Winter Solstice 2008

(originally published in The Cross Plainsman my REHUPA Journal)
Bards Before Bob:
A Study of Antecedents and Inspirations
in the Poetry of Robert E. Howard

A work in progress:
A book on the likely inspirations -- both poets and individual poems --
evident in the poetry of Robert E. Howard.

     The purpose of this and the series of installments to follow is to demonstrate some of the poetic inspirations and antecedents (both poets and individual poems) that influenced the verse of Robert E. Howard. Some of these influences are clear - undisputed and indesputable. Some are based upon good evidence and rational conjectures. Some are "wild surmises" every bit as subjective and mystical as those depicted on the faces of Cortez's men (actually Balboa's, be we can forgive Keats this lapse) in the sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Nonetheless it is marvelous fun to travel through "realms of gold" which comprise both the fiction AND the poetry of Robert Ervin Howard.

Let the poetic journey begin with a look at Howard's sonnet, "Forbidden Magic":

(July 1929 WEIRD TALES)

There came to me a Man one summer night,
 When all the world lay silent in the stars,
 And moonlight crossed my room with ghostly bars.
He whispered hints of weird, unhallowed sight;
I followed - then in waves of spectral light
 Mounted the shimmery ladders of my soul
 Where moon-pale spiders, huge as dragons, stole -
Great forms like moths, with wings of wispy white.

Around the world the sighing of the loon
 Shook misty lakes beneath the false-dawn's gleams;
  Rose tinted shone the sky-line's minaret;
  I rose in fear, and then with blood and sweat
 Beat out the iron fabrics of my dreams,
And shaped of them a web to snare the moon.

Both the "false dawn" and the minaret establish the Middle Eastern atmosphere and are very likely inspired by the opening of Edward Fitzgerald's famous translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Stanza One/Version One:

Awake for morning in the bowl of night,
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight.
 And, lo, the Hunter of the East has caught
The sultan's turret in a noose of light.

Stanza Two/Version One:

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand* was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
 "Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry

[*Dawn's Left Hand which Fitzgerald glosses:
"(II.) The "False Dawn"; Subhi Kazib, a transient
Light on the Horizon about an hour before the 
Subhi Sadik or True Dawn; a well-known 
Phenomenon in the East."]

     Also interesting and worthy of note regarding Howard's "Forbidden Magic" is the curious coincidence of images with those in the famous sonnet "Design," by Robert Frost. And coincidental it first seems that it must be, for the Frost poem was not published until 1936, the year of Howard's death. The eerie connection in the images of spider, moth, and weird whiteness or palor are unmistakable:

Robert Frost, 1874-1963
(first published 1936)

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
 On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
 Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
 Like the ingredients of a witch's broth-
 A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
  The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth hither in the night?
 What but design of darkness to appall?-
 If design govern in a thing so small.

     But, as it turns out, an earlier version of this poem, "Design," was finished and published as early as 1912 and entitled "In White":

Robert Frost
(first published 1912)

A dented spider like a snow drop white
 On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
 Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?-
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
 Like the ingredients of a witches' broth?-
 The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child's delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

     I think it quite likely that there may be some inspiration between the earlier Frost version and Howard's experimental and innovative sonnet. Howard, the student of the sonnet, was definitely aware of the work of Frost, who appears in some of the Howard letters and even in poems. And this poem hints at a definite inspiration.
     There is clear evidence of the overall musicality of his language and love of alliteration ("with wings of wispy white," the frequent Ss and Ws in the octave and these two sounds and also Ms throughout the poem.) and other phonic devices such as assonance (vowel rhyme: "mOOn," "lOOn" "shOOk" and again in "wIth-wIngs-wIspy").
     I believe yet another Frost-inspired poem can be found in Singers in the Shadows. Howard's poem "Night Moods" is interestingly parallel to -- and I believe derived from -- Frost's "Acquainted With the Night." First the Frost poem:

by: Robert Frost
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
from New Hampshire, 1923

     The Frost poem is from one of his earliest collections and hits just right in 1923 for the 17-year-old Robert E. Howard's developing and burgeoning love of and experimentation in poetics. Frost's poem is very intricately done, being a terza rima sonnet -- in other words, a poem done in the traditional form of terza rima [Italian for "triple rhyme"] (like Dante's Divine Comedy, its most famous use) in three-line stanzas that interlock the rhyme thus: ABA BCB CDC DED EE). It becomes a sonnet due to its 14 lines.
     Now when we compare Howard's short poem, we see a similar scenario of the voice in the poem being one "acquainted with the night." The setting is offset from the larger city streets to a seemingly more small-town and rural atmosphere, but the likely inspiration from Frost -- topic, brevity of poem, short line stanzas -- is evident:

It is my mood to walk in silent streets
Where lone and shadowy cats prowl lonesome beats.

Old sidewalks, rough and worn from years of shoes;
Past picket fences, garbage and refuse.

Old trees, whose shadowy forms the starlight weaves
With dim, white splashes filtering through their leaves.

And a lone arc light, guttering through the night
While countless moths fly 'round and 'round its light.

     Here we have the cats prowling "beats" rather than the "watchman" or policeman(?) we see in Frost, but a definite derivation, I contend. Instead of the illuminated clock tower (or the moon, as has been suggested) in Frost, we have the final "lone arc light" -- and there are those moths again.
     Another poem, even more clearly inspired by a poetic predecessor is Howard's short poem, "Nun," one of what I call his "People Poems" (one of the 30 sections in my forthcoming book Robert E. Howard: Selected Poems is dedicated to these poems) about different character types and occupations. There can be little doubt that this poem is a response -- from the Howardian perspective -- to Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem, "Heaven-Haven: A Nun Takes the Veil."
     First, let's take a look at Hopkins' original:

A nun takes the veil

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I HAVE desired to go	
 Where springs not fail,	
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail	
 And a few lilies blow.	
And I have asked to be	
 Where no storms come,	
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,	
 And out of the swing of the sea.

Then, compare (and contrast) this to Howard's poem, "Nun." Note especially Hopkins' references in his second stanza to "sea" and "haven" [harbor]:


I have anchored my ship to a quiet port;
 A land that is holy and blest.
But I gaze through my bars at the tempest's sport
 And I long for the sea's unrest.

I believe Howard is replying to Hopkin's notion of the nun desiring tranquility and sought-for peace and a "haven" from the storming seas of life. In contrast, Howard's nun longs for the tumults and "unrest" of the sea of life. The poetic stimulus for Howard's poem is clear. It is a sort of poetic answer from the later poet's different perspectives upon Life.

[Only one installment of a much longer work in progress.
More to follow in Vernal Equinox 2009 REHEAPA Postings - and to follow]

Frank Coffman