Robert E. Howard, author and poet, was born on January 22, 1906. In an undated letter to his friend Clyde Smith (“Salaam/Again glancing…), Howard wrote of this day in the poem, “I Praise My Nativity.”
“Oh, evil the day that I was born, like a tale that a witch has told;
I came to birth on a bitter morn, when the sky was dim and cold.
The god that girds the loins of Fate and sends the nighttime rain,
He diced my game on an iron plate with dice carved out of pain.
“This for the shadow of hope,” laughed he, as the numbers glinted up,
“This for a spell and this for Hell, and this for the bitter cup.”
A Shadow came out of the gloom of night and covered me with his cowl
That carried the curse of The Truer Sight and the blindness of the owl.
Oh, evil the day that I was born, triply I curse that day,
And I would to God I had died that morn and passed like the ocean spray.”
While he may have wished to God that he had died that morn, as one of his legions of fans, I’m grateful that he didn’t. And I have about twelve hundred reasons for my gratitude: the over four hundred short stories and more than seven hundred poems that he wrote.
Unlike many of the Black Gate readers, I’m relatively new to the writings of Robert E. Howard. I became interested in him when I saw the movie The Whole Wide World in 2006. I started with the Del Reys: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and Kull Exile of Atlantis. I also read my way enthusiastically through all the Conan stories and then everything else of Howard’s I could get my hands on. I haunted the REH eBay offerings looking for the books and stories I didn’t have.
My efforts were rewarded. I was *there* when Dark Agnes, Valeria and Howard’s strong women flashed their swords and fought beside men as equals. I laughed out loud at Meet Cap’n Kidd and the other Breckenridge Elkins tales, relished Lord of Samarcand and chewed my nails during Pigeons in Hell.
If I had to explain my enjoyment of these stories, I can only say “He had a way with words.” His stories were filled with poetic prose. Sometimes I stopped in the middle of one of Howard’s “yarns” as he referred to them, in awe and just savored his ability to create vivid images. But it wasn’t until I read “The Ride of Falume” that I became an ardent fan of his poetry. And I still remember the exact lines that stopped me dead in the middle of that poem and haunted me for weeks after:
A league beyond the western wind; a mile beyond the moon,
Where the dim seas roar on an unknown shore
And the drifting stars lie strewn
Talk about images that leap off the page. I wanted to read more of his poetry. But these were my early days of being a Robert E. Howard fan and I was incredibly naïve. I remember walking into a Barnes and Noble bookstore shortly after and asking for poetry books by Howard. The clerk stared at me like I had lost my mind. “You mean the guy who wrote Conan?” When I nodded, he said, “Robert E. Howard never wrote any poetry.” I quoted the first two lines from “The Ride of Falume.”
Falume of Spain rode forth amain when twilight’s crimson fell
To drink a toast with Bahram’s ghost in the scarlet land of hell.
He looked puzzled and said. “Well, that sounds like him.” We went over to the Science Fiction and Fantasy area and I pulled Shadow Kingdoms The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard Volume 1 from the shelf, opened it to page 59 and showed the poem to him. He read a little of it and then put it – the last copy of that volume – behind the desk on hold for himself. After a brief search, I was told Barnes and Noble did not have any of Howard’s poetry books. I would have to go to eBay to buy them. As I walked out of the store I turned around and saw the young man standing behind the desk engrossed in his new book.
After this not very auspicious start, I began to collect Howard’s poetry books. It was a slow process. Not only did they appear rarely on eBay and other online book sources, they could be very expensive. Still I managed to get copies of Night Images, Shadows of Dreams, Singers in the Shadow, Always Comes Evening, A Rhyme in Salem Town and finally The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard. All of this because his poetry spoke to me. I could feel the rhythm and rhyme in his words. What he wrote echoed within me whether it was his pain in “The Years are as a Knife” or the stirring tales of bravery and adventure in “The Ballad of King Geraint” and “The Return of Sir Richard Grenville.” I chuckled at his sometimes bawdy sense of humor and I marveled at his images of joy.
I began to read about Robert E. Howard. I wanted to know more about the man who had this rare ability with words. Rusty Burke’s A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard, and Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder gave me a lot of facts and Novalyne Price’s book One Who Walks Alone is filled with anecdotes. I began to form a picture about his life, but I believe I learned more concerning who Robert E. Howard was from reading his poetry.
Much of his poetry reflects the theme of shadows and gloom that is present in “I Praise My Nativity.” Another example is this excerpt from the undated poem, “The Dweller in Dark Valley.” In it, Howard writes:
The nightwinds tossed the tangled trees, the stars were cold with scorn;
Midnight lay over Dark Valley the hour I was born.
The mid-wife dozed beside the hearth, a hand the window tried-
She woke and stared and screamed and swooned at what she saw outside.
Her hair was white as a leper’s hand; she never spoke again,
But laughed and wove the wild flowers into an endless chain;
But when my childish tongue could speak, and my infant feet could stray,
I found her dying in the hills at the haunted dusk of day.
And her darkening eyes at last were sane; she passed with a fearsome word:
“You who were born in Dark Valley, beware the Valley’s lord!”
As I came down through Dark Valley, the grim hills gulped the light;
I heard the ponderous trampling of a monster in the night.
But his poetry isn’t all about pain and horror. He may have been “born in Dark Valley” but it wasn’t his only birthplace. As I read more of his poems, I discovered that Robert E. Howard was a complex man. In the poem “Earth-Born” he wrote differently about the day he was born and reveals the connection he felt with not only the earth, but with the universe itself.
By rose and verdant valley
And silence I was born;
My brothers were the mountains,
The purple gods of morn.
My sisters were the whirlwinds
That broke the dreaming plains-
The earth is in my sinews,
The stars are in my veins!
For first upon the molten
White silver sands I lay,
And saw the ocean beckon
With eyes of burning spray.
And up along the mountain,
And down along the lea,
I heard my brothers singing,
The river and the tree.
And through the ocean’s thunder,
And through the forest’s hush,
I heard my sisters calling,
The sea-wind and the thrush.
And still all living voices
Leap forth amain and far,
The sunset and the shadow,
The eagle and the star.
From caverns of the ocean
To highest mountain tree,
I hear all voices singing
Their kinship unto me.
During his lifetime his feet were sometimes caught in the mire and mud of the dark shadows he wrote of in “The Ecstasy of Desolation.”
Long were the years, life-long and deathly-bare.
Hope gleamed, a will-o’-wisp, before my stare.
Bent were my shoulders underneath their load
And red my footprints down the long, long road.
The sun burst gold along the waving mead
And in my skull stars clamored to be freed.
My clamoring heart thrust my drab ribs aside
Seeking the sky as lover seeks a bride.
About my head the stardust swirled in flood
And to my feet there clung swine trampled mud.
Men looked on me and laughed and named me fool
Because I cursed each king and rod and rule.
I flung them all aside despite their din
And I was steel without but flesh within.
Eyes to the sky I strode in stars and rags
And gave half of my soul to drink and hags.
But no one knew the visions that I knew
Framed in the skies, fire frozen in the blue.
And foes and friends despaired and gave up hope
Because I knew the path where I must grope.
And one by one they laughed and went away
And left me standing in the doors of day.
Sometimes the burden of years that weighed heavily on him was lifted. When that happened, he wrote poems such as “The Moment” and it’s easy to get caught up in the joy of life that he expresses in it.
Let me forget all men a space,
All dole and death and dearth;
Let me clutch the world in my hungry arms-
The paramour of the earth.
The hills are gowned in emerald trees
And the sea-green tides of grain,
And the joy, oh God, of the tingling sod,
Oh, it rends my heart in twain.
My feet are bare to the burning dew,
My breast to the stinging breeze;
And I watch the sun in the flaming blue
Like a worshipper on his knees.
With the joys of the sun and love and growth
All things of the earth are rife
And the soul that is deep in the breast of me
Sings with the pulse of Life.
Robert E. Howard was a complex man who could hold contradictory views on the same subject and was able to write passionately about both sides. Throughout his poetry there are examples of both his visions of joy and the pain that haunted him. In “Hope Empty of Meaning” the battle between Shadow and Light can be seen in the same poem.
Man is a fool and a blinded toy-
The Fire still flickers and burns,
Though the cobra coils in the cup called Joy,
And ever the Worm returns.
Life is a lamp with the glimmer gone,
A dank and a darkened cave;
Yet still I swear by the light of dawn,
And not by the grip of the grave.
Much of what Howard wrote about depended upon his mood. But whether his birthplace was a scene from “I Praise My Nativity” or one filled with the joy of life in “Earth-Born,” I’m grateful that he was around those thirty short years to write such great stories with his characteristic poetic prose. Most of all I’m thankful for the poems that have enriched my life.
Happy birthday, Bob Howard. I’m glad you were born.