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OF SECRET WORLDS INCREDIBLE: A Psychedelic Journey into Clark Ashton Smith’s Poetic Masterpiece

Friday, March 11th, 2011 | Posted by John R. Fultz

smith2What a TRIP…

In the world of epic fantasy, poetry often gets a bad rap. In the world of legendary fantasists, one name that continues to be revered is Clark Ashton Smith. As one of the “big three” WEIRD TALES writers from the 1920s and 30s, Smith gained a reputation that rivaled that of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard for fantastic fiction. His superbly dark fantasies set in realms such as Zothique, Hyperborea, Atlantis, and Averoigne set a new bar for weird fantasy. With his lush language, poetic sensibilities, and lyrical style, he was a word-wizard of the highest caliber. Any scholar of classic fantasy is sure to sing Smith’s praises. He is certainly one of this author’s favorite writers (especially his Tales of Zothique, my favorite of all his story cycles).

However, Smith thought of himself first and foremost as a poet. He wrote weird fiction because it paid well (yes, there was a time when short stories paid well). The key to his dark genius is probably to be found in his thousands of stanzas of verse…his poetry seeped into his weird fiction and made his tales baroque and lyrical. Smith denied the archetype of the conquering hero…his main characters were more likely to meet hideous doom than to defeat the eldritch monsters they encountered. His wizards were diabolical megalomaniacs or hermetic iconoclasts who explored forbidden mysteries and unlocked terrible powers.

Smith’s greatest piece of verse is (arguably) the epic poem entitled THE HASHISH-EATER or THE APOCALYPSE OF EVIL. It is a phantasmagoric tour de force through jeweled realms of fantasy laced with cosmic horror. It is a masterwork of fantasy, but is usually overlooked in favor of his short stories. It is also probably my very favorite poem. Ever.

Rather than attempt to explain why the poem is so magnificent, I thought I’d simply present it here at BLACK GATE, one stanza at a time, with a paragraph of analysis/commentary between each stanza. For those who prefer to read the poem without annotations first, I recommend a visit to my favorite CAS tribute site The Eldritch Dark, where the entire poem is posted without comments or analysis:–or–the-apocalypse-of-evil

You may want to light some candles and put on a stick of incense…I suggest the heady aroma of jasmine…maybe some old Black Sabbath in the background. Now…let us begin our celestial excursion into the depths of darkest fantasy…let us delve without fear into the eerie depths of a gorgeous nightmare…let us travel stanza by stanza through Clark Ashton Smith’s greatest poem….

By Clark Ashton Smith (1920)

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.
Like rampant monsters roaring for their glut,
The fiery-crested oceans rise and rise,
By jealous moons maleficently urged
To follow me forever; mountains horned
With peaks of sharpest adamant, and mawed
With sulphur-lit volcanoes lava-langued,
Usurp the skies with thunder, but in vain;
And continents of serpent-shapen trees,
With slimy trunks that lengthen league by league,
Pursue my light through ages spurned to fire
By that supreme ascendance; sorcerers,
And evil kings, predominantly armed
With scrolls of fulvous dragon-skin whereon
Are worm-like runes of ever-twisting flame,
Would stay me; and the sirens of the stars,
With foam-like songs from silver fragrance wrought,
Would lure me to their crystal reefs; and moons
Where viper-eyed, senescent devils dwell,
With antic gnomes abominably wise,
Heave up their icy horns across my way.
But naught deters me from the goal ordained
By suns and eons and immortal wars,
And sung by moons and motes; the goal whose name
Is all the secret of forgotten glyphs
By sinful gods in torrid rubies writ
For ending of a brazen book; the goal
Whereat my soaring ecstasy may stand
In amplest heavens multiplied to hold
My hordes of thunder-vested avatars,
And Promethean armies of my thought,
That brandish clasped levins. There I call
My memories, intolerably clad
In light the peaks of paradise may wear,
And lead the Armageddon of my dreams
Whose instant shout of triumph is become
Immensity’s own music: for their feet
Are founded on innumerable worlds,
Remote in alien epochs, and their arms
Upraised, are columns potent to exalt
With ease ineffable the countless thrones
Of all the gods that are or gods to be,
And bear the seats of Asmodai and Set
Above the seventh paradise.

Hashish is a psychedelic extract made from cannabis…Smith may have based the title of his poem on an 1857 book of the same name by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, which chronicled a journey through “altered states of consciousness and philosophical flights of fancy”…what we’re talking about here are VISIONS…a series of hallucinations or waking dreams that the narrator of Smith’s poem is undergoing. A long and very strange “trip.” The nature of these visions is at once cosmic, trans-universal, fantastical, and tinged with creeping doom. Crowning himself Emperor of Dreams (And why not? It’s his vision afterall!), the narrator claims domination of the skies across a multitude of worlds…a dark conqueror rising toward infinity, impervious to the magic of his enemies, who are described as “sorcerers and evil kings.” He leads a host of thundering demons, heralding an apocalypse that exalts Asmodai (a king of demons) and Set (Egyptian god of darkness) above the “seventh paradise.” So the Apocalypse of Evil begins…

In culminant omniscience manifold,
And served by senses multitudinous,
Far-posted on the shifting walls of time,
With eyes that roam the star-unwinnowed fields
Of utter night and chaos, I convoke
The Babel of their visions, and attend
At once their myriad witness. I behold
In Ombos, where the fallen Titans dwell,
With mountain-builded walls, and gulfs for moat,
The secret cleft that cunning dwarves have dug
Beneath an alp-like buttress; and I list,
Too late, the clang of adamantine gongs
Dinned by their drowsy guardians, whose feet
Have felt the wasp-like sting of little knives
Embrued with slobber of the basilisk
Or the pail juice of wounded upas. In
Some red Antarean garden-world, I see
The sacred flower with lips of purple flesh,
And silver-lashed, vermilion-lidded eyes
Of torpid azure; whom his furtive priests
At moonless eve in terror seek to slay
With bubbling grails of sacrificial blood
That hide a hueless poison. And I read
Upon the tongue of a forgotten sphinx,
The annulling word a spiteful demon wrote
In gall of slain chimeras; and I know
What pentacles the lunar wizards use,
That once allured the gulf-returning roc,
With ten great wings of furled storm, to pause
Midmost an alabaster mount; and there,
With boulder-weighted webs of dragons’ gut
Uplift by cranes a captive giant built,
They wound the monstrous, moonquake-throbbing bird,
And plucked from off his saber-taloned feet
Uranian sapphires fast in frozen blood,
And amethysts from Mars. I lean to read
With slant-lipped mages, in an evil star,
The monstrous archives of a war that ran
Through wasted eons, and the prophecy
Of wars renewed, which shall commemorate
Some enmity of wyvern-headed kings
Even to the brink of time. I know the blooms
Of bluish fungus, freaked with mercury,
That bloat within the craters of the moon,
And in one still, selenic, and fetor; and I know
What clammy blossoms, blanched and cavern-grown,
Are proffered to their gods in Uranus
By mole-eyed peoples; and the livid seed
Of some black fruit a king in Saturn ate,
Which, cast upon his tinkling palace-floor,
Took root between the burnished flags, and now
Hath mounted and become a hellish tree,
Whose lithe and hairy branches, lined with mouths,
Net like a hundred ropes his lurching throne,
And strain at starting pillars. I behold
The slowly-thronging corals that usurp
Some harbor of a million-masted sea,
And sun them on the league-long wharves of gold—
Bulks of enormous crimson, kraken-limbed
And kraken-headed, lifting up as crowns
The octiremes of perished emperors,
And galleys fraught with royal gems, that sailed
From a sea-fled haven.

From his omniscient point of view, the Emperor of Dreams views scenes across the universe…vignettes of destruction and chaos occurring simultaneously while the powers of darkness rise and prepare to consume the cosmos. He sees the domain of sleeping Titans, those colossal villains from Greek myth, and summons them forth to join his hosts; an evil blood-flower poisoned by wicked priests of a red garden-world; he reads an annihilating demon-rune from the tongue of an ancient sphinx; sees moon-dwelling wizards capture a gargantuan star eagle and pluck the interplanetary jewels from its talons; looks over the shoulders of evil mages on some distant world as they read histories and prophecies of alien wars gone and yet to come; knows the fungoid folk dwelling in lunar craters; sees the subterranean folk of Uranus offering white blossoms to their strange god; watches a hellish devil-tree demolish the palace of Saturn’s king; and he spies a legion of coral islands rising to claim an unknown continent, vomiting the mammoth bodies of kraken and the broken hulks of ancient warships.

smith9Swifter and stranger grow
The visions: now a mighty city looms,
Hewn from a hill of purest cinnabar
To domes and turrets like a sunrise thronged
With tier on tier of captive moons, half-drowned
In shifting erubescence. But whose hands
Were sculptors of its doors, and columns wrought
To semblance of prodigious blooms of old,
No eremite hath lingered there to say,
And no man comes to learn: for long ago
A prophet came, warning its timid king
Against the plague of lichens that had crept
Across subverted empires, and the sand
Of wastes that cyclopean mountains ward;
Which, slow and ineluctable, would come
To take his fiery bastions and his fanes,
And quench his domes with greenish tetter. Now
I see a host of naked giants, armed
With horns of behemoth and unicorn,
Who wander, blinded by the clinging spells
Of hostile wizardry, and stagger on
To forests where the very leaves have eyes,
And ebonies like wrathful dragons roar
To teaks a-chuckle in the loathly gloom;
Where coiled lianas lean, with serried fangs,
From writhing palms with swollen boles that moan;
Where leeches of a scarlet moss have sucked
The eyes of some dead monster, and have crawled
To bask upon his azure-spotted spine;
Where hydra-throated blossoms hiss and sing,
Or yawn with mouths that drip a sluggish dew
Whose touch is death and slow corrosion. Then
I watch a war of pygmies, met by night,
With pitter of their drums of parrot’s hide,
On plains with no horizon, where a god
Might lose his way for centuries; and there,
In wreathed light and fulgors all convolved,
A rout of green, enormous moons ascend,
With rays that like a shivering venom run
On inch-long swords of lizard-fang.

The hallucinations increase in frequency and weirdness…a heavenly city of towers and domes gleaming red as blood, abandoned to an ancient plague of fungus…titanic warriors battle their way through a carnivorous forest of poison and deadly sorcery…a battle of nocturnal gnomes across an endless plain where emerald planetoids rise above a sea of tiny blades…

From this my throne, as from a central sun,
The pageantries of worlds and cycles pass;
Forgotten splendors, dream by dream, unfold
Like tapestry, and vanish; violet suns,
Or suns of changeful iridescence, bring
Their rays about me like the colored lights
Imploring priests might lift to glorify
The face of some averted god; the songs
Of mystic poets in a purple world
Ascend to me in music that is made
From unconceived perfumes and the pulse
Of love ineffable; the lute-players
Whose lutes are strung with gold of the utmost moon,
Call forth delicious languors, never known
Save to their golden kings; the sorcerers
Of hooded stars inscrutable to God,
Surrender me their demon-wrested scrolls,
lnscribed with lore of monstrous alchemies
And awful transformations.

Now the Emperor of Dreams sits upon his solar throne and watches the march of time; purple suns warm his godly face; alien songs rise to soothe his galactic fever, seeking to charm the God of Gods, perhaps in a final effort to avoid the End that looms above all worlds; wizards offer up scrolls stolen from demons and scribed with the secrets of terrible sorcery…a feast of bizarre tributes.

smith7If I will
I am at once the vision and the seer,
And mingle with my ever-streaming pomps,
And still abide their suzerain: I am
The neophyte who serves a nameless god,
Within whose fane the fanes of Hecatompylos
Were arks the Titan worshippers might bear,
Or flags to pave the threshold; or I am
The god himself, who calls the fleeing clouds
Into the nave where suns might congregate
And veils the darkling mountain of his face
With fold on solemn fold; for whom the priests
Amass their monthly hecatomb of gems
Opals that are a camel-cumbering load,
And monstrous alabraundines, won from war
With realms of hostile serpents; which arise,
Combustible, in vapors many-hued
And myrrh-excelling perfumes. It is I,
The king, who holds with scepter-dropping hand
The helm of some great barge of orichalchum,
Sailing upon an amethystine sea
To isles of timeless summer: for the snows
Of Hyperborean winter, and their winds,
Sleep in his jewel-builded capital,
Nor any charm of flame-wrought wizardry,
Nor conjured suns may rout them; so he flees,
With captive kings to urge his serried oars,
Hopeful of dales where amaranthine dawn
Hath never left the faintly sighing lote
And lisping moly. Firm of heart, I fare
Impanoplied with azure diamond,
As hero of a quest Achernar lights,
To deserts filled with ever-wandering flames
That feed upon the sullen marl, and soar
To wrap the slopes of mountains, and to leap
With tongues intolerably lengthening
That lick the blenched heavens. But there lives
(Secure as in a garden walled from wind)
A lonely flower by a placid well,
Midmost the flaring tumult of the flames,
That roar as roars a storm-possessed sea,
Implacable for ever; and within
That simple grail the blossom lifts, there lies
One drop of an incomparable dew
Which heals the parched weariness of kings,
smith61And cures the wound of wisdom. I am page
To an emperor who reigns ten thousand years,
And through his labyrinthine palace-rooms,
Through courts and colonnades and balconies
Wherein immensity itself is mazed,
I seek the golden gorget he hath lost,
On which, in sapphires fine as orris-seed,
Are writ the names of his conniving stars
And friendly planets. Roaming thus, I hear
Like demon tears incessant, through dark ages,
The drip of sullen clepsydrae; and once
In every lustrum, hear the brazen clocks
Innumerably clang with such a sound
As brazen hammers make, by devils dinned
On tombs of all the dead; and nevermore
I find the gorget, but at length I find
A sealed room whose nameless prisoner
Moans with a nameless torture, and would turn
To hell’s red rack as to a lilied couch
From that whereon they stretched him; and I find,
Prostrate upon a lotus-painted floor,
The loveliest of all beloved slaves
My emperor hath, and from her pulseless side
A serpent rises, whiter than the root
Of some venefic bloom in darkness grown,
And gazes up with green-lit eyes that seem
Like drops of cold, congealing poison.

Now comes a moment of Zen-like clarity: the viewer and the vision are blended in a state of Oneness…the narrator IS the universe in a dance of celestial synthesis…All Is One…he is the lowly servant of a gargantuan godling…he is that godling, staring upon the world as his toy…priests pay him homage with serpentine treasures…he is a king of frozen Hyperborea sailing his barge to paradise across a purple sea…he is the hero of a star-crossed world whose quest leads him to a desert of living flame—his goal an enchanted flower whose nectar might quench “the parched weariness of kings” and cure “the wounds of wisdom”…the golden promise of sweet oblivion…now he is the lowly servant of a king, seeking for years a lost piece of golden armor in a palace of godly size…beneath the ticking of demonic clocks he discovers a lone victim of terrible tortures, the body of a beautiful slave-girl, and a pale serpent with wicked eyes of emerald…

What word was whispered in a tongue unknown,
In crypts of some impenetrable world?
Whose is the dark, dethroning secrecy
I cannot share, though I am king of suns,
And king therewith of strong eternity,
Whose gnomons with their swords of shadow guard
My gates, and slay the intruder? Silence loads
The wind of ether, and the worlds are still
To hear the word that flees mine audience.
In simultaneous ruin, all my dreams
Fall like a rack of fuming vapors raised
To semblance by a necromant, and leave
Spirit and sense unthinkably alone
Above a universe of shrouded stars
And suns that wander, cowled with sullen gloom,
Like witches to a Sabbath. . . . Fear is born
In crypts below the nadir, and hath crawled
Reaching the floor of space, and waits for wings
To lift it upward like a hellish worm
Fain for the flesh of cherubim. Red orbs
And eyes that gleam remotely as the stars,
But are not eyes of suns or galaxies,
Gather and throng to the base of darkness; flame
Behind some black, abysmal curtain burns,
Implacable, and fanned to whitest wrath
By raised wings that flail the whiffled gloom,
And make a brief and broken wind that moans
As one who rides a throbbing rack. There is
A Thing that crouches, worlds and years remote,
Whose horns a demon sharpens, rasping forth
A note to shatter the donjon-keeps of time,
Or crack the sphere of crystal. All is dark
For ages, and my toiling heart suspends
Its clamor as within the clutch of death
Tightening with tense, hermetic rigors. Then,
In one enormous, million-flashing flame,
The stars unveil, the suns remove their cowls,
And beam to their responding planets; time
Is mine once more, and armies of its dreams
Rally to that insuperable throne
Firmed on the zenith.

Now comes a mystery to the boundless senses of the narrator…a mystical word spoken somewhere in the cosmos…a speck of unknown power that defies description…a curse of “dark, dethroning sorcery” that threatens to bring down this omnipotent being even in the midst of his universal dreaming. Now all the visions, the dreams, the fancies, fall and shatter, leaving the narrator drifting alone in deep space, where the stars fade and die…all is lost…Entropy reigns…a Great Darkness settles over All That Is. FEAR now comes to the Emperor of Dreams…it rises to claim the skies that earlier were his “vestments”…a host of demon-red eyes gathers inside the darkness where anxious wings beat on winds of despair…Something terrible crouches in the depths of time, sharpening its horns, preparing to shatter all of existence…an age of darkness and silence begins…an age of death. Then a cosmic rebirth akin to the Big Bang itself: stars and suns ignite once more and the Emperor of Dreams sits again on his ultimate throne, surrounded by his armies of dream…

smith42Once again I seek
The meads of shining moly I had found
In some anterior vision, by a stream
No cloud hath ever tarnished; where the sun,
A gold Narcissus, loiters evermore
Above his golden image. But I find
A corpse the ebbing water will not keep,
With eyes like sapphires that have lain in hell|
And felt the hissing coals; and all the flowers
About me turn to hooded serpents, swayed
By flutes of devils in lascivious dance
Meet for the nod of Satan, when he reigns
Above the raging Sabbath, and is wooed
By sarabands of witches. But I turn
To mountains guarding with their horns of snow
The source of that befouled rill, and seek
A pinnacle where none but eagles climb,
And they with failing pennons. But in vain
I flee, for on that pylon of the sky
Some curse hath turned the unprinted snow to flame—
Red fires that curl and cluster to my tread,
Trying the summit’s narrow cirque. And now
I see a silver python far beneath-
Vast as a river that a fiend hath witched
And forced to flow reverted in its course
To mountains whence it issued. Rapidly
It winds from slope to crumbling slope, and fills
Ravines and chasmal gorges, till the crags
Totter with coil on coil incumbent. Soon
It hath entwined the pinnacle I keep,
And gapes with a fanged, unfathomable maw
Wherein Great Typhon and Enceladus
Were orts of daily glut. But I am gone,
For at my call a hippogriff hath come,
And firm between his thunder-beating wings
I mount the sheer cerulean walls of noon
And see the earth, a spurned pebble, fall—
Lost in the fields of nether stars—and seek
A planet where the outwearied wings of time
Might pause and furl for respite, or the plumes
Of death be stayed, and loiter in reprieve
Above some deathless lily: for therein
Beauty hath found an avatar of flowers-
Blossoms that clothe it as a colored flame
From peak to peak, from pole to sullen pole,
And turn the skies to perfume. There I find
A lonely castle, calm, and unbeset
Save by the purple spears of amaranth,
And leafing iris tender-sworded. Walls
Of flushed marble, wonderful with rose,
And domes like golden bubbles, and minarets
That take the clouds as coronal-these are mine,
For voiceless looms the peaceful barbican,
And the heavy-teethed portcullis hangs aloft
To grin a welcome. So I leave awhile
My hippogriff to crop the magic meads,
And pass into a court the lilies hold,
And tread them to a fragrance that pursues
To win the portico, whose columns, carved
Of lazuli and amber, mock the palms
Of bright Aidennic forests-capitaled
With fronds of stone fretted to airy lace,
Enfolding drupes that seem as tawny clusters
Of breasts of unknown houris; and convolved
With vines of shut and shadowy-leaved flowers
Like the dropt lids of women that endure
Some loin-dissolving ecstasy. Through doors
Enlaid with lilies twined luxuriously,
I enter, dazed and blinded with the sun,
And hear, in gloom that changing colors cloud,
A chuckle sharp as crepitating ice
Upheaved and cloven by shoulders of the damned
Who strive in Antenora. When my eyes
Undazzle, and the cloud of color fades,
I find me in a monster-guarded room,
Where marble apes with wings of griffins crowd
On walls an evil sculptor wrought, and beasts
Wherein the sloth and vampire-bat unite,
Pendulous by their toes of tarnished bronze,
Usurp the shadowy interval of lamps
That hang from ebon arches. Like a ripple
Borne by the wind from pool to sluggish pool
In fields where wide Cocytus flows his bound,
A crackling smile around that circle runs,
And all the stone-wrought gibbons stare at me
With eyes that turn to glowing coals. A fear
That found no name in Babel, flings me on,
Breathless and faint with horror, to a hall
Within whose weary, self-reverting round,
The languid curtains, heavier than palls,
Unnumerably depict a weary king
Who fain would cool his jewel-crusted hands
In lakes of emerald evening, or the field
Of dreamless poppies pure with rain. I flee
Onward, and all the shadowy curtains shake
With tremors of a silken-sighing mirth,
And whispers of the innumerable king,
Breathing a tale of ancient pestilence
Whose very words are vile contagion. Then
I reach a room where caryatids,
Carved in the form of voluptuous Titan women,
Surround a throne flowering ebony
Where creeps a vine of crystal. On the throne
There lolls a wan, enormous Worm, whose bulk,
Tumid with all the rottenness of kings,
Overflows its arms with fold on creased fold
Obscenely bloating. Open-mouthed he leans,
And from his fulvous throat a score of tongues,
Depending like to wreaths of torpid vipers,
Drivel with phosphorescent slime, that runs
Down all his length of soft and monstrous folds,
And creeping among the flowers of ebony,
Lends them the life of tiny serpents. Now,
Ere the Horror ope those red and lashless slits
Of eyes that draw the gnat and midge, I turn
And follow down a dusty hall, whose gloom,
Lined by the statues with their mighty limbs,
Ends in golden-roofed balcony
Sphering the flowered horizon.

Now the narrator seeks rest in a pastoral setting, a sunny field by a clear, flowing stream…but a blue-eyed corpse washes onto the shore and the tall flowers turn to dancing cobras that mock him…so he flees to the icy summit of a white mountain…but the snows turn to flame and a silver god-serpent twines about the pinnacles, opening a fanged maw great enough to swallow whole cities…what is this dark power, this curse  that pursues the Emperor of Dreams through the depths of his massive visions? He flees on the back of a winged beast, which carries him across the stars to a world forested in white lilies, and there he searches for an escape from Death and Time…he finds a fantastic palace of soaring towers and golden domes, where a lovely scent draws him inside…the stones of the castle are carved into the likeness of verdant foliage, rife with leaf, steam, and petal…he enters the gloom of its interior halls and an icy chuckle greets him…he stands in a chamber full of monsters…winged apes of marble and bat-like creatures hang from the walls in great numbers…their eyes turn to simmering coals and he flees in nameless terror…in another chamber hang tapestries depicting a sorrowful king who whispers a deadly spell of disease…now the narrator enters a statue-guarded hall where a vast, bloated worm squats upon a throne of ebony and crystal, reeking “with all the rottenness of kings”…from its obscene mouth squirms a mass of tongues dripping with slime…before the worm-king can open its blind crimson eyes, the narrator flees again and discovers a golden terrace overlooking the fields of the flower-world.

smith8Ere my heart
Hath hushed the panic tumult of its pulses,
I listen, from beyond the horizon’s rim,
A mutter faint as when the far simoom,
Mounting from unknown deserts, opens forth,
Wide as the waste, those wings of torrid night
That shake the doom of cities from their folds,
And musters in its van a thousand winds
That, with disrooted palms for besoms, rise,
And sweep the sands to fury. As the storm,
Approaching, mounts and loudens to the ears
Of them that toil in fields of sesame,
So grows the mutter, and a shadow creeps
Above the gold horizon like a dawn
Of darkness climbing zenith-ward. They come,
The Sabaoth of retribution, drawn
From all dread spheres that knew my trespassing,
And led by vengeful fiends and dire alastors
That owned my sway aforetime! Cockatrice,
Chimera, mantichoras, behemoth,
Geryon, and sphinx, and hydra, on my ken
Arise as might some Afrit-builded city
Consummate in the lifting of a lash
With thunderous domes and sounding obelisks
And towers of night and fire alternate! Wings
Of white-hot stone along the hissing wind
Bear up the huge and furnace-hearted beasts
Of hells beyond Rutilicus; and things
Whose lightless length would mete the gyre of moons—
Born from the caverns of a dying sun
Uncoil to the very zenith, half-disclosed
From gulfs below the horizon; octopi
Like blazing moons with countless arms of fire,
Climb from the seas of ever-surging flame
That roll and roar through planets unconsumed,
Beating on coasts of unknown metals; beasts
That range the mighty worlds of Alioth rise,
Afforesting the heavens with mulitudinous horns
Amid whose maze the winds are lost; and borne
On cliff-like brows of plunging scolopendras,
The shell-wrought towers of ocean-witches loom;
And griffin-mounted gods, and demons throned
On-sable dragons, and the cockodrills
That bear the spleenful pygmies on their backs;
And blue-faced wizards from the worlds of Saiph,
On whom Titanic scorpions fawn; and armies
That move with fronts reverted from the foe,
And strike athwart their shoulders at the shapes
The shields reflect in crystal; and eidola
Fashioned within unfathomable caves
By hands of eyeless peoples; and the blind
Worm-shapen monsters of a sunless world,
With krakens from the ultimate abyss,
And Demogorgons of the outer dark,
Arising, shout with dire multisonous clamors,
And threatening me with dooms ineffable
In words whereat the heavens leap to flame,
Advance upon the enchanted palace. Falling
For league on league before, their shadows light
And eat like fire the amaranthine meads,
Leaving an ashen desert. In the palace
I hear the apes of marble shriek and howl,
And all the women-shapen columns moan,
Babbling with terror. In my tenfold fear,
A monstrous dread unnamed in any hall,
I rise, and flee with the fleeing wind for wings,
And in a trice the wizard palace reefs,
And spring to a single tower of flame,
Goes out, and leaves nor shard nor ember! Flown
Beyond the world upon that fleeing wind
I reach the gulf’s irrespirable verge,
Where fads the strongest storm for breath, and fall,
Supportless, through the nadir-plunged gloom,
Beyond the scope and vision of the sun,
To other skies and systems.

The narrator senses a storm gathering beyond the lilied horizon…a growing sound as of great winds, like a desert storm…a shadow creeps above the golden landscape like a “dawn of darkness”…and the Armies of Darkness come. Legions of monsters torn from the worlds where the narrator’s “trespassing” occurred…towers of “night and fire” rise among the monstrous horde…behemoths large as moons lumber forth…krakens of fire rise from seas of flame…monolithic serpents and ocean-born leviathans pour across the sky…gods and demons ride among the host, borne on the backs of griffons and dragons, evil pygmies and alien wizards cavort with alien beasts, colossal worms, and vast walking statues…all these horrors fall upon the palace and shout curses at the narrator…the continent of lilies turns to a desert of ash in the shadow of the evil host, and the winged apes inside the castle howl in fear. The narrator flies into the sky as the hordes of Hell annihilate the “wizard palace” in an instant…the Emperor of Dreams flings himself across the starry cosmos to escape the death of the world of lilies…

yondoIn a world
Deep-wooded with the multi-colored fungi
That soar to semblance of fantastic palms,
I fall as falls the meteor-stone, and break
A score of trunks to atom powder. Unharmed
I rise, and through the illimitable woods,
Among the trees of flimsy opal, roam,
And see their tops that clamber hour by hour
To touch the suns of iris. Things unseen,
Whose charnel breath informs the tideless air
With spreading pools of fetor, follow me,
Elusive past the ever-changing palms;
And pittering moths with wide and ashen wings
Flit on before, and insects ember-hued,
Descending, hurtle through the gorgeous gloom
And quench themselves in crumbling thickets. Heard
Far off, the gong-like roar of beasts unknown
Resounds at measured intervals of time,
Shaking the riper trees to dust, that falls
In clouds of acrid perfume, stifling me
Beneath an irised pall.

A new world…sanctuary for the fallen Emperor, who plummets meteor-like into an alien forest of giant fungi stalks…wandering these woods he senses unseen monsters with foul breath stalking after him…then the distant “roar of beasts unknown” disintegrates the fungi forest…there can be no escape from the doom that follows him across the depths of interstellar space and time…

smith12Now the palmettoes
Grow far apart, and lessen momently
To shrubs a dwarf might topple. Over them
I see an empty desert, all ablaze
With amethysts and rubies, and the dust
Of garnets or carnelians. On I roam,
Treading the gorgeous grit, that dazzles me
With leaping waves of endless rutilance,
Whereby the air is turned to a crimson gloom
Through which I wander blind as any Kobold;
Till underfoot the grinding sands give place
To stone or metal, with a massive ring
More welcome to mine ears than golden bells
Or tinkle of silver fountains. When the gloom
Of crimson lifts, I stand upon the edge
Of a broad black plain of adamant that reaches,
Level as windless water, to the verge
Of all the world; and through the sable plain
A hundred streams of shattered marble run,
And streams of broken steel, and streams of bronze,
Like to the ruin of all the wars of time,
To plunge with clangor of timeless cataracts
Adown the gulfs eternal.

He wanders now into a bright wasteland of crushed and shattered jewels, walking through a crimson evening until he finds a vast steppe of black metal…the “plain of adamant” reaches to the very edge of the world and hundreds of strange rivers run across it…rivers of marble, steel, and bronze, as if all the weapons and armor of Time’s wars were gathered here to “plunge with clangor of timeless cataracts” into enternity…

So I follow
Between a river of steel and a river of bronze,
With ripples loud and tuneless as the clash
Of a million lutes; and come to the precipice
From which they fall, and make the mighty sound
Of a million swords that meet a million shields,
Or din of spears and armour in the wars
Of half the worlds and eons. Far beneath
They fall, through gulfs and cycles of the void,
And vanish like a stream of broken stars
into the nether darkness; nor the gods
Of any sun, nor demons of the gulf,
Will dare to know what everlasting sea
Is fed thereby, and mounts forevermore
In one unebbing tide.

He reaches the edge of the world, where the rivers of metal fall into the abyss with the sound of “a million swords that meet a million shields,” and vanish into the endless void like “a stream of broken stars”…

What nimbus-cloud
Or night of sudden and supreme eclipse,
Is on the sun’s opal? At my side
The rivers run with a wan and ghostly gleam
Through darkness falling as the night that falls
From spheres extinguished. Turning, I behold
Betwixt the sable desert and the suns,
The poised wings of all the dragon-rout,
Far-flown in black occlusion thousand-fold
Through stars, and deeps, and devastated worlds,
Upon my trail of terror! Griffins, rocs,
And sluggish, dark chimeras, heavy-winged
After the ravin of dispeopled lands,
And harpies, and the vulture-birds of hell,
Hot from abominable feasts, and fain
To cool their beaks and talons in my blood—
All, all have gathered, and the wingless rear,
With rank on rank of foul, colossal Worms,
Makes horrent now the horizon. From the wan
I hear the shriek of wyverns, loud and shrill
As tempests in a broken fane, and roar
Of sphinxes, like relentless toll of bells
From towers infernal. Cloud on hellish cloud
flaming20skull2They arch the zenith, and a dreadful wind
Falls from them like the wind before the storm,
And in the wind my riven garment streams
And flutters in the face of all the void,
Even as flows a flaffing spirit, lost
On the pit s undying tempest. Louder grows
The thunder of the streams of stone and bronze—
Redoubled with the roar of torrent wings
Inseparable mingled. Scarce I keep
My footing in the gulfward winds of fear,
And mighty thunders beating to the void
In sea-like waves incessant; and I would flee
With them, and prove the nadir-founded night
Where fall the streams of ruin. But when I reach
The verge, and seek through sun-defeating gloom
To measure with my gaze the dread descent,
I see a tiny star within the depths-
A light that stays me while the wings of doom
Convene their thickening thousands: for the star
increases, taking to its hueless orb,
With all the speed of horror-changed dreams,
The light as of a million million moons;
And floating up through gulfs and glooms eclipsed
It grows and grows, a huge white eyeless Face
That fills the void and fills the universe,
And bloats against the limits of the world
With lips of flame that open . . .

Turning back from the abyss, he sees the vast horde of monsters, the “dragon-rout” has followed him across the cosmos yet again, destroying every world in their path…they want his blood. The worms, the wyverns, the sphinxes, the innumerable monstrosities…they descend in cloud after cloud like a terrible storm…the bloody winds blow his garment away…he stands naked before his onrushing doom…he turns and prepares to leap into the ultimate abyss where the rivers of metal plunge…he will escape the celestial horde by doing so…yet he pauses, his attention drawn by a single bright star gleaming in the bottomless gulf. The star swells, rises from the abyss, becomes a sun, and then a “huge, white eyeless Face that fills the void and fills the universe…” The galactic Face opens its flaming mouth…

So ends Smith’s fantastic trip, and so ends his greatest and most ambitious poem. A metaphor for the death of the universe? A warning against the hubris of mankind in a hostile cosmos? A sheer exercise in fantasy imagery and mythic grandeur? It is all these and more. The poem takes its reader away from terrestrial reality, as the narrator’s visions fling him bodily into the wonderful yet dreadful cosmos.

The narrator starts the journey full of omnipotent confidence, but this Emperor of Dreams soon learns that he is vulnerable…that there are powers far greater than his own…and he has somehow offended them, earned their enmity…he is ultimately doomed. Perhaps it was his overly bold achievement—becoming one with the universe itself—that offended the Powers of Darkness. Perhaps these powers are themselves only visions, powerless to harm him unless he gives them that power. Yet what of the universal Face of fire that consumes all at the poem’s end? An ultimate power that will eventually consume all others? Or simply the bright flame of reality, the Mouth of the World swallowing him as he wakes from these visions.

Does the dreamer “awaken” to reality at the end, or is he utterly consumed by the flaming maw of existence? I have no answer, nor is one necessary. Like life itself, it is the journey that’s important here, not the destination. And quite a journey it is that Clark Ashton Smith’s poem provides for us to enjoy.

Who knew that one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written was actually a POEM?

Now you know.

Our recent coverage of Clark Ashton Smith includes:

New Treasures: The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies, Vol. 1 by Clark Ashton Smith
Vintage Treasures: The Timescape Clark Ashton Smith
The Shade of Klarkash-Ton by James Maliszewski
One Shot, One Story: Clark Ashton Smith by Thomas Parker
New Treasures: The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith
The Crawling Horrors of Mars: Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”
Deepest, Darkest Eden edited by Cody Goodfellow by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Adventures in Stealth Publishing: The Return of the Sorcerer
A Few Words on Clark Ashton Smith by Matthew David Surridge
The Unqualified Unique: The Daily Mail Interviews Me for Clark Ashton Smith’s 50th Morbid Anniversary by Ryan Harvey
Of Secret Worlds Incredible: A Psychedelic Journey into Clark Ashton Smith’s Poetic Masterpiece by John R. Fultz
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part I: The Averoigne Chronicles by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part II: The Book of Hyperborea by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part III: Tales of Zothique by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part IV: Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph by Ryan Harvey


  1. Thank you John for pointing me to this poem. That was an amazing reading experience! The Eldritch Dark has been one of my favorite sites since I first discovered Smith’s work. And my love of the site has only grown.

    Comment by sftheory1 - March 11, 2011 11:43 pm

  2. A genuine masterpiece. I have the Necronomicon Press edition of The Hashish-Eater, but haven’t looked at it in years, so many thanks for prompting me to read it again.
    The poem is so distinctive, so unparalleled in its ambition and effects that there’s a real challenge in describing it, attempting to give some measure of its profoundly eerie allure, to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, or at least knows CAS.
    The Hashish-Eater was something of an anomaly in Smith’s time. Today it seems like a relic of another world.

    Comment by John Hocking - March 12, 2011 2:25 pm

  3. John — wow. Another great article, both a nice piece of scholarship and an enthusiastic intro for those who haven’t encountered CAS.

    I predict that, just like your CTHULHU REIGNS articles, this will be continue to be linked to and read for years.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 13, 2011 11:12 pm

  4. Extremely interesting, especially as (I’ll admit) I hadn’t previously encountered the poem. Clearly, I have more to learn about CAS’s work.

    But as for who knew that “one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written was actually a POEM?” Well, that’s not news! E.g. Beowulf, The Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. and etc. :)

    Comment by carlaz - March 16, 2011 6:07 pm

  5. Hey, Carlaz: D’oh! I knew someone would call me on that! :) I should have said “greatest modern fantasy stories” as a clarifier…nice catch. –JF

    Comment by John R. Fultz - March 16, 2011 7:38 pm

  6. It’s certainly true that modern fantasy lacks poetic talents such as CAS’s. Meanwhile, I see an opportunity for someone to make an insanely overblown concept album based on this poem. :)

    Comment by carlaz - March 17, 2011 4:58 pm

  7. Carlaz: ABSOLUTELY!

    Comment by John R. Fultz - March 17, 2011 6:41 pm

  8. […] to publish it. More recently, John R. Fultz offered a detailed study of Smith’s poem “The Hashish Eater,” and Matthew David Surridge joined this discussion with his 2012 article “A Few Words […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Crawling Horrors of Mars: Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” - November 18, 2013 1:00 pm

  9. […] of Smith’s greatest poems “The Hashish Eater, or The Apocalypse of Evil” was inspired by George Sterling’s “A Wine of Wizardry.” Both of these poems are […]

    Pingback by Cosmic Headtrip: AVATARS OF WIZARDRY | - November 30, 2014 8:56 pm

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