The Price of Poetry

David Warren Ryder

'Behind each thing a shadow lies;
Beauty hath e'er its cost:
Within the moonlight-flooded sky
How many stars are lost!

So wrote the truly great, but almost unknown and entirely neglected poet, Clark Ashton Smith, in his slender volume The Star-Treader and Other Poems, published in San Francisco in 1912 by the late A. M. Robertson, and now, unfortunately, out of print.

One may discern in these four short lines profound generic truth. One may discern in them, also, a note of personal prophecy—Clark Ashton Smith titled them, "The Price", and the price he has paid for being a great poet is—obscurity. While versifiers and poetasters almost without number were gaining the public's accolades, this man who, in our generation, in all probability is the fittest to wear the mantle of Shakespeare and Keats, has remained unheralded—more proof, it seems, that we have eyes to see and ears to hear only the lurid and the sensational.

Do I, in speaking so unequivocally, speak alone? Fortunately, I do not. Fortunately, there is confirmation of my words. No less a discerning critic than the late George Sterling—discerning, because he knew and frankly voiced his own poetic limitations—wrote of Smith's poetry in these words:

"Because he has lent himself the more innocently to the whispers of his subconscious daemon, and because he has set those murmurs to purer and harder crystals than we others, by so much the longer will the poems of Clark Ashton Smith endure. Here indeed is loot against the forays of moth and rust. Here we shall find none or little of the sentimental fat with which so much of our literature is larded. Rather shall one in Imagination's 'misty mid-region', see elfin rubies burn at his feet, witch-fires glow in the nearer cypresses, and feel upon his brow a wind of the unknown. The brave hunters of fly-specks on Art's cathedral windows will find little here for their trouble, and both the stupid and the over-sophisticated had best stare owlishly and pass by: here are neither kindergartens nor skyscrapers. But let him who is worthy by reason of his clear eye and unjaded heart wander across these borders of beauty and mystery and be glad."(1)

And only a few weeks before he died, Sterling said to me:

"Clark Ashton Smith is undoubtedly our finest living poet. He is in the great tradition of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley; and yet, to our overlasting shame, he is entirely neglected and almost unknown."

Sterling quoted to me the lines I have used as my text, and then, after a moment's silence, he recited the whole of Smith's sublime poem, "Nero," beginning:

"This Rome, that was the toil of many men,
The consummation of laborious years—
Fulfilment's crown to visions of the dead,
And images of the wide desire of kings--"

and ending with the majestic lines:

"And were I weary of the glare of these,
I would tear out the eyes of light and stand
Above a chaos of extinguished suns,
That crowd, and grind, and shiver thunderously,
Lending vast voice and motion, but no ray
To the stretched silence of the blinded gulfs.
Thus would I give my godhead space and speech
For its assertion, and thus pleasue it,
Hastening the feet of Time with casts of worlds
Like careless pebbles, or with shattered suns
Brightening the aspects of Eternity."

Any confirmation lacking in Sterling's words, certainly is to be found in these lines. It is almost incredible that one capable of creating such poetry should remain forever ignored. And yet the fact remains that this man of our time and place, whose almost every line is Homeric, and who manifests so abundantly that "soul knowledge" which is, after all the years, known but to a passing few, while scores of those of vastly lesser worth bask in the light of critics' praise and public commendation.

Contemplating that sorry fact, I am reminded of the question addressed one day to an English friend of mine. "Admitting," said this cynical questioner, "that the economic system you have just outlined will, as you insist, save civilization, is civilization worth saving?"

I am reasonably sure that my friend's reply was the same as I would make to such a question; though, probably, the reason he gave was different. I would answer, unhesitantingly, "yes." And the reason I would offer is that civilization has produced—or at least has allowed to come into being and to flower—such a poet as Clark Ashton Smith who, however ignored and neglected, however great the price he has paid, has not faltered in his devotion to Beauty or swerved ever from the pursuit of Truth.

Foot Notes

  1. George Sterling, "Preface" to Ebony and Crystal; in Selected Poems by Clark Ashton Smith (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1971), p. 71.

From CONTROVERSY [Carmel, CA], December 1934. Reprinted June 1937 by The Futile Press, Lakeport, CA and inserted in Smith's "NERO AND OTHER POEMS."

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