Nor Severn Shore

The Poems of A.E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett (Clarendon Press 1997)

“I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.” So said Saki’s hero Reginald in “Reginald on the Academy” (1904). In The Poems of A.E. Housman, the academy is trying to have the last word on A.E. Housman (1859-1936). But Housman wouldn’t have minded. Horace boasted that his verse would prove monumentum aere perennius – “a monument more lasting than bronze” (Odes, III 30). Housman had humbler ambitions for his:

They say my verse is sad: No wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Rue for eternity, and sorrow:
Not mine, but man’s.

This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read
When they’re in trouble
And I am not.

In the commentary, Archie Burnett quotes a letter of “AEH to Witter Bynner, 3 June 1903: ‘My chief object in publishing my verses was to give pleasure to a few young men here and there’” (pg. 417). And Housman wasn’t in trouble when those lines were published, because he was dead. They open the posthumous More Poems (1936), which was edited by his brother Laurence.

In this case, I think there is more pleasure in the variant phrase “Tears of eternity”, included in the scholarly apparatus beneath the poem (pg. 113). Posterity seems to agree, because “Tears of eternity” appears in The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, published as a popular edition in 1994 by Wordsworth. And it echoes Virgil’s lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things” (Aeneid, i. 462). Classical influences are not obvious in Housman, but they are there beneath the surface. The simplicity of his verse is deceptive:

Passages are adduced for consideration with no indication of their status or significance: that is a matter for literary criticism, and I have endeavoured only to provide a foundation for such criticism. I hope, however, to have rectified the anomaly whereby a wide range of intertextual reference is expected in, say, Milton or T.S. Eliot, but not in Housman; and to have promoted regard for Housman as one of the true scholar-poets. (“Introduction”, pg. lx)

Burnett’s hopes are realized. The best of Housman’s poems are like butterflies: small, delicate, enchanting. And Burnett sometimes seems to be breaking butterflies on the wheel. The commentary for a poem can be much longer than the poem itself. First it’s fixed by a long pin: “1st draft, Dec. 1895 – 24 Feb. 1900; 2nd draft 30 Mar. – 10 Apr. 1922” transfixes the lines given above, for example. Then there’s a description of the manuscripts: “ink, with corrections and uncancelled variants in pencil”. Then Burnett commences what Aldous Huxley called “the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important question: Who influenced whom to say what when?” (The Doors of Perception, 1954).

But the learned foolery is interesting and enlightening. You’ll understand and appreciate Housman better by reading this book. All readers will know that the lad of A Shropshire Lad (1896) is imaginary. But so, in part, is the Shropshire:

The vane on Hughley steeple
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
And there lie Hughley people
And there lie friends of mine.

Tall in their midst the tower
Divides the shade and sun,
And the clock strikes the hour
And tells the time to none. (ASL, LXI)

Burnett notes that there is “no steeple as such” on the church of St John Baptist at Hughley (pg. 365). Housman was “Worcestershire by birth” and Shropshire was his “horizon”, not his home (pg. 317). He wrote about the village of Hughley before he had even seen it:

I ascertained by looking down from Wenlock Edge that Hughley Church could not have much of a steeple. But as I had already composed the poem and could not invent another name that sounded so nice, I could only deplore that the church at Hughley should follow the bad example of the church at Brou, which persists in standing on a plain after Matthew Arnold has said it stands among mountains. I thought of putting a note to say that Hughley was only a name, but then I thought that would merely disturb the reader. I did not apprehend that the faithful would be making pilgrimages to these holy places. (Letter to Laurence Housman, 5th October 1896)

But what more appropriate for the faithful than to travel in hope and arrive in vain? A non-existent steeple is far more Housmanesque than an actual. His Shropshire is part of myth, not of mundanity. It’s a horizon, not a home, and no-one can ever go there. But if horizons are Housmanesque, so is humour. It’s not obvious from A Shropshire Lad that the author was one of the greatest classical scholars who ever lived. Nor is it obvious that the author could see the lighter side of life.

But he could. His letters prove that and so does some of his verse:

I knew a gentleman of culture
Whose aunt was eaten by a vulture.
He said “Though carrion may be scanty,
That bird should not have eaten auntie.” (?1917)

When I was born to a world of sin,
God be praised, it was raining gin,
Gin on the houses, gin on the walls,
Gin on the bunworks and copybook-stalls. (?1911)

He also joked about the Academy:

First Don O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?
Second Don State the alternative preferred,
With reasons for your choice. (date unknown)

Fragment of a Greek tragedy

Alcmaeon. Chorus.

Cho. O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity? (Fragment…, 1883)

The lines above are from the section called “Light Verse and Juvenilia”. Some of Housman’s nonsense verse is excellent. Some of it is also eerie: “Aunts and Nieces, or, Time and Space” (?1929) reminded me of M.R. James or Saki, with its “astoundingly absurd/Yet dangerous cockyoly-bird”:

In the middle of next week
There will be heard a piercing shriek,
And looking pale and weak and thin
Eliza will come flying in. (“Aunts and Nieces”)

Who would guess that the same man wrote A Shropshire Lad? But that also applies to “Iona”, Housman’s attempt to win the Newdigate Prize for English Verse at Oxford in 1879. As Burnett notes, the “subject and the metre (English heroic verse) were not of his choosing” (pg. 529). Unsurprisingly, the poem didn’t win the prize. It would make a good challenge for a literary scholar today. If you didn’t know who had written it, would you be able to guess?

And far in all the wide world’s peopled ways
Became a marvel and a wild amaze.
Became a wonder and a world’s desire
And fill’d high heaven and all men’s eyes with fire,
And wheresoever it smote, such power it had,
The reaper stay’d his reaping and was glad,
The ploughman left his plough and follow’d far,
The shepherd reck’d no more of folding-star,
The fisher thither turned his toiling oar
Harrowing the peopled main with nets no more.
The deep-sea diver left the watery whirl
And sought no more the shark-beleaguer’d pearl,
And far away the light on all men’s eyes
Struck blind the magian wisdom of the wise:
Then each man deemed his riches last and least
And came and worshipp’d out of west and east
At faith’s far altar raining gems like tears
And all the garner’d usury of years;
Brought jewell’d gold and treasure passing price
And ransack’d cities piled for sacrifice
And incense strange in marvellous woofs unfurl’d
For these had seen her star in all the world.
Had seen her star, and clothed in gladness trod
And walked on earth with a many a present god, […]

(“Iona”, ll. 85-108 – a “folding-star” is a star seen at nightfall, when sheep are gathered into the fold)

I think most literary scholars would conclude that those lines had been written by a forgotten Victorian poetaster influenced by Swinburne. But Burnett notes one link to Housman at his laconic best, for a reaper also appears in this poem:

Breathe, my lute, beneath my fingers
One regretful breath,
One lament for life that lingers
Round the doors of death.

For the frost has killed the rose,
And our summer dies in snows,
And our morning once for all
Gathers to the evenfall.

Hush, my lute, return to sleeping,
Sing no songs again.
For the reaper stays his reaping
On the darkened plain;

And the day has drained its cup,
And the twilight cometh up;
Song and sorrow all that are
Slumber at the even-star.

When I first came across that on the internet, I thought it was a late poem. It actually pre-dates “Iona” and was written in 1877 as a “song for Lady Jane Grey awaiting death in captivity”, part of a play, The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, that would have been published in a “Family Magazine”. But Housman left home to attend Oxford before he finished editing and transcribing the magazine.

Le Supplice de Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche (1833)

Le Supplice de Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche (1833)

Only a “fragment” of it was left and that is how the poem survived. What else has been lost? Nothing better than that, I would guess – and hope. But in a way this book retrieves lost poems. In the commentary to Poem XXV of Last Poems (1922), Burnett parallels Housman’s “sea-wet rock” with Philip Bourke Marston’s “sea-wet shining sand”. Marston was a blind poet whose collection Song-Tide (1888) was a “volume in Housman’s library”. He deserves to be better-remembered.

The German poet Heine, on the other hand, has the modern fame he deserves: a lot. His influence on Housman was considerable and he often appears in the commentary. Take Poem LVII in A Shropshire Lad:

You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You hearken to the lover’s say,
And happy is the lover.

’Tis late to hearken, late to smile,
But better late than never;
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever. (ASL, LVII)

The commentary notes a parallel with these verses by Heine:

Es kommt zu spät, was du mir lächelst,
Was du mir seufzest, kommt zu spät!
Längst sind gestorben die Gefühle,
Die du so grausam einst verschmäht.

Zu spät kommt deine Gegenliebe!
Es fallen aus mein Herz herab
All deine heissen Liebesblicke
Wie Sonnenstrahlen auf ein Grab.

Then it quotes the stilted Victorian translation Housman was familiar with: “It comes too late, thy present smiling, | It comes too late, thy present sigh! | The feelings all long since have perish’d | That thou didst spurn so cruelly. || Too late has come thy love responsive, | My heart thou vainly seek’st to stir | With burning looks of love, all falling | Like sunbeams on a sepulchre.” That’s by Edgar Alfred Bowring. Housman captures the simplicity and spirit of Heine much better in A Shropshire Lad.

But “Breathe, my lute” proves that Housman was Housmanesque before Heine, whose influence is “later than 1889” (“Introduction”, lx). Shakespeare and the Bible influenced him from the beginning, as the commentary proves again and again. He was also influenced by English and French folk-ballads, by Tennyson, Christina Rosetti, Swinburne and Stevenson, and by classical authors like Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal and Propertius. Burnett quotes the original languages, noting the Greek πολυφαρμακος behind “many-venomed” in Poem LXII of A Shropshire Lad and expanding Poem XLIII of More Poems with a resounding phrase from Lucretius: moles et machina mundi, “the mass and fabric of the world” (pg. 455).

And Propertius might have been writing Housman’s epitaph here:

Qui nunc iacet horrida pulvis,
Unius hic quoniam servus amoris erat. (Elegies II. XiiiA. 35-6)

Those lines were noted as a parallel to Poem XI of A Shropshire Lad by the Japanese scholar Tatsuzo Hijakata in the Housman Society Journal (9, 1983). Again the translation given here is stilted: “He that now lies naught but unlovely dust, once served one love and one love only”. Housman captured the spirit and simplicity of Propertius far better:

On your midnight pallet lying,
Listen, and undo the door:
Lads that waste the light in sighing
In the dark should sigh no more;
Night should ease a lover’s sorrow;
Therefore, since I go to-morrow,
Pity me before. (ASL, XI)

The classical influence could be more indirect: “the bluebells of the listless plain” in XXVIII of More Poems are explained by the parallel between the flower’s scientific name, Campanula, “little bell”, and campania, “level plain” (pg. 444). And so the spirit of Housman, “amateur botanist and professional Latinist” (ibid.), lingers amid the “learned foolery”, which cannot explain why his poetry is so good, but can illuminate his sources and allow people who knew him to reveal some of his contradictions and complexities:

One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture… “Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.” This ode [Horace, IV 7] he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and said in quite a different voice: “I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.” Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. “That,” he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, “I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” and walked quickly out of the room. A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. “I felt quite uncomfortable,” he said. “I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.” (Commentary on More Poems, Poem V, pg. 427, quoting Mrs T.W. Pym in The Times, 5th May 1936, 5, from Grant Richards, Housman 1897-1936 (revised edition 1942), pg. 289)

But one of those who knew Housman was Housman himself. In More Poems XLIV, he writes of “Venice under sea”. And here, in a letter to his sister Katharine in 1926, is his last word on his love for the city:

I was surprised to find what pleasure it gave me to be in Venice again. It was like coming home, when sounds and smells which one had forgotten stole upon one’s senses; and certainly there is no place like it in the world: everything there is better in reality than in memory. I first saw it on a romantic evening after sunset inn 1900, and I left it on a sunshiny morning, and I shall not go there again. (Commentary to MP, XLIV, pp. 456-7)

Housman’s life, like his verse, combined contradictions: the bitter with the sweet. Sometimes he felt that everything had been futile:

When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did. (Additional Poems (1939), IX)

But that is actually “A Fragment preserved by oral tradition and said to have been composed by A.E. Housman in a dream” (pg. 469). Housman himself said that he did “not know” it or had “forgotten” it. So he forgot what he dreamt. He remembered what he had lived and could mingle the sweetness of memory with the bitterness of loss:

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
That will not shower on me. (ASL, XXXIX)


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Poetry and Putridity — A.E.H. vs C.A.S.

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Poetry and Putridity

Poetry and Putridity: Interrogating Issues of Narrativistic Necrocentricity in A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith

Thanatic fanatic. Say it. Savour it, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly am: I am obsessed with words. The sound of them, the shape of them, their history, meaning and flavours. If I were a Guardianista, I’d say I was “passionate about” words. But it’s partly because I’m obsessed with words that I’m not a Guardianista. The Guardian and its readers use them badly. I like people who use them well: A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. AEH (1859-1936) was an English classicist, CAS (1893-1961) a Californian jack-of-all-trades. But they were both masters of the English language.

They were also thanatic fanatics: obsessed with death. But in different ways. You could say that Housman was more death-as-dying, Smith more death-as-decaying. Not that Smith didn’t deal in dying too: he wrote powerfully and disturbingly about our departure from life, not just about what happens to us beyond it. But Housman didn’t dabble in decomposition and decay. In A Shropshire Lad (1896), the death is fresh, not foetid: necks break, throats are slit, athletes die young, men muse on drowning, fiancées arrive at church in coffins, not coaches. Sometimes the effect, and affect, are ludicrous. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to decide:

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
  The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
  Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
  The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
  The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
  The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
  To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
  Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
  Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
  The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
  Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
  And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
  As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
  To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
  And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
  As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
  A hundred years ago.

*Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.

A Shropshire Lad, IX.

That poem mingles beauty and bathos as it contemplates death. Other poems have more or less of one or the other, but for Housman death is metaphor and metaphysics, not morbidity and mephitis. He uses it as a symbol of loss and despair and those are his real concerns. There is no literal death here:

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
  The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
  Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
  Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
  The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
  Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
  That will not shower on me.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXIX.

That is an example of multum in parvo: “much in little”. Using simple words and simple metre, Housman creates great beauty and can conjure overwhelming emotion. He was one of the greatest classicists in history, an expert in the rich and complex literature of the ancient world, a profound scholar of Latin and Greek. But his poetry is remarkable for its lack of classical vocabulary. There is no Latin or Greek in the poem above and only two words of French. Clark Ashton Smith was quite different:

“Look well,” said the necromancer, “on the empire that was yours, but shall be yours no longer.” Then, with arms outstretched toward the sunset, he called aloud the twelve names that were perdition to utter, and after them the tremendous invocation: Gna padambis devompra thungis furidor avoragomon.

Instantly, it seemed that great ebon clouds of thunder beetled against the sun. Lining the horizon, the clouds took the form of colossal monsters with heads and members somewhat resembling those of stallions. Rearing terribly, they trod down the sun like an extinguished ember; and racing as if in some hippodrome of Titans, they rose higher and vaster, coming towards Ummaos. Deep, calamitous rumblings preceded them, and the earth shook visibly, till Zotulla saw that these were not immaterial clouds, but actual living forms that had come forth to tread the world in macrocosmic vastness. Throwing their shadows for many leagues before them, the coursers charged as if devil-ridden into Xylac, and their feet descended like falling mountain crags upon far oases and towns of the outer wastes.

Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world shrank gulfward, tilting beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire. And closer drew the gigantic stallions, racing with inconceivable speed, and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos; and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli.

“The Dark Eidolon” (1935).

Smith’s logomania could not be satisfied beyond the bounds of English, in Latin, Greek and French: he stepped outside history altogether and created his own languages to weave word-spells with. If you didn’t know CAS or AEH or their writing, who would seem more like the world-famous classicist? Based on what I have quoted so far, it would perhaps be Smith. But that is part of what is astonishing about his writing: he wasn’t merely a Beethoven of prose, creating gigantic melodies with rich and rolling words, he was a poorly educated Beethoven. Here is another contrast with his fellow thanatic fanatic. Housman was not poorly educated and was given a chance Smith never had: to attend and adorn one of the world’s greatest universities. The chance was dropped. Housman attended, but he didn’t adorn:

After showing himself, as an undergraduate [at Oxford], to be a brilliant – even arrogantly brilliant – student of Latin and Greek, apparently set for a lifetime of scholarship, he produced a performance in his final examination that astonished all who knew him. He handed in a series of blank, or nearly blank, papers and was failed outright. Retrieving the situation as best he could, he completed the requirements for a pass degree, got through the Civil Service examination, and secured a post at the Patent Office. (The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Wordsworth, 2005, Michael Irwin’s Introduction, pg. 8)

Housman would end his life, laden with honours, as a Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but that isn’t surprising. The fiasco at Oxford certainly was. Why did it happen? A nervous breakdown or failure to work, perhaps, because of his unrequited love for a fellow student: Moses Jackson, who was healthy, heterosexual, and had no time for classical scholarship. In later life, travelling to cities like Paris and Venice, Housman would indulge much more than his gastronomic and aesthetic appetites. But he seems to have believed that sex without love is like food without flavour. And he never ceased loving Jackson. When he completed volume one of his magnum opus, a definitive edition of the Roman poet Manilius (fl. 1st century A.D.), he dedicated it to Jackson in Latin, dubbing him harum litterarum contemptor, “a scorner of these writings”. That was in 1903, when Jackson was married and living in India. Jackson would later move to Canada, where he died of anaemia in 1923. His death was anticipated by this cri du cœur from Housman:

The half-moon westers low, my love,
  And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
  And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
  In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
  You know no more than I.

Last Poems (1922), XXVI.

But cri du cœur is not the mot juste: it is a very simple poem with only a single foreign word. That is, if “apart” can be called foreign, after centuries on the tongues and lips of English-speakers. Almost everything else has been there millennia and that is part of Housman’s word-magic. His poems are really about depth, not distance. One of the most famous says, in the same simple vocabulary, that far away is close at hand:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
  His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
  When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
  But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
  At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
  The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
  Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
  Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
  Are ashes under Uricon.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXI.

Death for Housman, as it was for Swinburne, is “a sleep”: when the body is ashes, the brain is troubled no more. Death does not necessarily sleep in Clark Ashton Smith:

Natanasna (chanting):

Muntbauut, maspratha butu, [Mumbavut, lewd and evil spirit,]
Varvas runu, vha rancutu. [Wheresoever thou roamest, hear me.]
Incubus, my cousin, come,
Drawn from out the night you haunt,
From the hollow mist and murk
Where discarnate larvae lurk,
By the word of masterdom.
Hell will keep its covenant,
You shall have the long-lost thing
That you howl and hunger for.
Borne on sable, sightless wing,
Leave the void that you abhor,
Enter in this new-made grave,
You that would a body have:
Clothed with the dead man’s flesh,
Rising through the riven earth
In a jubilant rebirth,
Wend your ancient ways afresh,
By the mantra laid on you
Do the deed I bid you do.
Vora votha Thasaidona [By (or through) Thasaidon’s power]
Sorgha nagrakronitlhona. [Arise from the death-time-dominion.]

(After a pause)

Vachat pantari vora nagraban [The spell (or mantra) is finished by the necromancer.]

Kalguth: Za, mozadrim: vachama vongh razan. [Yes, master: the vongh (corpse animated by a demon) will do the rest. (These words are from Umlengha, an ancient language of Zothique, used by scholars and wizards.)]

(The turf heaves and divides, and the incubus-driven Lich of Galeor rises from the grave. The grime of interment is on its face, hands, and clothing. It shambles forward and presses close to the outer circle, in a menacing attitude. Natanasna raises the staff, and Kalguth the arthame, used to control rebellious sprits. The Lich shrinks back.)

The Lich (in a thick, unhuman voice): You have summoned me,
And I must minister
To your desire.

Natanasna: Heed closely these instructions:
By alleys palled and posterns long disused,
Well-hidden from the moon and from men’s eyes,
You shall find ingress to the palace. There,
Through stairways only known to mummied kings
And halls forgotten save by ghosts, you must
Seek out the chamber of the queen Somelis,
And woo her lover-wise till that be done
Which incubi and lovers burn to do.

That is from Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951), “A Drama in Six Scenes”. It is also a drama with a sex-scene, by implication, at least. The re-animated corpse follows its instructions, seeks out the palace and enters the “chamber of the queen Somelis”, who addresses it thus as her husband, King Smaragd, beats on the locked door:

Poor Galeor, the grave has left you cold:
I’ll warm you in my bed and in my arms
For those short moments ere the falling sword
Shatter the fragile bolts of mystery
And open what’s beyond. (Op. cit., Scene IV)

I read the play daunted by its erudition, delighted by its epeolatry, and disturbed by its emetic extremity. Some of Smith’s work is about something other than death. This play is about nothing but death. Compare it with Smith’s short-story “The Isle of Torturers” (1933), which contains both poetry and putridity. It’s part richness, part retching. There is poetry like this:

Creaming with a winy foam, full of strange murmurous voices and vague tales of exotic things, the halcyon sea was about the voyagers now beneath the high-lifting summer sun. But the sea’s enchanted voices and its long languorous, immeasurable cradling could not soothe the sorrow of Fulbra; and in his heart a despair abided, black as the gem that was set in the red ring of Vemdeez.

Howbeit, he held the great helm of the ebon barge, and steered as straightly as he could by the sun toward Cyntrom. The amber sail was taut with the favoring wind; and the barge sped onward all that day, cleaving the amaranth waters with its dark prow that reared in the carven form of an ebony goddess. And when the night came with familiar austral stars, Fulbra was able to correct such errors as he had made in reckoning the course.

“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).

There is also putridity like this:

Anon the drowned and dripping corpses went away; and Fulbra was stripped by the Torturers and was laid supine on the palace floor, with iron rings that bound him closely to the flags at knee and wrist, at elbow and ankle. Then they brought in the disinterred body of a woman, nearly eaten, in which a myriad maggots swarmed on the uncovered bones and tatters of dark corruption; and this body they placed on the right hand of Fulbra. And also they fetched the carrion of a black goat that was newly touched with beginning decay; and they laid it down beside him on the left hand. Then, across Fulbra, from right to left, the hungry maggots crawled in a long and undulant wave…

In The Dead Will Cuckold You, the poetry never escapes the putridity. After reading it, you will understand why L. Sprague de Camp remarked this of Smith: “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy, Arkham House 1976, pg. 206). Nor has anyone since Poe so loved an ingenious torture: in Scene V of the play, King Smaragd threatens his guards with a “douche” of “boiling camel-stale”. There’s humour in Smith’s morbidity, but I think that he dwelt too long on unhealthy themes. It shows both in his stories and in his popularity: the Weird Tales Big Three, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert E. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith, are rather like the three stars in the belt of Orion. Lovecraft and Howard are bright Alnilam and Mintaka, Smith is dimmer Alnitak. His luxuriant lexicon explains part of this, but his necrocentric narratives must repel people too.

Housman wrote about death more delicately and distantly. His work doesn’t so much narrativize the necrotic as thematicize the thanatic. It talks about dying, not decaying, and it doesn’t relish the repellent as Smith’s work often did. This helps explain why Housman is a bigger name in English literature than Smith, though I don’t think he was a greater writer. Housman is a minor poet with a major name. I think he deserves it for the beauty and simplicity of his verse. He’s a word-magician who can conjure tears. Smith is a word-magician who can conjure titans. He did more with English and deserves some of Housman’s fame. With his poetry, he might have won it; with his putridity, he lost his chance.