Vernal Equinox 2009


Bards Before Bob #2


With some of Robert E. Howard's poems, the antecedent or inspirational poets or even individual poems are not difficult to discern.  Precedent poetry is, of course, glaringly obvious in the parodies.  It doesn't take much to recognize "The Kissing of Sal Snooboo" as a parody of Robert W. Service's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."  When we see:


A bunch of the girls were whooping it up

In the old Lip-stick saloon,

And the kid at the player-piano

Was twanging a jazzy tune...


There is but slight variation from the original by the great bard of the Klondike gold rush days, the balladeer of the North:


A bunch of the boys were whooping it up

in the Malamute saloon;

The kid that handles the music-box

was hitting a jag-time tune...


There are also many poems and fragments left to us of Howard's poetic work that don't take too great of faith to come to the conclusion that a particular influence has been at work.  An example of this is one four-line fragment recently added to the now-being-edited Complete Poetry opus (from the story "The Pit of the Serpent"):


"Oh, the road to glory lay

Over old Manila Bay,

Where the Irish whipped the Spanish

On a sultry summer day."


Anyone familiar with another of Howard's poetic (and prose) inspirations, Rudyard Kipling, will remember:

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin'-fishes play,

An' the dawn comes up like thunder

Outer China 'crost the Bay!

But I'm going to focus on a complete poem of Howard's that was inspired by and pays homage to another complete poem.  The belief that this poem of Howard's is derivative is a bit more difficult to support than the examples above, but I think the reader will at least appreciate the arguments in defense of that position.

Howard wrote at least two poems titled "San Jacinto."  While both of these poems have merit, the longer one ("San Jacinto [version 2]) is an interesting example of Howard's conscious imitation of authors and poets whom he admired.  One of these was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of England a couple generations before Howard.

As Laureate, one of Tennyson's expected tasks was the writing of poetry lauding Queen and Country.  As the nation's poet, it was expected that he would pen patriotic poetry — at least on occasion.  One such occasion was the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.  Tennyson wrote one of his more famous poems after and upon that event, praising the courage and loyalty of the common British soldier, but pulling few punches in keeping with public sentiment about this bloody military blunder.  Most will remember the famous cadences, meant to capture something of the sound of the galloping cavalry in this brave but ultimately foolhardy cavalry charge:


The Charge of the Light Brigade

Alfred, Lord Tennyson




Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!

"Charge for the guns!" he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.




"Forward, the Light Brigade!"

Was there a man dismay'd?

Not tho' the soldier knew

Someone had blunder'd:

Their's not to make reply,

Their's not to reason why,

Their's but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.




Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volley'd and thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred.




Flash'd all their sabres bare,

Flash'd as they turn'd in air,

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wonder'd:

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right thro' the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reel'd from the sabre stroke

Shatter'd and sunder'd.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.




Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volley'd and thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell,

They that had fought so well

Came thro' the jaws of Death

Back from the mouth of Hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.






When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honor the charge they made,

Honor the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred.


While the Battle of San Jacinto, the master stroke in the ultimate achievement of Texas' independence from Mexico, was a great victory and not a defeat like the British fiasco at Balaklava, the patriotic fervor that was both part of Huston's victory and the pride of Texans ever since can be seen in Howard's poem commemorating the event:


San Jacinto [version 2]


Red field of glory

Ye knew the wild story;

Blazing and gory

   Were ye on that day!

Silence before them,

(Warriors; winds bore them!)

Red silence o'er them

   Followed the fray!


Horror was dawning!

Furies were spawning!

Hell's maw was yawning,

   Fate rode astride!

Skies rent asunder!

Plains a-reel under

Feet beating thunder!

   Death raced beside!


Doom-trumps were pealing!

Armies were reeling!

Satan was dealing

   The cards in that game!

War-clouds unfurling!

Hell-fires were swirling,

Valkyries whirling

   Fanned them to flame!




Redly arrayed there

Glittered the blade there!

Many a shade there

   Fled to the deeps!

Wild was the glory

Down the years hoary

Still the red story

   Surges and leaps!


Not only does Howard write about a famous battle and a famous charge that parallels the action, courage, and patriotic zeal of the ill-fated British Light Brigade, he chooses the exact rhythmic and rhyming patterns of Tennyson's poem to convey this memorial to Texas courage and triumph against great odds in their war for independence.


The meter used by both Tennyson and Howard is Dactylic (/uu) rather than the much more natural in English and common Iambic (u/).  In this way, Tennyson fit the sound of his poem to the sense of it.  A cavalry charge is better approximated by a rhythm of DUM-DA-DA, DUM-DA-DA, DUM-DA-DA, etc. than the usual English measure of DA-DUM, DA-DUM, etc.  The choice was a fast-paced, running rhythm over a plodding or walking one.

Note that Howard picks up the cadences of Tennyson's first section in his repeating octave stanzas.  The rhyming pattern that Howard chooses is generally based upon Tennyson's practice in other sections, resulting in AAABCCCB.  But, typical of Howard, he likes to modify and innovate.  Where Tennyson will complete the normal lines of dactylic dimeter (a measure of two dactylic feet per line:  /uu/uu as in "Cannon to right of them"), Howard truncates his lines by omitting the final syllable of Tennyson's pattern /uu/u as in "Red field of glory" [this kind of line is termed "catalectic" (adjective) in poetic jargon, for a line ending in an incomplete foot]. 

Howard also uses catalexis (noun) for the shorter 4th and 8th lines of his octaves.  Where Tennyson ends lines 4 and 8 of his first section (which, remember, becomes the pattern for each of Howard's four stanzas) with a catalexis of his own — reducing the dactylic dimeter to dactylic dimeter catalectic /uu/uu becomes /uu/u as in "Rode the six hundred" — Howard shortens his central and last lines with double catalexis, thus:  /uu/uu becomes /uu/ as in "Followed the fray!" and "Death raced beside!" and "Surges and leaps."

While Howard might not have been any sort of official "laureate" of America or even of his native Texas, his spirit of commemoration in this in some ways imitative and in many ways original poem honors both the land and region of his birth and one of the great master poets whose work inspired his own.  It is a good example of how tradition can provide a starting point for further creativity.

As T. S. Eliot writes in his important essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent":


No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of ¾sthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.