During November, Word of the Week featured several of the prose poems including this week's selection, “The Gods That Men Forget.” (see 11/10/2014) This prose poem is being featured again because it is the only time the word “censer” is used REH's poetry. He used it very rarely—only once in his poetry and once in his letters so it’s worth taking a look at.
In addition to this week’s prose poem, censer also appears in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith ca. late Aug/early September 1927 (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v1, pp 130-31):
“Molded in the likeness of deity,” sang the priests, “lit by the fire of immortality, given power over all! Man is and shall be and shall endure forever!”
The lutes sounded and the drums spoke and the golden gods looked from their great topaz eyes and the censers sent up long spirals of blue haze of incense.
“Man is mighty, man is everlasting!” chanted the priests. “From the battlements of the gods came the winged soul, eyes of the mighty, thoughts of the high ones; man is soul-winged. Aye, man shall hold dominion forever.”
Where are the shrines and the gods of yesterday? The breeze from the desert stirs the dust through the silent ruins. They are vanished, they are forgotten — only the ancient breeze seems to bring the echo, lost to the ages, “Man is and shall be and shall endure forever.”
This is immediately followed by the following poem. It’s difficult to tell whether the two are related.
Against the blood red moon a tower stands;
An everlasting silence haunts the place.
It was not reared by any human hands,
The silent symbol of a shadowy race.
There, long ago, I stole through ancient night
My footsteps woke strange echoes through the hour;
Strange specters walked with me through mazy light.
I left my soul, a ghost to haunt the tower.
REH’s “Legend” refers to both “censers” and “incense.” Censers are designed to burn incense and that word appears in two other poems and in one letter. The first is the poem “A Song of College” which was in a letter to Clyde Smith dated probably late 1928 or early 1929 (CL, v3, p. 488.)
And now they rise with deference and to their classrooms go
With sawdust, smoke and hokum to cram each empty skull,
And the teachers serve manure into hands sedate and slow
And all of them burn incense to the great god Bull.
Glory to the dollar! The colleges are full
Of students burning incense to the great god Bull.
“The Worshippers” also has incense for our censer this week. This is another poem that was unpublished during REH’s lifetime.
Man who looks from the shadows with eyes like the seas of night,
What are your thoughts of these moon-struck fools who gibber and screech and dance?
Who turn to the Lords of Darkness from the Goddess of Birth and Light—
Are you laughing, Man of the Shadows, as the blind fools leap and prance?
Wild men and wilder women, they flock to their grisly feast
And soft red lips grow redder as they guzzle the smoking wine;
The white limbs sway in abandon to the tune of a leering priest,
As through the foul incense-thick smoke the smoldering witch-fires shine.
There’s also a particularly insightful reference to incense in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. January 1934 (CL v3 p. 188)
I’m a fiction writer, not a sociologist. But the point is that I have no such indiscriminate prejudice against intellectuals as you seem to think I have. I merely refuse to burn incense to every human being who calls himself an artist or an intellectual. I could parade under that flag if I wanted to be hypocritical, for, scant claim as I have to either title, I’ve seen persons laying claim to both honors, who deserved the terms of artist and intellectual as little as I deserve them.
Burning incense was used in worshipping. In “The Gods That Men Forget” and “Legend” the censers are for the old gods. In “A Song of College” incense is burned to the great god “bull” and in “The Worshippers” it is burned to the “Man of the Shadows,” a dark god, probably a pseudonym for the devil or Satan. In his letter to HPL he states that he refuses to burn incense to anyone who “calls himself an artist or intellectual.”
So what would cause REH to “burn incense?” His ability to take both sides in an issue make it difficult to determine this. For instance, in “The Legend” he also says They [the old gods] are vanished, they are forgotten — only the ancient breeze seems to bring the echo, lost to the ages, “Man is and shall be and shall endure forever.” However, this thought is in turn contradicted in the many references he makes in his poetry to man as a plaything of the gods.
In his writings there were very few things he didn’t offer conflicting opinions on. Personal freedom is one of them. Even on the subject of civilization versus barbarianism he makes a statement in favor of civilization in a letter to HPL dated November 2, 1932.
I didn’t say that barbarism was superior to civilization. For the world as a whole, civilization even in decaying form, is undoubtedly better for people as a whole. I have no idyllic view of barbarism — as near as I can learn it’s a grim, bloody, ferocious and loveless condition. I have no patience with the depiction of the barbarian of any race as a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom and speaking in measured and sonorous phrases. (CL v2 p 462)
A few paragraphs later he qualifies that statement.
I would not choose to plunge into such a life now; it would be the sheerest of hells to me, unfitted as I am for such an existence. But I do say that if I had the choice of another existence, to be born into it and raised in it, knowing no other, I’d choose such an existence as I’ve just sought to depict.
Maybe that and personal freedom are what he WOULD burn incense to.
Good comment. As I read it, I remembered something I wrote for the Black Gate website a couple years ago: This quote is about the Yataghan sword, one of the edged weapons from REH's collection that Earl Baker received from Dr. Howard after REH's death: According to Baker "There was a double-curved French bayonet of the late 19th century modeled after the Turkish yataghan."
Yataghans were distinctly Turkish weapons characterized by a double-curved blade and a hilt without a guard. They were commonplace in Turkey and the Balkans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and served as sidearms for the elite troops known as janissaries, an infantry that was loyal to the Ottoman emperor. In “The Shadow of the Vulture,” REH refers to them as the “real strength of the Turkish empire—the most terrible military organization in the world”:
For the Janizaries [sic] were not Turks. With a few exceptions, where Turkish parents had smuggled their offspring into the ranks to save them from the grinding life of a peasant, they were the sons of Christians – Greeks, Serbs, Hungarians – stolen in infancy and raised in the ranks of Islam, knowing but one master – the sultan; but one occupation – slaughter.
– Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, p. 400
From “Robert E. Howard: the Sword Collector’s Sword Collection"
The Janissaries sure would fit the descriptions in "Untamed Avatars." Of course there is no date on the poem or anything else indicating that REH was referring specifically to them. Knowing about these elite troops though makes this poem come alive. I"m going to re-read "Shadow of the Vulture"--one of my favorite REH stories. Perfect way to spend this rainy California day.