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SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY POETRY:
9.0 LORD DUNSANY'S POETRY
by
JONATHAN VOS POST

Copyright 1996, 1997, by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
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9.0 LORD DUNSANY'S POETRY

[References from Pathways to Elfland: The Writings of Lord Dunsany, Darrell Schweitzer, Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1989] "Dunsany's poetry is certainly the least important aspect of his work. Although he wrote verse almost continuously from youth to old age, he never achieved any great distinction as a poet. Certainly if he had written nothing but poetry he would not be remembered today....[127] "The majority of his poems are utterly conventional in form, which isn't necessarily a shortcoming in itself, but becomes one when they are also utterly conventional in content, mechanical and monotonous metrically, and not particularly well written. His poems are slight and clumsy. Few have any memorable passages, or at least passages one remembers as being good. His work showed all the failings of rhymed and metered poetry and few of its strengths.... "He was not a good spontaneous poet. His autobiographies abound with accounts of how poems were written for occasions, to amuse someone, or to capture the magic of something he saw in his travels.... but very little of what he felt comes across to the reader. He made meaning subservient to form. Quite often his poems contain seemingly irrelevant lines, whose sole purpose seems to be to fill out the rhymes. Sometimes he uses 'words that tear and strain to rhyme,' to borrow Paul Simon's phrase. For example, 'At the Time of the Full Moon,' which is about the strange landscapes hidden from human eyes on the far side of the moon, ends with this stanza: They never see the Earth float over, Whoever they be; And they know no hint of her purpose. Neither do we. "Of course they never worry about the 'purpose' of the Earth, because they don't see it.... But the poem is slap-dash throughout. Two stanzas earlier we encounter this: Gleaming with eerie beauty Continents bright, and seas Lucid as palest sapphires Sold by Cingalese. "How does comparing the far side of the moon to sapphires sold by the Cingalese provide any new perspective? What is it except cheap exoticism? Is this description or the evasion of it in the absence of applied imagination? And what are those last two lines doing there anyway? Well, they rhyme. [Darrell Schweitzer next analyzes "Songs from an Evil Wood", which was written during World War I "under the stimulus of shellfire" -- but there's none of that actually in the poem.] "Occasionally his poems could be witty. 'Ode to a Dublin Critic' is an answer to prejudiced reviewers who not only didn't like fantasy, but were sure that all aristocrats were dilettantes.... And lesser journalists have said, That cannot see such things themselves, The man is clearly off his head To write of things like gods and elves. By walls of cities not of Earth All wild my winged dreams have run, And known the demons that had birth In planets of another sun. From little fountain-pens they wring The last wee drop of inky spite; "We do not like the kind of thing "That lords," they say, "mostly write." "His last collection, To Awaken Pegasus (1949) is somewhat better than the rest and deserves consideration since it contains two or three poems worth reading, including 'Ulysses, Bound to the Mast,' which Dunsany thought to be his best. By all indications, it was. This is the first stanza: Turn landward! If I said a while ago "Heed not my orders," I was ignorant then. I had not heard this song, and could not know. I spoke at random. Heed me now, my men. Take out the wax I sealed your ears with then I played that jest on you, for 'twas no more. I brought you from the Cyclops' dreadful den. Turn landward: let us lie upon that shore While days like happy dreams drift by us evermore. "Homer, this isn't, but it is at least fairly readable. If the poem had been Dunsany's average instead of his best, he might have been an acceptable, if not very important poet. Unfortunately it wasn't. The collection still contains horrors.... "The only conclusion is that Dunsany possessed little talent for this kind of verse. Anyone who could write as many poems as he did, and still write badly at the end, probably couldn't do any better. But he couldn't see this because of his distrust for criticism (He wrote, 'Criticism is like giving latin names to dead butterflies, while fancy is like a live butterfly on the wind.') and his rigidly conservative ideas about what poetry should be. "He was very much behind the times, although in art that isn't always a fault. He thought poetry should express beauty and exhort men to virtue. Hazel Littlefield Smith, in her Lord Dunsany: King of Dreams [New York: Exposition Press, 1959] quotes him as saying that the purpose of poetry is to 'make clear the concept of the moral responsibility of mankind.' Certainly medieval Christian poets would have agreed, as would Homer, who was very interested in showing examples of virtue and vice. But this sense of high seriousness and dogmatism (which could just as easily have been 'the purpose of poetry is to incite the masses to revolution') is the very thing which wrecked Dunsany. He failed precisely because he was unable to meet his own standards. He rarely presented beauty nearly as effectively in verse as he did so often in his prose, and his poems are not particularly morally uplifting. Had he been willing to write flights of imaginative fancy in verse similar to what A Dreamer's Tales was in prose and ignore the moralism and edification, he might have gotten somewhere. Had he tried it, he might have had a talent for nonsense verse.... "If Dunsany was a 'poet' by his own definition, it is in his early short stories. The Gods of Pegana borders on poetry as it stands, and passages from his stories, if rearranged typographically, might make better verse than his rhymed stuff. (This idea is hardly unique. A book of Thomas Wolfe's 'poetry' was published that way, all of it pulled from his novels.) Consider these three paragraphs of 'Where the Tides Ebb and Flow.' Not a mark of punctuation has been changes, but it is now 'verse': The ebb came And I saw the dead eyes of the houses And the jealousy of other forgotten things That storm had not carried thence. And some more centuries passed over the ebb and flow And over the loneliness of things forgotten. And I lay there all the while In the careless grip of the mud, Never wholly covered, Yet never able to go free, And I longed for the great caress of the warm Earth Or the comfortable lap of the Sea. "Of course such an idea is heresy; and while Dunany became an innovator by tolerating a little heresy in his prose, he couldn't in verse. Such a thing would have smacked of modernism, and his tastes were for the Elizabethans foremost and the early Romantics secondly. He disliked intellectual poetry, and considered the time between the death of Herrick and the beginning of Shelley's career 'the dark century.' This, however, was not nearly so dark as the 20th century, in his view. He detested that modern verse which deals with ugliness and that which is obscure. T. S. Eliot was singled out as a special villain, perhaps because everyone else was proclaiming him a genius at the time and Dunsany thought this was an insult to honest poets. An element of envy might also have been present; and, as Amory points out, this didn't do much for his reputation. Writers are seldom at their best tearing down other writers. "Dunsany owned copies of Eliot's works and scrawled acidic comments in the margins. He called the plays 'frightful nonsense' and claimed that he had 'brought poetry to the lowest ebb it has ever known,' then went on to add, 'I don't mean that he writes it, but that he has overthrown it.' He accused Eliot of 'ignorance of plain English and the inability to write clearly.' "This rose to an obsession in Dunsany's last years, so for him to write free-form poetry would have been a kind of capitulation to the enemy. So he was stuck in a kind of verse which didn't suit his talent, and remained a third-rater. The judgment of subsequent generations has been against him, and his poetry remains forgotten, perhaps deservedly."

9.1 Postscript by Jonathan Vos Post

The reaction against modern poetry expressed by Lord Dunsany is precisely in parallel to that of Robert E. Howard [Chapter 8.0] and Clark Ashton Smith [Chapter 10.0], and is consistent with my claim that Fantasy Poetry is "anti-modern or para-modern" [3.0]. The tragedy of Howard, Dunsany, Lovecraft, and Smith is that while their objections to the Ezra Pound/ T.S. Eliot strand of modernity were clearly realized, they were at least partially paralyzed by (1) the deep knowledge and respect that Pound and Eliot had for myths, legends, and world literary history; (2) by the sociological context that encouraged an overthrow of 19th century forms in literature; (3) by the single-mindedness of critics and editors jumping on the modern bandwagon; (4) by a lack of marketing sophistication in their own poetic publications; and most profoundly, (5) by their inability to offer a coherent counter-theory or to found a contemporary school of Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry. The silver lining in this cloud is that Howard, Dunsany, Lovecraft, and Smith had a timeless appeal that has leaped over a generation and deeply influenced the Fantasy and Horror poetry (and graphic novels and cinema and computer games...) of the last decades of the 20th century, and a 21st century perspective may very well revise their merit upwards, and that of Pound and Eliot downwards, until some critical equality is realized. More interesting, perhaps, is work that blends the strengths of the two counter-theories effectively. The work of Bruce Boston, Poul & Karen Anderson, Michael Bishop, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jane Yolen, and Roger Zelazny for example, draws equally on both bodies of influence. The full impact of Howard, Dunsany, Lovecraft, and Smith may not become clear for a century, when that influence has rippled through other languages and other cultures as the works of Edgar Allan Poe surfaced in France, or those of Wells and Verne in Russia. [Besides Darrell Schweitzer's conclusive book, see also: Dunsany the Dramatist, Edward Bierstadt, Boston: Little Brown, 1917, revised 1919, criticism (Dunsany was an extremely popular and successful playwright in his day); Lord Dunsany: King of Dreams, Hazel Littlefield Smith, New York: Exposition Press, 1959, a friend's memoir; Lord Dunsany: A Biography, Mark Amory, London: Collins, 1972.] [see also the two noteworthy articles about Lord Dunsany: "Two Men in One", L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, Sauk City WI: Arkham House, 1976; "Lord Dunsany", Oliver St.John Gogarty, Atlantic Monthly, March 1955]

9.2 DUNSANY'S POETIC BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Nowadays, Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1918. Speech on poetry.
  2. Unhappy Far-Off Things, London: Elkin Matthews, 1919, World War I sketches, including the poem "A Dirge of Victory"
  3. 50 Poems, London & New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1929, poetry collection
  4. War Poems, London: Hutchinson, 1940, poetry collection
  5. Wandering Songs, London: Hutchinson, 1943, poetry collection
  6. The Journey, London: MacDonald, 1944, book-length poem
  7. The Donnellan Lectures 1943, London:Heinemann, 1945, essay collection (prose; poetry; drama)
  8. The Year, London: Jarrolds, 1946, book-length poem
  9. The Odes of Horace, Translated into English Verse, London:Heinemann, 1947
  10. To Awaken Pegasus, Oxford: G.Ronald, 1949, poetry collection
  11. Verses Dedicatory, ed. Lin Carter, Montclair NJ: Charnel House, 1986, short poems originally written in Hazel Littlefield's copies of Dunsany's books

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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.