Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bad Dog

Lovecraft is not known for his poetry, but it is unfortunate that he did not write more of it, for had a knack for a certain type of verse.  Readers may be familiar with some of the items in Fungi from Yuggoth, his collection of sonnets.  Most of these were published in the early to mid 1930s.  Several are interesting in what they reveal about the author’s preoccupations, and also contain themes related to his prose works.
In L. Sprague De Camp’s biography, several examples of earlier humorous or satirical verse are cited—these were written by Lovecraft to criticize or chide certain members of the United Amateur Press Association, or to comment on current events and controversies.  In S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft, Nightmare Countries, mention is made of Lovecraft’s very early interest in Mother Goose poems, which he was able to recite at age 2.

Lovecraft was a stickler for formalism in rhyme and rhythm schemes and was highly critical of free verse, which was growing in popularity in his time.  Nearly all of his poetry shows close attention to technique and mechanics, though content and theme can at times be obscure.  His enthusiasm for formal structure in poetry had the beneficial effect of reducing the adjective laden verbosity often found in his work—his rhyme and rhythm schemes required fairly concise expression of ideas and images.

One of his more ambitious and clever poems is Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme, originally published in 1919.  It is essentially a fairy tale, told entirely in iambic pentameter, a traditional and relatively simple pattern of verse.  The poem tells the story of a frightful interaction between two very different couples in a small French village.  The Sieur De Blois and his evil Dame, (“Twice fear’d and hated”) are cruel shape-shifters who dominate the small village where a humble bailiff and his wife live with their young son.

The terror begins on the day of Candlemas, celebrated on February 2nd.  In Christian tradition, this day commemorates the presentation of the child Jesus, and is a significant detail in the story.  On this day in the cold heart of winter, the bailiff’s otherwise healthy son dies, and the influence of the evil Dame De Blois is suspected. (“…village legend darkly would imply that Dame De Blois possess’d an evil eye…”)  The grieving mother later discovers a serpent approaching the coffin of her deceased son, and splits its head with an axe.  Later, when spring comes and the snow melts, the Dame’s body is discovered with a similar wound.  Lovecraft allows the reader to imagine the horrible connection between these two events.

A year goes by, and when Candlemas arrives again, a powerful winter storm blows up and threatens the little village.  A pack of wolves also arrives and surrounds the home of the bailiff and his wife.  The largest of the wolves then begins to attack the house, and manages to break in through a window.  He grabs the bailiff’s wife in his jaws and drags her to the place in the room where their son’s coffin had been placed.  But the axe is again wielded, this time by the bailiff, who strikes the alpha wolf in the head, mortally wounding it.  The storm, virtually an ally of the wolves, blows down the walls of their shelter, leaving only the chimney and the hearth standing.  (This seems to be an echo of “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!”)  The wolves move in for the kill.

Given Lovecraft’s famed atheism and materialistic world view, it is hard not to notice that in the middle of this conflagration with the wolves, a Christian miracle occurs.  Above the mantel of the still standing hearth is a crucifix, which glows radiantly and makes all the wolves run away or disappear.   Meanwhile, the alpha wolf drags itself off to the marsh where it disappears, as does the evil Sieur De Blois.

In Lovecraft’s short story, The Lurking Fear, there is also an explicit Christian reference that shows up on the mantel of a fireplace, a depiction of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son.  He uses this to foreshadow an anti-prodigal son story-within-the-story.  In The Festival, Lovecraft’s Christmas offering, the author playfully substitutes Aldebaran for the Star of Bethlehem.  Candlemas refers to the presentation of the Christ child; psychopomp refers a mythological figure that guides souls of the dead to the afterworld—was Lovecraft artfully and blasphemously reversing the story of the Christ child?

Unlike much of Lovecraft’s work, Psychopompos contains multiple named characters, including three different women, (Dame De Blois, the bailiff’s wife, and the old woman who tells the story).  There are multiple character viewpoints, a variety of emotions—even a happy ending.  There is nice symmetry between the depredations of the evil shape-shifters and the triumph of the bailiff and his wife, in the reappearance of the axe as a weapon, and in the cycle of seasons leading to a vengeance that is thwarted.   

Some of the author’s verbal deftness almost sets apart some of his lines as “quotables”.  (One of my favorites:  “Seclusion oft the poison tongue attracts, and scandal prospers on a dearth of facts.”)

Some readers may wonder why Lovecraft never applied his knack for clever rhymes more commercially.  Probably he would have considered this demeaning or otherwise beneath him.  He obviously needed the income, especially in New York City.  Could Lovecraft have been successful in advertising?  Could he have written for greeting cards?

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