“Roget’s Thesaurus, and a book of rhymes,
Provide the rungs whereon his spirit climbs…”
This is a line from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Poe-et’s Nightmare (1918) a witty parody of inspired but untalented poetic writing. Along with short stories like A Reminiscence of Samuel Johnson (1917) and Ibid (1938) this lengthy poem displays the author’s dry verbal humor and willingness to poke fun at himself. The would-be poet of The Poe-et’s Nightmare is a grocery store clerk prone to overeating and having dreams made fantastic by indigestion and reading too much Edgar Allan Poe.
Yet sandwiched between the preamble and the closing lines is an early expression of Lovecraft’s cosmicism, his perception that earth and its human denizens are trivial and inconsequential in the midst of a vast universe and the incomprehensible ‘powers and principalities’ that operate across eons of time. Some of Lovecraft’s most famous stories seem to emphasize this theme: The Shadow Out of Time, At The Mountains of Madness, and The Colour Out of Space are a few examples. S.T. Joshi coined the term cosmicism to describe an underlying unity of Lovecraft’s “mythos” stories. But it is a key concept that is probably applicable to many examples of classic horror and science fiction.
There was discussion of cosmicism in a post last August. George Allan England’s The Thing From Outside (1923) is an excellent example of a story that dramatizes this idea. (See Cosmic Ants.)
This philosophical notion is the gist of the poem-inside-the-poem, which Lovecraft entitled Aletheia Phrikodes—an obscure name. The title is accompanied by a Latin phrase, “Omnia risus et omnia pulvis et omnia nihil.” (Joshi renders this as ‘All is laughter, all is dust, all is nothing’). Here the tone and temperature of The Poe-et’s Nightmare begins darken and chill precipitously. The imagery is similar to many of Lovecraft’s later works in horror:
“Hard by, a yawning hillside grotto breathes,
From deeps unvisited, a dull dank air
That sears the leaves on certain stunted trees
Which stand about, clawing the spectral gloom
With evil boughs…”
At this point the poem becomes what seems to be an overture to the kind of ominous landscapes that appear in several of Lovecraft’s later stories. The dreaming grocery clerk has a vision of primordial chaos, with familiar and unfamiliar forms mixing and dissolving in the darkness. He describes a spreading phosphorescence that reminds one of the climactic scene in The Colour Out of Space (1927). He feels his soul separate from his body, and then is drawn upwards into space to experience a panoramic view of the universe.
He encounters a presence, a voice—“In speech didactic, tho’ no voice it was, save that it carried thought.” He is shown aeons of time passing and experiences a cosmic, god-like view of earth, “That crude experiment, that cosmic sport.” Mankind is compared—not to ants as George Allan England does—but to something even smaller, mites. The voice—a ‘he’—is now referred to as ‘my guide celestial’, and he passes judgment on these mites:
“That globe of insignificance, whereon
(My guide celestial told me) dwells no part
Of empyrean virtue, but where breed
The coarse corruptions of divine disease;
The fest’ring ailments of infinity;
The morbid matter by itself call’d man…”
Who is this celestial guide? Why is he so concerned to put the dreaming poet and all of mankind in their rightful place? Why does he sound so Puritan in his condemnation of humanity’s presumption and vanity? The cosmicism on display has a suspiciously human personification, and reiterates traditional Calvinist notions of the omnipotence and incomprehensibility of God, as well as the vastness of His creation. My hunch is that this is Lovecraft imagining himself coming face to face with You-Know-Who.
By the end of the poem-within-a-poem, the celestial guide is referred to as a spirit. He offers to show the poet the ultimate truth he is seeking, but the poet screams at this point, wakes from his nightmare, and decides against poetry as a profession. (He also swears off reading any more Edgar Allan Poe!) The tone of The Poe-et’s Nightmare becomes light and self-effacing again, it is daylight, and the poet returns to his workday world relieved and wizened. In the closing lines, Lovecraft warns other would-be poets to keep their day jobs, or risk having similar nightmares.
Though not great poetry, The Poe-et’s Nightmare is another example of Lovecraft’s cleverness with rhyme. There is a warmth, humor and affection that is not so easy to find in his fictional work. His willingness to poke fun at himself—the poem is obviously self-reflective—is appealing and humanizing. It is too bad that he did not do more of this.