Academic journal article Extrapolation

A Triumvirate of Fantastic Poets: Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling, and Clark Ashton Smith

Academic journal article Extrapolation

A Triumvirate of Fantastic Poets: Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling, and Clark Ashton Smith

Article excerpt

The literary and personal relationship of Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), George Sterling (1869-1926), and Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) forms a distinctive chapter both in the history of American (and, specifically, Californian) literature and in the development of fantastic poetry. Although only Smith can be said to have specialized in weird verse, the elements of horror, fantasy, and cosmicism enter distinctively into each writer's poetic work; and their multitudinous involvements with one another-with Bierce serving as mentor to the young Sterling, while the older Sterling fulfilled that same function in regard to the young Smith-allow us to read their fantastic poetry in a provocative new light.

Ambrose Bierce did not merely disavow the role of weird poet, but the role of poet altogether:

I don't think of myself as a poet, but as a satirist; so I'm entitled to credit for what little gold there may be in the mud I throw. But if I professed goldthrowing the mud which I should surely mix with the missiles would count against me. Besides, I've a preference for being the first man in a village, rather than the second man in Rome. Poetry is a ladder on which there is now no room at the top [...] When old Homer, Shakespeare and that crowd-building better than Ozymandias-say: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" I, considering myself specially addressed, despair. (Bierce to Sterling, 21 October 1903 y

Bierce may have been excessively humble, but his point is well taken. In a forty-year career as a journalist for a variety of newspapers and magazines in San Francisco, London, and New York, Bierce developed the reputation as a satirist of commanding and fearsome presence. His best work was done for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, for which he wrote for nearly twenty years (1887-1906). In today's parlance he would probably be called a columnist or op-ed writer; certainly, opinion was the keynote of all his journalistic work. But his columns-the most famous of which was called "Prattle," running first in the Argonaut (1877-79), then in the Wasp (188186), then in the Examiner-ordinarily dwelt not on a single subject but on a great many; a typical column would have twenty or thirty discrete paragraphs on a wide range of topics, from local figures to events of national and international significance. Inserted in no particular order or arrangement within these columns were self-standing poems, usually without title. Titles were affixed only when Bierce gathered his poems in book form, first in Black Beetles in Amber (1892), then in Shapes of Clay (1903), then in the revised and augmented versions of those two books in the fourth and fifth volumes of his Collected Works (1909-12).

Bierce was correct in believing that he had few peers as a satirist and wit, at least in his time and country. He may today remain America's finest satirist (only H. L. Mencken, Nathanael West, and Gore Vidal can contest him), and poetry was a forceful weapon in lambasting his contemporaries. Even those poems that exercise his broader flights of imagination often end-startlingly and bitingly-with abuse of some hapless politician, journalist, or other individual who had the misfortune of earning Bierce's wrath. Hence, "Finis /Eternitatis" begins with a spectacular vista of the end of civilization, even the end of time itself-but then concludes with a satire on the railroad baron Charles Crocker. "A Vision of Resurrection" is similar, ending with a literary dagger-thrust at one of Bierce's perennial foes, the journalist George K. Fitch. Probably the most amusing example of this technique is the poem first published without title in "Prattle" (12 June 1887), which concludes with a pungent satire on a local politician. But Bierce must have recognized the effectiveness of this brooding, atmospheric poem, for he incorporated it in revised form-and without its final stanza, specifically addressed to the politician- into one of his finest tales of horror, "The Death of Halpin Frayser. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.