Installment #1
REHupa Official Mailing #164

first published in THE CROSS PLAINSMAN, Inaugural Issue, Summer/Autumn 2000
By D. Franklin Coffman, Jr.
Assoc. Prof. of English and Journalism
Rock Valley College, Rockford, Illinois
1999 all rights reserved

Some Notes on Howard's Poetry
and the Poetics of Popular Literature

"Now is the lyre of Homer flecked with rust,
And yellow leaves are blown across the world. . ."

--"Autumn" by Robt. E. Howard

With the poetry of Robert E. Howard, we have a small body of work which, nonetheless, is remarkable in many respects. Just as poetry in general is a presentation of the distilled essence of thought and feeling, of compressed idea, so Howard's poetry may be viewed as a vividly distinct presentation of those attitudes and perspectives that are elaborated in broader fashion in the prose fiction for which he is better known.

His poetry also comes at a time after the highpoint of a taste for narrative verse, with the last great exponents of that now-rare artform being those of the two or three generations preceding the work of Howard: Tennyson, Browning, Morris, Arnold, Longfellow, Kipling, Service and the like. As Howard himself no doubt understood, the taste for didactic and narrative verse, the taste for poetry itself would wane drastically in the 20th century.

There are at least three aspects of Howard's poetry to which we might draw our attention: the overall aesthetic aspect of appreciation and evaluation of his verses as poetry; the likely inspirations of both their content and style; and the light they shed toward a deeper understanding of Howard's work as a whole.

Regarding the value of his verses, it would be safe to say that few critics would number Howard among the great poets of the twentieth century--this is especially true since few critics have even encountered his verse, but even true of the overall estimations of those few who have examined it. But, while it is not all gold, there is gold in it. And, in many passages and several entire poems, Howard rises to a level demanding serious consideration as both a stylist and a voice worthy of a hearing.

His usual measure was the Heroic verse of the iambic pentameter, usually rhymed, but also found in blank verse in poems like "Cimmeria":

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Howard's work in verse is relatively broad in scope if not very deep in quantity. The bulk of the poems could be viewed as falling into one of four categories: narrative, philosophical, critical, or personal. Poems such as "Cimmeria" and "The Road of Kings" [Conan], "The King and the Oak" [Kull], and "Solomon Kane's Homecoming" [Solomon Kane], are decidedly both narrative and connected to his narrative prose fiction. In poems like "Harvest," which is one of Howard's rare statements in verse about social inequity and injustice in the modern world, and "Visions," we have good insight into Howard's world view and essential philosophy. In poems like "Musings" and "Which Will Scarcely Be Understood," Howard uses verse as a vehicle for critical comment. And in such verses as "Lines Written in the Realization that I Must Die," "The Singer in the Mist," and "The Tempter," we have some clear insights to Howard's psyche, his despairing anti-modernism, and his suicidal bent.

Howard was especially excellent in his adaptation of the sonnet to his purposes--far removed from the original romantic love purposes of the sonnet form. Others had, of course, long before adapted the sonnet for other purposes, but Howard's few sonnets are distinct and revealing. In "On With the Play," we have good evidence of both Howard's familiarity with Shakespeare and with the great poet of his age [and perhaps the greatest poet in 20th century English language poetry], William Butler Yeats:

Up with the curtain, lo, the stage is set;
The mimes come trooping for their destin'd parts,
The Devil swings his hand, the music starts;
But the main star has not arrived as yet,
And all the players wait and swear and fret.
He comes! The tamborine with empty clack
Greets the proud brow, the eye, the unbent back;
On with the play of broken dreams and sweat!

Aye, play their game if you would wish to rise,
Conform yourself to standard rote and rule,
But when you've reached the pinnacle of pelf
Some day take down an old book from the shelf,
And scanning pages, years, with curious eyes,
Remember one who signed himself--A Fool.

Not only is the poem an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, difficult in English, exhibiting Howard's penchant for the use of uncommon words and archaisms ["pelf"], but we have a likely reference to both Shakespeare's "Life is but a stage" and the "Mousetrap" scenes of the frame play in Hamlet. Beyond this, there seems a likely influence from Yeats:

When you are old and grey 

by William Butler Yeats 

              When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
              And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
              And slowly read and dream of the soft look 
              You eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

              How many loved your moments of glad grace,
              And loved your beauty, with love false or true,
              But one man loved the pilgrim's soul in you,
              And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

              And bending down below the glowing bars,
              Murmur, little sadly, how Love fled
              And paced upon the mountains overhead
              And hid his face amid a crown of stars.

Another important sonnet is "The Singer in the Mist," also in the difficult Italian form which seems to have been Howard's preference. This poem offers great autobiographical comment as the "I" voice of the poem is most certainly Howard's:

At birth a witch laid on me monstrous spells,
And I have trod strange highroads all my days,
Turning my feet to gray, unholy ways.
I grope for stems of broken asphodels;
High on the rims of bare, fiend-haunted fells,
I follow cloven tracks that lie ablaze;
And ghosts have led me through the moonlight's haze,
To talk with demons in the granite hells.

Seas crash upon dragon-guarded shores,
Bursting in crimson moons of burning spray,
And iron castles open to me their doors,
And serpent-women lure with harp and lay.
The misty waves shake now to phantom oars-
Seek not for me; I sail to meet the day.

That Howard saw himself as somehow spellbound, caught up in the fantastic and dark imaginings of his fiction, his fiction reflecting his perceptions of fact, is here nicely compressed and clearly demarked.

The sonnet ironically entitled "A Sonnet of Good Cheer" gives evidence of his own battle against oblivian, that of the artist yearning to be appreciated and remembered, but, in Howard's case, plagued by a perceived futility in that effort:

Then as I spake, methought fierce laughter came
Across the dying hills where sunrise shot;
"Fool, fool, you come unbidden to this game,
"And Death that takes you hence shall ask you not.
"From life, this and only this, may you claim;
"Living, to die, and dying, be forgot."

Another important area of Howard's poetics that begs further study is his occasional use of brief verses to lead into prose fiction. A good example of this is the poetic epigram to "Kelly the Conjure-Man," which adds both an interesting "grabber" to lead off the tale and the nice touch of the pretended source, a hinted at old ballad or verse about Kelly:

There are strange tales told
when the full moon shines
Of voodoo nights when the ghost things ran--
But the strangest figure among the pines
Was Kelly the conjure-man.

The short opening verse not only adds to the story's overall effect, but shows the likely influence of Robert W. Service's poetry of the frozen North:

                      There are strange things done in the midnight sun 
                                        By the men who moil for gold; 
                           The Arctic trails have their secret tales 
                                        That would make your blood run cold; 
                           The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, 
                                        But the queerest they ever did see 
                           Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge 
                                        I cremated Sam McGee.

Service and his compatriot in prose, Jack London, both had a sense of that harsh and amoral Nature that Howard also sees. Even the little snippets of Howard's verses are worth consideration as a critical avenue of approach to his work.

And, it should not be forgotten that the last thing Robert Howard wrote was a four-line verse that served as both suicide note and epitaph of sorts:

All fled--all done,
so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over,
and the lamps expire.

Howard's vision of himself as poet as well as spinner of prose "yarns" is clear enough in many passages All in all, more scholarly study of Robert E. Howard's poetry is warranted. As we begin to see that popular literature is the mythic and folk material of "the people"; as we further realize that entertainment is more than half of tale-telling, with enlightenment and edification fine but less necessary elements; as we begin to understand more and more deeply that "pulp" fiction and the pulp magazines of the early and mid-twentieth century offer more of the "pulp"--"pulp" in its good sense as more of the stuff of, more of the essential elements of the human psyche than have been critically acknowledged--then we will also see that the poetry of fantasy and adventure are as worthy of serious consideration as their prose counterparts.

This brief overview of some possible perspectives on Robert E. Howard's poetry has been only an initial collection of notes on what can be a fruitful and vibrant area of scholarly discussion. More essays on the poetry of fantasy and adventure will be forthcoming in this journal.

1999 by D. Franklin Coffman, Jr. / All Rights Reserved
contact the author Frank Coffman for permissions or other questions.