assorted friends. When I think of him as he was then, Charles Warren Stoddard's fine poem comes to mind. I take pleasure in quoting the lines:

To George Sterling

"The Angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God's creatures."

Spirit of fire and dew,
Embodied anew.

Vital and virile thy blood—
Thy body a flagon of wine
Almost divine:
Thou art a faun o' the wood,
A sprite o' the flood,
Not of the world understood.

Voice that is heard from afar,
Voice of the soul of a star.
From thy cloud in the azure above
'Tis thy song that awakeneth love—
Love that invites and awe that retards—
Blessed art thou among bards!

My astral is there where thou art,
Soul of my soul, heart of my heart!

Thou in whose sight I am mute,
In whose song I rejoice;
And even as echo fain would I voice
With timbrel and tabor and flute,
With viol and lute.
Something of worth in thy praise—
Delight of my days —
But may not for lock of skill—
For the deed take the will;

Unworthy, ill done, incomplete,
This scroll at thy feet.

Always to me, as to others, he was a very gentle and faithful friend, and the kindest of mentors. Perhaps we did not always agree in matters of literary taste; but it is good to remember that our occasional arguments or differences of opinion were never in the least acrimonious. Indeed, how could they have been?—one might quarrel with others, but never with him: which, perhaps, is not the poorest tribute that I can pay to George Sterling. . . . But words are doubly inadequate, when one tries to speak of such a friend; and the best must abide in silence.

Turning today the pages of his many volumes, I, like others who knew him, find it difficult to read them in a mood of dispassionate or abstract criticism. But I am not sure that poetry should ever be read or criticized in a perfectly dispassionate mood. A poem is not a philosophic or scientific thesis, or a problem in Euclid, and the essential "magic" is more than likely to elude one who approaches it, as too many do, in a spirit of cold- blooded logic. After all, poetry is properly understood only by those who love it.

Sterling, I remember, considered "The Testimony of the Suns" his greatest poem. Bierce said of it, that, "written in French and published in Paris, it would have stirred the very stones of the street." In this poem, there are lines that evoke the silence of infinitude, verses in which one hears the crash of gliding planets, verses that are clarion—calls in the immemorial war of suns and systems, and others that are like the cadences of some sidereal requiem, chanted by the seraphim over a world that is "stone and night." One may quote from any page:

How dread thy reign, O silence, there !
A little, and the deeps are dumb—
Lo, thine eternal feet are come
Where trod the thunders of Altair!"

Crave ye a truce, O suns supreme?
What Order shall ye deign to hark,
Enormous shuttles of the dark,
That weave the everlasting dream?"

In the same volume with "The Testimony of the Suns" is blank verse poem, "Music," in which the muse Terpsichore was hymned as never before or since:

Her voice we have a little, but her face
Is not of our imagining nor time.

Also, there is the gorgeous lyric "To Imagination," and many chryselephantine sonnets, among which "Reincarnation," "War," and "The flaunting" are perhaps the most perfect.

As I have already hinted, I feel a peculiar partiality for "A Wine of Wizardry," the most colorful, exotic, and, in places, macabre, of Sterling's poems. (This, however, is not tantamount to saying that I consider it necessarily his most important achievement.) Few things in literature are more serviceable as a test for determining whether people feel the verbal magic of poetry—or whether they merely comprehend and admire the thought, or philosophic content. It is not a poem for the literal-minded, for those lovers of the essential prose of existence who edit and read our "Saturday Reviews" and "Literary Digests." In one of the very last letters that he wrote me, Sterling said that no one took the poem seriously any more, "excepting cranks and mental hermits." It is not "vital" poetry, he said, as "vital" is used by our self-elected high-brows (which probably, means that it is lacking in "sex-kick," or throws no light on the labor problem and the increase of moronism). I was unable to agree with him Personally, I find it impossible to take the "vital" school with, any degree of seriousness, and see it only as a phase of materialism and didacticism. The proponents of the utile and the informative should stick to prose—which, to be frank, is all that they achieve, as a rule. Before leaving "A Wine of Wizardry," I wish, for my own pleasure, to quote a favorite passage:

Within, lurk orbs that graven monsters clasp;
Red-embered rubies smoulder in the gloom,
Betrayed by lamps that nurse a sullen flame,
And livid roots writhe in the marble's grasp,
As moaning airs invoke the conquered rust
Of lordly helms made equal in the dust.
Without, where baleful cypresses make rich
The bleeding sun's phantasmagoric gules,
Are fungus-tapers of the twilight witch,
Seen by the bat above unfathomed pools,
And tiger-lilies known to silent ghouls,
Whose king hath digged a sombre carcanet
And necklaces with fevered opals set.

No, "A Wine of Wizardry" is not "vital verse." Thank God for that, as Benjamin de Casseres would say.

Notable, also, in Sterling's second volume, is the lovely "Tasso to Leonora" and "A Dream of Fear-" His third volume, "A House of Orchids," is compact of poetry; and, if I were to name my favorites, it would be equivalent to quoting almost the entire index. However, the dramatic poem, "Lilith," is, I believe, the production by which he will be most widely known. One must go back to Swinburne and Shelley to find its equal as a lyric drama. The tragedy and poetry of life are in this strange allegory, and the hero, Tancred, is the mystic analogue of all men. Here, in the conception of Lilith, the eternal and ineluctable Temptress, Sterling verges upon that incommensurable poet, Charles Baudelaire. In scene after scene, one hears the fugue of good and evil, of pleasure and pain, set to chords that arc almost Wagnerian. Upon the sordid reality of our fate there falls, time after time, a light that seems to pass through lucent and iridescent gems; and vibrant echoes and reverberant voices cry in smitten music from the profound of environing mystery.

One might go on, to praise and quote indefinitely; but, in a sense, all that I can write or could write seems futile, now that Sterling is "one with that multitude to whom the eternal Night hath said 'I am.' "Anyway, his was not, as Flecker's,

The song of a man who was dead
Ere any had heard of his song.

From the beginning, he had the appreciation and worship of poetry lovers, if not of the crowd or of the critical moguls and pontiffs.

Of his death—a great bereavement to me, as to other friends-- I feel that there is really little that need be said. I know that he must have had motives that he felt to be ample and sufficient, and this is enough for me. I am totally incapable of understanding the smug criticism that I have read or heard on occasion. To me, the popular attitude concerning suicide is merely one more proof of the degeneracy and pusillanimity of the modern world: in a more enlightened age, felo-de-se will be honored again, as it was among the ancients.

In one of Bierce's books is a trenchant article entitled, "The Right to Take One's Self Off." Here is the final paragraph:

Why do we honor the valiant soldier, sailor, fireman? For obedience to duty? Not at all, that alone—without the peril—seldom elicits remark, never evokes enthusiasm. It is because he faced without flinching the risk of that supreme disaster—or what we feel to be such—death. But look you: the soldier braves the danger of death; the suicide braves death itself'; The leader of the forlorn hope may not be struck. The sailor who voluntarily goes down with his ship may be picked up or cast ashore. It is not certain that the wall will topple until the fireman shall have descended with his precious burden. But the suicide—his is the foeman that never missed a mark, his the sea that gives nothing back; the wall that he mounts bears no man's weight. And his, at the end of it all, is the dishonored grave where the wild ass of public opinion

Stamps o'er his head
Bat cannot break his sleep.

Appendix from Planets and Dimensions Mirage Press 1973.

This is the first of two essays CAS wrote about his long-time friend and mentor, poet George Sterling; the second, "George Sterling—Poet and Friend," is a far more personal essay; this essay is primarily a defence of Sterling's poetry.

Sterling was a romantic poet, a friend of Ambrose Bieree, and a sort of unofficial poet laurate of California in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Sterling died in November, 1926, perhaps by his own hand; certainly this essay indicates that Sterling was disillusioned about his work. Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry," to which CAS  refers repeatedly and which was probably an influence on CAS's own "The Hashish-Eater," is currently in print in Lin Carter's anthology NEW WORLDS FOR OLD (Ballantine, 1971). For further details about Sterling's life, see the Introductory notes to "George Sterling—Poet and Friend."

The most comprehensive George Sterling site is

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