On “Poetry and the Gods” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Someone tell Howard to log-off… he’s posting cringe on the APAs.

“Poetry and the Gods” (full text)was written around the summer of 1920 and was published the following autumn in The United Amateur. The story marked Lovecraft’s only collaboration with Anna Helen Crofts and he published the story under the pseudonym of Henry Paget-Lowe. The exact nature of the collaboration is unknown as Lovecraft does not mention it in any of his surviving letters. According to Joshi, Crofts’ name did appear in a number of other amateur magazines but, given that a) Lovecraft published the story under an assumed name, b) Lovecraft’s working relationship with Winnifred Jackson had already borne fruit in the form of the story “The Green Meadow” and c) P+G and “The Green Meadow” share certain motifs and narrative techniques, people have speculated that Crofts might actually have been one of Jackson’s aliases. However, scholars have since managed to attach the name to a real person who once existed outside of the pages of amateur magazines and so the mystery is no longer one of identity but rather of why Lovecraft chose to write a single solitary story with some random woman and then never speak of her again.

It’s not been the best few weeks for this particular series of posts… As much as I struggled with the Dreamlands stories from earlier in Lovecraft’s career, they were at least a bit more interesting than the series of racial diatribes that Lovecraft seemed intent on churning out in 1920. However, as utterly awful as “The Street” might have been, I actually found it easier to read and more engaging than “Poetry and the Gods”. I mean… “The Street” made Lovecraft look like an idiotic racist but P+G makes him look like an over-excited teenager.

The story opens on an expensive drawing room just after the end of World War I. Already alone and in something of a funk, Marcia sweeps majestically into the drawing-room and collapses on an over-stuffed sofa. Desperate from some form of relief, she picks up a magazine and begins reading a piece of free verse poetry. 

The words of the poem prove so intense and moving that she tumbles into a trance and finds herself falling into a reverie where she is met by Hermes, who tells her that the poem heralds the arrival of a new age in which the ancient gods waken from their slumber and decide to take an interest in the affairs of mortals. Hermes transports Marcia to the court of Zeus who explains that the gods are responsible for all the beauty in the world and that their powers will flow through the creative genius of a single poet selected by a kind of poetic braintrust featuring Milton, Goethe, Dante, Shakespeare, and Keats. These poetic titans then spend the entire night spitting rhymes like Eminem at the end of 8 Mile before Hermes transports Marcia back to her own home. The action then skips forward several years and we find Marcia reclining with her lover, the partner chosen by the gods.

P+G reminded me quite a bit of the episode of the cartoon Big Mouth where the characters discover the existence of romance novels. They start reading the books and whip themselves into an erotic frenzy but because they’re teenagers and they’re reading smut published as romance, they start expressing their horniness in these ridiculous romantic terms including lots of swooning, pining over forbidden love, and planning to run away together. P+G reads a lot like that episode, except rather than discovering romance novels, the writers have discovered poetry and so they start to express their adolescent horniness in terms of the gods bringing beauty to the world. The sense of over-baked adolescent cringe is only compounded by the fact that the entire story is insanely over-written even by the standards of Lovecraft:

O Nymph more fair than the golden-haired sisters of Cyane or the sky-inhabiting Atlantides, beloved of Aphrodite and blessed of Pallas, thou hast indeed discovered the secret of the Gods, which lieth in beauty and song. O Prophetess more lovely than the Sybil of Cumae when Apollo first knew her, though hast truly spoken of the new age, for even now on Maenalus, Pan sighs and stretches in his sleep, wishful to awake and behold about him the little rose-crowned Fauns and the antique Satyrs. In thy yearning hast thou divined what no mortal else, saving only a few whom the world rejects, remembereth; that the Gods were never dead, but only sleeping the sleep and dreaming the dreams of Gods in lotos-filled Hesperian gardens beyond the golden sunset.

This shit goes on and on and on. Occasionally it stops, but the only reason it stops is so that one of the poets can start declaiming in language that is somehow even harder to understand:

“Moon over Japan,
White butterfly moon!

Moon over the tropics,
A white-curved bud
Opening its petals slowly in the warmth of heaven.
The air is full of odours
And languorous warm sounds . . . languorous warm sounds.”

To me… this is just over-written nonsense. Maybe it’s my loss… I didn’t go to public school and I never got further than GCSE English Literature but I am really not sure what any of this is supposed to mean. It feels like Lovecraft mapped a load of random words to his keyboard and then repeatedly mashed his face into the keys until he hit the requisite word-count. I mean… the last three lines read like a graphic description of someone taking a runny shit.

I admit that I am being unfair here…. P+G is less a story than a delivery vector for a bunch of poems and the fact that the poems are almost completely incomprehensible to me means that reading this story is rather like trying to watch a porn film without being able to grasp the concept of sex: I wanted to learn more about the plumber! Why did they order pizza and then choose not to eat it? Why was the room-mate wandering around with no top on, perchance the heating was broken O daughter?

I’m being horrible, and obtuse. I suspect this was just a fun little story written with a mate. Some Lovecraft nerds have tried to suggest that Hermes is an early fore-runner to Nyarlathotep in so far as he serves as a herald to higher powers but the connection feels rather thin to me and I suspect a more fruitful way of approaching this story is not in terms of its lore and mythology and more in terms of its narrative conceits, particularly the recurrence of Lovecraft’s fondness for the idea of dreams as a means of transporting people from our world to a more mythical realm.

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