“Beyond the Far Cathayan Wall”

By no means is Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) considered as a mainstream American writer. Yet his poems and stories have a certain quality, reinforced by his association with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. Of him, Lovecraft said, “in sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled.” And Ray Bradbury said that Smith “filled my mind with incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures.”

Below is a poem of his entitled “Beyond the Great Wall”:

Beyond the Great Wall

Beyond the far Cathayan wall,
A thousand leagues athwart the sky,
The scarlet stars and mornings die,
The gilded moons and sunsets fall.

Across the sulphur-colored sands
With bales of silk the camels fare,
Harnessed with vermeil and with vair,
Into the blue and burning lands.

And ah, the song the drivers sing
To while the desert leagues away—
A song they sang in old Cathay
Ere youth had left the eldest king,

Ere love and beauty both grew old
And wonder and romance were flown
On irised wings to worlds unknown,
To stars of undiscovered gold.

And I their alien words would know,
And follow past the lonely wall
Where gilded moons and sunsets fall,
As in a song of long ago.

I think that Smith deserves a long second look, both for his poems and his eldritch short stories.

Future Pastoral

Poet and Fantasy Writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)

He was a strange sort of writer. One of the triumvirate of writers for which Weird Tales was known, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard, he is best known for his dark tales of fantasy. Of him, L. Sprague de Camp wrote, “nobody since Poe had so loved a well-rotted corpse.” Though his short stories may be a bit murky, they are great fun. If you should find copies of Zothique (1970), Hyperborea (1971), Xiccarph (1972), or Poseidonis (1973) in the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, I recommend you pick up a copy and read it. At his best, Smith is as least as good as Lovecraft at his best.

Smith was also an interesting poet in the same vein. Here is a sample:

Future Pastoral

Dearest, today I found
A lonely spot, such as we two have loved,
Where two might lie upon Favonian ground
Peering to faint horizons far-removed:

A green and gentle fell
That steepens to a rugged canyon’s rim,
Where voices of vague waters fall and swell
And pines far down in sky-blue dimness swim.

Toward the sunset lands,
A leafless tree, from tender slopes of spring,
Holds out its empty boughs like empty hands
That vainly seek some distance-hidden thing.

Strange, that my wandering feet,
In all the years, had never known this place,
Where beauty, with a glamor wild and sweet,
Awaits the final witchcraft of your face.

Upon this secret hill
I gave my dark bereavement to the sun,
My sorrow to the flowing air . . . until
Your tresses and the grass were somehow one,

And in my prescient dream I seemed to find
An unborn joy, a future memory
Of you, and love, and sunlight and the wind
On the same grass, beneath the selfsame tree.

Of his writing style, Smith has said, “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.” I think the above poem certainly qualifies.