The Word of the Week for March 10, 2014 is reck
This week’s poem “The Symbol” was unpublished during REH’s lifetime. Its rich images speak of old gods and their return especially in these last two verses:
Carved in its blind black face of stone a fearful unknown rune
Leers in the glare of the tropic sun and the cold of the leprous moon.
And it shall stand for a symbol mute that men are weak and blind,
Till Hell roars up from the black abyss and horror swoops behind.
For this is the screed upon the shaft, oh, pallid sons of men:
“We that were lords of all the earth, shall rise and rule again.”
And dark is the doom of the tribes of earth, that hour wild and red,
When the ages give their secrets up and the sea gives up its dead.
REH wrote many poems using the word "symbol" and its personification varied. There are too many to list here but here is a representation of some of the themes.
The Untitled (“Against the blood red moon a tower stands”) is also a tale of elder gods and races and even reincarnation:
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.
The theme there is something out there older and more powerful than man also appears in “And So I Sang” (unpublished during his lifetime)
But a strange voice sang through the din and mirth
for a symbol and a sign:
“Man is a toy on the string of the gods,
and Life is a broken shrine.”
In “Black Dawn 2. Clouds” REH says it a little differently. The second part of "Black Dawn" starts out “Life is a mystic shrine” and REH’s own life is its false god that has been placed on a pedestal:
The gods have said: “Life is a mystic shrine.”
My laughter rattles down to break the night;
Gods holy and unholy lend your sight,
And for a certain symbol and a sign
My groping brain to steel and sapphire turn,
And give me opal eyes that brood and burn
And mock the stars for mystery and shine.
And on a pedestal amid a grove
Set me to stand while eons drift away,
While worshippers come bowing drove on drove
And worship me with rose and harp and lay.
And write my name with suns and silver rods:
“One more false god amid a waste of gods.”
But in his poetry, REH also speaks of historical symbols such as “Hadrian’s Wall” (unpublished during REH’s lifetime):
Still, sullen giants born of night and gloom,
Beyond, the purple, brooding mountains loom—
Symbol of heathen gods that they sent forth,
The ancient menace of the Northern land:
A bulwark still, these shattered towers stand
Against the mystic hazes of the North.
In the “The King and the Mallet” the symbol represents the rebellion of slaves:
Bab-ilu’s riders sweep across the plain
Returned from conquest and the hills of war;
On kingly foreheads gleams the sky-born star—
They come with captive kings and gold again.
I marked his eagle face, his air divine;
He saw a huge slave leaning on a maul;
He did not see the symbol of his fall,
That marked the doom of him and all his line.
But restless chains are clashing in the gloom;
Deep in the night the blades of knives are beat—
Gods haste the day when ’neath their slaves’ hard feet
Kings, captains, women gibber to their doom.
In REH’s poetry, snakes symbolize so many different concepts. In the poem “Serpent” it represents a wisdom that is worshipped by the ancients as “The Serpent of the Ages.”
I am the symbol of Creation and Destruction.
I am the beginning and the end.
With my tail in my mouth
I am the Circle of Eternity.
But REH’s symbols weren’t always about dark shadows, ancient gods and broken shrines. In his poem, “Symbols” it’s about friends:
Scarce had the east grown red with dawn
Or the moon-born day begun
Ere three of us went up a winding road
In the face of the rising sun.
One of us plucked a red rose
One of us plucked a white
One of us turned from the rising sun
And reached his hands to the night.
This week’s poem “The Symbol” is filled with black magic, black shrines and angry gods. And just in case you think things don’t get any worse than that, “reck” was used one other time in the Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard. In ”The Adventurer’s Mistress 1 (”The scarlet standards of the sun”) which was unpublished during REH’s lifetime, “beldame Death” herself is embraced.
For this, my lust is stronger far
Than demon’s charm or witches’ spell.
It heeds not wall nor dungeon bar
Nor anything that hindereth.
For it was born for One from Hell;
And she rides her Yellow Star—
She fires my love with Hades’ breath—
My ancient mistress, beldame Death.
The combers crash along the shale;
The seas are crimson with the dawn.
A ship with scarlet-spreading sail
Swings into view with lurch and list.
Somewhere the red abysses yawn
And though the slain years have their tale
Of broken swords and spears that missed,
Somewhere we have a secret tryst.
Soon shall I leap from shore to deck
And ride into the sky-line’s haze
To follow my old lover’s beck.
Aye, swift will fade the hill, the tree;
And moons will wane and suns will blaze
And stars will leap, nor shall I reck—
For she waits on some distant lea
And at the last will come to me.