(An International Journal of Poetry)
ISSN 2249 –2178
Volume-2 JUNE -2012 Number-1
by Phillip A. Ellis
H. P. Lovecraft was a minor poet, whose work was of an uneven quality, yet of some considerable interest. He was minor compared to such of his fellows as Samuel Loveman and Clark Ashton Smith, yet he retains nonetheless an enigmatic standing, particularly in comparison with the various members of his poetic circle. But it is important, at least, to gain a clearer indication of him as a poet, looking at his aesthetic thought in relation to his verse, his poetic practice, and only then looking at an assessment of his poetry’s strengths and weaknesses, before coming to a reasonable conclusion about this aspect of his being. In doing so, a fuller assessment of him as a poet can be reached, one that is as critical, yet more charitable than many previous assessments.
For it must be remembered that, mostly, Lovecraft’s verse has found little favour among critics. It has been said, for example, by Joseph Payne Brennan (21) that “the bulk … is inferior work, derivative, imitative, often pompous…”, and, according to Winfield Townley Scott (211), his poetry “has less distinction than his best stories”, which is a certain enough assessment. Yet, later in the same essay, he considers Lovecraft’s verse to be “eighteenth-century rubbish” (Scott 214), prompting S. T. Joshi to remark in turn (“Fantastic Poetry” 195) that, if this is the case, then most of Lovecraft’s early weird verse is “‘Poesque rubbish.’” Will Murray (77) noted in turn that Lovecraft’s “eighteenth-century effusions are all but dismissed by even his most ardent admirers.” And, finally, August Derleth (qtd. by Collins 5) himself stated of Lovecraft’s verse that “in the mass it is … painfully dull.” These views represent the basic consensus reached by critics about Lovecraft’s verse: it is inferior, derived from other poets’ work, easily dismissed, dull, and, simply, ‘rubbish’.
What is notable is that these sentiments were shared to a degree by Lovecraft himself. He wrote, for example, in reference to his early verse in amateur papers, “What a mess of mediocre & miserable junk. He hath sharp eyes indeed, who can discover any trace of merit in so worthless an array of bad verse.” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 4 April 1918" 135) Yet there are reasons for looking beyond the seeming perspicacity of these sentiments. Lovecraft is known to have had a strong self-deprecating streak when it comes to assessments of his own work. Thus his reactions are less dispassionate, less acute than they may seem. For it must be noted that there is another reaction to the early verse of H. P. Lovecraft: the poems are not so much slavish imitations as reactions to, responses to verses and verse forms long discarded. Thus, the poems derive some power and charm from their interaction and originality with Georgian verse. Further, Lovecraft’s assessment fails to capture the strengths and successes of his later, more aesthetically satisfying period. Looking at Lovecraft’s verse reveals. therefore, somewhat of its complex nature as an aesthetic product. It is true that some is, as noted ‘rubbish’, yet a goodly proportion is, nonetheless, worthy of admiration. To distinguish between the two, then, the verse itself must be looked at, both intently and sympathetically.
There are two basic reasons for looking further into Lovecraft’s poetry. These were noted by Winfield Townley Scott (211); they also remain cogent and relevant today. First, “all the work of any writer as curious as Lovecraft merits consideration”; second, “a few of his poems are in themselves rather good”. That is, the achievement of Lovecraft as a writer and human being requires us to keep in consideration not just one aspect of his work, such as his fiction, or letters, but its overall breadth and complexity. Therefor, his verse requires a sympathetic consideration simply because it is such a significant expression, irregardless of our personal feelings towards verse as a literary form. Further, despite the almost uniformly negative approach to Lovecraft’s poetry as a whole, some of it requires, at the least, recognition of its worth as poetry. The chief problem here is identifying which verses are worthy of recognition, worthy of consideration as among his best.
Linked with this problem was, as noted, Lovecraft’s self-deprecating streak. Essentially, his various pronouncements are harsh. In an early letter he stated: “I have no real poetic ability, and all that saves my verse from utter worthlessness is the care which I bestow on its metrical construction.” (Lovecraft "To Maurice W. Moe 8 December 1914" 3-4) In another letter, he disparaged his ability as a poet, when he said: “Impromptu verse, or ‘poetry’ to order, is easy only when approached in the coolly prosaic spirit. Given something to say, a metrical mechanic like myself can easily hammer the matter into technically correct verse, substituting formal poetic diction for real inspiration of thought.” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 14 September 1915" 20; qtd. in LIFE: 123) Further, he said in an essay (Lovecraft “Gates” 532): “I never could, and never can write a line of genuine poetry!” This reaction to his own verse has been seen by Tom Collins as a natural response to flattery from a stranger, yet it is more systematic, and deeper than that. For example, we read in an early letter to Rheinhart Kleiner the following: “My taste in poetry is really defective, for I love nothing better than … Dryden & Pope, unless it be … Thomson’s ‘Seasons’”. (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 28 March 1915" ) It must be remembered this taste is not defective per se. This taste indicates that, as a reader of poetry, Lovecraft was attracted to one style of verse, one period, and was capable of formulating distinctions of aesthetic merit indicative of a sound taste in letters. That is, Lovecraft’s general judgement in letters was sound, despite not being in accord with the majority of his peers, and the problem lay with his own self-assessment. I believe this self-deprecating streak extends further than just his poetry or fiction, and that is a legacy of his upbringing. Thus his remarks to his future wife about his appearance form part of a pattern of low self-esteem against which he struggled to become a happy, healthy and normal individual.
So, then, if the chief problem is less with the verse as such, and more with Lovecraft’s and others’ assessment of it, what then is its nature, and to what degree does his verse belie the harshness and fallaciousness of this criticism? Whilst the latter part of this question will be answered later, an analysis of the poems’ nature is immediately desirable. Roughly, then, his verse can be said to form a continuum, stretching from pieces almost wholly antiquarian in nature to more contemporary verse. Thus his “On Receiving a Picture of Swans” tends towards the former pole, and his “Continuity” towards the latter. This concept of a continuum makes plain Kleiner’s contemporary assessment; he wrote (401): “he has written verse of a distinctly modern atmosphere, and where his imagery is not too obtrusively artificial ... many of the quatrains possess genuine poetic value.” Thus we see here one critic making a measured statement that runs counter to Lovecraft’s own statements, and to the majority of later critics. This shows, then, that the degree of Lovecraft’s worth as a poet is dependent in part upon the degree to which the poems themselves approach modernity rather than antiquarianism.
There is also a question of realism and poeticality in Lovecraft. To some degree, Lovecraft is anti-realistic, as a poet. At his worst, he relies on standardised descriptions, rather than acutely communicated visions derived from his own observations. At his best, although he does give perceptive observations from life, chiefly in his satiric verse, he retains, nonetheless, an air of idealism. Thus he is not concerned here with the meticulous accretion of telling details that makes up a precise picture, so much as the kind of details that conveys an essence, whether it be an emotion or a truth, about the subject to hand. In this way he is anti-realistic; yet, in no way is it a case that he is (Scott 213) “anti-realistic and therefore anti-poetic.” Consider briefly the work of figures such as Mallarmé, and Verlaine, and it should become obvious that realism is not, and should not, be the sole determinant of valid literature. That is, while the nature of Lovecraft’s poetry encompasses a strong anti-realistic streak, especially in his non-satiric verse, it nonetheless retains a sense of poeticality. It is verse, and not versified prose, essentially, and should be approached as such, and not as an appendage to, or outgrowth of his prose and fictional writings.
Stylistically, much of Lovecraft’s verse is either in couplets or in quatrains. The tone is predominantly bucolic, or elegiac. These features demonstrate the importance of the eighteenth century for his early verse. There are exceptions, of course, notably the later verse, and his weird verse in general. Of this latter material, there is the strong influence of Poe. This has been described as imitation, but it has been in part general subject matter, and more specifically both mood and metricality that have been absorbed. Of his satiric verse, although the eighteenth century remains a strong influence, this influence is moderated to a degree. Thus his satiric verse demonstrates a native ability that, early on, frees itself from the direct influence of the Georgians. Yet it must be remembered that he was, poetically, very much an autodidact. Thus his skills display their Georgian character through his early absorption of Georgian texts and primers, and his aesthetics in turn display in part the influence of Poe when he argued in a letter to Elizabeth Toldridge “Poetry and art for beauty—but science and philosophy for truth.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 3 September 1929" 23) Thus the question of the nature of Lovecraft’s verse, in the dialectic between modernity and antiquarianism, in the relation of realism and poeticality, and in general considerations of style, leads in turn to questions of his poetic aesthetic. These questions are important for a fuller, sympathetic understanding of Lovecraft and his aims as a poet: they not only influence, but determine in part our reasoned reaction to his verse, and they enable us to understand more fully his place as a poet.
A principle question in relation to Lovecraft’s aesthetics is why he wrote, and what he hoped to achieve from his poetry. Essentially, he wrote as part of a persona, or role, adopted. Part of this persona, particularly in the early period of his writing career, was of the cultured man of leisure, able to devote hours to literary toil for no immediate remuneration, apart from pleasure. This persona, the cultured gentleman, was derived primarily from his absorption in eighteenth-century culture. Thus we find the importance of a statement, made in 1931, that he thought himself the only “living person to whom the ancient 18th century idiom [was] actually a prose and poetic mother-tongue…”. (Lovecraft "To August Derleth 9 September 1931" 378) In regards to his aesthetics, Lovecraft established the importance of truth, or verity to the essentials, to the creation of art. He argued, for example that
Truth becomes important only when it is necessary to establish our emotional satisfaction. Emotional satisfaction is the one big thing; and the greatest person is the one who can create the thing most emotionally satisfying, whether or not it has any relation to truth or prophecy. On the whole, I think that beauty is often more satisfying than truth; so that the poet and the artist are really somewhat ahead of the scientist and the philosopher in a sound and exquisite culture. (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 3 September 1929" 23)
Given the importance to Poe for his aesthetics, it becomes obvious to remember Poe’s definition of poetry (353) as “the rhythmical creation of beauty.” Thus Lovecraft wrote, in part, to create objects of beauty, hence the emphasis in part on so much otherwise undistinguished verse concerning the seasons, and bucolic scenes. Yet these demonstrate only partially why he wrote. Since it is ultimately impossible to derive an understanding of his intentions, and since the only evidence we have of his intentions are the poems themselves, and his other statements interpreting them, what is of greater importance is an understanding of his aesthetic thought in general, as it developed, as an important adjunct to an understanding of why he wrote. This understanding allows us a fuller response to his aesthetic, and an implicit understanding of what he hoped, in part, to achieve with his verse, and what he did, in fact, achieve.
S. T. Joshi (LIFE 307) has defined three distinct phases in Lovecraft’s growing aesthetic, calling them, in turn, Classicism (prior to 1919), Decadence (1919 to 1925) and Maturity (after 1925). These phases overlap the principle periods of his verse production, yet they have a bearing, obviously, on the poems he did produce. Whilst the poems will be discussed more fully later, it is important to ask how we can know about the aesthetic, what evidence there is for it. The evidence that we do have for his aesthetic stance is derived in part from essays. Although his critical essays cover such subjects as allowable rhymes and the like, a number nonetheless contain material of importance to an understanding of his aesthetic. Yet, it is primarily from his letters that we learn of his aesthetic theory. This, as noted by S. T. Joshi (“Letters” 39), was “founded upon Poe and the Decadents and constantly refined into the doctrine of non-commercial ‘self-expression’”. Understanding, then, the phases of his aesthetic is therefore important: it allows us to see that not only did his thought develop over time, but also how it developed in partial relation to the development of his own poetic practise.
During the first phase, Classicism, Lovecraft contended that the chief purpose for writing was to give himself pleasure. This is marked in particular by a remark he made in “The Despised Pastoral” (22) that poetry’s purpose was pleasure and not truth. That his primary motivation was pleasure is also borne out by a remark made in a letter. He wrote, to Rheinhart Kleiner, that “Writing for my own pleasure, I care not how my readers may regard the result.” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 27 November 1917" 121) What gave him pleasure, in this instance, was work reflecting his beloved Georgian period, “the elegant formalism and conventionality of the eighteenth century”, as he put it himself (“Confession” 536). He was capable of writing in a modern form, yet decided not to: “He preferred to do otherwise”, as Tom Collins (5) noted. This preference is reflected in an assessment made by Lovecraft of his own verse. He wrote, in a letter, that “As the strength of Antaeus depended on his contact with Mother Earth, so does any possible merit in my verses depend on their execution in [the heroic couplet]”. (Lovecraft "To Maurice W. Moe 8 December 1914" 3) And, in a latter letter, he makes clear the importance of the past to his writing; he wrote: “Poetry to me meant merely the most effective way of asserting my archaic instincts. I could convey more actual archaism in my couplets than in any other avenue of equal brevity & simplicity.” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 7 March 1920" 183) Thus, by asserting that poetry gave him pleasure, and that it served as the best way to “assert” his archaism, Lovecraft essentially defined his reason for writing verse during his Classical period.
And it must be remembered that during this period his basic aesthetic focus was a form of Classicism. By this, he regarded as most important the emulation of established and authoritative models of literary production. It was essential for authors to remember (Lovecraft “Case” 37) that “we have not only the right but the obligation to strive for the best style, and emulate the best authors, within our scope of reading;” and this, rather than any frantic attempt to remain contemporaneous or cutting-edge, was all important for proper writing. This (LIFE 307) “simultaneously condemned his poetry to antiquarian irrelevance and made him violently opposed to the radical aesthetic movements” of his day. Yet, classicism as such is not enough to account for the deficiencies of Lovecraft’s verse. There is nothing inherently wrong with classicism, providing that the products retain a relevance to their contemporary milieu, unlike Lovecraft at his worst. By turning away from the present as he did, and seeking to maintain a pleasant fiction for most of this period, Lovecraft essentially failed to come into negotiation with the present, thereby allowing his verse to stagnate and remain essentially irrelevant.
Turning, then, to whom to emulate, it is easily apparent that, for Lovecraft, that although able to appreciate the Romans, for him his classicism was for a different era: “My whole interest seems wrapped up in the eighteenth century”, he wrote, and that is immediately apparent from the verse he produced, and from his outlook on the author as a cultured man of leisure. (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 23 December 1917" 122) Given, then, this attitude to the best models for an author, it is not surprising that he reacted as he did to free verse. This reaction is important to his own aesthetics, and worthy of evaluation.
Lovecraft’s essential reaction to free verse in this period was that it contained “absolutely no artistic principle” and that “ugliness replaces beauty, and chaos supplies the vacant chair of sense” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 23 August 1916" 41; qtd. in LIFE: 130) Given the importance of beauty for his own verse, it is understandable how Lovecraft reacted to perceived ugliness. What is more, Lovecraft considered free verse as symptomatic of a current decline in cultural standards. He wrote, as a result, that free verse “is the product of hopelessly decayed taste….” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 23 August 1916" 41; qtd. in LIFE: 130) His response, then, was twofold. First, he continued to write verse heavily derivative of his beloved eighteenth-century. He remained, that is, what is now termed a formalist poet, maintaining a strong standard both rhythmically and formally. Second, he produced a number of essays in the amateur press, designed to address free verse and its effects. Notable were “Metrical Regularity” (1915), and “The Vers Libre Epidemic” (1917), both of which embody his basic reaction. In the former, he argues against free verse on the grounds that the abandonment of all metrical regularity means, in principle, that it remains unpoetic. In the latter, the use of ‘epidemic’ in the title brings into play notions of weakness and illness, and in both there is a stress upon the poets’ perceived decadence. More telling, in “The Brief Autobiography of an Inconsequential Scribbler” (527), he wittily noted that his “utterances prior to the summer of 1891 [betrayed] a marked kinship to the vers libre” of his day. Later, he viewed a modified version of adherence to formalist verse as a bulwark against free verse; he noted, in essence, that contemporary poetry must attain a level of simplicity and straightforwardness in its speech, thereby reflecting the major pattern of developments in the history of English prosody. Suffice to say, during the period of his classicism, Lovecraft opposed free verse, not only as a sign of cultural decline, but because it embodied a frenzied contemporaneousness manifestly opposed to his own classicism. Compared to the standards and ideals that he had absorbed, the notions inherent in free verse seemed decadent indeed. Thus, despite the failings of the past, it was still, nonetheless, superior to the present; hence his “The old images & allusions may be trite indeed, yet they are at least superior to the studied sterility of modern verse.” (Lovecraft “To Rheinhart Kleiner 27 November 1917” 121)
In considering this first phase of Lovecraft’s aesthetic, it must be remembered that the divisions between the phases are not absolute, not precisely marked. There is evidence to suggest the change towards the second period of his aesthetic was relatively long, arising from dissatisfaction with his own verse; thus the importance of the following, written in 1920, to Rheinhart Kleiner: “When I come to review mine own excursions into the province of the Muse, I am conscious that my attitude was never that of the true poet.” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 7 March 1920" 183) This dissatisfaction is crucial to understanding the change. The basic problem facing Lovecraft was the need to escape the past, and to live in the present. And, furthermore, he continued to write verse alongside his essays. So, as his aesthetic influenced his poetry, his poetry in turn influenced his aesthetic. The changes thus arising can be seen as organic, natural. The development of his second phase of aesthetic thought, Decadence, thus becomes understandable, given the dissatisfaction he felt about his own work, and his continued development as a thinker and human being.
This second phase of his aesthetic development saw him accept that he could no longer live in the eighteenth century, but had to exist in the twentieth century. Importantly, during this period there is, in his wider work, a deepening in focus towards questions generated by his knowledge of contemporary scientific thought. Although there is a marked scorn of the nineteenth century, Lovecraft’s decadence was, in essence, his way of maintaining a classicism amenable to the developments of his century. Thus, Lovecraft began to become contemporary in his aesthetic thinking. Yet, there are two important caveats: he remained uncommitted to the poetic avant-garde, and his moral standards retained the Victorian values that had been installed in him whilst growing up. This latter aspect influenced, essentially, his reaction to bohemianism: it was not aesthetics that determined his opposition to it, but ethics, the right or accepted way to behave. Importantly also, he continued to adhere to Poe’s distinction of beauty as the province of art, truth of science; this demonstrates that the essentials, the core of his aesthetic thought remained, that the later developments modified them rather than replaced them. They were, that is, refinements, or supplements, of a pre-existent aesthetic vision. During this period, the decline in quantity of his verse, along with its rise in general quality, reflects in part his earlier statement that “Aside from rhythm & archaism, nearly every element which I sought in verse can be supplied equally well by prose.” (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 7 March 1920" 183) He was starting to develop into a fiction writer and epistolarian of some note, and so the verse began to decline in emphasis and amount.
As part of the development of his aesthetic, Lovecraft found it necessary to codify further what made great verse, great art. In 1923, he wrote (“Rudis” 63) that “Art, to be great, must be founded on human emotions of much strength; such as come from warm instincts and firm beliefs.” This emphasis determines in part the effectiveness of the later Christmas verse since, although he clearly did not share in the occasion’s Christian nature, it was, rather, a time for him to express the warmth of his feelings for others. We also find, in his “Notes on Verse Technique” (144) a list of “essential marks of poetry” which, significantly, include “sincere and intense emotion”. And, in his “What Belongs in Verse” (183), he marks poetry as consisting of “strong feelings sharply, simply, and non-intellectually presented through indirect, figurative, and pictorial images.” In this way we can measure the changes taking place not only in Lovecraft’s poetic thought but also his poetic practice. He was developing as a poet, yet retaining a core of beliefs, thus he was able to still say, rightfully (“What Belongs” 183), that poetry “never defines or analyses or asserts or urges or proves anything.” Thus poetry existed for its own sake, and not as an adjunct, or a principle means to derive pleasure, and in this way he was able to start developing even further, to his third, mature phase of aesthetic thought.
During this third phase, Lovecraft’s correspondence, in particular with Elizabeth Toldridge, formed the chief outlet for the expression of his poetic aesthetic. This is of primary importance to an understanding of him as a poet. Correspondence was a principle way of communicating both his poetry to his friends and, more importantly, his poetic circle. It further highlights the seemingly radical change between his earlier verse, and the verse of his late maturity. Seen overall, the changes in thought appear largely gradual, but taking the two extremes as comparative points allows us to see the degree by which he developed. This degree is also evident if we look at the earliest and most mature products of his adult working life. The core of Lovecraft’s poetic aesthetic in this last, extreme phase lies in a single utterance, where he said that “real poetry means spontaneous expression in the simplest & most poignantly vital living language. The great object of the poet is to … buckle down to the plain, the direct & the vital—the pure, precious stuff of actual life & human daily speech.” (Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 1 July , qtd. in LIFE: 453) Thus simplicity, rather than ornamentation or rhetoric for its own sake, is the poetic keynote. Gone are the tropes and the affectations of his early verse; instead, directness, and an Attic strength prevails. Further, he asserted that “all true poetry comes out of experience and emotion; for we cannot have an authentic urge for expression unless we have really lived or felt what we want to say.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 3 September 1929" 24) Thus the poet’s experience becomes of consideration to the creation of the poem. In a sense, here, he criticises those of his earlier poems written with little or no emotional basis in his own life or experience; he now writes from what he has felt, not what he feels he ought to feel. What is important for the mature Lovecraft is the poem’s core, since “the poetic essence is not a superficial thing of outward trappings, but a deeply-seated type of pattern & symbolic vision whose force is all the greater for simple & unbedizened formulation.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 31 July 1929" 11) Furthermore, “good art means the ability of any one man to pin down in some permanent and intelligible medium a sort of idea of what he sees in Nature that nobody else sees. In other words, to make the other fellow grasp … some inkling of what only the artist himself could possibly see in the actual objective scene itself…”, thus, “A man is a true artist according to his ability to make other people see the visible or emotional or imaginative world as he sees it, without departing from the true basic outlines of the world he is delineating….” (Lovecraft "To Woodburn Harris 25 February – 1 March 1929" 298, 299) All these formulations point to the fullest development of Lovecraft’s art, and his poetic principle, as expressed through his letters. All these further point in part to the role of art, and poetry, in a person’s life, influencing again why he wrote verse.
Art was, for the fully mature Lovecraft, “an elegant amusement”, and he nonetheless believed that “nothing in existence is more important than elegant amusement”. (LIFE: 485; and Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 3 September 1929" 23; respectively) Art also became a means whereby the physiological demands of the audience might be met. This is argued in a letter to Elizabeth Toldridge, sent in 1929, yet art’s importance lay in “the mental and emotional satisfaction of self-expression”, and the one yardstick of success is “the satisfaction of our own emotions”, since, satisfying ourselves, we more readily are able to satisfy others. (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 3 September 1929" 20, 21) Thus, in writing to please himself, being able to please his own stringent criteria for art meant that his art was also more likely to stand as aesthetic products, and to be successes. This criterion helps us realise why his chief late poetic burst, around 1929 to 1930, was so productive, and so dominated by works of inherent excellence. Art, then, had to be real, and it was important (Lovecraft “Heritage” 193) that it “express all the overtones of our feelings…”. And part of that reality was the demand that art be, essentially, simple, yet not simplistic.
Important in poetry was this concept of simplicity. In speaking plainly, and, presumably, directly, Lovecraft was eschewing the unreal and ornamental. This reflects the importance upon the realism of his later fiction. This, too, was marked by a simplicity of style, and a straightforward approach to its matter. The two are united, reflecting once more that the literary values he held for verse were akin, and essentially linked, to those he held for his fiction. And, importantly, he felt his work, his verse had improved over his earlier productions, judging by the lack of overly critical statements about his late verse. Lovecraft also felt that verse in particular was improving over Victorianism, the main area being the elimination of most inversions. (LIFE: 580; Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 31 July 1929" 11-12) As with his Decadent period, Lovecraft retained a core of classicism: his thought was, therefore, an extreme modification, rather than supplanting, of his earlier thought. He thereby uses classicism to help formulate his concept of simplicity. He wrote, after all, that ”Simplicity is the highest attribute of classical art—all one needs to avoid is triteness, commonplaceness, & false or artificial sentiment.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 4 May 1932" 38) These three latter elements are also what precisely help to distinguish the worst of Lovecraft’s early verse. Thus, here we found a measure by which to assess Lovecraft’s verse, and its ability to stand as aesthetic products; how far, we can ask, does Lovecraft embrace an essential simplicity that avoids “triteness, commonplaceness, and false sentiment”?
In asking this, and in assessing the degree to which Lovecraft developed as a poet in his third period, it is important to consider again his relation to the avant-garde. This enables us to see why he retained a core of conservatism, a reaction towards the preservation of a heritage or tradition of western verse. Simply, Lovecraft saw (“Study” 71) that “the bulk of radical prose and verse represents merely the extravagant extreme of a tendency whose truly artistic application is vastly more limited.” Thus, modernism was defined for him (Lovecraft “Heritage” 194) as “very largely a mere decadent dissatisfaction with existing things … precisely akin to the very Victorianism it condemns.” Modernism was, simply, not as independent from Victorianism as some liked to consider it. Tradition, too, became important for his aesthetic theory. Since “a core of tradition must remain” (Joshi Miscellaneous Writings 131), then any demands made by modernists that the past be jettisoned for a relentless modernity were essentially disregarded by Lovecraft, as he sought to preserve what he could of the past, yet retaining a relevance to his contemporary times. He developed, as it were, a broader conception of what art was, that allowed reasonably conservative forms of free verse. He also wrote (“Study” 71) that this “broader conception of art does not outrage any external tradition, but honours all creations of the past or present which can shew genuine ecstatic fire and a glamour not tawdrily founded on utterly commonplace emotions.” Hence his argument (“Heritage” 197) that “there is no need to destroy and replace accustomed aesthetic fundamentals when they can so more advantageously be retained and developed as reason and conditions dictate.” And hence, he asks (“Study” 71) “What is art but a matter of impressions, of pictures, emotions and symmetrical sensations? It must have poignancy and beauty, but nothing else counts. It may or may not have coherence.” In addition, we see that, by 1923, he held “a high respect for these moderns as philosophers and intellectuals, however much [he] may dismiss and disregard them as poets.” (Lovecraft "To Frank Belknap Long 26 May 1923" 230) In total, then, we see a continuation of Lovecraft’s concern with tradition, combined with a lightening of strictures against free verse. This latter aspect is one of the more interesting features of his mature aesthetics, and worthy of a brief examination before the question of Lovecraft’s poetic practice must arise.
Essentially, Lovecraft (“Technique” 144) accepted free verse, when it was “intelligently irregular” in rhythm, and, since “The lack of guiding rules is a severe handicap at an early stage of poetic growth”, he realised its challenge, and also acutely realised its limitations, especially for a beginner. Thus, formalist verse retained a form of relevance, even if only as a sort of ‘five-fingered’ exercise for the beginning poet. In addition, he harkened back to “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” in that what was to be avoided was excess, in this case an excess of poetic radicalism that would have destroyed a poem’s essential aesthetic qualities. Finally, Lovecraft noted also, of contemporary verse, that its “prevailing tendency is towards subjectiveness”, rather than the objectivity of preceding ages. (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 24 November 1930" 238) This subjectivity is reflected in some of Lovecraft’s verse, particularly in the later sonnets of the Fungi from Yuggoth. In short, it reveals that Lovecraft’s poetic practice was in concordance with his poetic aesthetic, and that, although he was not to produce any free verse of note, he was able to maintain a contemporaneity that encapsulated and allowed his formalist traditionalism to flourish.
In general, Lovecraft’s poetic practice strove to achieve certain qualities in his verse. Chiefly, he strove above all to communicate clearly. The importance of this was highlighted in an early essay (“Regularity” 12) where he wrote: “The ‘language of the heart’ must be clarified and made intelligible to other hearts, else its purport will forever be confined to its creator.” Looking at Lovecraft’s verse, we find that it is, eminently, readable. There is an easy fluidity of rhetoric that admits not the arcane and contorted arguments he found in other poets. Thus, in part, his reaction to The Waste Land, seeing in it a melange of texts that provided little to no coherence of thought. Further, the overall touchstone for his poetic practice was the issue art’s relationship to the past, and the artistic heritage bequeathed to the moderns. Essentially, art must build on the past, rather than discard it. It is part of a body of knowledge, and must help to both maintain it, and to further it. That is, if tradition was to be maintained, it was also to be the basis for further works, newer works. The contemporaneity of Lovecraft’s political verse is testament to this, as an attempt to place Georgian forms to contemporary concerns, and the use of the pastoral to comment upon Alfred Galpin’s love affairs is another example. Essentially, then, it is important to look more closely at the development of Lovecraft’s poetic practice, and how this is reflected specifically in various poems that he wrote.
Lovecraft started writing verse at six, but he considered this initial material to be “pretty bad”: his earliest extant verse, “The Poem of Ulysses, or The Odyssey” (1897), was written in an internally rhyming ballad metre, unlike his later reliance upon the iambic pentameter, and demonstrates the importance for Classical material for the young Lovecraft. (LIFE: 23-4; Lovecraft "To Bernard Austin Dwyer 3 March 1927" 107, 108) As his earliest surviving verse, it displays some notable features in accord with his later, mature verse. It is readable, with a strong metrical regularity, and is relatively straightforward, relating the essentials of the plot. It also has a certain delightful charm to it. This, with the rest of earliest verse, reflects Classical concerns and models. His translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 1900-1902), for example, is of particular interest. It is, essentially, Lovecraft’s first attempted translation, one that is both relatively faithful to its source, and again rather readable, if somewhat dated. Its use of heroic couplets hearkens both back to the Georgian models to which he was being exposed, and forward to his later verse productions in the same or similar mode. Thus, it serves both as an indication of his current interests and a foreshadowing of his later verse production. His Poemata Minora revealed Classical subjects, but not a classical style; it is, essentially, a pleasant collection of verse, and the seeming anomaly of the style is reminiscent of the sharp stylistic divisions of his later weird verse, from his occasional verse, and also of the charm and simplicity of the later Christmas poems. In particular, “On the Vanity of Human Ambition” displays influences from both Ovid and Juvenal and from Samuel Johnson, thus demonstrating Lovecraft’s inherent ability as a poet. These are, essentially, the core of his youthful verse, dominated as it was by Classical themes. Yet, in addition, Lovecraft’s youth saw the earliest extant example of a contemporary theme, in “H. Lovecraft’s Attempted Journey betwixt Providence & Fall River on the N. Y. N. H. & H. R. R.”; this is also the first example of humorous verse by Lovecraft, demonstrating too part of his strengths as a later, more mature poet. Finally, “De Triumpho Naturae” is, essentially, a failure. It is a naïve and racist document, with no redeeming features, and it is wonder how, and why, it has continued to exist, rather than having been consigned to oblivion. Overall, although the keynote of Lovecraft’s poetic output was Classical, it nonetheless displays features of his later verse, in the form of regularity, a concern, in significant part, with Georgian forms, and a contemporaneity that is most notable in his later satiric verse. There is also a note of his failure: “De Triumpho Naturae” is indicative of the body of failures that includes his later political verse which, if not as blatantly racist as this earlier verse, are certainly no better as poems in themselves. Therefore, it is important then to progress to the chief period of Lovecraft’s poetic output, his early adulthood, lasting roughly from 1912 to 1922, as this period sees the bulk of his verse, and its failures, being produced, and it is of considerable interest in its own right, and for our understanding of him as a man.
The initial impetus for Lovecraft’s verse in 1912 was local concerns. His first published verse, “Providence in 2000 A. D.” (1912), demonstrates this concern with topical affairs, and his “New-England Fallen” (1912) is a pathetic piece that is only exceeded in awfulness by “On the Creation of Niggers” (1912). These poems suggest that his racism was, in large part, derived from his background and childhood, and less an artefact of his disastrous New York sojourn. Of his other, very early mature work, “Quinsnicket Park” (1913) is a dull and leaden piece of little worth. Like many later verses, it is, essentially unreadable, and ill-deserving of preservation. Overall, these verses speak little of Lovecraft’s ability as a poet. They are, essentially, failures, undeserving of their preservation. Yet, it was another sequence of events that was to prove important to Lovecraft as a man and as a poet: this was the Argosy letter controversy. (There is a succinct study of the controversy in LIFE: 93-7 which well repays examination. See also the introduction by S. T. Joshi to Argosy -7)
Briefly, Lovecraft, in response to criticisms to his letter attacking Fred Jackson, was inspired by one letter written in verse. This inspiration resulted in, during the controversy, the publication of several of verse satires responding to, and attacking, his critics; several more were written but remained unpublished in the magazines concerned. Eventually, these were to result in the start of Lovecraft’s adult literary career.
The Argosy letter controversy important in Lovecraft’s development as a poet, since it led to his involvement in amateur journalism. This latter venue was to be the chief market for his early mature verse. However, with the controversy, it is important to remember that this also marked the initial development of his abilities as a verse satirist. The key texts, then, are “Ad Criticos” (1914), “Ad Criticos: Liber Secundus” (1914) and “The End of the Jackson’s War” (1914). Of these (Joshi “Munsey” 14), the first verse epistle is “a clever poem” with a “penchant for stinging satire which would be one of the few virtues of his poetic output.” The second is likewise marked by his satire, and the final poem is actually a charming little piece of much verve. What is important about these poems is that Lovecraft was able to use his familiarity with Georgian satire against contemporary targets, in the process examining essentially modern concerns. Yet, the poems have their flaws. In particular, “Ad Criticos” demonstrates (Joshi “Look” 37) Lovecraft’s facility with “the rococo externals—but […] not the inner fire or living music—of Dryden’s and Pope’s great satires”, for one. Thereafter, most of Lovecraft’s early verse was to appear in amateur publications. In “many instances” it seems he was concerned to keep papers supplied with copy, and so, in these cases, we see sentiments expressed that were counter to Lovecraft’s own. In this way, the failure of much of Lovecraft’s verse becomes understandable, even as most of the early material adhered to a single note.
This keynote in Lovecraft’s early verse is his degree of indebtedness to the eighteenth century. This period’s forms, modes and concerns certainly informed and influenced his own. Thus we find, in an early letter to Rheinhart Kleiner, the remark “I am certainly a relic of the 18th century both in prose & in verse.” (Lovecraft “To Rheinhart Kleiner 28 March 1915” 15) He also later called himself a “chronic & inveterate mimic” who allowed his “antiquarian tendencies to get the better of [his] abstract poetic feeling.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 8 March 1929" 314) Yet, towards the end of this period, around 1922, we find a general diminishment of this: it is as if, over time, Lovecraft was seeing the failure of his verse, and attempting to address his dissatisfaction through the development of a more contemporaneous verse form. Thus, we find that abandonment of the eighteenth century’s forms and modes in his later poetry. Since the eighteenth century was so important for this period, it is not surprising when John Ravenor Bullen pointed out Lovecraft’s “devotion to Queen Anne style may make his compositions seem artificial, rhetorical descriptions to contemporary critics”. (Qtd. in LIFE: 124 and also Joshi, “Dagon” 78) This, then, makes it obvious that, for the bulk of Lovecraft’s verse, the chief feature was an attempt to develop and maintain an antiquarian focus, and so it is hardly surprising that the bulk of his poetic failures should display this, and related, qualities.
This is because, quite simply, as it has been said, the bulk of Lovecraft’s poetry is (Scott 212) “quite dull, even at times unreadable”, that it fails because, although written in the twentieth century, it is “completely out of touch” with it, and also due to his “strong racial and social snobbery”. Even, it has been argued by S. T. Joshi, his attempts to address contemporary concerns with eighteenth century verse fail. As initially noted, these harsh criticisms are shared somewhat by Lovecraft. He was, simply, aware there was little merit to his verse, thus his remark (“Notes” 560) concerning his “years which should have been collegiate”, that the verse produced was “uniformly worthless”. Significantly, he also noted in a letter to Maurice W. Moe (qtd. in LIFE: 121), that “Take the form away, and nothing remains. I have no real poetic ability, and all that saves my verse from utter worthlessness is the care which I bestow on its metrical construction.” And thus he also later wrote that “My verse lost every vestige of originality & sincerity, it only core being to reproduce the typical forms & sentiments of the Georgian scene…”; his purpose, then, was for psychological, not aesthetic, ends. (LIFE: 121; Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 8 March 1929" 314-315) Yet, it must be remembered that Lovecraft’s poor opinions of own work unfairly coloured own critical judgements on them. He is not his own best critic, in other words. In a sense, there is not one, uniformly awful poet, but a number of poets, each specialising in various aspects of poetry. By far the most important of these aspects is Lovecraft’s occasional verse: it forms the bulk of his production, and is hence, by weight alone, the most important aspect of his poetic practice.
Of the various eighteenth-century models for his verse, Lovecraft’s occasional verse is closer to Dryden’s than Pope’s, with the chief exception being the seasonal works. These are more akin to Thomson, though they fail to convey any real sense of Lovecraft’s philosophy. In general, it is difficult to be charitable towards this work. For the first part, it frequently appears to have been substitutes for letters. Thus, just as fiction later supplanted verse as his chief aesthetic outlet, so too letters displaced it, as another means to express the same material, but in a more effective and interesting way. Second, we find plenty of poems on amateur matters. Thus, many of the characters of Alfredo are identifiable as Lovecraft’s amateur colleagues, since it forms an example of both occasional and dramatic verse. This work, by the way, is effective, due in part to the light-heartedness and good humour displayed in it. It is, essentially, a jeu d’esprit and worthy successor to the juvenile “H. Lovecraft’s Attempted Journey betwixt Providence & Fall River on the N. Y. N. H. & H. R. R.”. In general, the seasonal poems are without any real essence of feeling. They remain banal exercises in worn-out tropes and sentiments, and display nothing of Lovecraft’s own thoughts and feelings. It is only the later Christmas poems that are more successful and delightful for the reader, due primarily to both the warmth of the affection held by Lovecraft for the poems’ recipients, and to the unaffected simplicity of their construction. These indicate, then, the failings of the bulk of Lovecraft’s occasional verse, and some of its successes.
Of this occasional verse, some is uniformly more meritorious than others. Such includes, for example, the pastoral verse and the verse concerning books and writers. Of the pastoral, which Lovecraft (“Pastoral” 22) defined as “the simple description of ideal beauty, or the straightforward presentation of pleasing images for no other purpose than to delight the fancy”, as it’s purpose was to recall the Classical world, so too in Lovecraft it was designed to recall the eighteenth century, and its modes of thought. The pastorals were, in particular, often used to commemorate the romantic adventures of the young Alfred Galpin, in such work as “Damon and Delia: a Pastoral” (1918), “To Delia, Avoiding Damon” (1918), and “Damon—a Monody” (1919). These can, surely, be read as attempts to stave off love in Lovecraft’s life, serving almost to ward off its influence in his affairs; as such, they remain a charming aspect of his poetic practice, delightful and full of warmth to those amenable to this form of verse. As for verse on books and writers, a work such as “The Bookstall” (1916) is evidence that, given the opportunity to discourse upon particularly favoured topics well-suited to the forms, Lovecraft was capable of producing work of high quality. More work of this calibre, as S. T. Joshi notes (LIFE: 125), would have “deflected Winfield Townley Scott’s severe [judgement] … of his poetry as ‘eighteenth-century rubbish’.” Thus, we can gain here a fuller assessment of Lovecraft’s occasional verse, noting in part where it succeeded and failed. In doing so, the uneven quality of his abilities as a versifier become notable, unlike some aspects of his poetic work that remain, almost uniformly, painful.
The first of these aspects which remain, as it were, painful, is Lovecraft’s political verse. This is almost entirely connected with the First World War, which provided plenty of material. In general, there is a naivety to them, and an anti-pacifism, as exemplified particularly in both “Pacific War Song—1917” (1917), and “The Peace Advocate” (1917). There is also an idealistic loyalty to England; as evidence for this, we need look no further than “1914” (1915), “An American to Mother England” (1916), and “Ad Britannos” (1918). Lovecraft particularly desired that America enter into the war on the British side. Thus, he wrote such works as both “Iterum Conjunctae” (1917) and “An American to the British Flag” (1917). In general, these items are all inept, aesthetically worthless items with little to no redeeming qualities. Utilising the eighteenth century modes and forms, Lovecraft had only succeeded in producing an array of splendidly mediocre verse, of no interest and of equal value. This is not to say that there is no value in any of his political verse: there are some interesting items. “To Greece, 1917” (1917) urges the Greeks to repel the invading Germans, and is of interest in part from the Classical allusions indulged in. “On a Battlefield in Picardy” (1918), a piece of great poignancy, has an anomalously loose rhyme scheme and rhythm which speaks volumes of Lovecraft’s inherent poetic ability. As S. T. Joshi has noted (LIFE: 175), it is evidence for his ability as poet when untrammelled by the heroic couplet. The seemingly anomalous “The Conscript” (1918?) becomes less so if we look at the concept of free will, and the essence of masculinity. Briefly, for Lovecraft, masculinity demanded that men go and fight for Britain. It was, in essence, the 'done thing', yet a man had to want to fight, to be a man. Thus the importance for him of volunteering, to prove to his family that he was a man, and rightfully able to stand as the man of his family. If we see this, then "The conscript" becomes less anomalous. It reflects his view of a man as the victim of historical forces, yet willing to stand up and be a man nonetheless. Likewise, deprived of the free will to enlist, and thus fight in actuality, Lovecraft compromised by taking a stance and writing verse designed to persuade others to fight. Thus the militancy of his war verse, and the more anomalous "The conscript", which are aspects of the same nature. That "The conscript" derives much of its power from its almost artless simplicity speaks volume for its worth as a poem in itself, and almost nothing for any conjectures that we may make, justified or not, about its place in Lovecraft's oeuvre. There is a final poem, this time addressing Anglo-Irish relations. “Ye Ballade of Patrick von Flynn; or, The Hibernio-German-American England-Hater” (1916) is crudely effective, a satire that nonetheless deserves some attention. It shows that Lovecraft was capable of addressing political topics effectively, as targets for satire, but his serious verse on the whole fails for various reasons. Chiefly, the poems fail due to their wholly unworkable diction and form, thereby making it almost impossible to take them seriously as political pieces. They lose, as a consequence, their essential relevance by being forced into both irrelevance and an uncomfortable antiquarianism that works against them as political pieces. Clearly, Lovecraft had yet to learn that for contemporary subjects, a suitable mode and style had to be employed.
Another aspect of Lovecraft’s early mature verse that failed was his role as a recorder of New England; this verse parallels, to a degree, the importance of New England in his other writings. Yet, for the most part, such pieces as “New-England Fallen” (1912), “On a New England Village Seen by Moonlight” (1912), and “On Receiving a picture of ye Towne of Templeton, in the Colonie of Massachusetts-Bay, with Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire, Shewn in the Distance” (1917) remain, in Joseph Payne Brennan’s words (21), “interesting failures”. There is one chief exception, belonging to the verse of his late maturity. “The East India Brick Row” (1929) has been considered as certainly among Lovecraft’s finest verse, and its success lies in the transmission of Lovecraft’s emotions. It is sincere, and displays both a keenly felt nostalgia, and a concern for its subject, and, fortunately, it makes up for the worst of Lovecraft’s verse. The same cannot be said for other aspects of Lovecraft’s verse.
Similarly, another aspect of Lovecraft’s mature poetic practice largely failed. This was his didactic, or philosophical, verse. Most are unreadable, despite some early exceptions. “Wisdom” (1919) is an excellent example of the bulk of this verse; seemingly commissioned by John Milton Samples, it displays one of Lovecraft’s chief failings in that its subject matter is so evidently at odds with his own interests. In other words, it appears to be a piece of hackwork, embodying conventional and clearly anomalous sentiments not held by the author, and its clear insincerity is the chief architect for its failure as verse. “Inspiration” (1916), however, displays a welcome delicacy of tone and handling, and it is important largely due to its status as Lovecraft’s first professional poetic sale. On the whole, though, Lovecraft’s successes in these aspects of his verse are incapable of redeeming the whole, unlike his satire and parody. They remain small in number, insignificant when compared to his total poetic output.
Lovecraft’s satire and parody was, essentially, his most evenly meritorious work in his early mature period. It was chiefly directed at a number of pet targets. These included slang and simplified spelling, as in “The Simple Speller’s Tale” (1915). In particular, his frequent satires on alcohol display some virtues, given his lifelong aversion to drinking. Among these, for example, is the inclusion of chemical formulas within some verses, as in “The Decline and Fall of a Man of the World” (c1919). Another favoured target was modernist poetics; an excellent example of this is his take on Hart Crane’s “Pastoral” in “Plaster-all” (1921). He could also write cogently, and humorously upon himself, and upon his own abilities as a versifier. Thus, “On the Death of a Rhyming Critic” (1917) shows him to be (LIFE: 126) “fully cognisant of his own deficiencies as a poet;” work such as this and “The Dead Bookworm” (1919) are, quite simply, pieces to be relished, and evidence that satire was one of his strengths as a creative artist. There are, in addition to himself, other targets. Thus James Laurence Crowley was targeted by “My Lost Love” (1916), and “Laeta: a Lament” (1918). James Ferdinand Morton was the target of “The Isaacsonio-Mortoniad” (1915); and Ida C. Haughton was the subject of “Medusa: a Portrait” (1921). He also wrote in response to other verses. Thus, we have, following Olive G. Owen’s “The Modern Business Man to his Love”, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Modern Business Man” (1917); and we have, following Rheinhart Kleiner’s “To Mary of the Movies” and “To a Movie Star”, both “To Charlie of the Comics” (1916) and “To Mistress Sophia Simple, Queen of the Cinema” (1919). (Lovecraft "To Rheinhart Kleiner 30 September 1915" 21) And, in verses in a letter to Alfred Galpin, he parodies a verse by Rheinhart Kleiner. Literary matters also made a significant target for his pen. He favoured targeting both modernism and stylistic faults, attacking Whitman in “In a Major Key” (1915), false rhymes in “The State of Poetry” (1915), and his contemporaries’ faults in “Amissa Minaerva” (1919). He also targets excessive stylistic mannerisms, such as those of Poe in “Nathicana” (1920), which is, as has been said, “a satire too good, so that, instead of parodying, it possesses, the original.” (Lovecraft "To August Derleth 9 September 1931" 149) In essence, looking at the breadth and diversity of Lovecraft’s satires and parodies, it is easy to see why these are, for the most part, effective. Where eighteenth century forms are utilised, they are entirely consonant with the aims of the poet, and the resultant harmony is in keeping with the poems’ tenor and general nature. In addition, he aims at the essence, the basic features of his subject, thereby enabling an admixture of realistic elements, in the telling details, with the idealism of his aim and purpose. Finally, these poems are all marked to a considerable degree by the (Kleiner 402) “depth and intensity of [his] convictions.” In this, they point towards the later formulations of his poetic aesthetic. That Lovecraft was capable of a uniformity in excellence should prove no surprise: his letters, for example, reveal the same depth of humour, and the same keenness of insight that the poems display. Like his weird verse, the satires and parodies of H. P. Lovecraft reveal the extent to which he was a poet of excellence, yet unlike his weird verse, this excellence is, largely, unalloyed.
Lovecraft’s weird verse began to be produced around 1917, and is the second aspect of his overall verse to display a large degree of merit. Up till then, his verse was predominantly Georgian in nature, and it is with the development of his weird verse that Lovecraft was to become exposed to other, more contemporaneous verse forms and modes. We can see clearly from the start a pulling away from the Georgian model. “Unda” (1915), for example, parodies late Romantic ballads (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 195) with their “florid imagery and sexual undercurrent”. In turn, “The Unknown” (1916), though seemingly simple, reveals to the reader, as Donald Burleson notes (“Unknown” 19), “a rich field of potential in the text”; that is, it “affects a mechanical simplicity that would call its value as poetry into question … were it not for other considerations that show the poem’s apparent simplicity to be illusory.” “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” (1916) anticipates the bulk of his weird verse, as does his “The Unknown” (1916) which, although interesting, remains insubstantial and slight. “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” is an interesting case; its whole is clearly less than sum of parts. Stylistically, the blank verse is traditional for the serious core, and the heroic couplets reflect Lovecraft’s admiration of the Georgian satirists. The outer couplets are concise and witty, yet, contrary to R. Boerem’s assertion (217), the two sections don’t “heighten” the effects of the other. Although the structure parallels “Unda”, the outer framework tends to (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 195) “subvert the point of the cosmic centerpiece”, thereby diminishing its effectiveness as a piece of weird verse; it is this central section that embodies his actual views, and his cosmicism. Unfortunately, the comic framework reduces the cosmic vistas to a pale and unsatisfying joke. That is, the comic framework makes the central portion ludicrous, and the central portion makes the framework shallow, in essence, a pale imitation of a poem. Essentially, that is, the two fail to mesh; they are at odds, and the poem is diminished as a result. Thus the importance for our understanding of the poem of Lovecraft’s later insistence that the comic framework be dropped for publication (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 196). Each section, though, has its lesson to the reader: the comic framework is an injunction against excess, yet the core, however, stresses the (Boerem 219) “microscopic insignificance” of both the Earth and the inhabitants. Thus, the core of the poem embodies Lovecraft’s cosmic position as succinctly and successfully (if considered on its own) as many of his prose works. It is this that makes the poem succeed, this emphasis upon the utter insignificance of the human and terrestrial, despite the flaws inherent in the comic framework that, essentially, makes the core parodic. With “The Eidolon” (1918) and “Revelation” (1919), knowledge itself becomes the source of horror. These poems show in part, then, the development of certain themes that parallel those found throughout Lovecraft’s fiction career. They also demonstrate the essential similarity, and connected nature between the two, as the verse and fiction are both aspects of a single, unified aesthetic vision of reality.
As in his early fiction, Poe was the primary influence for the early weird verse. Thus, we see (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 199-202) that “Alone” influenced “The Eidolon” (1918), “The Nightmare Lake” (1919), and “A Cycle of Verse” (1919); “The Haunted Palace” influenced “Astrophobos” (1917), and “Revelation” (1919); “Ululame” influenced “Nemesis” (1917), “The City” (1919), “The House” (1919), “Nathicana” (1920?) and “Despair” (1919; this latter was also influenced by “For Annie”). We find, too, an obvious debt to Poe in the mood, metrical basis and the vocabulary of the poems. Yet, whilst he was able to imitate Poe, he lacked any real message, anything of substance of his own to say. It is as if this period sees Lovecraft assume a poetic mentorship in weird verse, one that has him learning the outward craft while lacking any real message to convey through it. Poe, though, was not the only influence upon Lovecraft’s weird verse. We can see (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 200) the influence of Swinburne’s “Hertha”, for example, in “Nemesis”, “The City”, and “The House”. Of these, “Nemesis” has been described (Burleson “Nemesis” 40) as “early but powerful”, an indication of its strengths as a piece of weird verse. Finally, Sir Walter Scott has been seen (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 202) as the principal influence for “Psychopompos” (1917-8). This piece, unlike many examples of Lovecraft’s weird verse is narrative in nature, and, lacks the stylistic influences of the more Poe-derived pieces. Briefly, then, where he succeeds in his weird verse, Lovecraft combines philosophy with horror. Thus, we find cosmic insignificance, particularly in “The Poe-et’s Nightmare”, and in “Revelation” we find, as in later stories, an inability to derive pleasure after exposure to the “horrors of the cosmos”. The bulk of the others are less substantial, but are enjoyable nonetheless; these include, among others, “A Cycle of Verse”, “The City”, and “The House”. On the whole, then, the quality of Lovecraft’s verse during his early maturity is alloyed; some are successes, and most failures. It is interesting to see why this is so, and what can be learned from them about his strengths and weaknesses as a poet. For the most part, the causes of these will be discussed later, yet some remarks need be made here, in relation to the verse produced during this period of Lovecraft’s poetic practice.
Of his weird verse’s failings in this period, chief among them (LIFE: 171) are both “stock images [and] contrived shudders.” Thus, poems such as “The Rutted Road” (1917) and “Astrophobos” (1918) both fail due to these flaws; “Nemesis”, likewise, is vague and its imagery is devoid of any real frisson. They tend to fail too, because the poems are only there to scare, and nothing more. Where “Psychopompos” fails is in its poor handling of the revelation of the principals as shape-changers, and the poem as a whole would be better if certain later sections were omitted. Yet, despite these failings, where Lovecraft succeeds, he succeeds because of the qualities of his verse. He displays an evident skill and technique, for example. And, although in reference to another poem, “Old Christmas (1917), in an analysis, John Ravenor Bullen remarked on his “ever-growing charm of eloquence (to which assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeic sound and rhythm and tone colour contribute their enhancing effect)…”, highlighting the degree to which Lovecraft had a facility with the essentials of poetic writing. (Qtd. by S. T. Joshi, in Scott 216, n. 5; LIFE: 124; and also Joshi, “Dagon” 78) Of that particular poem, S. T. Joshi has written (LIFE: 123) that “the sheer geniality of the poem eventually wins one over if one can endure the antiquated diction.” “Despair” was written in wake of mother’s collapse, and is notable for depth and intensity of its pessimism; it is, perhaps, one of the finest of his early verses, and well worth consideration as one example of his strengths as a poet. These, then, are the essentials of his strengths in this period, and of the failures of his weird verse (given that the other verse has been addressed elsewhere). Though this theme will be examined later, in relation to his verse as a whole, here we find a relevance to an understanding of the most important and productive period of his poetic life. Indeed, although the later maturity is in a sense more important, given the higher percentage of successes, it essentially fails due to the comparative scarcity of poems alone.
Roughly, from 1922 there is a sharp decline in the number of poems produced by Lovecraft; in short, for the rest of his life, he was to produce far less than half of those written in the decade of 1912-1921. The chief causes for this decline have been seen (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 199) as a rise in fiction as a principal aesthetic outlet, and the influence of Clark Ashton Smith’s verse from 1922; the confluence of these two, is evident in that the decline actually starts in 1921, rather than forming a sharp break after the initial encounter with Clark Ashton Smith’s verse. On the whole, the poems are marked by a maturity mirroring his own as a person, and they also display a contemporaneousness that lends to them a vigour and relevance as poetic products. Lovecraft continued to produce occasional and weird verse during this period. Most of the other, earlier aspects are diminished, with maybe one to two examples at most. “The Cats” (1925) is definitely effective and among his most satisfying weird verse: it captures the animals’ eldritch nature effectively, and is effective in conveying a sense of macabre delight. “Festival” (1926), too, has been called (LIFE: 411) “effective”, and “The Wood” (1928-1929), although still shudder-mongering, embodies Lovecraft’s later aesthetic concerns about poetry & poetic language.
The key period in this later phase was from December 1929 through January 1930, when “The East India Brick Row”, “The Messenger”, “The Ancient Track”, and Fungi from Yuggoth were all written. S. T. Joshi argues (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 203) that a hiatus in fiction production occurred around late 1929; thus the burst of poems was an attempt to ‘kick-start’ Lovecraft’s writing career. Essentially, their style is simple, yet not simplistic, direct and they are, basically, exercises in understatement. The language is alive, vivid, and the horror is memorable due to the simplicity of diction and the memorable imagery. Yet, all bar certain sonnets of the Fungi cycle lack any philosophical foundations. “The Messenger”, for example, is notable for both its simplicity and natural diction. As such, it has been described (Burleson “Messenger” 18) as “a poem supporting [a] rich complexity of self-subverting textuality”, and (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 203) “as flawless a horrific sonnet as was ever written by Clark Ashton Smith or Donald Wandrei”. “The Ancient Track” is held by S. T. Joshi as Lovecraft’s “most successful poem”. Its two stanzas combine to form a genuinely beautiful note of beauty and terror, and its language is such to remain remarkably fresh and direct. The sonnet cycle Fungi from Yuggoth is arguably Lovecraft’s most sustained example of weird verse. It is, simply, the acme, the cream of this aspect of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. Written in a sustained burst, barring only one sonnet, it represents a scintillating panoply of Lovecraft’s conceptions, and is heavily derived from entries in his commonplace book. They are remarkable pieces, relatively simple, contemporaneous, with a diction both flexible and compact; they furthermore reveal, a store of remarkably stirring images. Lovecraft himself noted their importance to his poetic practice; he wrote to Elizabeth Toldridge: “You will notice throughout the series my effort to break away from tawdry & artificial ‘poetic diction’ & write in the living language of normal utterance.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge January 1930" 116) Yet, the sonnets are not unified by any real feature. If anything, their dominant feature is (Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 203) an “utter randomness of tone, mood, and import.” Yet, despite that seeming flaw, they remain Lovecraft’s finest poems metrically, figuratively and linguistically. In short, they redeem (S. T. Joshi, in Lovecraft Miscellaneous Writings 203) “all the ‘eighteenth-century rubbish’ he ever wrote.”
The amount of verse written after this extraordinary burst of creativity was small and insignificant. Of these, the final sonnets to Clark Ashton Smith and Virgil Finlay are both pleasant but slight, and there are the occasional pieces which have more than mere charm to recommend them to posterity. “To Mr. Finlay, upon his Drawing for Mr. Bloch’s Tale, “The Faceless God” (1936) was included in a letter to Finlay as an example of what he could write (Lovecraft “Virgil Finlay” 12), and it remains, if anything, an indication of what he could still achieve: his powers of creativity, though diminished, were still powerful.
Of his later verse, there has been a question as to influences. Winfield Townley Scott (214-5; LIFE: 463)has postulated Edwin Arlington Robinson as the chief influence for the fully mature verse of Lovecraft, but this has been debated by S. T. Joshi, who has postulated (Joshi “Note 12” to Scott 463; LIFE: 463) Clark Ashton Smith and Donald Wandrei as the two chief influences. This latter makes sense, for we know that he was familiar with, and admired Wandrei’s Sonnets of the Midnight Hours. There was also the influence of experience on working at Maurice W. Moe’s Doorways to Poetry to take into account, which was a factor during this period.(LIFE: 463; Lovecraft "To James Ferdinand Morton 30 October 1930" 55; also Joshi “Fantastic Poetry” 203) All this discussion of sources presupposes one thing. That is, as Lovecraft’s previous verse was ‘solely’ produced under other influences, the latter verse must also have been produced under some influence, identifiable or not, as argued by Winfield Townley Scott (215). This helps explain, for example, Will Murray’s unconvincing attempts (77-80) to find a source for the song within “The Tomb”: if Lovecraft is the sum of his influences, then everything must have its attendant influence or influences. Tom Collins essentially sums up (9) a position that, essentially, makes better sense; he remarks that Lovecraft “seemed to be an imitator”, yet in doing so he became “original …, taking and adapting from both past and present whatever was most useful for his own purposes…”. Lovecraft himself was concerned with imitation. His famous cry of “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?” was immediately prefaced with the following: “Even when I break away, it is generally only through imitating something else!”—and he went on to say “In verse, I have cheated myself of a style of copying the styles of others.” (Lovecraft "To Elizabeth Toldridge 8 March 1929" 315) Yet, looking at work such as the Fungi or “The Ancient Track”, we can say that despite his shortcomings as a poet, despite his insistence of unoriginality in his verse, Lovecraft was capable of producing, and indeed did produce, work that is not only identifiably his own, but also identifiably of excellent calibre. This focus, first upon the aesthetic views in relation to poetry, then upon the poetic practice, allows us to see in some depth and detail the development of Lovecraft as a poet, and the degree to which his focus shifted from antiquarianism in verse to a contemporaneousness that is, simply, of some excellence. All these affect our views of him as a poet, which is important; how are we, looking at all this material, expected to view him as a poet?
Our views on Lovecraft as a poet have, in part, been determined by the past. August Derleth, for example, has been identified (Collins 4) as “the outstanding perpetrator of the general mythology about [Lovecraft’s] poems…”: he simply failed to see “why anyone would want to write such verse ‘even to entertain himself,’…”. Yet, by looking sympathetically at his verse, it is possible to identify in all key periods of his creative output some verse worth preserving. Although none is technically flawless, enough still exists with a high enough calibre to stand on their own merits as poetry. Yet, though he wrote poor verse, and although most has survived, it should be the best that remains the standard by which we judge Lovecraft. We have the duty to look at a person’s best, and assess that, rather than look only or primarily at that person’s worst. Looking, then, at Lovecraft in this way, we can begin to admire his successes, and understand his failures; it is the least that we, as critics and readers, should do.
Evaluating Lovecraft’s successes, then, as a poet is relatively easy. Overall, at his best, he produces work that is essentially and highly enjoyable. His pastorals, for example, are simply charming. The Georgians succeeded chiefly with “satire, controversy and burlesque” as, Collins reminds us (6), did Lovecraft. They also, like him, produced occasional poems with facility; this remained the largest aspect of his verse published in the amateur press, and at its best it displays somewhat of the regard he held for his subjects. His flexible poetic voice could handle elegies, as well as epigrams, greetings, parodies and the pastoral. “The Cats”, for example, is a highly effective piece of impressionistic verse, and speaks volumes for the skills and maturity of the late poet. He particularly developed and displayed an admirable poetic technique at his best. Finally, both his weird and satiric verse remained the most consistent areas of his poetic work. Indeed, “it is possible to find things to note and even enjoy in nearly all his fantasy verse”, as S. T. Joshi notes (“Fantastic Poetry” 195). These, then, encompass the basic essence of Lovecraft’s many successes. The failures, although numerically superior, also have features of interest, which should be noted.
In general, the failures among Lovecraft’s poetry share similarities. Thus his weird verse has a tendency to scare for its own reasons, not in pursuit of some other, perhaps higher goal; as Winfield Townley Scott succinctly said (215): “To scare is a slim purpose in poetry.” With the early verse, there is, simply, no real poetic depth, or genuine feeling; there is nothing there that could have, and should have, been better said in prose. Lovecraft is also surely at his worst when “working up a wholly artificial sentiment to go with the artificial style” (Collins 6): thus he is concerned not with what he feels, but with what “he ought to feel”, and the resultant lines are devoid of any true animation or spark. He also employs the application of poetic forms to themes and moods unsuited to them, most notably the heroic couplets of his early verse. Thus, “To Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany” (1919) is, for example, stilted and wooden, and demonstrates the folly of using styles for manifestly unsuitable subjects. Thus we have the acute remark by S. T. Joshi (Dagon 78) that “it was exactly because his poems were merely playful—and … fundamentally insincere—excursions into antiquarianism that they fail as aesthetic products.” Finally, for all bar his most distinctive work, he failed to create a poetic voice distinctive enough, and unmistakably his: we get no real sense of who Lovecraft is from most of his verse, no real sense of his position in and views on the world. Unlike Swinburne, who is recognisable as Swinburne at his worst, Lovecraft is never anything more than mediocre at his. These, then, are the ways he failed as a poet, despite his few, yet significant, successes.
“His best remains restricted” wrote Winfield Townley Scott (215) of Lovecraft’s verse. This is true to an extent. Although I disagree that his best “touched no depths of human significance” (Scott 215), for which see “Continuity” at the very least, his best nonetheless remain “an interesting if minor portion of his total work.” At his best, too, he stands up well alongside Frank Belknap Long and Donald Wandrei, even if he is paled by both Samuel Loveman and Clark Ashton Smith. However, his verse continues to last. It simply, as S. T. Joshi notes (“Fantastic Poetry” 205-6), “commands our attention if only for its skill, precision, and occasionally an unforgettable line, conception, or image.” This, then, is Lovecraft the poet: flawed, yet capable of works of beauty and power that are, nonetheless, arresting. He may rank among the second tier of his poetic circle, but in doing so this is no snide compliment to him, but a measure instead of the riches to be found in his work.
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