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SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY POETRY:
8.0 ROBERT E. HOWARD'S POETRY
by
JONATHAN VOS POST

Copyright 1996, 1997, by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.
RETURN TO SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY POETRY TABLE OF CONTENTS

8.0 ROBERT E. HOWARD'S POETRY

[references from Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard, Creator of Conan, L. Sprague de Camp et.al, New York: Bluejay, 1983; used here with the written permission of L. Sprague de Camp] New: for information on an upcoming Robert E. Howard movie, click on: Kull the Conquerer For background on the genre he helped to create, click on: HEROIC FANTASY: also known as "Swords & Sorcery" "There are many elements of his verse in his prose: rhythm; alliteration; a kaleidoscope of color words richly sprinkled with names of gems; leaping, plunging verbs; memorable metaphors; and a generous use of personification -- treating inanimate objects and impersonal forces as if they were living." [p.217] "From this period [Fall-Winter 1925-26] dates much of Howard's poetry, but even this did not come easily. Poems and stories, long and short, were returned 'with soul-killing regularity.'" [p.197] "Yet, this very sloughing off of reality is the essence of a poet. And Robert Howard was a poet. The poet lives, untrammeled by reality, strolling through a world of rainbow-tinted dreams and fancies or -- as with Howard -- shouldering his way to despair among horrors beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. To understand this singer in the shadows, we must take a long, thoughtful look at the poems he left behind him. "Robert Howard's first published poem, The Sea, appeared in the weekly newspaper of his hometown in 1923, when he was seventeen. By the time that he was twenty-two, he had written the bulk of his poetry. True, he continued to express himself in rhyme upon occasion, and, from time to time, to polish poems lying unsold in his files. But -- like most of the world's poets -- thoughts and feelings poured forth more readily in his early writing days. "Because of Glenn Lord's enterprise in collecting and arranging them for publication, many of the more than four hundred known poems have now appeared in limited hardcover editions under the titles Always Comes Evening (1957) [Sauk City WI: Arkham House, 1957; San Francisco CA: Underwood-Miller,1977], Singers in the Shadows (1970) [West Kingston RI: Donald M. Grant, 1970], and Echoes from an Iron Harp (1972) [West Kingston RI: Donald M. Grant, 1972]. The latter two titles were selected by Howard himself for collections that he never saw in print. "Of the thirty-odd poems published during Howard's lifetime, most were accepted by Weird Tales. A few were published in such minor publications as The fantasy Fan and The Daniel Baker Collegian.... Howard compiled a manuscript of his poetry under the title Singers in the Shadows and sent it to Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., of New York; but in April 1928 they returned it, averring that they were not publishing poetry. A year later the little poetry journal American Poet published two poems under the pseudonym Patrick Howard; one other poem, Skulls and Dust, won a three-dollar prize as the best poem in the issue of The Ring, a magazine devoted to prizefight lore. What was this poetry like? "Howard's verse, like his prose, is vigorous, colorful, strongly rhythmical, and technically adroit. Although, as he said, he 'was born with the knack of making little words rattle together,' he was unduly modest about his abilities: "I know nothing about the mechanics of poetry -- I couldn't tell you whether a verse was anapestic or trochaic to save my neck. I write the stuff by ear, so to speak, and my musical ear is full of flaws." "Actually Howard had a better command of poetic technique than he admitted. He knew perfectly well what a ballad was, and a sonnet. He was familar with feet and meter, internal rhymes, and a wide variety of verse and stanza forms. We should be less than honest if we said that Howard never took liberties with his stressed and unstressed syllables. But such flaws are minor in view of the passion, vitality, and splendid imagery in the works. "Howard's models were the major Anglo-American poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men such as Benét, Dunsany, Harte, Kipling, Masefield, Noyes, Service, Swinburne, Tennyson, Viereck, and Wilde, although with a man of Howard's eclectic tastes and omnivorous reading habits, the influences of many other poets can be seen in his verses. At full maturity, Howard's serious work far outranks the rather pedestrian rhymes of Dunsany and Tolkein or Lovecraft's leaden Georgian couplets." [238] "Robert Howard made superb use of personification. This endowment of inanimate objects with the attributes of animals and people comes naturally to children and primitives and adds enormously to the vitality and richness of the language. One of Howard's favorite verse forms was the iambic heptameter triolet, a three-line stanza favored by Kipling. This verse form and his effective personification both appear in these lines from Howard's The Ghost Kings: The ghost kings are marching; the midnight knows their tread, From the distant, stealthy planets of the dim, unstable dead; There are whisperings on the night-winds and the shuddering stars have fled. "Considering the outstanding quality of the lines already familiar to readers of this biography, why was so much of Howard's poetry ignored during his lifetime? One of the editors who returned his submissions stated that the poems were too bitter and rebellious. Bitter and rebellious some of them certainly were; but this per se would not condemn a poet's work. The problem lay in part with the change in fashion that was taking place at the time that the skald of the post oaks was tuning his lyre. Fixed-form verse, the mode of the Romantics of the nineteenth century, was giving way in the early twentieth century to a new concept of poetry. The carefully crafted meter, rhyme, and stanza were becoming things of the past. Save for the work of a few well-established poets like Edna St.Vincent Millay and Robert Frost, 'free verse,' the unschooled, untamed expression of confused emotions, was becoming the only acceptable mode of expression. "At the time we are writing, this condition still obtains. If public taste ever veers back to fixed-form verse, the true worth of Howard's poetry may be reassayed. In the interim, those of us who admire the sheer poetic power of the man may look at his poems with a less prejudicial eye and point out the features that make them memorable. "While Howard was not unaware of the revolution then beginning in English and American poetry under the leadership of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, he remained almost untouched by it. He favored the well-established forms like the ballad and the sonnet. He relied upon an exquisite choice of simple words, unlike the turgid language of his contemporaries. And he obtained his sonorous effects by carefully crafted rhyme and meter, which from earliest times have made poetry easy to remember. "Although a few of Howard's longer poems are narrative, telling a story -- sometimes a comic story -- the vast majority of his works are lyric poems, setting forth the writer's feelings and philosophies. There is no archness in him; his unswerving honesty shines through every line, revealing the essence of the man himself. Since honest poems are a window on the poet's soul, consideration of the major themes of the poems show us the main concerns of the lonely young man in Cross Plains. "Howard's love of nature is clearly revealed in both his prose and poetry. From tiny field flowers to the broad expanse of a Texas sunset or a star-stitched velevt sky, the colors, textures, smells, and changing vistas of the land were precious to him and carefully recorded. One of Howard's very few experiments in free verse was Adventure. It is not only a superior example of this form of art, but also valuable in illustrating his Wordsworth-like view of nature in terms of Greek myth, his rich fantasy life, and his sublimation of sex into love of adventure during his post-adolescent years. Adventure, I have followed your beck Through all the ages. I have sought no other lover. I have followed o'er land and sea, dim vale and mystic moon mountains. I have heard Pan's pipes amid moon-dappled woodlands and have seen the satyrs frolicking with nymphs upon The fragrant sward, while the night-breezes murmured among the leaves.... And I've seen your nameless mountains rise from the sea of tangled forest, and stand like sightless sombre gods Against the twilight. Adventure, I desire no other lover. "Even more exciting to him was the sea, and this is odd in view of the fact that he saw it but a few times in the entire course of his life. Lovingly he describes its breaking waves, its quiet surge, its storm-tossed, angry waters, and the cockleshells of ships in which puny man endeavors to conquer his ancient, timeless enemy, the raging main. Ships held an enormous attraction for him and for his heroes Kull, and Kane, and Conan, Shades of Masefield's verse can be found in the following noble lines: Sailing-ships are anchored about that ancient isle, Ships that sailed the oceans in the dim dawn days, Coracles from Britain, triremes from the Nile. Anchored round the harbors, anchored mile on mile, Ships and ships and shades of ships fading in the haze.... High ships, proud ships, towering at their poops, Galleons flaunting their pinnacles of pride, Schooners and merchantment, and long lean sloops, Kings' ships riding with galleys on the tide. "And in a touching passage from "The Song of Belit," Conan of Cimmeria's true love, Belit the pirate maid, is consigned to the gentle bosom of the deep: Now we are done with roaming, evermore; No more the oars, the windy harp's refrain; Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore; Blue girdle of the world, receive again Her whom thou gavest me. "With striking frequency, the poems speak of Howard's all-consuming hatred and violence, as do his letters and the recollections of those who knew him -- to say nothing of his stories. His Hymn of Hate... overflows with the venom he feels for man and the works of man. We do not know the reason and can scarcely understand this always-present hatred for his fellow human beings; it speaks to his childhood rejection by infant playmates, to the sidelong stares of townfolk who regarded him as something of a freak, and possibly to the negligent attitude of a father who was always out among his patients and who, himself, suffered perennial hurt from the rejection of his wife. So possessed by hate was the man who penned the following lines that the wonder is it never spilled over into acts of violence. There burns in me no honeyed drop of love, Nor soft compassion for my brother man: I would indeed humanity possessed A single throat a keen-edged knife could span. "Basic to Howard's nature and frequently expressed in his poetry is a sense of the sweetness of death, death that rejects no one, death that is a gateway to a happier tomorrow. Because of his deep devotion to his ill mother, he early determined never to leave her; and he set his days' number on the life span of the one person on whose affection he could fully count. If anyone doubts that Howard's decision, made early in his life, was irrevocable, he has only to read the poetry written when Howard was in his late teens or early twenties. The famous lines of The Tempter state his feelings simply and unequivocally: I was weary of tide breasting, Weary of the world's behesting, And I lusted for the resting As a lover for his bride. "In another poem, The Bride of Cuchulain, Howard beseeches some woman (his mother?) to leave the dreary world with its bent and ancient moon and slip away with him beneath the breaking waves: There where the spent spray lashes white sands forevermore, I will weave the pale sea flowers To twine on your pallid brow That you may forget lost hours and Time be only Now. Then all Earth's joys and sorrows Shall pass like ocean spray Till all the sad tomorrows fade in one dim Today. "Closeley allied with Howard's celebration of death is his sincere belief that life is an obscene joke played by fate; that human beings are bestial, lust-ridden, and degenerate; and that the perceptive man can see -- just beyond the ken of ordinary folk -- the monsters, fetid corpses and Devil-nurtured fiends that people the earth: Life was a cesspool of obscenity -- He saw through eyes accursed with unveiled sight -- Where Lust ran rampant through a screaming Night And black-faced swine roared from the Devil's styes; Where grinning corpses, fiend-inhabited, Walked through the world with taloned hands outspread; Where beast and monster swaggered side by side, And unseen demons strummed a maddening tune; And naked witches, young and brazen-eyed, Flaunted their buttocks to a lustful moon. "Robert Howard was a man who talked with demons in hells beneath hells, reeled under the assault of a soul-sucking monster with gryphon feet, saw crawling, slimy serpent-shapes at midnight, and followed the paths of ghosts. So vivid and unrelentingly persistent were these creatures of the dark, and so varied their myriad hideous forms, that we have no need to wonder why Robert, boy and man, was given to nightmares, or why as a student alone on the upper floor of a rooming house he shivered in terror when he heard a door creak. It is even less surprising that, feeling himself monster-haunted and unloved, life held no charm, gold turned to rust, and even success lacked the power to lure him back from the welcoming arms of death. "And yet, in Recompense, one of his most beautiful poems, Howard, ever fiercely prideful, exults in visions that transcend the horrors writhing like maggots in his skull. Undoubtedly those soul-shaking ghouls and black fiends among whom he lived were the price the artist had to pay to gain the intensity of feeling and that secret pool of magic, mysticism, and myth whence he dredged up wizards, warriors, serpents, and scoundrels to disport themselves with ceaseless energy throughout the Hyborean World. From this same intensity of feeling sprang the poetic imagery and arresting concepts, which so often enthrall us and which are so bountifully scattered throughout the following lines: I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call, But once in the din of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall. I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flag unfurled, But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.... And I have felt the sudden blow of a nameless wind's cold breath, And watched the grisly pilgrims go that walk the roads of Death, And I have seen black valleys gape, abysses in the gloom, And I have fought the deathless Ape that guards the Doors of Doom. I have not seen the face of Pan, nor mocked the dryad's haste, But I have trailed a dark-eyed Man across a windy waste. I have not died as men may die, nor sin as men have sinned, But I have reached a misty sky upon a granite wind. [de Camp next discusses the "one truly happy poem of childhood" and one poem with a "life-loving alternative to suicide -- riding the rails as a hobo"] But a realistic alternative for Robert himself it was not. A sheltered dreamer, brought up in an environment of smothering protection and poor at interpersonal relations, could not have survived the buffetings of weather, poverty, and sharp-eyed fellow hobos. "Much more real to Robert Howard were the demons and goblins from the depths of hell, the strange and evil creatures from other worlds, and the hate-filled, unregenerate humanity --the larcenous oil men, the prostitutes, and the witches who passed as fellow mortals along the streets of Cross Plains." [243-244] "...in his poems and in conversations with his father, he made no secret of his intention to commit suicide. In fact, few people have set forth so openly and so eloquently the feelings that drove him to the act. As much as a decade earlier, Howard's poems cried out: 'Life is a liar and a drear eyed whore...'; 'Jets of agony lance my brain...'; and 'The years are as a knife against my heart.' He felt that he had squandered his life, that he was never free, that people were dreary, noisy cattle, and that fame was shifty-eyed and unreliable. In The Tempter, Howard practically shouted his intention: In a shadow panorama Passed life's struggles and its fray. And my soul tugged with new vigor, Huger grew the phantom's figure, As I slowly pulled the trigger, Saw the world fade swift away. Through the fogs old Time came striding, Radient clouds were 'bout me riding, As my soul went gliding, gliding, From the shadow into day. [345] "We who have studied the man and his works will never entirely know the source of the 'jets of agony' and the 'crimson pain' of which he complained in his poetry. What was the 'battle,' the 'dreary noise and prattle,' whereof he was weary? But we know the pain was there...." [349]. "The autumn of 1927 found Robert Howard back in Cross Plains, writing furiously. His spirits were buoyed up by a wave of successes. 'The Dream Snake' and several poems were accepted by Farnsworth Wright .... the poems for less than five dollars each.... In the May issue of Weird Tales his poem The Sea Curse appeared...." [206-7] "Robert Howard told a lively story and involved his reader in the emotions of the hero and his creator. But other elements of greatness went into the making of the Conan saga. Howard was a poet, and in time he learned to write poetry in the form of prose. In many of his prose passages, there is a trace of the rhythm of Shakespeare and of the seventeenth-century King James version of the Bible. We believe that this cadenced prose was probably an unconscious legacy from those Howard ancestors who made their homes on plantations in the Piedmont belt of the Appalachian Mountains before they ventured into the wild, new land of Texas. The slightly archaic remnant of the English of an earlier time survived into the twentieth century in the Piedmont region, and to some extent, survives there to this day...." [290] "Other devices well-known to poets are generously sprinkled throughout Howard's stories. One is alliteration ... picked up from the poet Swinburne, with whose work the Texan was familar: 'The catlike pad of his sandaled feet seemed startlingly loud in the stillness.' In another situation, Howard combines alliteration with onomatopoeia ...: 'Startlingly, shockingly, in the slumberous stillness, there had boomed the deep strident clangor of a great gong.'" [291] "Mrs. Howard [Robert's mother] probably entertained them [family, in car] by reciting poetry, for which she had a prodigious memory. According to Dr. Howard 'She loved poetry. Written poetry by sheets and reams, almost books of it were stored in her memory so that from Robert's babyhood he had heard its recital day by day. She was a lover of the beautiful." [95] "Lexie Dean Robertson, who became the poet laureate of Texas in 1939 and who knew Robert Howard and encouraged his poetry..." [152] "Some of Robert Howard's friends, including Lovecraft, have said that Howard was primarily a poet. We disagree. We consider him a great storyteller first and foremost, and one who made his prose soar at times because he brought poetry to it. Uneven as are his poems and his prose, some of the great passages in his fiction possess the color, the imagery, the verve, the precision of language, and the rhythm that give them a dimension akin to poetry...." [244] "Whether the rich fabric of Howard's poetry had its origin in exotic phrases from many earlier pens, or whether he owed his intensity to the singing rhythms of Scottish and Irish speech, he was not entirely original in his modes of perception. The world he saw was not the world we know or want to know, save as a momentary escape into the fantastic. Yet.... The iron harp of Conan's creator, which echoes the fiend-haunted depths of Howard's troubled spirit, can also reverberate to bear aloft the sparkling lines "that set the stars on fire." [244]

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Copyright 1996, 1997 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.