Five Approaches to the Achievement of Cosmic Master Artist

Marvin R. Hiemstra


Thy light is as an eminence unto thee,
And thou art upheld by the pillars of thy strength.
Thy power is a foundation for the worlds;
They are builded thereon as upon a lofty rock
Where no enemy hath access.
Thou puttest forth thy rays, and they hold the sky
As in the hollow of an immense hand.
Thou erectest thy light as four walls,
And a roof with many beams and pillars.
Thy flame is a stronghold based as a mountain;
Its bastions are tall, and firm like stone.

The worlds are bound with the ropes of thy will;
Like steeds are they stayed and constrained
By the reins of invisible lightnings.
With bands that are stouter than iron manifold,
And stronger than the cords of the gulfs,
Thou withholdest them from the brink
Of outward and perilous deeps
Lest they perish in the desolations of the night,
Or be stricken of strange suns;
Lest they be caught in the pitfalls of the abyss,
Or fall into the furnace of Arcturus.
Thy law is as a shore unto them,
And they are restrained thereby as the sea.

Thou art food and drink to the worlds;
Yea, by thy toil are they sustained,
That they fail not upon the road of space,
Whose goal is Hercules.
When thy pillars of force are withdrawn,
And the walls of thy light fall inward,
Borne down by the sundering night,
And thy head is covered with the Shadow,
The worlds shall wander as men bewildered
In the sterile and lifeless waste.
Athirst and unfed shall they be,
When the springs of thy strength are dust,
And thy fields of light are black with dearth.
They shall perish from the ways
That thou showest no longer,
And emptiness shall close above them. 1

Clark Ashton Smith's viewpoint as a creator of cosmic adventures is the viewpoint of an all knowing and beneficent cosmic pedagogue. Very simply, he radiates understanding. It is as if Smith has at his command at all times the remarkable power of The Plutonian Drug as Dr. Manners so aptly explains that multi-perceptual power to the sculptor Rupert Balcoth.

Under the influence of plutonium, you were able to extend the moment of present cognition in both directions, and to behold simultaneously a certain portion of that which is normally beyond perception. Thus appeared the vision of yourself as a continuous, immobile body, extending through the time-vista. 2

Clark Ashton Smith would instruct his reader to plumb the mystery of the multidimensional experience that is each tale.

Imagination's eyes
Outreach and distance far
The vision of the greatest star
That measures instantaneously —
Enisled therein as in sea —
Its cincture of the system-laden skies. 3

As this intrepid vision from Ode on Imagination outlines the astounding force of imagination, so is the willing reader carefully led to the full power of his imagination and beyond. Christopher Chandon, the Smithian adventurer-hero in The Eternal World, finds a position of complete absorption in the miraculous, far beyond "the safe, monotonous certitudes of earthly life." 4 "He was beyond awe or surprise or bewilderment. As if in some cataclysmic dream, he resigned himself to the unfolding of the swift miracle." 5 Quick thereon follows the resplendent and fantastic action that is the manifest gift to the reader who explores the various creations of Clark Ashton Smith.

Complete functional beauty of style and complete accuracy of emotional flux in each tale proclaim the urgent wish of Clark Ashton Smith to affectionately offer the receptive reader an ample Smithian slice of cosmic wisdom. Despite some of the most ingeniously bizarre situations and characters in all of literature, Clark Ashton Smith writes in the light of an adroit clarity to evoke a full, meaningful vision. It is never his aim to confuse or tease the reader as is the wont of many writers (take for example J. D. Salinger in his transcendental, if opaquely offered, Nine Short Stories) who delight in presenting an attractive aesthetic shard of obscurity to politely evade the readers while they, the token creators, luxuriate privately in their deepest secrets or their lack of the same.

Meaningful views of cosmic wisdom Smith offers to his eager neophytes in a suprahistorical chain of logic that constantly astounds. The Dark Age is one of the finest extended metaphors applicable to the power technology versus human emotion joust which is practiced with ever increasing frequency in our society. "The laboratory was like a citadel." 6 "Apparatuses of a hundred forms, whose use the young barbarians could not imagine, littered the paved floor and were piled along the walls."7 Ironically the last custodian of the laboratory poisons himself rather than accept the friendship of Torquane and the barbarian youths who had in fact saved the laboratory from the onslaught of senseless aliens.

For a vital caricature of political and social attitudes to rival Swift's poignant chalk sketches in Gulliver's Travels or the exotic societal inversion painted by Li Ju-Chen in the Chinese encyclopedic classic Flowers in the Mirror Smith's The Letter From Mohaun Los records one of the most audacious and delightfully informative journeys to a fantastic civilization ever recorded. The wisdom that blossoms from the few pages of that letter has seldom been equalled either in exquisite clarity or in relevance to the very uneasy state of man.

Clark Ashton Smith is careful to warn his neophyte reader, the would-be connoisseur of the full life

in the cosmos, of the superhuman perils to which the ardent seeker of Absolute Experience is subject. The City of the Singing Flame appears as a complete exploration of man's quest to stand in the superdimensional vista of cosmic being. "It was as if we no longer existed, except as one divine, indivisible entity, soaring beyond the trammels of matter, beyond the limits of time and space, to attain undreamable shores. Unspeakable was the joy, and infinite the freedom of that ascent, in which we seemed to overpass the zenith of the highest star." (8) Unfortunately, the "ability to recognize unknown colours and non-Euclidean forms" 9 is only a rather temporary accomplishment since the Flame that engenders the ability is destroyed and the men must return through "greyish-green columns" 10 to the mundane existence which is the fate of the human animal. In The Light from Beyond Dorian Wiermoth experiences a similar trip to the infinite world of sensual awareness and returning to terra firma pays the price. Dorian suffers minor corporal damages. "But in all other senses, I was, and still am, a mere remnant of my former self.... Among other things, I soon found that my artistic abilities had deserted me. . ." 11

"I have become as it were, a clod." 12 Lemuel Sarkis in A Star-Change has his body physically altered so that he may become more receptive to the sensory splendors of the planet Mlok. When he must return to earth, Lemuel is devoured by "terrific hallucinations" 13 which lead him to a quick death.

The extent of Clark Ashton Smith's superterrestial wisdom is unfathomed. The thoroughly effective manner in which he conveys this wisdom and the necessity, for the mundane neophyte, of a temperate approach to this wisdom is no less a marvel. The title, Man is the only One who found Everything, of Hartmut Lincke's etching that offers a view of man's limitless psychic vision might be an apt label for the man, Clark Ashton Smith, as visionary creator of unearthly tales. The joy to be found is in Smith who can so skillfully present his discoveries, his Everything to the receptive reader.

To an extraordinary extent the tales gain their interest and impetus through Smith's intense concern with the precise psychological state of the protagonist throughout the taunt happenings of each tale. Although Smith creates a selection of the most aesthetically concrete other world fantasy absolutely out of space and time in a completely convincing manner, the strength of this achievement is more than doubled by the completely accurate presentation of the protagonist's mental eruptions as he is abruptly confronted by alien visits. This truly uncanny awareness and this uncanny stylistic sketch of the hero or anti-hero's turmoil often elevates the tales to become on one level flawless symbolic landscapes of the human psychic dilemma assuming an artistic, philosophical, and psychological proto-value far beyond the elaborate and intriguing stimulus, in Smith's case the fantastic situation, that precipitates the psychic dilemma. Let the following examples speak more eloquently for Smith than my excess of jargon has succeeded in doing.

A typical Smithian landscape often stands as a fiery sketch of the abnormal emotional extremes to which the protagonist (or protagonists) has fallen. The frightening journey into unreasoned lust is undertaken by Adele and Oliver as they yield willingly to the forbidden part of the forest in one of Clark Ashton Smith's most psychologically accurate excursions, The Satyr.

There was a strange perfume on the windless air, coming in slow wafts from an undiscernible source — a perfume that seemed to speak insidiously of love and languor and amorous yielding. Neither knew the flower from which it issued, for all at once there were many unfamiliar blossoms around their feet, with heavy bells of carnal white or pink, or curled and twining petals, or hearts like a rosy wound. Looking, they saw each other as in a sudden dazzle of flame; and each felt a violent quickening of the blood, as if they had drunk a sovereign philter.

They dared not look at each other; and neither of them had eyes for the changing character of the wood through which they wandered; and neither saw the foul, obscene deformity of the grey boles that gathered on each hand, or the shameful and monstrous fungi that reared their spotted pallor in the shade, or the red, venereous flowers that flaunted themselves in the sun. The spell of their desire was upon the lovers; they were drugged with the mandragora of passion; and everything beyond their own bodies, their own hearts, the throbbing of their own delirious blood, was vaguer than a dream. 14

The deus ex machina, the satyr triumphant, is a just dessert for both Adele and Oliver and the incensed husband, Raoul.

The shrieks and laughter died away at some distant remove in the green silence of the forest, and were not followed by any other sound. Raoul and Oliver could only stare at each other in complete stupefaction. 15

Desire rampant is also the subject of The Third Episode of Vathek, a painfully honest chronicle of the path of incest — from the childhood affection to the final consummation.

Now, lord, we wait, even as you, the moment when our hearts shall be kindled with the unconsuming fire, and shall burn brightly as the tail of the baboon — but, alas! shall derive unutterable anguish, like the hearts of all other mortals, from that flame in which is the ecstasy of demons. 16

And it is the subject of The Maker of Gargoyles, a taciturn misanthropic artisan in stone whose grotesque creations spring to life with their maker's hate and satyr-lust, ravage Vyones, and finally destroy their maker and animus.

Blood lust colors another of Clark Ashton Smith's painterly masterpieces, Murder in the Fourth Dimension, an adroit view of a man's psyche as he enters the unique world of the murderer.

Some obscure need of confessing my crime and telling my predicament to others led me to an act of which I should never have believed myself capable, for I am the most uncommunicative of men by nature. Apart from the satisfying of this need, the composition of my narrative is something to do, it is a temporary reprieve from the desperate madness that will surge upon me soon, and the grey eternal horror of the limbo to which I have doomed myself beside the undecaying body of my victim. 17

The Return of the Sorcerer serves the murderer with a more vital revenge, the return of a most thoroughly disembodied victim to demand literally an eye for an eye with knife and saw. But the torture before the final retribution displays most keenly the murderer's mental schist.

"It is more than a week — it is ten days since I did the deed. But Helman — or some part of him -has returned every night. . .God! His accursed hands crawling on the floor! His feet, his arms, the segments of his legs, climbing the stairs in some unmentionable way to haunt me! . .Christ! His awful, bloody torso lying in wait! I tell you, his hands have come even by day to tap and fumble at my door. .and I have stumbled over his arms in the dark." 18

The paralyzing effect of complete emotional surrender to terror is drawn so well by Smith in his various views of Medusa. In The Gorgon the hero's positive will power allows him to escape. "I had closed my eyes instinctively, but even through my lids I felt the searing radiance. I knew, I believed implicitly the fate which would be mine if I beheld Medusa face to face." 19 But the old man, who had given "an instant fascination, an immediate terror" 20 to so many eternally, falls victim to the same eternal stone despair. This involvement with terror is a threat to the individual in The Medusa of Despair ("I may not mask forever with the grace of woven flow'rs thine eyes of staring stone; . . .") 21, to a civilization in Medusa

As 'round an altar-base
Her victims lie, distorted, blackened forms
Of postured horror smitten into stone, —
Time caught in meshes of Eternity —
Drawn back from dust and ruin of the years
And given to all the future of the world. 22

and in the aspect of the moon to the entire world in The Medusa of the Skies -

O'er rigid hills and valleys locked and mute,
A pallor steals as of a world made still
When Death, that erst had crept, stands absolute —
An earth now frozen fast by power of eyes
That malefice and purposed silence fill
The gaze of that Medusa of the skies. 23

Panoramic vistas of hope and possibility, often dissolving to a monochromatic blur as the vista expires, offer the eager protagonist problematic situations in another type of Smithian landscape. The Abominations of Yondo is perhaps the most direct catalogue of man's innate rack of mental anguish and dread in all of Clark Ashton Smith. Caught in the very vicious circle of attraction/repulsion the hero feels driven to penetrate further and further into the domain of the sundry atrocities . . "Terror lent me new strength." 24 ... with the dim hope of escaping. Inevitably the positive impetus is not rewarded and the hero's goal is violently reversed.

Back, back through aeons of madness and dread, in a prone, precipitate flight, I ran from those fumbling fingers that hung always on the dusk behind me; back, back forever, unthinking, unhesitating, to all the abominations I had left; back in the thickening twilight toward the nameless and sharded ruins, the haunted lake, the forest of evil cacti, and the cruel and cynical inquisitors of Ong who waited my return. 25

The Last Incantation displays a protagonist, Malygris the magician, with a desperation even more chronic than the anguish of the wayfarer in Yondo. Malygris's anxiety is fed by ennui. It is the futile wish of the aged occult sophisticate for a return to the fresh, naive ardour of guileless youth. Malygris would recapture the spring verdure of the innocent's spirit. His attempt only dashes him further into the mental state which is the natural result of his prolonged experience with dreadful enchantments, preoccupation with the chaotic void.

The soul of Malygris grew sick with age and despair and the death of his evanescent hope. He could believe no longer in love or youth or beauty, and even the memory of these things was a dubitable mirage, a thing that might or might not have been. There was nothing left but shadow and grayness and dust, nothing but the empty dark and the cold, and a clutching weight of insufferable weariness, or immedicable anguish. 26

Exquisite rendering of fortune's agility as it denies all hopes appears in the patterns of Clark Ashton Smith's magnificently beautiful Chinoiserie. The merciless cross affections that Nemesis so matter-of-factly dictates to those who pray that their interest and affection in another be returned is given flawless expression in this magnificent double portrait. 27

Two of Smith's finest psychic landscapes are painted in the love poems, The Hidden Paradise and Love Is Not Yours, Love Is Not Mine. The Hidden Paradise, "deep in the vales where vernal leaves are young,/ and the first poppies loiter," 28 offers one of the most precariously hopeful conclusions that the mind might be able to conceive.

. . Though the breath
Of all the gods a bolted storm prepare,
And blood-red gloom of thunders blind the sun,

Shall we not turn, with clinging kisses there,
And, laughing, quaff some dreamless wine of death —
Triumphant still, in mere oblivion? 29

And yet the poem is love, built with images that transcend the abstraction I o v e and the individual experience of love to become love. Another equally valid perspective rendering, Love Is Not Yours, Love Is Not Mine, sketches the illusion of love in a mode beautiful beyond words. Perhaps only in the painting of William Turner does such a vital presentation of the circumstantial dilemmas that waft across and blur the path of the human spirit also find expression.

Love is not yours, love is not mine:
It is the tranquil twilight heaven
Through which our pauseless feet are driven
Into the vast and desert noon.

Love is not mine, love is not yours:
It is a flying fire that passes,
Perishing on the blind morasses,
After the frail and perished moon. 30

The final dilemma of each man's psyche, the comprehension of extinction, is sketched by Clark Ashton Smith in two intriguing alternatives. The Last Hieroglyph records a simple, graphic, absolute estimation of the final human experience. Each man is at last only a cipher on the book of Vergama, Fate. In sharp contrast we view Xeethra, a testament of the reoccurring chain of incarnations, open to the individual. It is the archetypal wish of man who believes he would do well if placed by fortune in another setting.

In a high-domed city, gates of burnished metal would open for him, and fiery-colored banners would stream on the perfumed air; and silver trumpets and the voices of blond odalisques and black chamberlains would greet him as king in a thousand-columned hall. 31

Xeethra, the curious goat boy, becomes the glorious ruler of his dreams only to wish again for the "passing of wind over lonely hilltops." 32 "There the world's turmoil and troubling were lost upon measureless leagues of silence, and the burdens of empire were blown away like thistle-down." 33 He returns to become again the goat boy. But his desolation has only been doubled to match the knowledge of his two attempts at life.

* * *

As Smith excels in the artful pictorial graphing of man's psychic balance, Smith finds an uncanny province in his ability to draw the supernal outlines of the scales of cosmic justice. Many of the core situations in the tales concern an outrageous defiance of natural order. The intent neophyte learns precisely what will happen to a man in the cosmos, if the man decides to turn sharply to the right or left of man's natural ordained path irregardless of the quest or the apparent success of the action. To quote from Smith's Black Book, his journal of intriguing illuminations, "It is better to go to hell in one's own proper and personal way than to go to heaven in someone else's proper and personal way." 34 The major portion of the Clark Ashton Smith canon explores the outcome of a hero's ill conceived quest. As man moves beyond his natural jurisdiction, he is consequently subject to forces beyond his control. The following list of cosmic errors coupled with the cosmic consequences is only an abbreviated sample of the immeasurable cosmic wisdom within Smith. The Ice-Demon: Quanga and the avarice-prone jewelers defy the inevitable, the great glacier, and instead of gaining King Haalor's glorious rubies they are captured by the ice flow. The Voyage of King Euvoran: Euvoran, the cruel unworthy king, seeks the symbol of his office, the symbol that he has forfeit, the rare gazolba-bird. When at last he discovers the habitat of the fowl, he is compelled to end his days on that island with the gazolba-bird as his monotonous diet. Master of the Asteroid: Three anti-social spacemen leave their company for the unknown where the irrational forces unbridled cause Gershom to commit suicide, Colt to kill himself as a sacrifice to atone for Gershom's act, and Beverly to be worshipped as unwilling God on a distant planetoid until he is destroyed by the real deity. Chain of Aforgomon: Calaspa, for an insane memory of desire, disturbs the order of Aforgomon, God of Minutes and Cycles, and therefore is doomed to many cycles of suffering only to end as he, in a later incarnation, is burned by "iron chains, heated to incandescence, . . wrapped about him." 35 The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan: The antihero's uncontrollable greed allows him to be literally swallowed by a Greed even more insatiable. Empire of the Necromancers: Mmatmuor and Sodosma bring an entire empire back from the dead for their own pleasure and for this accute violation of the natural order the two necromancers' "quartered bodies crawl to and fro to this day in Yethlyreom, finding no peace or respite from their doom of life-in-death . . ." 36

In the fullest sense cosmic justice, for Smith, is merely and significantly a natural balance of desperate forces, a constant shuffling of polar opposites, the dark versus the light, life and death, the birth and the final anxious moment of planets and of suns. The Eternal World perhaps charts best the cosmic overview that permeates the visionary's tales and images. In this adventure we see the various levels of hierarchy that dwell in the cosmos with the inevitable struggle for power and the even more inevitable outcome of each momentary cosmic imbalance.

* * *

There is no room in any town . . to house the towering hugeness of my dream. It straightens me to sleep in any bed whose foot is nearer than the night's extreme. 37

Of my dreams I have made a road, and my soul goeth out thereon to that unto which no eye hath opened, nor ear become keen to hearken — to the glories that are shut past all access of the keys of sense. 38

My dreams are like a caravan that departed long ago, with tumult of intrepid banners and spears, and the clamour of bugles and brave adventurous songs, to seek the horizons of perilous untried barbaric lands, and kingdoms immense and vaguely rumoured, with cities beautiful and opulent as the cities of paradise, and deep Edenic vales of palm and cinammon and myrrh, lying beneath skies of primeval azure silence. 39

Each tale that blooms from the pen of Clark Ashton Smith embodies the intricate depth, raw beauty, and immeasurable wisdom of the most meaningful dream crystalized into art, or rather into the creation of absolute expression. Each story is the essence of a satisfactory working dream. The lack of opportunity to resolve conflicts within the dream estate, as scientific experiments have shown, 40 quickly produces an extreme disorientation in the mental balance of the individual thus deprived. Often the artistic, psychological, and philosophical success of a particular tale lies in the fact that Smith has explored fully and honestly the experience of the human psyche and in the fact that Smith has employed the natural human device for such exploration, the dream state.

Within a spectrum from the most jubilant wish-projected day dream to the most dire throes of the subconscious's chasm Clark Ashton Smith utilizes the human dream in the full cosmic scope of variation as a functional and sublime metaphor for the condition of man. For the writer whose own dream state served him ravishing material, 41 the dream opens man to all of life. The dream vision within The Mirror in the Hall of Ebony suggests the depth of the complete revelation within the body of Smith's work.

And in the mirror I beheld the haggard face that was mine, and the red mark on the cheek where one I loved had struck me in her anger, and the mark on the throat where her lips had kissed me in amorous devotion. And, seeing this, I remembered all that had been; and the other dreams of sleep, and the dream of birth and everything thereafter, alike returned to me. And thus I recalled the name I had assumed beneath the terrene sun, and the names I had borne beneath the suns of sleep and of reverie. And I marvelled much, and was enormously troubled, and all things were most strange to me, and all things were as of yore. 42

George D. Painter suggests that for Gide the Pastoral Symphony "is a realization that the Devil, if one has the intelligence to understand him without being his dupe, can be a valuable instructor in ethics and psychology." 43 The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil most graphically portrays the goal of Clark Ashton Smith's emperor of dreams — it is the complete discovery and the absolute recognition of evil in all its infinite variety. It is the evil of the cosmos. It is the evil of the human psyche. The Crystals reflect the close relationship between these two prime evils. 44

Raptly as one who would divine the perilous eyes of Sleep, and the dreams and mysteries which lurk therein, I sought to fathom the gulf-enclosing orb of the crystal. . But soon the light was centered to a star, and the crystal itself, as if pregnant with the Infinite, became a tenebrous and profound abysm, thro which a teeming myriad of shadows, vague as incipient dreams, or luminous with a glimpse of vision not prefigurable, fled in an everchanging phantasmagoric succession about the star: from out those vortical and swirling glooms, where only the central star was constant, I saw the pallor of innominable faces emerge — faces that broke like bubbles; and forms that were strange as conceptions of an alien sun, with the eidolons of things which were imageless before, swam for a little in that phantasmic wave. But all the multifold mysteries which were manifest therein, I knew for the hidden thoughts and occluse, reluctant dreams of mine under-soul — thoughts and dreams now shadow-shown in the gulf-revealing orb of the hollow crystal. . 45

It is the terror of the cosmos. It is the terror of the human psyche.

The vision of The Nameless Wraith, as the vision within The Crystals, suggests that the content of dreams is based on a subconscious transformation of a difficult past.

Ruins, and wrecks of many a foundered year,
Doubtfully known, bestrewed the unvisioned verge,
Where, from unsounding reaches of blind surge,
Some nameless wraith of beauty fluttered near. 46

Smith in The Return of Hyperion offers us an extended metaphor using the dream state and the successful release from the dream state to suggest Dark conquered by Light. This metaphor, to my mind, represents the brilliant release experienced by one who reads and concludes a Smithian fantasy.

The night is as some terrific dream,
That closes the soul in a crypt of dread
Apart from touch or sense of earth,
As in the space of Eternity. 47

The night is loosened from the land,
As a dream from the mind of the dreamer.
A great wind blows across the dawn,
Like the wind of the motion of the world. 48

A comprehensive study of evil as it is presented on the stage of dreams in the fantasy of Clark Ashton Smith might fill several volumes. The following examples only hint at the variety and the more than remarkable achievement of Smith in the artistic expression of the subconscious's strenuous endeavors. The Outer Land pictures a man strayed from the exquisite valleys of pure love into the chaotic dreamlike state of uncontrollable lust. The landscape is a triumph as a rendering of the psyche's delirium. 49 In Morthylla Valzain's lust for an all absorbing passion is satisfied. "It was like a dreamer's acceptance of things fantastic elsewhere than in sleep." 50 The reality of Beldith causes Valzain to kill himself with a knife to replace the mock lamia's teeth. Significantly Valzain makes his own dream of the true lamia's embrace come true in his experience after death. Perhaps the finest portrait of ill-channeled affection in Smith's work appears with awesome mastery in The Garden of Adompha. From the archetypal clearing of Eden to the Mediaeval Romance of the Rose to the contemporary cocktail party psycho- questionaire (If you could choose, what would the gates of your garden be like? the path to the center? the wicker table in the center? the vase on the wicker table? what would the shape of the key to the gates of your garden be like?) the garden has symbolized the most profound exchange of affections, the rightful bower for love's fulfillment. Adompha, with the aid of Dwerulas's dire wizardry, explores perhaps further than any man the terrifying schism between the relentless curiosity of the human intellect (the Apollonian individual stance) and the natural and necessary affection of humans for each other (the Dionysian flow to unity). The garden grows as a terrifying trophy of Adompha's amorous adventures and it is more than inevitable that the garden, grafted with terror, should annihilate its master. Rendezvous in Averoigne is a nightmare experience of mutual affection thwarted, complete with magnificent levels of confusion. The Evil is laid to rest and Fleurette at last finds the arms of her lover Gerard. "She was dazed with wonderment like one who emerges from the night-long labyrinth of an evil dream, and finds that all is well." 51

The ultimate significance of the dream vision in Clark Ashton Smith as in human experience is the key that the dream vision offers to man's understanding of his juxtaposition to life and to death. At least indirectly the misdirected amorous action in the above and other tales is involved with these two ultimate concerns. Smith speaks more explicitly in Maya where life is discovered a dream, "illusion of illusion," 52 that will end when death lulls us to the "last delirium." 53 Laus Mortis presents the case for death as "the last and ultimate desire." 54 "0, solace of all weary hearts and wise! — The dream which Satan hath for anodyne, Which is to God a sweet and secret wine." 55 Herbert in The Ninth Skeleton has a vision at one of the happiest moments of his life, as he is about to enjoy a tryst with his beloved. "A horror that was more than horror, a fear that was beyond fear, petrified all my faculties, and I felt as if I were weighted down by some ineluctable and insupportable burden of nightmare." 56 The parade of skeletons carrying skeleton children plagues him until one skeleton touches his arm. He swoons, but, of course, it is Guenevere, his beloved, who brings him back to touch. Smith has achieved a brilliant method of definition within the structure of the tale. The pageant of death enacted just when life means so much to Herbert explains more accurately than any words could precisely what life is — the glory and the limitation. The Gorgon appears in the mirror as the "final mystery. I was terrified, appalled — and fascinated to the core of my being; for that which I saw was the ultimate death, the ultimate beauty. I desired, yet I did not dare, to turn and lift my eyes to the reality whose mere reflection was a fatal splendor." 57 This indirect confrontation with superhuman suffering grants the hero wisdom just as the dream state instructs man before he must return to the mundane reality. Anticipation offers a vision of death less disquieting, the thought of sleep undisturbed by the dream that is life.

The thought of death to me
Is like a well of waters, deep and dim —
Cool-gleaming, hushed, and hidden gratefully
Among the palms asleep
At silver evening on the desert's rim.

Or as a couch of stone,
Whereon by moonlight, in a marble room,
Some fevered king reposes all alone —
So is the hope of sleep,
The inalienable surety of the tomb. 58

In the preface to the collection Ebony and Crystal where the poem Anticipation appears George Sterling paid Clark Ashton Smith a very knowledgeable tribute.

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 crystal than we others, by so much longer will the poems of Clark Ashton Smith endure. 59

It is this remarkable ability of Smith to heed and to transform his day dreams and nightmares into meaningful artistic expression in the poems and in the tales that will never cease to astound his very fortunate reader.

* * *

What Dante accomplished in the field of the understanding of the human psyche employing the ethical traditions of religion as a touchstone, Smith has accomplished by employing a vast spectrum of scientific knowledge as a touchstone. Both concerned individuals used the Prime Hell of their age to clarify the crucial subtleties of human experience, to instruct their neophyte readers in the significant dogma: for Dante knowledge of a God centered universe, for Smith the wisdom of an individual's imaginative perception of Essentiality in the Cosmos. 60 As Virgil would lead Dante through the graduated levels of human disorientation in The Inferno, Dante makes this plea --

O poet, my true guide,
Consider if my courage will suffice
Ere you commit me to such high endeavor. 61

As Smith leads his reader through the graduated levels of human disorientation in the maelstorm of his poetry and prose, Smith asks his reader to assume the highest courage, the courage of complete honesty in the face of inevitable existential consequences. The Interrogation of the beloved might also serve as a suitable address to the eager neophyte who would approach the immeasurable wisdom, wisdom of the celestial cosmos and wisdom of the complete cosmos within each human spirit, in the work and the thought of Clark Ashton Smith.

Love, will you look with me
Upon the phosphor-litten labour of the Worm —
Time's minister, who toils for his appointed term,
And has for fee
All superannuate loves, and all the loves to be?

Love, can you see, as I,
The corpses, ghosts and demons mingled with the crowd?
The djinns that men have freed, grown turbulent and proud;
Alastor, Asmodai?
And all-unheeded envoys from the stars on high?

Know you the gulfs below,
Where darkling Erebus on Erebus is driven
Between the molecules — atom from atom riven,
And tossing to and fro,
Incessant, like the souls on Dante's wind of woe?

Know you the deeps above?
The terror and the vertigo of those who gaze too long
Upon the crystal skies unclouded? Are you strong
With me to prove
Even in thought or dream the dreadful pits above?

Know you the gulfs within?
The worms and dragons of the charnel caves undared?
The sombre foam of seas by cryptic sirens shared?
The pestilence and sin
Borne by the flapping shroud of liches met within? 62

It is the superhuman understanding of the human psyche and of the terror inherent in the imbalance of the human psyche appearing often in the brutality of a nightmare thralldom that Clark Ashton Smith transforms into an art of absolute meaning and absolute beauty.


All titles are by Clark Ashton Smith unless otherwise noted.

  1. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 76.
  2. Lost Worlds (1944), 294.
  3. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 32.
  4. Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948), 38.
  5. Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948), 51.
  6. The Abominations of Yondo (1960), 161.
  7. The Abominations of Yondo (1960), 174.
  8. Out of Space and Time (1942), 86.
  9. Out of Space and Time (1942), 86-87.
  10. Out of Space and Time (1942), 99.
  11. Lost Worlds (1944), 388.
  12. Lost Worlds (1944), 388.
  13. Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948), 102.
  14. Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948), 159.
  15. Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948), 161.
  16. The Abominations of Yondo (1960), 222.
  17. Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964), 119.
  18. Out of Space and Time (1942), 249.
  19. Lost Worlds (1944), 323.
  20. Lost Worlds (1944), 314.
  21. Odes and Sonnets (1918), 27.
  22. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 16.
  23. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 80.
  24. The Abominations of Yondo (1960), 59.
  25. The Abominations of Yondo (1960), 61.
  26. Lost Worlds (1944), 89-90.
  27. The Abominations of Yondo (1960), 223.
  28. Ebony and Crystal (1922), 41.
  29. Ebony and Crystal (1922), 41.
  30. Ebony and Crystal (1922), 67.
  31. Lost Worlds (1944), 220.
  32. Lost Worlds (1944), 233.
  33. Lost Worlds (1944), 233
  34. The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith (eds. R. A. Hoffman and Donald S. Fryer, 1961), Item 216.
  35. Out Of Space and Time (1942), 146.
  36. Lost Worlds (1944), 170.
  37. The Dark Chateau and Other Poems (1951), 43.
  38. The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), 86-87.
  39. Poems in Prose (1965), 12.
  40. W. Dement, "Effect of dream deprivation," Science (June 10, 1960), 1705-1707. 41. Evidence for Smith's utilization of his own dreams appears in several of his letters and in memoirs or articles about Smith by Ethel Heiple, Donald S. Fryer, and George F. Haas.
  41. Poems in Prose (1965), 32.
  42. George D. Painter, Andre Gide A Critical Biography (1968), 83.
  43. For other examples see "Said the Dreamer," Spells and Philtres (1958), 12-13, and "In Slumber," The Dark Chateau and Other Poems (1951), 55.
  44. Poems in Prose (1965), 30.
  45. Spells and Philtres (1958), 14.
  46. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 54.
  47. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 54.
  48. The Dark Chateau and Other Poems (1951), 58-60.
  49. Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964), 251.
  50. Out of Space and Time (1942), 42.
  51. Sandalwood (1925), 24.
  52. Sandalwood (1925), 24.
  53. Ebony and Crystal (1922), 93.
  54. Ebony and Crystal (1922), 93.
  55. Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948), 29.
  56. Lost Worlds (1944), 322.
  57. Ebony and Crystal (1922), 120.
  58. George Sterling, "Preface," Ebony and Crystal (1922), i.
  59. The Star- Treader and Other Poems (1912), 34.
  60. Dante, The Inferno (trans. Lawrence Grant White, 1948), Canto 2, Lines 10-12.
  61. Sandalwood (1925), 24-25.

(Published in Nyctalops No. 7, dated August 1972.)

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