The Word of the Week for November 24, 2014 is bloodstone
The selection this week, “Bloodstones and Ebony,” is the fifth of REH’s five prose poems and the fourth one we have discussed in Word of the Week. As a reminder, the definition of prose poem is:
Though examples of prose passages in poetic texts can be found in early Bible translations and the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth, the form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolists writers. The advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked a significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry at the time. http://www.poets.org...form-prose-poem
Donald Sidney-Fryer, a respected, talented poet himself, in his Introduction to the 1968 Etchings in Ivory, mentions several authors that may have influenced REH. Aloysius Bertrand and Thomas Browne are not listed in Howard’s Book Shelf. Clark Ashton Smith, who according to DSF is the only poet that “has produced a body of work in English that, for both quantity and quality, equals, and occasionally surpasses” the work of the French and Russian Symbolists. CAS and REH corresponded several times and in 1934 CAS sent him a copy of his Ebony and Crystal book of poems containing a prose poem section. However, as we learned in one of the previous prose poems posting, REH’s prose poems were written much earlier ca 1928 or 1929.
A couple of the other poets mentioned in regard to prose poetry were on REH’s bookshelf. First of all is Edgar Allan Poe. In several of his letters, REH praised Poe’s writings and mentioned in a letter to HPL ca December 1932 and Poe was among his favorite writers. A couple years earlier in a letter to HPL ca October 1930, he said “I have read most of Poe’s work….”
DSF also mentions the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who also appears in REH’s letters.
REH to H.P. Lovecraft ca. September 1933: "If I can enjoy (for instance) both Service and Baudelaire, I see no reason why I should feel inferior to the man who can only enjoy Baudelaire, any more than to the man who can enjoy only Service."
A fine example of the prose poem is Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk” which concludes with the lines:
“And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
In his Introduction, DSF gives special attention to this week’s selection:
Just as much as Lovecraft or Smith, Howard had a remarkable sense of the cosmic-astronomic, and “Bloodstones and Ebony” is especially noteworthy for its evocation of cosmic splendors in a comparatively small compass. But all of these pieces by Howard are noteworthy in one way or another, and all of them are beautifully strange dream-pieces, haunted and haunting.
This prose poem itself is only eight paragraphs long and, as DSF notes, it is filled with cosmic splendors and other images.
Bloodstones and Ebony
I knelt in a great cavern before an altar which sent up in everlasting spirals a slender serpent of white smoke. Behind this altar brooded a vast and intangible Shape in the fragrant gloom, like a black tower seen through the mists of sleep. No reflection thereof waved back from the red dark surface of the altar, yet therein I gazed as though to read the answer of dark mysteries. On each side of me stretched away into the shadows, shimmering lines of worshippers like myself, kneeling, their naked bodies glistening a vague white.
Now from the silence and the darkness in front of me came the clear flat tones of a black jade gong, in even and regular cadence, and now the bodies of the worshippers swayed and bent. As one, the great throng rocked to the rhythm of the sound and the dim ranks undulated in long-sweeping waves, like silver-white birches bending before the wind. Now the gong fell silent, and the ranks froze into stone.
Above, the great roof was lost in the darkness, upheld by great walls like black, red-veined cliffs which swept up and up until they merged with the black shadows. Here the sword-edged echoes of the gong vibrated a moment and then died in the pulsing silence.
Now a golden voice began where the gong had ceased and rose on a pure, slow scale. At the first sound, a slow fire began to steal through my veins and my blood turned to singing wine. Higher and higher the melodious chant crept, and a voluptuous dizziness carried me on its crest, as if borne on a satyr’s shoulders; I mounted a ladder of black roses up through the dark and glittering ocean of the stars.
Now gulfs of jet purple and abysses of billowing mists lay beneath me, and I swung dizzily up through incredible distances and colossal, undreamable heights, until the stars glittered like diamond points myriad leagues below my feet. And still that vibrant golden voice carried me on and on.
As in a sensual half-swoon whose incredible exultation was almost a hurt, I floated through realms beyond and outside all human ken, and the drifting emerald and crimson plumes of star-dust caressed my naked limbs with soft unhuman lips. Now the chant whirled up to heights unbearable, and I was hurled into a black void of utter night, whose darkness was hard and icy-smooth to my touch—and then it was shot through by long lances of hard-edged red, and through black and crimson bars I floated down.
Through the scented gloom of the great cavern the voice sank to a lulling refrain, and the silken and velvet hangings rustled in its harmony. There whispered in its golden chords, hints of untold mysteries and eon-haunting magic. The altar glowed darkly like a living ruby, and I heard the sweep of mighty bat-like wings. I felt the presence of ancient demons whose bodies were of burning jet and whose eyes were as caverns of red flame in the night. Eery footfalls whispered across the heavy air, and I sank down, spreading my limbs in pleasurable abandon.
The scent of the incense smoke filled my nostrils, and the golden chant wove for me a patterned weave of bloodstone and ebony, growing fainter and farther away as I sank in an overpowering fragrant sea of misty purple and scarlet waves which drowned my senses in the rich, warm luxury of its perfumed tide.
This is another example of REH’s multi-dimensional poetry starting with vivid word images:
“There whispered in its golden chords, hints of untold mysteries and eon-haunting magic” and “I floated through realms beyond and outside all human ken, and the drifting emerald and crimson plumes of star-dust caressed my naked limbs with soft unhuman lips.”
He combines these words and images with an internal rhythm:
As one, the great throng rocked to the rhythm of the sound
and the dim ranks undulated in long-sweeping waves,
like silver-white birches bending before the wind.
A third dimension in his poetry IMO is its emotional impact. When REH takes us along on one of his poetic journeys, some of the words are so emotionally charged and the images so strong that they are haunting.
I felt the presence of ancient demons whose bodies were of burning jet and whose eyes were as caverns of red flame in the night. Eery footfalls whispered across the heavy air, and I sank down, spreading my limbs in pleasurable abandon.
But REH takes it another step beyond these three dimension. In “Bloodstones and Ebony” he combines hypnotic images and emotional impact with a rhythm that goes beyond words—and then he adds a fourth dimension. A sense of relentless thrumming that underlies each word and image—a subtext that takes us to “undreamable heights, until the stars glittered like diamond points myriad leagues below my feet” and ends with an emotional/physical peak:
Now the chant whirled up to heights unbearable, and I was hurled into a black void of utter night, whose darkness was hard and icy-smooth to my touch—and then it was shot through by long lances of hard-edged red…
And finishing that line, he says “and through black and crimson bars I floated down.”
Whew! Great writing. The imagery in “Bloodstones” could easily be considered a metaphor for a sexual, or any peak, experience.
For those of us who love words, these prose poems are more examples of REH’s talent as Word Master. His words not only engage our minds and emotions but sometimes also our physical bodies.
However, this is my description of “Bloodstones and Ebony.” REH's poetry affects all of us differently and I would like to hear your experiences.