Clark Ashton Smith's 'Nero'

Carl Jay Buchanan

. . .When someone in a general conversation said: "When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire," he rejoined "Nay, rather while I live," and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and firebrands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, and exulting, as he said, "with the beauty of the flames," he sang the whole time the "Sack of Ilium. . . ."

Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum, XXXVIII. —Nero, c. AD 110 Translated by J.C. Rolfe.

"Nero"(1) (first published in 1912 in The Star-Treader and Other Poems, A.M. Robertson) is a poem of paradox and irony. The primary contrasts are established in stanza one, where "my darkling dream" has become, with Rome's burning, the emperor's "effulgency," or "radiant splendor," and the 800-year history and pre-history ("ages piled on ages") of labor to build the Eternal City is contrasted with the "[f]ierce ecstasy of one tremendous hour." From a dream born "darkling" (in darkness), a pyre now burns in a moment separated from all the time that has come before and from all time to come.

The enormity of Nero's opening words in this stanza evokes grandeur, as historic Rome was perceived by Poe, a favorite poet of Smith's. (2) Labor and "the toil of many years" is also contrasted with Nero's dream (his desire to destroy the city) and its fulfillment in relative insouciance. The stance of the opening is clear and even simply delimited, although the lush diction and careful craft of its blank verse is ornate and elegant, like a royal proclamation, or the conversation of a pharaoh. As we observe the carefully reasoned elaboration of Nero's philosophy of super-nihilism in succeeding stanzas, we are seduced by him into a momentary agreement with an infinite megalomania, and that is the measure of the poem's success. Smith has used the dramatic monologue and extended its reach beyond that of his poetic forbears, and the poem is a high achievement in that broadening.

Now let us follow the chain of Nero's reasoning. The ironies of a bright dream born from darkness and of an instant obliterating ages are conjoined in the comparison Nero makes of his urban pyre with "any sunset." Nero's sunset is better than the quotidian one because it is destructive of much more than the light of day, and his sunset affects Matter itself on a grand scale, and its redness is more effective, being imbued with "the blood of men." The second complete sentence of stanza two says that the aftereffect that results from an ordinary sunset is that nothing material changes. After the sun's setting, it's simply dark when night has come, and an ordinary night, for Nero, consists of inexpressiveness, a lack. His sunset, however, has changed reality in three significant ways: by creating a great deal of motion, for his fire has rapid motility; by causing a music of screaming (refers also to his harp); and its hue endures, even after the "normal sun" has gone down, as the burned city glares and smolders for days.

Nero considers himself an artist. The historical Nero considered himself a great singer and poet, says the Catholic Encyclopedia. After the fire, "the emperor started on a pleasure tour through lower Italy and Greece; as actor, singer, and harp player he gained the scorn of the world." Smith imagines for us Nero's aesthetics of self-conceit, which Smith certainly developed from the Romantic conceptions of Byron and the other English poets he knew well. Their Promethean and Titanic hero-figures were (antedated by Poe and Baudelaire) later abandoned by the turn-of-the-nineteenth century Decadent poets in favor of nihilism, emotional languor, and despair, as well as a repudiation of all traditional values except, in the Symbolist instance, music, and in the Wildean and more popular case, irony derived from simply reversing the traditional. The sheer size of Nero's desire is Byronic, and exemplified throughout the poem, leading to a climax that goes beyond the Romantic poets. We must go back to Milton's Satan to find a poem whose speaker has such evil magnitude:

Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?
Paradise Lost, Book I, ll. 249-257.

The poem is highly musical, as was blind Milton's verse. Moreover, music is mentioned prominently in lines 11-15:

Yet any sunset were as much as this, Save for the music forced from tongueless things, The rape of Matter's huge, unchorded harp By the many-fringed fire—a music pierced With the tense voice of Life, more quick to cry Its agony..............

Nero, according to Suetonius, sings/recites the Lay of Troy, presumably Homer's Iliad, while Rome burns. He would have accompanied the recitation of this epic poem on the hand-held harp, and we may imagine that the poem we are reading is likewise sung to harp accompaniment.

The essential reversal, the paradox that destruction is, for Nero, creative, is explained beautifully and rigorously, even in the face of our automatic rejection of such a belief, in the third stanza. The first sentence repeats "toil" and "labor" from the poem's first two lines, extending their application from the physical building of Rome to any creative action of great duration and moment. The sheer effort involved in such creation, he opines, must exhaust the creator so that, having given form to his desire, he lacks both "capacity and power" to enjoy its fruits. (One may guess that Nero, perhaps seeing the created universe as having been abandoned by God, refers here to the belief, known long before the Deists, that after having made the world, God no longer acts, but leaves it to his creations to do with as they will.) By contrast, in the latter sentence of stanza two, Nero explains that duration of effort and ability of effort ("faculty") are not requisite for destruction, creation's opposite, and there is no division of purpose in the parts of the thing un-made as opposed to the complex artifact. We cannot disagree, listening to this argument, that a certain purity is nihilism's main attraction, as we generally agree that death levels all men and all things, and one thinks of the refining fire of the Buddhists and of Sati, the Indian rite of bride-burning still extant. Fire purifies, literally and medically, as it destroys. Nero then relates the distinction of the destructive from the creative action back to the artist himself: rather than experiencing a waning of his energies, or post-partum despair, as Coleridge felt in his immemorial "Dejection Ode," and as poets have frequently complained (including Catullus), the destroyer "draws a heightened and completer life." Reality may be poorer of some of its created things, but the artist has lost no energy and has remains intact, with the addition of the sensual enjoyment of his pure and nihilistic act. Further, he "both extends and vindicates himself" in that he increases his scope and meaning ("beauty, I suppose, opens the heart, extends the consciousness"—Algernon Blackwood(3)) as well as lays claim to and avenges himself. Nero thus prepares us for his self-aggrandizement into godhood in the remainder of the poem, claims Rome (by destroying it), and avenges himself on creation, which displeases him greatly.

The poem's preamble is over at this point. Stanzas four and five consist of the speaker's frustration: the fundamental paradox of possessing seemingly absolute power as overlord of the Roman Empire at its height, yet feeling that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, (ironically twisting Browning's dictum), no matter how great that extension of one's power may be. As only an emperor, with the power to kill others, Nero regrets that he is not god of his own destiny in some sense, for if he were, he'd make himself omnipotent.

An extended metaphor on the image of dust follows. Dead kings turn into dust, which may sting and annoy the eyes of those who survive them, as their images may, after their death, vex succeeding kings and emperors. Smith references Shelley's "Ozymandias" here, a poem about two kinds of despair: that of the dead king, whose final works and words must be ironic, as the desert sands conquer his ancient stone image which he thought would endure everlastingly; and the despair of the kings who come after him that they will end as he did, dust to dust, so that Napoleon looking at the Great Sphinx of Giza realized his own mighty works were transitory, and his men opened fire on the face of lion-bodied Rameses.

To break the cycle of creating works to memorialize one's greatness which will only be destroyed in time, one would have to be a god. Now "breath" (l. 51) is the internal rhyming opposite of "death," for the breath is the animating spirit which moved over the waters in Genesis, and which impels matter ("dust") in all forms. Mortality, the dust of death (Psalm 22: "Thou has brought Me into the dust of death") clogs the lungs and prevents the free breath of the body )as metaphor for spirit), the eyeballs of 49 being abstracted into "perception" in 54 and clear exercise of will; that is, clear rather than obscured by dust, Nero's material self and its attached limitations to his self-extension into godhood.

The next passage is structured on a dog versus bird image, which is very likely inspired by the Egyptian mythology, in which jackal-headed Anubis, who weighed the heart after one's death, opposes bird-headed Horus, who guided dead souls to the underworld and was the protector of the pharaoh, to some degree. Thoth, inventor of writing and all intellectual pursuits, is also bird-headed, and Wepwawet, assistant to Anubis, also jackal-headed. (The latter's name translates as "Opener of the Ways," a name familiar elsewhere in Weird Studies.) Lines 55-75 refer to "tongueless dooms which dog the traveling suns" and to "[t]he vampire, Silence, at the breast of worlds," where the heart is kept. It seems that even the suns or stars are weighed up at their death, and their hearts removed; that is, the afterlife judges and condemns all to utter destruction, "crouching at the back of Time." The next-mentioned "[F]ire without light that gnaws [like a jackal or dog] the base of things" may remind us of Milton's "darkness visible" that lights Hell for Satan and his crew in their eternal fiery "afterworld" at the base of the universe. At that base, the spheres or great circles which to both Greeks and Egyptians delimited their differing conceptions of the universe have their fundaments, or bottommost parts and foundations, and the Greek river of forgetfulness in Hades is given tides by Smith, which erosive currents destroy the basis of all creation. (Line 64, a mighty image, may evoke to the reader Yggdrasil and the serpent gnawing at the roots of that World-tree, the Greek kallikanzaroi who do the same, and so on.)

Thus the Egyptian scheme of cosmology is conjoined with and succeeded by the Greek and later by the Hebrew. In this same complex passage, the "dazzled [sun-lit] wings of will" oppose the dark forces of destruction, and the dogged destructiveness and airy potency are renamed the forces of Chaos and Creation. Smith's verse grows more and more Miltonic as he reaches past Keats to the Romantic's master of "things unattempted [previously] in prose or rhyme" in the greatest epic in English, Paradise Lost. The "closer war reverseless" alludes to Satan's war against God, an ultimate battle both Smith and his Nero, the latter perforce ignorant of Milton but not of cosmological wars, imagines as parallel to Nero's own war with Rome and reality.

Historically, we know that Nero, according to Suetonius, the contemporary chronicler of the early emperors, sang of Troy's fall while watching Rome burn. That story began with the apple of discord, marked "for the Fairest" being thrown among three goddesses, followed by Paris's choice of Aphrodite, the rape of Helen, Achilles' dogged pursuit of Hector thrice around Troy's walls, and the destruction of that great city. In the Iliad, the goddesses of vengeance are described as lame (Oedipus, the name given to Nero's psychological forerunner, means "swollen-foot" or "lame-footed"; see Lévi-Strauss, 206-231) but following inexorably behind offenders; cf. line 93. ("Core" is now obviously a pun.)

Nero concludes this section by identifying himself with the Hebrew hero Sampson (a sun-figure (from the Hebrew Shimshon, "sun-man," thought by some scholars to represent a solar deity.(4) He sets himself above and beyond the dog and god of destruction.(5) Dogs and the final "hound" also evoke Sampson and the fiery foxes he loosed in the fields of the Philistines. References to the greatest Hebraic hero, extended from their original scope, continue.

The sense of this latter half of the great fourth stanza may be paraphrased: If I were a god, I would stand above both principles of Chaos and Creation, I would be above both the greatest deity and his opposer, and they would be as demiurges to me as I initiate a conflict beyond the traditions known to us, and all forces would be re-defined under my New Order.

The fifth stanza restates this theme and modifies it somewhat, relating Nero as he watches Rome burn, thinking of Troy's demolition, to a god who plays with the burning suns of the universe. Line 87, "tear out the eyes of light," most likely refers to Oedipus, and Nero's Oedipal relationship with his mother: he supposedly opened her body after having her killed, "to see where I came from." Perhaps this refers also to the blinding of Sampson in Milton's imitation of Greek drama. Line 85 is singularly Miltonic.

The universe is created through the Word, in Genesis, later (much later) identified with God in John I: ". . . and the Word was God." Out of chaos a Word spoke, saying Let There Be Light, and there was light. The poem's climactic stanza develops an antithesis to this, a gospel of destruction to set contrary to and to undo God's creation.

At last, at the height of his egomaniacal euphoria, Nero images himself as a god above gods, having become the godhead itself, what the Hindus call Brahman. The ultimate paradox evolves in the final lines: "casting worlds" as if they were worthless pebbles, so that there is no distinction between the macro- and micro-cosmic, and finally, "[b]rightening the aspect of Eternity" with suns whose light he himself has extinguished, embodying the notion that darkness and light are no different to his transcendent view, since he is now beyond and above a figure who might speak out of the darkness and say "Let there be Light." Time (93) and eternity are also interchangeable, to one unimaginably beyond both.

This "speech" (91) of godhead is, of course, imagined by Nero, as the entire poem is spoken by him, commenting upon his imperial self as both magnificent and minor. As in many of the best poems ("Ode on a Grecian Urn," for instance), the ironies and cumulative paradoxes enrich our understanding as the rich imagery and well-balanced Miltonic and Keatsian rhythms satisfy our aesthetic natures. One of Smith's strongest efforts, "Nero" bridges realism to cosmic vision as Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi" spanned a realistic setting with high Renaissance painting's aesthetics, although "I intend to get to God" (line 6, "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" ) is closer to the speaker Nero in tone.

Tennyson's Ulysses, who speaks of "sail[ing] beyond the sunset" and heroically never yielding, no matter what the challenge, parallels "Nero" in that each speaker shows us the path his desires have taken from the mundane to the extra-human. Both speakers entice us into sympathy with their extreme philosophies through eloquence and chains of reasoning. But though its form has roots in Browning's and Tennyson's dramatic monologues, the imagery of "Nero," it has been said by reviewers, harkens back to Keats, particularly the grandeur of "Hyperion." However. Smith's diction in this poem is more ornate, Latinate, and less casual that Keats's, as a comparison will show in a few moments: the text of Book I of "Hyperion" may be found online at Hyperion. Furthermore, to the extent that "Nero" may indeed remind us of "Hyperion," we must be aware that in that poem, Keats was heavily influenced by Milton, consciously and deliberately; see lines 2, 39, 118, 141, 232, 235-239 from Book I, for example, as posted online examples of Miltonisms in Keats at the source above.

Smith's contemporary, Edwin Arlington Robinson, also employed imaginary speakers, as in "The Man Against the Sky" (a poem useful for comparison with "Nero," but which is not as strongly developed, because of Robinson's zeal for ambiguity).

* * *

Contemporary reviewers of this poem indicated a generally favorable reaction to the book in which it appeared, The Star-Treader, and in each instance where "Nero" was singled out for comment, such commentary was quite favorable. From the column "The Spectator" in Town Talk, the Pacific Weekly for November 16, 1912: "A strength not boyish [most reviewers alluded to the youth of Smith, nineteen at the time of publication] muscles these lines wherein the last of the Caesars yearns for the godhead which would make his power of mischief infinite. Any poet alive today might well be proud to have written this poem"12-13 [1]. The reviewer declines to specify why.

From the column titled "The Latest Books" in The Argonaut for November 30, 1912:

"There are no self-searchings, or yearnings, or soul-communions in Mr. Smith's poems, nowhere a trace of the morbid or introspective, and we may expect much from a poet who will at least try to interpret for us the consciousness of nature rather than that of his own personality" (365). Lines 86-91 are then quoted to evidence Smith's "stateliness of diction." (Oddly, the reviewer says the line are from "the opening" of "Nero.") This reviewer does seem to have grasped the notion that a poem need not be autobiographical gushing, as most poetry was in the 19th century, and in the 20th, and as it is published in American periodicals even as you read this.

A third example will suffice to give the range. From "Clark Smith's Poems. Wonderful Lyrics Deserve Recognition With World's Best" in the San Francisco Bulletin: " . . . [Smith] will one day be numbered among the world's geniuses. . . . Such poetry as his cannot fail to arouse the admiration of mankind some time. Regarded as the creation of a mature mind, to say nothing of the youth of the poet, what American bard has ever excelled in imaginative splendor or poetic power such lines as the following from Mr. Smith's poem 'Nero?'" (14). The reviewer then quoted lines 38-61 and lines 76-96. I would emphasize imaginative splendor as most important in this review.

Smith himself wrote to George Sterling, his mentor, regarding his poem:

I am almost afraid to send you "Nero". About four-fifths of it is prose, and not particularly good prose at that. However, I'm sending it. I hope you're not expecting too much of it. It has psychological value, I suppose; pathological might be a better word. The human interest (if it has any of what is usually meant by that term) is sinister and abnormal. It has a few great lines (according to my taste) such as "The vampire Silence of the breast of worlds", but I am not at all hopeful about it. 6

In this self-criticism, Smith picked out the single line which is least "mainstream," least traditional in its diction, and which seems to me to be something of a felicitous sore thumb, diction-wise, in that by its very inappropriateness it makes Nero's speech as a whole seem less planned, hence more human and authentic.

As for whether Smith had a poetic genius, that is a matter for fickle posterity, for in 1912 Ezra Pound was ridiculed whereas Sidney Lanier was exalted. In my lifetime, I've seen Lanier's words dropped entirely from the Norton anthologies that are the standard in American colleges and universities, as I've seen T.S. Eliot's reputation wilt under political attack, and so on. Time will tell us nothing; in fifty years Eliot may ride high on the heap of acclaim, and Smith may rise higher. Perhaps Nero had a point, re Time.


  1. My source for the poem's text is the excellent web site preserving Clark Ashton Smith's work, The Eldritch Dark, operated by Boyd Pearson and located at Nero.
  2. From Edgar Allan Poe's well-known "To Helen":
    On desperate seas long wont to roam,
    Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
    Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
    To the glory that was Greece,
    And the grandeur that was Rome.
  3. Webster's, 402
  4. I thank Dr. Robert Allen of the English Department of the University of Tennessee at Martin for this and several other suggestions.
  5. A decade after Smith's present poem, T.S. Eliot used a similar reverse word-play of great unconscious significance when he wrote "O keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men, or with his nails he'll dig it up again!" Eliot means both God and the ravager of corpses.
  6. Letter to George Sterling by Clark Ashton Smith, May 26th, 1912.Letter to George Sterling. Originally published in Mirage, 10 (1971), 63-70.

Works Cited

Bashford, Herbert. "Clark Smith's Poems. Wonderful Lyrics Deserve Recognition With World's Best" [3] San Francisco Bulletin, 115, 47 (November 30, 1912), 14.

The Catholic Encyclopedia. Online at

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land, and Other Poems.. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

"The Latest Books" in The Argonaut, 71, 1862 (November 30, 1912).

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost.

"The Spectator" in Town Talk, the Pacific Weekly No. 1956 (November 16, 1912).

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Mass: Merriam, 1981.

reprint of the article in The Central California Poetry Journal

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