Black Gate‘s ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series had ranged far and wide across the writings of REH. But we had not yet tackled his poetry. Consider it tackled! Barbara Barrett, who put together the extensively detailed The Wordbook: An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard, is the planet’s resident expert on the poetry of REH. And the author of Conan was quite a poet. Read on!
By the time I discovered Howard’s poetry, Solomon Kane, King Kull, Conan and El Borak were familiar characters. I didn’t think Howard’s writing could get any better than the poetic prose in those stories. At least, until I picked up a copy of Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard and read these lines from his poem “The Ride of Falume.”
A league behind the western wind, a mile beyond the moon,
Where the dim seas roar on an unknown shore and the drifting stars lie strewn
I was transported to a place straight out of a Hubble star-strewn space photo where I sat on some unknown seashore, gazing at a moon larger than I had ever seen, and listening to the roaring waves crash against sand and rock. I could see it all clearly.
I was hooked on Howard’s verse but finding more of his poems was difficult. When The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard was published, I compiled The Wordbook: An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard. Through this, I developed an appreciation for him as a master wordsmith.
Many Howard fans are familiar with his vivid images. Howard Andrew Jones discusses his “incredible descriptive powers” in “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: The Frost Giant’s Daughter”:
Some of that talent seems to have been innate with him, but I can’t help thinking he’s even better than he could have been because he spent so much time working with poetry, where every word counts even more than in prose….
Jones is right. In poetry, every word does count and sometimes in Howard’s verse, only one word is all that’s needed—especially when it’s a descriptive adjective to set a mood. For those of us interested in writing, switching his descriptive words can be eye opening. In my Introduction in The Wordbook, I exchanged the adjectives describing the moon in two different poems.
In “The Symbol,” Howard gives this depiction:
Carved in its blind black face of stone a fearful unknown rune
Leers in the glare of the tropic sun and the cold of the leprous moon.
And it shall stand for a symbol mute that men are weak and blind,
Till Hell roars up from the black abyss and horror swoops behind.
Contrast this with his description in “Reuben’s Brethren”
Kisses I drank in the blaze of noon
At eve, may be bitter as scorning
And I go in the light of a mocking moon
To the woman I cursed this morning.
Put the word “leprous” in “Reuben’s Brethren” and “mocking” in “The Symbol” and it completely changes the tone of each. In both poems, it is the same moon that waxes and wanes above our heads, but Howard has skillfully changed our perception of it with just one word.
In my versions the moon in “Brethren” is more sinister and in “The Symbol” it ridicules, not frightens. Both interpretations work within the context of these verses. However, mood and theme must be consistent. Looking at the last stanza of each, it’s clear the tone would be different. The intensity of the menace in “The Symbol” does not fit with the word “mocking.”
For this is the screed upon the shaft, oh, pallid sons of men:
We that were lords of all the earth, shall rise and rule again.”
And dark is the doom of the tribes of earth, that hour wild and red,
When the ages give their secrets up and the sea gives up its dead.
“Reuben’s Brethren” spells out the conflict and there is nothing “leprous” about a “drifting mood.”
For deep in my soul the old gods brood—
And I come of a restless breed—
And my heart is blown in each drifting mood
As clouds blow over the mead.
Howard’s descriptive adjectives have an added dimension. Most people describe the full moon as bright, round, perhaps even with a face. In Howard’s world, it’s always more than that. The moon “shivers,” “shudders” and is even “wrinkled.” Many objects in his poetry are given a personality. By making the two adjectives anthropomorphic, it’s no longer just a glowing orb. The moon is alive and through his depictions, it actually speaks.
Keeping vivid images, mood and theme consistent in a poem is difficult. Howard’s extraordinary skill at this is especially visible in “The Tide” where there are five mood changes in eleven verses.
In the first three stanzas, there is love and passion. Howard’s descriptive images include “the drum of my heart’s swift beat,” “passion’s misty sea,” and “ultimate birth.”
Thus in my mood I love you,
In the drum of my heart’s swift beat,
In the lure of the skies above you
And the earth beneath your feet.
Now I can lift and crown you
With the moon’s white empery;
And I can crush and drown you
In my passion’s misty sea.
I can swing you high and higher
Than any man of the earth,
Draw you through stars and fire
To lands of the ultimate birth.
The changes in the next two verses are jarring as they switch from romantic descriptions to action verbs like “sever” and “travel”. These stanzas were quoted in the 1996 Howard biopic The Whole Wide World with Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger.
Were I like this forever
You’d but too little to give,
But here tonight we sever,
For life loves life to live.
And the further a man may travel
The further may he fall,
And the skein that I must unravel
Was never meant for all.
In these next stanzas, the tone is more accusatory and cold:
What do you know of glory,
Of the heights that I have trod?
Or the shadows grim and hoary
That hide my face from God?
Would you understand my story,
My torments and my hopes?
Or the dark red Purgatory
Where my soul in horror gropes?
When he becomes the lover again, words like the “peaks where splendors hover” are tempered by the cooling words “drifting with the tide.” Perhaps the modern version of “going with the flow.”
Now I am man and lover
Rising with you at side
To peaks where the splendors hover—
But drifting with the tide.
This next stanza is possibly the main theme and is in keeping with the title.
And the tide? It is mine to shake it,
To battle the winds and spray;
To batter the tide and break it
Or batter my heart away.
What Howard meant by “batter the tide and break it” and “batter his heart away” is difficult to determine. Possibly the conflict lies between his desire to travel his own path and the feeling of “Thus in my mood I love you.”
Howard then goes back to the theme of rejection with an excellent description of a dying or fading love, possibly reflecting the line “You’ve but too little to give.”
So I leave you—that you never
The grim day have to face
When I would be gone forever
And a stranger in my place.
Tonight, tonight we sever,
For my race is my own race.
While the mood of the poem changed several times between love and rejection, these moods are consistent with the overall theme depicting his internal conflict. There is no doubt which side triumphs. By the time “Thus in my mood I love you” becomes “Tonight, tonight, we sever,” it’s difficult to remember that first line.
The changing moods in “Shadows of Dreams” are more complex. The first verse describes fear and escape. The second denounces the sleepers in the darkened rooms. While it is fear that drives him into the night, there is an underlying theme of aloneness in a world where no one sees his demons.
Men sing of poets who leave their sheets
For the sighing dew to cool their brain,
But I have tramped through the silent streets,
Through tides of the midnight rain.
What was it drew me from my room
Into the rain and the night,
To the empty echoed pavements
And the street lamp’s guttering light?
Rather the night breeze in my face
And the night rain in my hair,
Than the cold of a phantom ridden place
And the Thing that waited there.
Had I turned again to the bed where one
Slept careless in the gloom—
But I saw the empty windows frown
And the gliding shadows bore me down
And I fled from the sleeping room.
Oh fingers steel, oh fingers steel
That rend the brain and heart,
Perdition born, they do not scorn
In Hell your icy art.
Oh men that deep lie locked in sleep
Nor dream of such abyss,
Awake, awake and see me break
The sword of Lilith’s kiss.
The roof above, the bed below,
Your slumbering mate a-side
Oh, happy fools, what do you know
Of this inhuman tide?
Oh sleep ye sound, your windows frowned,
In orthodoxy wrath
At one who lost on nameless roads
Beats out his own long path.
Aye, sleep ye fools of rote and rules—
Brains break, though naught ye deem,
And torch and steel may make ye feel
The things whereof I dream.
His extraordinary skill with words is especially apparent in the third verse as he deftly uses the same phrase three times to change the mood, culminating in an unusual-for-Howard ending.
Oh men that sleep, oh men that sleep,
Come out and dance with me.
I’ll show you deeper depths of Hells
You ever dreamed could be.
I did not flee as men have fled
To seek a refuge vain.
I bared my breast to the night’s unrest
And the whip of the flying rain.
The rain was in my dank hair
And in my face the mist;
The breath of night was on my lips
That Bast of Egypt kissed.
Oh men that sleep, oh men that sleep,
I hear your restless sigh
And now the red of early dawn
Makes pale the eastern sky.
Back, shadows, back into the night,
Morn’s goblet’s brimming full;
Back to the corners of the world
And the dark nooks in my skull.
Oh men that sleep, awake, awake.
The skyline glimmers white.
And I must seek again the road
That leads to life and light.
Although the last two lines have an almost optimistic tone, the word “must” instead of “will” seems to negate an upbeat finish. Again, it’s a demonstration of his talent and what he can do with just one word—even auxiliary verbs.
Robert E. Howard’s “incredible descriptive powers” are apparent in his prose, but it is in his poetry that his ability as a wordsmith shines. In The Wordbook there are three pages listing the adjectives Howard used to describe the sea. As you read each one, a different image arises:
ancient….. bestial….. bounding….. clawing….. cruel….. encircling….. fiery….. iron….. midnight….. nameless….. outer….. primal….. roistering…..; sea of blood….. doom….. doubt….. eon-ancient fears….. illusion…..; sighing seas….. sullen….. unmapped….. wild….. windy….. seas.
A “sea of eon-ancient fears”? Now that’s what I call painting with words—and Robert E. Howard was a master at it.
A special thanks to Howard Andrew Jones for the inspiration for this article.
Prior posts in our ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series:
REH Goes Hard Boiled by Bob Byrne
The Fists of Robert E. Howard by Paul Bishop
2015 Howard Days by Damon Sasser
Solomon Kane by Frank Schindiler
REH in the Comics – Beyond Barbarians by Bobby Derie
Rogues in the House by Wally Conger
By Crom – Are Conan Pastiches Official? by Bob Byrne
The Worldbuilding of REH by Jeffrey Shanks
Re-reading ‘The Phoenix on the Sword” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
Ramblings on REH by Bob Byrne
Pigeons From Hell by Don Herron
Re-reading “The Tower of the Elephant” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
El Borak by David Hardy
Westerns by James Reasoner
Re-reading “Queen of the Black Coast” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
Re-reading “Black Colossus” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
Armies of the Hyborian Age by Morgan Holmes
Howard’s Influence on The World of Xoth by Morten Braten
Re-reading “Rogues in the House” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol 1 by John Fultz
Robert E. Howard: Exile of Cross Plains by William Patrick Maynard
Re-Reading “The Devil in Iron” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
Kull and the Quest for Identity by William Patrick Maynard
Re-Reading “People of the Black Circle” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
REH: Peering Behind the Veil of Life by William Patrick Maynard
Re-Reading The Hour of the Dragon by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
Re-Reading “Beyond the Black River” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward
We’ve got a few more posts left as we wrap up the series, so stay tuned!
Barbara Barrett was the Featured Attendee for the 2014 REH Days. She is a member of The Robert E. Howard United Press Association Foundation and she compiled and edited The Wordbook: An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard. Her last article for Black Gate was Just Call Me Folklore: A Whimsicality on a Whimsical Character.
You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.
His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published.