The Word of the Week for September 15, 2014 is jade
This week’s poem: “The Doom Chant of Than-Kul” was not published in REH’s lifetime. A endnote in The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard mentions that it “comes from a typescript, not Howard’s, that is labeled “Excerpt.” No other copy is known to exist.”
“Than-Kul” uses the word “jade” in three different places to describe not only the sea but also the sky. But the word is much more complex than that. The most popular meaning refers to a hard, typically green stone used for ornaments and implements and consisting of the minerals jadeite or nephrite. However, it can also mean a broken-down, vicious, or worthless horse; and a disreputable woman or a flirtatious girl.
In his poetry, REH used all of these except for the broken-down, vicious or worthless horse and that description may exist in his Western stories.
In “Attila Rides No More” with its vivid colors of amber, green and blood red, REH uses it as a gem. In this poem Attila’s men ride in from the desert to find he has been killed by his queen:
A-gibber on her throne of gilt
The naked empress smiled
And toyed with her red dagger hilt
As a mother with a child.
The plundered amber, gold and jade
Gleamed round like coals of Hell
Then smoldered to a redder shade
To swords that rose and fell.
While round the standards and the flags
There whispered, o’er and o’er
The desert wind amid the tents:
“King Atla rides no more.”
Other poems that refer to jade as a gem are “Buccaneer Treasure,” “Sailor,” “The Tower of Zukala,” the untitled poems “A haunting cadence fills the night with fierce longing.” and “The iron harp that Adam christened Life.” In “Whispers on the Night Winds” REH writes:
I would break the jade eyes from a golden skull
In the amaranth gleam of Atlantean halls.
The description “fingernails of jade” also appear in his poetry. Among the several poems is “Zukala’s Love Song.” Zukala is lonely. As he descends to earth, he hides his wings under a cloak and lowers his burning eyes. He plays a lute and women throw flowers at him. He falls in love with one of them and when her heart proves to be cold. He takes her above the earth. Frightened, she now clings to him:
Blue and dim on the topaz rim
Where the silence drinks the night,
Forgotten moons like crazy loons
Hovered into her sight;
And out of the deep where shadows sleep
That never knew the sun,
Strange eyes aflame, the dark stars came,
Whispering, one by one.
And with burning eyes that hid her thighs
As fire-flies cover a tree,
They kissed her face in a hot embrace,
And she whimpered upon her knee.
Then I swept the band with a jade-nailed hand,
And the slim of her waist I gripped,
And the stars fell out of her hair like moths
And through my fingers slipped.
There are several other mentions of jade fingernails including “Altars and Jesters,” “Hopes of Dreams,” “A Lady’s Chamber,” “The Palace of Bast,” and “Sighs in the Yellow Leaves.”
References to the jade color of the sea are numerous in REH’s poetry, including this week’s poem: “The Doom Chant of Than-Kul.” However, “The Day That I Die” uses jade to describe something totally different:
That I drained Life’s cup to its blood-red lees
And it thrilled my every vein,
But I did not frown when I laid it down
To lift it never again.
That ever my spirit turned my steps
To the naked morning lands,
And I came to rest on an unknown isle—
Jade cliffs and silver sands.
Other poems that refer to it as a color: “ And Beowulf Rides Again,” “The Ghost Ocean,” “Illusion,” “Miser’s Gold,” “Nights to Both of Us Known.” “The Sea,” “The Sea-Girl,” “White Thunder,” “Yesterdays.”
There is only one reference to a woman as a jade. It’s in the Untitled (“At the Inn of the Gory Dagger…”) and because of its bawdy content, I’m only quoting these carefully selected lines:
“Hold everything, bold messmates,” said Anaconda Bill,
“Ain’t they no way to settle this, without you got to kill?
“Oh keep them deadly weepings alongside of your pants,
“And settle it the peaceful way, along o’ gymes o’ chance.”
“This is too deep for peaceful games,” said Mike, “It will not do!
“For mumble peg or tiddledy-winks, or matching nickels too!”
“Out sword, you crumby son-of-a-*****,” Eve challenged high and shrill,
“And I will cut your liver out and fry it on the grill!”
“Each man to his own weapon,” Mike answer straightway made,
“I will not use a sword or gun to master a saucy jade.”
“Then what, in the name of Satan?” Eve tossed aside her sword,
And all we buccaneers stood still, a wondering gaping horde.
The erotic poem “Repentance” is the story of an aging prostitute. It contains the only reference to “unjaded.” Again, carefully selected lines:
I sit in the bars where the harlots sing
To sailors hot from the sea.
Sallow my cheeks and my lips have faded
Life’s roses slip my clutch
But my blood is still hot and still unjaded
I can thrill to a deck-hand’s touch.
Jade has a fascinating and a long history that reaches back milleniums:
Jade—the precious gem known as the “stone of heaven”—has been cherished for thousands of years. It’s considered pure and enduring enough to inspire the wearer’s highest spiritual aspirations, yet sensuous and luxurious enough to satisfy down-to-earth cravings.
Nephrite jade has its cultural roots in the smoke-dimmed caves and huts that sheltered prehistoric humans. In China, Europe, and elsewhere around the world, Stone Age workers shaped this toughest of minerals into weapons, tools, ornaments, and ritual objects. Their carvings invoked the powers of heaven and earth and mystic forces of life and death.
In China it evolved into an artistic tradition that has flourished for more than 3,000 years. In Central America, the Mayans and the Aztecs prized jadeite jade. They used it for medicinal purposes as well as for jewelry, ornaments, and religious artifacts. The name jade comes from the Spanish expression piedra de ijada—literally “stone of the pain in the side.” Early Spanish explorers named it after they saw natives holding pieces of the stone to their sides to cure or relieve various aches and pains. Jadeite also symbolizes prosperity, success, and good luck. Link: (http://www.gia.edu/jade-history-lore)
REH wrote of jade in well over two dozen poems. So many meanings for this gem have developed throughout the ages and it’s probable that REH used all of them in his writings.