Five Poems by Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was most famous for his publications in Weird Tales and his consequent literary association with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. He had a profound talent and produced copious work in the Eldritch School of American Decadence. In Smith’s work one can easily discover similarities with both Lovecraft, his more famous colleague, and greater predecessors like Poe and Baudelaire. The violent inventiveness of his language calls to mind a demon-crazed Hopkins. I have selected five representative poems that all treat a common theme: beauty.
A Dream of Beauty
I dreamed that each most lovely, perfect thing
That nature hath, of sound and form and hue—
The winds, the grass, the light-concentering dew,
The gleam and swiftness of the sea-bird’s wing;
Blueness of sea and sky, and gold of storm
Transmuted by the sunset, and the flame
Of autumn-colored leaves, before me carne,
And, meeting, merged to one diviner form.
Incarnate Beauty ’twas, whose spirit thrills
Through glaucous ocean and the greener hills,
And in the cloud-bewildered peaks is pent.
Her face the light of fallen planets wore,
But as I gazed, in doubt and wonderment,
Mine eyes were dazzled, and I saw no more.
The Refuge of Beauty
From regions of the sun’s half-dreamt decay,
All day the cruel rain strikes darkly down;
And from the night thy fatal stars shall frown—
Beauty, wilt thou abide this night and day ?
Roofless, at portals dark and desperate,
Wilt thou a shelter unrefused implore,
And past the tomb’s too-hospitable door
Evade thy lover in eluding Hate ?
Alas, for what have I to other thee ? —
Chill halls of mind, dank rooms of memory
Where thou shalt dwell with woes and thoughts infirm;
This rumor-throngèd citadel of Sense,
Trembling before some nameless imminence;
And fellow-guestship with the glutless Worm.
The Mirrors of Beauty
Beauty has many mirrors to ensphere
Her presence or her passing: orbs of dew;
Far-flooding Amazons with margents new;
The narrowing circlet of the desert mere;
Deep wells on which the ruby planets rear;
Blades from Damascus; gems of Xanadu;
And pools that hold a falcon-hovered blue
Or eves whereon the ghostly owlets veer.
Often, upon the solitary sea,
She lieth, ere the wind shall gather breath—
One with the reflex of infinity;
In oriels filled with some conflagrant sky
Her vision dwells, or in the ring-dove’s eye,
Or the black crystal of the eyes of Death.
The Orchid of Beauty
Beauty, thou orchid of immortal bloom,
Sprung from the fire and dust of perished spheres,
How art thou tall in these autumnal years
With the red rain of immemorial doom,
And fragrant where the lesser suns illume,
For sustenance of Life’s forgotten tears.
Ever thy splendor and thy light appears
Like dawn from out the midnight of the tomb.
Colors, and glints, and glamors unrecalled,
Richly thy petals intricate revive:
Blossom, whose roots are in eternity,
The faithful soul, the sentience darkly thralled,
In dream and wonder evermore shall strive
At Edens lost of time and memory.
You are not Beautiful
You are not beautiful; but, ah, too long
I sought, and found a slowly growing grace;
Till fairer now than beauty is your face,
And all your silence dearer than a song.
A Poem for the Feast of the Blessed John Duns Scotus
Duns Scotus’s Oxford
Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ
Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and posed powers;
Thou hast a base and brackish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping — folks, flocks, and flowers.
Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veined unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.
Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Scholastica Culpa
In my review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, I wrote the following:
I’m not suggesting that Dreher is necessarily wrong in his various judgments. He may well be correct in accusing the nominalists of a kind of cultural deicide (although it overlooks the Christian nominalist tendency, closely tied to empiricism, that numbers Berkeley, Burke, Hamann, Newman, and Chesterton among its ranks).
I subsequently received some pushback for making such a claim. After all, eminent philosophers and theologians had long made nominalism the villain of their narratives about the rise of an anti-Christian modernity. Others questioned my assertion about Newman in particular.
At that time, I defended myself by suggesting that, while I may be off in ascribing a specifically nominalist tendency to these thinkers, that nevertheless, they all do share, inter alia, a suspicion of universalizing abstraction, a respect for concrete particularity in its various forms, and a trust in prudence gained from experience. I interpreted this tendency as akin to the nominalist rejection of substantively existent universals. I also thought that one of the reasons this way of thinking might matter is in our dialogue with postmodernity, which is itself so suspicious of universals and grand narratives.
Nevertheless, I erred. I was mistaken to use that label of nominalism. I must thank my critics for pointing this out. In the many months since then, I have learned what would be the proper term to tie together these particular thinkers – not to mention Gerard Manley Hopkins and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The “nominalist tendency” is really a Scotist tendency. (The fact that I could make such an ironic error is, perhaps, a sign of my own ignorance. I own that. Scholasticism isn’t really my thing.) Chastened by my previous mistake, I hesitate to delve too deeply into the technical depths of Scotist philosophy. I will state briefly that a belief in the idea of haecceity as the unique thisness of each particular sums up the tendency’s core point. If I had time, I’d like to investigate if any firmer affinities could be found.
However, I believe I am now on much sounder territory. The Franciscan Daniel Horan’s work has focused on a postmodern engagement with Scotus, and the Scotism of Newman and Hopkins have been well-attested in the literature. Tolkien took up the theological note behind Hopkins’s ideas of inscape and instress, themselves poetic derivations of Scotist haecceity. More work still needs to be done in English on Hamann, but the image that is emerging is of a figure passionately devoted to the disruptive nature of ordinary, particular experience. His willingness to contest the established narratives of the Aufklärung predates postmodernism by a century and a half. Chesterton is cut from the same cloth. Bishop Berkeley, though perhaps not quite so colorful as either of these two, stakes his empiricism on the particularity of the thing perceived (ultimately, by God). And Burke transposes the idea into the realm of politics, tempered by a healthy respect for natural law.
Two observations come to mind. The first is that nearly all of these thinkers are English or Anglophone. An enquiry into the reasons behind English Scotism would be useful. In its absence, I will merely note that Scotus, that medieval Oxford theologian, seems to have been directly reintroduced into the life of modern English spirituality by another Oxford theologian, John Henry Newman. It was Newman’s influence that defined intellectual Catholicism in England until the conclusion of Vatican II.
The second is that several of these thinkers are literary figures in their own right. Hopkins is principally remembered as a poet, Chesterton as a journalist, novelist, and poet, and Tolkien as a novelist. Newman was a prolific writer across genres. He exerted a personal influence over Hopkins, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde. And Hamann’s own deeply bizarre output constantly blurs the rigid lines of 18th century drama (yet another way he foreshadows our own postmodern era).
I must wonder if Scotist thought is particularly apt for the production of theology in a poetic mode, as the Catholic Sophiologists of our own day are seeking to do. I certainly have friends who think so. At the very least, Scotus’s high Mariology accords well with the extremely high Mariology of some Sophiologists.
If I had more time, I should like to dive more deeply into these questions. For now, I seek only to explain myself a bit, and apologize for what was clearly a serious error.
ADDENDUM: I also meant to say that Delleuze’s appropriation of haecceity as a fundamental concept lends support to my own impulse of putting these thinkers in conversation with postmodernism.
Finally, Fleet Foxes
The day we have waited for has arrived. Fleet Foxes have finally returned with a triumph of an album. Those of us who have been longstanding fans of the band will no doubt recognize in Crack-Up, their new release from Nonesuch Records, an expansion and deepening of the artistry that marked their earlier work. A statement released by the band reads:
From the outset of recording, we aspired to make an album that could stand alongside our previous work, venture into its own territory, and that would leave a clear horizon for us moving forward.
Crack-Up does all these things and more. It is an alternately intimate, exuberant, and cerebral collection of songs. Robin Pecknold, the band’s frontman and chief songwriter, spent four years at Columbia University after 2011’s Helplessness Blues. It’s evident that he paid attention in class. Allusions to Shakespeare and Shaw and Beowulf and Goya and Muhammad Ali and classical history pepper the poetic lyrics alongside references to contemporary political events. The rhythm of Pecknold’s words at times seems to evoke the sprung rhyme of Gerard Manley Hopkins (see, for instance, the first song on the album, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar“). Musically, Pecknold draws from sources as diverse as medieval music (even mentioning the Dorian mode in some of the lyrics) and Ethiopian jazz. It is, needless to say, a sophisticated album.
Yet its sophistication remains understated. Fleet Foxes manage to avoid the self-important pretensions of their one-time drummer, Father John Misty. Even in songs that comment on the acid politics of our time, we never hear the kind of hamfisted preaching that FJM is so fond of. Instead, we have the sense that we are listening to creative representations, an earnest testimony of experiences and impressions filtered through disparate symbols of personal and civilizational import.
Take this verse from “Cassius, —”
Song of masses, passing outside
All inciting the fifth of July
When guns for hire open fire
Blind against the dawn
When the knights in iron took the pawn
You and I, out into the night
Held within the line that they have drawn
What a breath of fresh air after Father John Misty’s pompous propaganda! Pecknold never allows his own agenda to get in the way of his first duty as an artist—producing good art.
Consider, if you will, the multiple layers of meaning he invests in one of his songs.
The painting you see above is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya, circa 1814. The image seems to have influenced one of the best songs on the album, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” The music video of that song shows us a splattering of multicolored paint. As it runs across the screen in extreme close-up, we can catch a certain formal resemblance to the flow of spilled blood. Taking into account the album’s overall political orientation, I’d suggest that it’s likely that Pecknold probably sees something of our own social moment in the painting. I would further guess that, as with other songs on the album, the allusion refers to recent cases of police brutality. After all, the painting depicts a dark-skinned man with his hands up about to be killed by men in uniform. If my interpretation is correct, then perhaps the point of the song as represented in the video is to suggest that even the death of innocents can be transfigured into art.
Finding that meaning requires a coalescence of art history, lyrics, video, music, the other songs on the album, and the news. It is, simply put, a minor feat of artistic genius. Of course, Robin Pecknold has provided some rather different elucidation of his own which is well worth checking out (he has a great comment on the line about “carved ivory”). Great art bears many meanings.
There’s more to like here. Rarely is an album composed of such tightly-wedded form and content. An oceanic motif winds through the lyrics. Likewise, the music rises and falls with the rhythm of the sea, crashing gloriously and settling into glassy streams. Listening to Crack-Up is like diving into a steaming sea, only to feel deeper currents of cool water tug from below. The pelagic theme even extends to the album’s visuals—its cover and the (very aesthetic) music video for “Fool’s Errand” both depict the rocky Pacific coast. And those astract arrangements of wet paint that move around in the video for “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” are probably watercolors.
Particular favorites include the haunting “Kept Woman” and the meditative and atmospheric “I Should See Memphis.” The titular, concluding song is pretty great, too. I can’t say that I have too many criticisms. A few of the songs are a bit bland. The album lacks some of the dark beauty that made Helplessness Blues so stirring. Alas. We can’t always get what we want. There is more than enough new spirit in this album to make up for that loss.
Fleet Foxes, Nonesuch Records
Three Poems for Whitsunday
Inspired by and borrowing from Artur Rosman’s similar post, I offer you some Pentecostal poetry.
“Little Gidding” IV, by T.S. Eliot
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
“God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.
“Epigrammata Sacra XIII” – The descent of the Holy Spirit – Richard Crashaw
Bear, o bosoms, bear ye what Heaven’s vintage showers,
Sacred clusters pouring from ethereal bowers.
Too happy, surely, ye who drink of wine so good;
It comes into your bosoms a sparkling, cooling flood.
Behold, with nectar’d star, each head is shining, shining;
Around your purpl’d locks a crown of life entwining.
O Spirit of all flesh, to drink who’d be denied,
Since Thou, lest they should falter, mak’st wine a torch to guide?
Life Update: Graduate School
This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me personally, but in the interest of honesty, archiving, and my own historical interests, I thought I’d post here that I have decided to attend the University of Oxford next year in pursuit of an M.Phil. in Theology, with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History. I will be living at St. Stephen’s House.
I’m very happy to be at St. Stephen’s. It is the Anglo-Catholic seminary in Oxford. I am guaranteed to be around people who are seeking ordination in the Church of England. And very high Anglo-Catholics at that. I’m really looking forward to morning and evening prayer every day. While it may not be the prayer of the whole Church in the Divine Office, the Book of Common Prayer is nevertheless a fine, beautiful way to pray and meditate on Scripture in community. I also think that the liturgical rhythms of life at “Staggers,” as it’s called, will be salutary on the whole. It’s even motivated me to try to memorize a few of the old collects, as Peter Hitchens demonstrates in this debate.
While I realize it has changed a great deal over time, the history of St. Stephen’s House is one of the reasons I’m happy to be here. It may not be one of the well-known colleges (it doesn’t even seem to have very much merchandising in the way of scarves, ties, pins, cufflinks, etc., like all the other ones). But Staggers did play its part in the history of Anglo-Catholicism. Founded by Bishop Edward King of Lincoln in 1876, the house soon became a major center of Anglo-Catholicism. It started to produce Tractarian priests by the dozens, and eventually gained a reputation as a factory of bishops and deans of cathedrals. This prolific connection to the Church of England’s highest chambers has continued into its more recent years.
Its relationship with Oxford, on the other hand, has varied. It only attained Permanent Private Hall status in 2003. In moving to that arrangement, it joined other historically religious foundations at Oxford: Blackfriars for the Dominicans, St. Benet’s for the Benedictines of Ampleforth, Wycliffe Hall for Evangelicals, Campion Hall for the Jesuits, and Regent’s Park (nominally) for the Baptists. It was at that time that the House broadened its emphasis to include those who were not seeking ordination in the C of E.
Moreover, Staggers has moved around Oxford. It started as a small community near the heart of town, and only much later moved to its present location across the Cherwell. To wit:
For the House’s first years, it was situated near the centre of Oxford, where the New Bodleian Library now stands. From 1919, the House had a site in Norham Gardens, near to the University Parks. In 1980 it moved to the current site…(St. Stephen’s House Blog).
The accommodations that the House took up were built by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, named alongside the parish church they ran (although it is now largely a concert venue, the House clergy still conduct liturgies there each week). The Society priests were also known as the Cowley Fathers. T.S. Eliot conducted at least one retreat there, although he was generally closer to the Benedictines at Nashdom and the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham (see Spurr’s biography, Anglo-Catholic in Religion).
In the mid 20th century, the House prospered under the benevolent influence of Father Arthur Couratin, allegedly referred to by some as “Noël Coward in a clerical collar.”
Although its ethos remains largely Anglican, the House has offered a few important alumni to the Church of Rome. Balthasar scholar and theologian Father John Saward graduated there, as did the one-time Bishop of Ebbsfleet and current priest of the English Ordinariate, Monsignor Andrew Burnham. Indeed, they’ve even produced the Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Hovnan Derderian. He is the youngest Armenian archbishop.
Staggers also gave the Church of England Fr. Kenneth Leach, an important Christian Socialist priest. He was trained at St. Stephen’s when it had become a rather homoerotic place, and Leach would famously sum up his time there as “gin, lace, and backbiting.” The writer and Staggers alum A.N. Wilson composed a bitingly comedic satire of the House in those years, entitled Unguarded Hours—which, as Ignatius Press’s reviewer puts it, is decidedly “not a Catholic novel.” Alas. Wilson, who would eventually return to Christianity after years of very public atheism, would later recall the custom formerly in vogue at Staggers of taking “religious names” that were actually rather saucy nicknames, often of the opposite sex. If Father Couratin was “Noël Coward in a clerical collar,” it seems that by the 1970’s, you were more likely to find Julian and Sandy in soutanes.
I seriously doubt that any of that persists. Women’s ordination in the C of E means that, while many Anglo-Catholics have become more liberal, their seminaries no longer smack of the kinds of homoerotic associations that fueled so many stereotypes (see Cousin Jasper’s famous quip in Brideshead Revisited). Staggers seems to remain as a pillar of sensible, ornate, properly Anglo-Catholic liturgy at its best.
Of course, I could also emphasize the importance of Oxford in general as a center of Catholicism—Roman and otherwise. Here, the Subtle Doctor “fired France for Mary without spot.” Here, Cardinal Wolsey established a college named for his office and, later, all of Christ’s Body on earth. Here, Archbishop Laud attempted to bring back devotion to Our Lady through a little portico on her church in town. Here, Charles I took refuge while his queen heard the Mass of Ages in Merton Chapel. Here, Keble railed against a “National Apostasy.” Here, Newman battled the liberals, and in doing so, broke ground for the Second Spring. Here, Gerard Manley Hopkins served briefly as curate. Here, Oscar Wilde flirted with men and the Church for the first time. Here, Monsignor Ronald Knox cut his clerical teeth as the chaplain of Trinity College. Here, Montague Summers was first haunted by the Vampyre’s shadow. Here, Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and their friends spoke about God long into the stout-softened night. Here, T.S. Eliot studied briefly before going on to greatness in London. Here, Evelyn Waugh thought up a story about two men and a teddy bear. Here, Father Martin D’Arcy pondered the ways of divine and human love. Here, the Oratory finally arrived in 1990 to fulfill Newman’s dream. Here, the late Stratford Caldecott wrote of God’s undying beauty in all things.
I could name more ways in which Oxford has played a special role in the life of the Catholic Church. Perhaps I will do so in another post, or a series of posts. For now, I’m just happy to say that I’ll be in a place with a lot of Catholic history, learning about that history. And thank God for that.
A Poem for the First of May
May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
– “May Magnificat,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ