The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works Of H.P. Lovecraft
editor: S.T. Joshi
Night Shade paperback $20
review by Steve Sneyd
Today, the 'cosmic horror' writer H.P. Lovecraft is the ultimate cult figure, acclaimed as the most read American writer of the first half of the 20th century, his Cthulhu Mythos of humanity as hapless prey to incomprehensible alien forces perfectly in tune with the 21st century's obsession with vast conspiracies. So it's difficult now to realise just how marginalised he was in his lifetime. While his fiction, published in a few pulp magazines, made it onto the radar of genre just far enough to attract a handful of aficionados, his poetry was all but ignored, save by wholly amateur publications desperate for material to fill their pages.
Now, in a total turnaround, every surviving poem HPL wrote has been gathered together - from famine to feast, as it were. This has been done, moreover, in the form of a book which, despite the low price for such a tome, is handsomely produced in highly readable type, remarkably free from literals, and with a comprehensive array of informative notes compiled by the editor, himself the pre-eminent current expert on Lovecraft.
Having praised the book as a volume, however, it mist be said that a very high percentage of the poetry therein is likely to appeal only to the fanatical HPL completist, or those seeking psychological insights into the writer's personality. Lovecraft's obsession with 18th century England, the place and time where he believed he truly belonged, caused him to produce innumerable jangly verses employing that era's favourite poetic form, the rhymed couplet. To add to the sterility, he imported wholesale the 18th century's artificial pastoral-poetic diction, already obsolete then, ludicrously so in the 20th, transposing swains, nymphs and suchlike to America in the kind of 'cultural cringe' nowadays reversed as Britain adopts American vocabulary wholesale. Hence, sadly, all too much here confirms the view of SF writer L. Sprague De Camp (himself the first HPL biographer) that Lovecraft's poetry could be the best insomnia cure ever. HPL himself later became an even crueller critic of his own verse - "my creaking couplets ... a mess of mediocre and miserable junk" etc.
Also, since this book's objective of total comprehensiveness does not permit omission of work that could damage Lovecraft's reputation in ways other than stylistic, it includes many spiteful, often sour grapes-ish, verse attacks on other writers (albeit balanced by generous poems in praise of favourites like Poe and Dunsany). Here too are verses expressing Lovecraft's bigotry towards those Americans, unlike himself, not of white Anglo-Saxon ancestry (attitudes also expressed, it has to be said, all too often by other writers of the time, including Lovecraft's bête noire T.S. Eliot, likewise a bigot as well as a deeply conservative anglophile. Lovecraft's obsessive dislike of Eliot precisely reflects the well-known, human tendency to most dislike a more successful version of ourselves!). They range from unfunny attempts at the cheaply humorous, via deeply unpleasant stereotyping, to, in at least two instances, the vilely racist, and the reader therefore needs to be prepared to encounter this hard-to-forgive side of a remarkable writer.
The book conveniently, if sometimes rather arbitrarily, since some pieces could with equal logic appear in other sections, groups the poems into ten categories, sequencing them chronologically within each. Among these are Juvenilia, Satire, and Seasonal & Topographical - which includes myriad Christmas greeting verses to individuals, more sensibly, perhaps, placed with the huge section of Occasional verse, as they sit rather oddly alongside landscape poetry. Other categories include poems written for Amateur Press Associations (HPL was for many years deeply involved, in this movement, in which each APA member produced a - usually slim - publication at regular intervals, to be sent to a central coordinator who bundled all such offerings to be mailed out to all members), Politics and Society, poems dealing with Lovecraft's own character and that of his family, untitled and fragmentary items, and a one-item category, his only verse play. Inevitably, there is a substantial section of Fantasy and Horror. There, in particular, having sounded generally negative in this review so far, I find cause to say 'And yet, and yet'.
I'd long been aware that there was one exception to the general low opinion of Lovecraft's verse, in that his sonnet sequence - The Fungi From Yuggoth, which alone of his poetry had remained continuously in print, from a variety of publishers, ever since it was written over New Year 1930, was deservedly praised for its evocative quality and the intense way it focused his vision of the mouldering colonial settlements of his native New England as gateways through which ancient evils from out of space could enter and dominate hapless individuals.
But I had taken the Fungi (which are here, of course) as the exception that proves the rule. The pleasant, and striking, surprise was to find other poems here that have real power as evocations of genre chills. (It should also be added, in his defence as a poet, that the landscape poems, while often clichíd, do on occasion achieve a genuine sense of place and its individual atmosphere, particularly when his Gothic taste was suitably inspired, as by the dangerous marshes at Ipswich posing deceptively as a "waving plain" that "hides the marshy rankness at the roots", or by a dark deserted dwelling like The House On The Borderland-ish example in On Marblehead:
With willows like vast octopi array'd,
It leers perpetual from the deeps of time.
And mirrors gulphs down which no man may climb
Psvchompompos, for example, is an enthralling narrative of feudal times (as editor Joshi says, evocative of Sir Walter Scott as much as of Poe, whose worship so gripped HPL that he claimed one pastiche, To Zara - which includes the notably sinister line "the shroud shall drape/ Grotesque liquescent turns of shape" - to be a lost genuine poem by Poe, rediscovered in the hands of a Maine hermit!) as peasants endure, then face down, the unnatural tyranny of a knight and lady who prove to be respectively werewolf and were-serpent.
Aletheia Phrikodes, though distractingly framed by sections of self-mocking parody, has an awesome central core, in which a dark woodland spirit displays to the narrator the terrible vastness of "all the universes" which themselves "Form'd but an atom in infinity", a powerful exercise in expressing in verse the cosmic dread so central to Lovecraft's prose fiction. (In utilising this area of science-horror, HPL intriguingly also remains in tune with his obsession with the 18th century - the Enlightenment was as much the birthplace of the Gothic as of the rule of reason, it's also another intriguing parallel with Lovecraft's bête noire, Eliot, that the latter too, in his most famous work, The Wasteland, again and again deploys the Gothic mode, albeit in free verse, unlike Lovecraft's fanatical adherence to rhyme and meter. HPL also shared cosmicity of vision with Walt Whitman, yet as an elitist and hater of free verse was driven to attack him too. Thus, in this dark forest, the narrator learned the true helpless nonentity of "the morbid matter by itself call'd man".
To cite just a couple of other memorable pieces from the Fantasy and Horror section, in The Wood, which includes the lovely line, "Forests may fall, but not the dusk they shield", an avenging perpetual darkness comes to cover a town built where woodland has been destroyed, while in The Ancient Track, the poem from which this collection takes its title, the narrator expecting to see a well-known landscape when he reaches the brow of a hill, instead encounters a terrifying transformation:
my loved past never had been (...)
Around was fog, ahead the spray
of star-streams in the Milky Way.
(Here, the image of the stars is one of dread: elsewhere, emphasising an almost Gnostic duality in his view, in the seasonal A Winter Wish he dreams of locking out winter by means of -
a dome of crystal glass,
whose size the Pantheon's tenfold might surpass
Thro whose clear surface sun and stars might blaze
- as if, solipstically, escaping to a personal space colony).
Even in the weaker poems of this section, memorable words or images can glint from an otherwise predictable, flat, or jingly exercise, in The Bells, elsewhere cornily swain-invaded, the line "each snow-drap'd hedge beneath the beams/ that added silver to the silver there" has a shimmering loveliness, while The Outpost pictures how "Zimbabwe's palace flares ablaze/ For the great king who fears to dream" since his sleep was invaded by humanoids "Half solid and half ether-spawned".
Outside the Fantasy and Horror section, too, Lovecraft's theme of cosmic dread can illumine in unexpected places, the most curious instance being in Waste Paper, intended to parody Eliot's The Wasteland, it clearly took on a life of its own without the parodist realising, nostalgic fragments, the advertising slogans and popular songs of childhood, gradually accumulating to form a deeply sinister pattern. Even the melodramatic verse play Alfredo: A Tragedy, predictable as is its final bloodbath, reflects in its working out that selfsame dark Lovecraftian vision, so uniquely, individually, intense, of humanity's disposable puppet status.
Like the curate's egg, then, the poetry here is good in parts, and the book well worth getting for those parts, as well as for the light shone on the mental workings of an enigmatic, often extraordinary writer - a light that is often quite unexpected, as when the reader finds him devoting a poem to hymning the praises of Quaker Oats!
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