A Machen Review of Clark Ashton Smith

Scott Connors

The first few decades of the Twentieth Century could well be called the Golden Age of the Weird Tale, since writers on both sides of the Atlantic were writing a new type of supernatural horror story that was rooted in the modern psyche as opposed to mere variations on traditional Gothic themes. In Great Britain writers such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Lord Dunsany, H. Russell Wakefield, William Hope Hodgson, and others were producing the work for which they would become best known, while a few years later American writers associated with H. P. Lovecraft, including Henry S. Whitehead, Donald Wandrei, and Clark Ashton Smith, would begin to produce material every bit the equal of their British cousins, albeit differing somewhat in style, approach, and subject matter. There was little if any contact between the two sides of the Atlantic during Lovecraft's lifetime: Donald Wandrei had exchanged a few letters to Arthur Machen, and Machen was acquainted with Vincent Starrett, a sporadic correspondent of Lovecraft, as well as Harold Wolf, a Cleveland, Ohio newspaperman who wrote the first newspaper article on Lovecraft; and M. R. James had expressed disgust with the American type of tale and dismissed Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. The discovery, then, that Arthur Machen had reviewed a poetry collection by Clark Ashton Smith, who would later become perhaps the only contemporary American writer to rival Lovecraft for the ability to evoke a sense of cosmic dread, is of more than a little interest.

After attempting to earn a living on the stage for the first decade of the last century, in 1910 Arthur Machen accepted a position as a chief reporter with The Evening News. He had been selling articles to various magazines for some time, "and it seemed only a step at the time from selling articles to magazines" . Machen later referred to this period as the "prostitution of the soul," because as Sweetser observed "for the first time in many years he had to work at the direction of an outside force rather than in conformance with certain subjective standards" [1] . Mark Valentine describes Machen's duties thus: "He was at first used for all-around reporting duties of a trivial kind which he found intolerable—interviewing the famous he found embarrassing—but was gradually allowed to become an acknowledged feature writer on favourite subjects such as traditions and ceremonies, the byways of London, and religious matters, as well as doing book reviews." [2]

This later was one of the least objectionable of Machen's duties. An examination of Sweetser and Goldstein's bibliography shows that roughly a third of his known contributions to The Evening News were book reviews of one sort or another, although with few exceptions the titles under consideration were not listed. Many of these titles found there way to Machen's desk in the traditional form of review copies sent by the publisher, but sometime early in 1916 a colleague of Machen's gave him a copy of The Star-Treader and Other Poems (San Francisco, California: A. M. Robertson, 1912) by Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), a youth living in the foothills of the Sierras who was a protege of George Sterling, the "uncrowned king of Bohemia" and the unofficial Poet Laureate of California. Smith's poetic debut was greeted by the West Coast press with some enthusiasm, who called him "the Boy Keats of the Sierras" and ranked his work with Shelley and Byron. The Star-Treader, his first collection of poetry, received favorable reviews from both the West Coast papers plus such organs of the eastern establishment as The New York Times, the Boston Evening Transcript, and Current Opinion, although his extensive vocabulary and cosmic themes met with some bewilderment.

The manner in which the book came to his attention is of itself of some interest. Smith's father, Timeus, was an expatriate Englishman who had traveled the world before settling in Auburn, California, a small town in the heart of the gold mining country near Sacramento, where he married a woman a few years his senior and started a family late in life. He maintained contact with his relatives in England through correspondence, and some of these letters still survive in the Clark Ashton Smith Papers at the John Hay Library of Brown University. One such relative, a nephew who signed his name only "Willie," wrote in a letter dated February 13, 1916 the following:

Well now I have some good news for Clark Ashton. At least I hope it will be so. Let me tell you the story fully.

In the "Mail" we get some lines by a man who signs himself "Touchstone," and even when we were up in Lancashire my friend & me [sic] used to wonder who he was, as his work was very good.

A few weeks ago he published a volume of his "war-poems," & in giving publicity to the book the "Mail" printed his photograph.

As soon as I saw this I felt I had seen the face somewhere. I set to work following the clues which told me that a man I had seen in the train was "Touchstone." I was determined to speak to him if my surmiss was the correct one. A fortnight ago my opportunity came as he was alone in the same carriage with me. Needless to say my deductions were right & when I suggested

that he might be the one he was quite taken aback & wondered how I had found out.

Now my idea was to give to him of the books by Clark for a criticism & you will be glad to know that he not only promised to receive a copy, but also that he would put it before the reviewer of the paper. I took up the "Evening News" on Saturday & was agreeably surprised to find a review of the book by no other than Arthur Machen. He is the author of the "Bowmen" & the phantasy of the "Angels of Mons." I should think he is our greatest writer to-day & what he says is very important.

I enclose his review. I hope I was quite right in saying Clarke [sic] was 17 when he wrote most of the work! Anyway the review is on the whole very good & coincides with my humble opinion. [3]

"Touchstone" was the pseudonym of Claude Edward Coleman Hamilton Burton ( 1869- ?), who published a volume of poetry called Fife and Drum, as by "Touchstone" of "The Daily Mail" and "C.E.B." of "The Evening News" in 1915. Burton apparently felt that Smith's book was more in Machen's line than his own, and so passed the volume along. It would have been simple for Machen to ignore the book entirely, but instead he wrote the following review (which, incidently, is not listed in Sweetser and Goldstone), which appeared in The Evening News for Saturday, February 12, 1916, under the heading of "Books of Today:"

Seventeen often longs to write, above all to write poetry; and seventeen usually makes a sad mess of it, and spends long years of anxiety afterwards, lest some enemy discover that thin volume of sorry verse.

It is understood that Mr. Smith is seventeen; but he at least will never blush for "The Star-Treader." He is not far from the true vision of the world.

Fairy Lanterns

'Tis said these blossom-lanterns light
The elves upon their midnight way;
That fairy toil and elfin play
Receive their beams of magic white.

I marvel not if it be true;
I know this flower has lighted me
Nearer to Beauty's mystery.
And part the veils of secrets new.

The author shows in many of his verses a great admiration for "the grand manner;" he builds his poems up as if they were cathedrals.

Often he is justified by his results; but one would urge him to admire above all simplicity and lucidity. Rheims Cathedral is-or was, alas!-a miracle of rich adornments; but how lucid, how clear and self-illuminating is the vast scheme of the west-front. [4]

My colleague Don Herron points out that Machen's opening statement, that Smith would never have to be ashamed of verses he scribbled at the age of seventeen, is of no small significance when we remember that Machen's first book, Eleusinia (1881), was written around that age, and that Machen later tracked down all but two copies of this title and destroyed them. In the context of Machen's life, then, this was high praise indeed. The selection of "Fairy Lanterns" for quotation is interesting in light of Machen's own tales of the Little People ("The Novel of the Black Seal," "The Shining Pyramid," etc.), and also for the lines "I know this flower has lighted me/Nearer to Beauty's mystery,/And part the veils of secrets new," since viewing the realities beneath the surface of life was a major theme in Machen's work, from "The Great God Pan" onward. Much of the rest of the volume deals with astronomical and/or mythological themes, and is endued throughout with what H. P. Lovecraft would later describe as a sense of "Cosmicism," which he defined as the "capacity to feel profoundly regarding the cosmos and the disturbing and fascinating quality of the extra-terrestrial and perpetually unknown."[5] Lovecraft identified Machen as one of the supreme Cosmic masters, writing in his monograph Supernatural Horror in Literature that "Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen . . . ." [6] Smith derived his Cosmicism from his mentor, George Sterling, the author of such poems as "The Testimony of the Sun" and "A Wine of Wizardry," who combined the aesthetic teachings of his Master, Ambrose Bierce, with the scientific materialism of Ernst Haeckel to create a new aesthetic in reaction to Victorian didacticism which displaced man as the central facet of creation. Machen, however, did not share this particular worldlier, being essentially a mystically-inclined Anglo-Catholic with a desire to penetrate the mysteries of the sacraments whereby man might achieve reunion with the Godhead, something which Lovecraft later recognized. Smith's own version of Cosmicism differed greatly from Lovecraft's, since like Machen he rejected materialism and embraced a neoplatonic worldlier while, like Lovecraft, rejecting a homocentric viewpoint, preferring an "imaginative escape from the human aquarium." [7] In many ways Smith's aesthetic represents the midpoint between those of Lovecraft, the materialist, and Machen, the mystic.

Arthur Machen was one of Clark Ashton Smith's favorite writers. In a letter to George Sterling dated August 28, 1919 [8] , CAS wrote "Thanks for 'The Hill of Dreams,' the reading of which has given me considerable pleasure. Much of it is very beautiful and subtle. Am I to keep the book? . . . I have another of Machen's books, entitled: 'Hieroglyphics,' one of the best things on literature and literary values that I have seen for a long time, apart from the writings of John Cowper Powys," which indicates that he had read Machen before Lovecraft. Later on he listed Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder" among his favorite weird stories. [9] It is somewhat surprising that Smith never mentioned that Machen had ever seen any of his work. Smith never mentioned this review in his correspondence with Sterling, Lovecraft, R. H. Barlow, Donald Wandrei, August Derleth, or any of the other writers with whom he corresponded, whose letters from Smith are still extant. [10] In latter years Smith would list with defiant pride the various prominent writers and persons who had praised his work: David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University; Ambrose Bierce; Edwin Markham; Alice Meynall; Vachel Lindsay; Benjamin de Casseres; and, of course, Sterling. Arthur Machen is conspicuous by his absence. The clear inference is that Smith felt that the review was not, cousin Willie to the contrary, "on the whole very good."

One possible reason for this may be found in the reference to his age when he wrote the poems. In general tone Machen's review is not dissimilar to one by the poet Stephen Phillips from The Poetry Review which, while also praising Smith's poetic promise, also dwelt upon his lack of years. [11] Smith showed a distinct lack of appreciation of Phillips' review[12] Machen praises Smith when he says that CAS will never have to be ashamed of these early verses, but in correspondence Smith appears particularly sensitive to characterization of his work as being by "the human equivalent of a five-legged kangaroo" [13]. Sterling himself warned a correspondent that "the child has a sense of humor, but not about himself" [14]. Machen's urging of Smith "to admire above all simplicity and lucidity" is surprising in light of Machen's own style, which is certainly closer to that of Smith than, say, that of Theodore Dreiser or Ernest Hemingway, but this may also have disappointed Smith. What is important about this review is Machen's acknowledgment that not only is Smith's poetry atypical for his age, but that "He is not from the true vision of the world," as seen by Machen. That Machen recognized this common thematic ground is the true significance of this review, and while we might wish that he had seen fit to devote more column space to a discussion of Smith's Cosmicism, or a comparison of Smith's great dramatic monologue "Nero" with those of Browning and Tennyson, it is clear that when we list the honor roll of those who recognized Smith's art the name of Arthur Machen will occupy a prominent place.

(Thanks are due to Peter Cannon, for his help in locating a file of The Evening News and for making the photocopy; to Mark Brown of the John Hay Library, for his assistance with the Clark Ashton Smith Papers; and to S. T. Joshi, for his assistance in identifying possible candidates for the review, and for providing [with David E. Schultz] copies of the Smith-Sterling correspondence from the New York Public Library.)


  1. Wesley D. Sweetser, Arthur Machen (New York: Twayne, 1964), p. 36.
  2. Mark Valentine, Arthur Machen (Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren, 1995), p. 97.
  3. Ms., Brown University Library.
  4. Arthur Machen, Books of Today," The Evening News, London, Saturday, February 12, 1916, p. 4.
  5. Lovecraft, Selected Letters III, ed. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei (Sauk City, Wisc.: Arkham House, 1971), p. 196.
  6. H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature. In Lovecraft's Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, ed. S. T. Joshi (Sauk City, Wisc.: Arkham House, 1987), p. 421.
  7. Clark Ashton Smith, Letters to H. P. Lovecraft, ed. Steve Behrends (West Warwick, R.I.: Necronomicon Press, 1987), p. 25.
  8. Ms., Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
  9. The Fantasy Fan, December 1934; in Smith's Planets and Dimensions: Collected Essays, ed. Charles K. Wolfe ( (Baltimore: The Mirage Press, 1973), p. 41.
  10. Some reference may lurk within the correspondence with Samuel Loveman, but most of this is in private hands and has not yet been made available for examination. Smith does mention sending copies of his later poetry collection Sandalwood to Machen and Vincent Starrett (CAS to Donald Wandrei, December 28, 1926 [Ms., Minnesota Historical Society] ).
  11. Stephen Phillips, ."Voices from Overseas" (review of The Star-Reader [sic] and Other Poems, by Clark Ashton-Smith [sic]), The Poetry Review, 2 (1913), 141.
  12. CAS to Sterling, April 12, 1913 (Ms., Berg Collection, New York Public Library).
  13. CAS to Sterling, September 7, 1912 (Ms. Berg Collection, New York Public Library).
  14. Sterling to Witter Bynner, September 11, 1912; in Dalton Gross, "George Sterling's Life at Carmel: Sterling's Letters to Witter Bynner." Markham Review 4 (1973), 12-16.

Copyright 2000 by the Friends of Arthur Machen for FAUNUS 6, Autumn 2000. By permission of the author.

Top of Page