My soul’s a flame of divine fire, a god’s voice . . .
–Robert E. Howard
The poem “Cimmeria” is usually placed (by the relatively few critics who have considered Robert E. Howard’s poetry and poetics at all) among Howard’s most important published poems. Admirers and literary critics who have considered chiefly his fiction also see it as significant, primarily because of its connection to the Conan cycle of stories. As Rusty Burke relates the story of the beginnings of Howard’s Conan tales, the poem seems to immediately precede the inspiration for Conan:
In February 1932, Howard took his trip down to the Rio Grande Valley, passing through Fredericksburg. While he was in Mission, he wrote the poem “Cimmeria” (at least, so he told Emil Petaja when he sent him a copy of the poem: “Written in Mission, Texas, February 1932; suggested by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in a mist of winter rain.”). At some time during his stay in the Valley, Conan came to him. He returned to Cross Plains via San Antonio, where he stayed a few days. “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” were both returned to him by Farnsworth Wright in a letter dated March 10, so obviously had been sent to Weird Tales some time before that. (Burke, “Without Effort On My Part,” The Iron Harp 1, Vernal Equinox, 2001)
Aside from its seeming importance as the poetic flash that kindled Howard’s imagination to the resultant cycle of Conan tales, the poem is interesting in its own right for several reasons.
First, as one of Howard’s only two uses, as it seems, of blank verse (at least of Howard’s extant poetry), it represents an interesting foray into the dominant serious narrative/dramatic poetic form of the English language.
Second, it further demonstrates Howard’s knowledge of and serious study of poetics and gives further evidence of a broad reading experience in the forms and traditions of poetry in English.
Third, simply by its use of blank verse, the seriousness and significance of the subject matter of the poem to Robert E. Howard is likely indicated.
Fourth, it is a marvelous, although quite brief, example of blank verse technique and a demonstration of Howard’s skills and tendencies as a narrative poet.
Fifth and finally for my purposes here, not only is this poetic subject, as indicated by the choice of poetic form, important for Howard, but it is quite possibly of seminal importance to an understanding of his world view and philosophical vision, especially because of its last section—often not included in early printings.
Before addressing these points, it is best to briefly review the origins and tradition of blank verse and its ascendency as a vehicle for heroic narrative and dramatic presentation.
“Blank Verse” in its loosest definition is unrhymed but metered poetry (in other words, verse and not free verse, but without rhyme). In its usual and narrower sense, blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables with the even numbered syllables stressed or accented—at least as the basic rhythm, from which there is allowable subtle variation). Sometimes even called “Heroics” [see Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms], blank verse has been firmly established as the primary mode for serious poetic narrative in English since the sixteenth century.
To give credit where credit is due for its introduction into English, we must go back to another Howard, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (often called simply “Surrey”) who used the form in his translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid. Surrey was also the inventor of the sonnet form later used by Shakespeare and since known as the “Shakespearean” or “English” sonnet. [Alas, for Surrey! But such are the ways of fame and forgetfulness.] In any event, Surry’s use of blank verse, done chiefly in “closed lines”— in lines usually end-stopped by punctuation— marked the beginning of the narrative and heroic traditions that blank verse was to maintain.
The plays, not only of Shakespeare, but also of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, were composed primarily in this meter as well, establishing blank verse as the vehicle for serious dramatic poetry in that other important mode of story telling. Later in the seventeenth century, John Milton used it for Paradise Lost. And after the chiming, rhyming heyday of the closed couplet through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nineteenth century poets like Tennyson (“Ulysses” and The Idylls of the King and Browning (“Fra Lippo Lippi“) reinvigorated the form for both narrative and dramatic purposes, respectively. In Robert E. Howard’s own era, Robert Frost made much use of the form in poems like “Mending Wall” and [after Shakespeare as is clear from the title’s reference to Macbeth] “Out, out!”
Thus, by the time of Robert E. Howard’s nurturing in the ways of poetry, the dominant narrative poetic traditions in English were two: blank verse and the ballad. I have elsewhere discussed Howard’s frequent and innovative use of the ballad stanza as his preferred narrative form [see “Notes on Two Versions of an Unpublished Poem by Robert E. Howard” in The Dark Man #6 and other articles]. Much more study on REH’s preferred narrative pattern and innovation upon the ballad stanza— both the traditional and literary ballad— and upon his use of other exotic forms for the narrative (especially the sonnet) needs to be done. But his almost sole use of blank verse for “Cimmeria” is worthy of this and other studies.
First of all, the poem is the unique instance of blank verse among Howard’s published poetry at the time of this posting. Which is the more remarkable in that it is—by the same standards that T. S. Eliot used in his praise of Christopher Marlowe’s blank verse—both enjambed (making much use of run-on lines rather than end-punctuated, end-stopped, end-paused) and melodious. It demonstrates a fine balance between prose narrative sentence delivery and poetic metered undertones and also displays Howard’s very fine phonic sense, his “ear” for the sounds of—beyond their meanings.
Likely the best way to establish Howard’s view of himself as a poet as well as a “fictioneer” is to examine his own words in the letters that have been left to us. If one studies the two collections, ably edited by Glenn Lord [Selected Letters: 1923-1930 and 1931-1936, Necronomicon Press] with an eye for REH’s mention of poetry and verse, one will be assured of his developing interest in and continuing study of poetic forms and poetic traditions and his growing sense of urgency not only to become an accomplished poet, but a published poet worthy of note. In his exchange of letters [inclusive of much of his poetic work that survives] he and his friend Tevis Clyde Smith discussed not only poetry and their own work as poets, but, indeed, move toward a planned joint publication (the never-published Images Out of the Sky [although Smith later published his own volume with that title]).
Read the rest of this entry »