H.P. Lovecraft’s Slim Purpose

Phillip Ellis

 Winfield Townley Scott once made the following remark about H. P. Lovecraft’s verse: “To scare is a slim purpose in poetry.” This is true; there is more to weird verse, poetry of fantasy and horror, than shudder-mongering, and there is more to the genre of horror than refining the evocation of physical disgust and revulsion.

Part of the problem is that so much of the Lovecraft’s weird verse feels stylistically deriviative of both Swinburne and Poe. It is only relatively rarely that Lovecraft achieves his own style, his own voice technically. One key example of this latter point is in the central section of “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” where the strong blank verse works well in the evocation of a cosmicism that brings horror through its relegation of humanity to an utterly microscopic insignificence. The main problem, however, as argued elsewhere by S. T. Joshi, is that the comic framework does not work well with the central portion. The satire spoils the cosmicism; the cosmicism sours the satire, and as a result Lovecraft himself suggested that only the central portion be reprinted.

The highpoint of Lovecraft’s weird verse is, arguably, the sonnet cycle Fungi from Yuggoth. As an indication of its importance, it has received the greatest amount of attention from subsequent commentators, with much of this commentary focusing on the unity, or lack of it, of the individual sonnets. My own position is similar to S. T. Joshi’s. We both argue that the sonnets are an assemblage of miscellaneous images, motifs and themes, and that there is no overriding narrative arc. However, I go on to state that the perceived unity is a result of the sonnets being overwhelmingly written in a short time, a matter of mere weeks, and with most of them derived from the same source, Lovecraft’s commonplace book. But the sonnets are the strongest, most unified and affective body of Lovecraft’s weird verse.

There are others that are effective, even if they concentrate more on shudder-mongering rather than on conveying any real sense of a worldview. “The Cats” is one such a piece; it appears here, below “Yule Horror”, a piece abstracted from a personal poem sent to the editor of Weird Tales, and which was abridged in its appearance in that pulp.

But the general thought—that weird verse ought to do more than inspire shudders—is central not only to our reading of Lovecraft’s weird verse, but to weird verse in general. There ought to be more to a poem than the evocation of horror. For, as Christopher Brennan noted in his introduction to From Blake to Arnold, in the following lengthy passage:

The direct motive in poetry, as in all art, is emotion. It may be emotion arising from any occurrence in human life, whether that occurrence belong to external existence, as the encounter with a person who becomes dear to the poet, or to the intimate life, as the devotion to an idea. The emotion, as expressed in poetry, must explain its accompanying or generating conditions, as a love-poem must contain some reference to the beloved: thus, then, in the higher poetry, other spiritual elements besides emotion are not excluded–the poet’s ideas and conception of the universe, for instance–since ideas are interesting, perhaps, only as parts of man’s passional life, as beliefs. But emotion must exist and be expressed, otherwise there is no poetry. Such is the necessary place of emotion in poetry, that of the motive, of the directing power. But the definition we are to consider would make it the sole subject-matter, its mere expression the whole art. Against which there are two fatal objections: the first, that out of the mere fact of emotion, general and unqualified, one can draw no necessary reason for the use of rhythmical language; seeing that, if our sole business be to express emotion, we can do so in all cases without employing rhythm, in many without employing articulate language at all, pain, for instance, being fully expressed in a cry; that it then becomes necessary to qualify the emotion as “poetical”, thus returning to the original state of the question: the second, that we can cite many passages wherein emotion is uttered in rhythmical language, and wherein there is yet no poetry: it is then insufficient to call this art the expression of human emotion in rhythmical language. Thus, many a poet, under stress of emotion, in itself most noble, has produced verse rhythmical and technically faultless, in which yet there is no satisfaction for the poetic spirit.

The problem, then, with this exercise in shudder-mongering is that the poems seek to convey horror, and little, if anything else. As a result what we find is mere verse, technically skilled, perhaps, but little more than a versified thrill that soon palls. And the best weird verse demands more than the skilled evocation of emotion. It gives a worldview, a vision of the world, whether it be internal or external to the poem, and this is where the best of Lovecraft’s weird verse works, and works well.

The same should be asked of other poems, of other literary works. In addition to evoking emotions, the best of such works should convey a vision of the world, one that is, perhaps, in concord with the emotion. That, perhaps, is the fundamental demand we must place upon any work of art.

What are your thoughts on the matter? What marks the best poems? What are the essential qualities of excellence in verse, and in weird verse?

1 thought on “H.P. Lovecraft’s Slim Purpose

  1. Very nice post. I’m all for shudder-mongering, and I don’t at all see it as a slim purpose. Lovecraft has most definitely created a vision of the world in his work (e.g. his Cthulhu Mythos, or the so-called Lovecraft Country) but it so happens that the language and motifs of these worlds – or the referents of his words – are situated in the so-called weird genres. This situating may make his worldviews inaccessible to many readers – and hence present his images, discourses, etc, as Horror genre cliches – but this inaccessibility can’t in itself diminish the work of a given writer. Many thanks for this, Philip.

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