George Sterling: Poet and Friend

By Clark Ashton Smith

My sixteen years' friendship and correspondence with George Sterling began, like so many human relationships, through another friendship. In 1911, when I had reached the age of eighteen, Miss Emily J. Hamilton, late of Oakland, was teacher of English literature at the Auburn High School. Though not one of her pupils (since my formal schooling was already finished) I had been showing her my verses for some months. These verses she was so good as to criticize and, on occasion, praise. One day she said: "Why not send some of your poems to George Sterling?" The suggestion both delighted and dismayed me. It seemed rather like venturing to address a demigod, and I was a little doubtful whether the deity could even be reached through a medium so mundane and prosaic as the mails. Since my fifteenth year I had sought, read and admired with almost acolytish fervor everything published by Sterling in current magazines, together with his two early volumes of poetry. It was anomalous, even fabulous that such poetry could he written by a contemporary. How could I find the presumption to approach this Apollonian being with my own Marsyas-like crudities? My friend reassured me. The demigod not only had a local habitation but was, she hinted, very human—almost, if anything, too human. He was gracious, kindly, helpful, to the novices of the Muse. She had known him in his Piedmont days, with Jack London, Joaquin Miller, Herman Whitaker, Herman Scheffauer. If I wished, she would write him a letter introducing my verses and me. This began a correspondence that was to end only a week prior to Sterling's death in November, 1926. From the first, his letters showed the interest of a master in a promising pupil; and soon they were tinged with the affection of an older brother writing to a younger. I believe he regarded me as standing, in relation to him, somewhat as he had been in relation to Ambrose Beirce; and sought to pass on, in his turn, the critical help, encouragement and praise he had received from Beirce. His letters were rich in technical instruction and correction, though perhaps over—encomiastic. They chronicled his movements, the poems he wrote, the people he met; they flashed with incisive observations, admonitions, touches of gentle humor, epigrams of pagan philosophy or timely comment. They were marked by unfailing solicitude and thoughtfulness. They contained snatches of self-revelation that were boyishly frank. Unconsciously, they sketched the outlines of a character brave, noble, generous in the antique manner; self-forgetful to a fault; modest for himself but eager to proclaim a friend's worth; responsive to beauty in every living nerve, whether the beauty was that of an ocean sunset, a line of poetry, a mountain, or a woman's face. My first meeting with Sterling was delayed till late in June, 1912, when, at his long-repeated invitation, I went down to spend a month with him in Carmel. I remember well the circumstances. Sterling had come with a horse and wagon to meet my train in Monterey but had somehow missed me at the station. [NB, CAS was told by the train conductor to get off at San Jose, and had to purchase another ticket to Monterey, to get a later train, or so he confided many years later to his wife. He had delayed accepting GS's invitation until GS finally understood the delay, and sent him ten dollars to pay train fare. The cost of the second ticket took the remainder of his money. He never, of course, told Sterling that he'd walked to Carmel because he'd had no money left, nor of why he was late. Ed.] Giving him up after a few minutes' wait, I decided to walk the four miles over the ridge to Carmel, and started in the thickening dusk through a country that was thrillingly new and strange to me. Some dweller on the outskirts of Carmel steered me vaguely in the general direction of Sterling's house. The road ran obscurely through a black forest starred with infrequent lights, and seemed to end at the last visible light. A woman (Mrs. Michael Williams, I believe) redirected me. I had only to cross a wooden footbridge and follow a narrow, winding path down the ravine. There, in the pine-fragrant darkness, I came to the blurred outlines of a cabin and a house; I knocked on the cabin's door. A high, cracked, New England voice sang out, "Come in, Clark Ashton Smith!" The cabin's kerosine lamp revealed a figure which, after all the years, and after the very silence and absence of death, seems much more presently alive and vital than many that walk the earth today. About him there was something of the world's youth, something of kinship with its eternal life and the agelessness of the sea. His fine brown acquiline features, his strange mingling of grace and vigor, made one think of a beardless Sylvan or Poseidon. Somehow, in spite of its modernness, his very costume contributed to the impression of viability: he wore golf clothes and stockings of dark green, with a green bow tie and brown canvas shoes. In lieu of a leopard-skin, of wreath of vine-leaves or sea-wrack, the garb was not too inappropriate. His first gesture, after our greetings and explanations, was the pouring of a joint libation fron a wicker-covered gallon demi-john filled with muscatel. The spicy golden wine was indeed the nectar of Parnassus. It was made, I believe, in Monterey; but no muscatel of these latter seasons has ever had quite the same savor and potency. Thus, for me, began a month of rare companionship and happiness. At that time Carmel consisted merely of one main street and a woodland in which the scattered houses were mostly lost to sight. On one side, between Sterling's house and the main street, the pine forest stretched unbroken, peopled only by jays and quail and rabbits. Here Sterling could hunt game or collect pine-knots and logs for fuel. The sea, though hidden from view, was not far distant; and its murmur mingled always with the murmuring of the tree-tops. It was a milieu of enchantment for a boy who had lived wholly heretofore amid inland hills. Robinson Jeffers has written of Sterling's Indian-like familiarity with the coast about Carmel. Truly, he was the genius of that scene and nothing escaped his observation and knowledge. I remember the hidden sea-cavern that he showed me below Point Lobos; the places where wild strawberries grew the thickest; the abalone-reefs; and the furtive incursions of a strange lurid red fungus that he pointed out to me on the Lobos cypresses. This fungus, in latter years, has increased so much it seems to illume the boughs and boles of certain trees as with the reflection of hellish fires; but in 1912 it was confined to a few scattered thumbnail patches. Like all Who love life greatly, Sterling loved the sea: its changing moods and colors and voices; and the things that lurked in its ultramarine depths or were cast up on its tawny beaches. Almost it seemed at times that he was native to that third element, like one of the Swimmers in his own weird and lovely poem. At the time of my visit, Sterling had given the use of his house to John Kenneth Turner, author of BARBAROUS MEXICO, and Turner's wife and children, Turner being in temporary financial difficulties. Sterling was occupying the little cabin he had built for Nora May French; but, turning this over to me, he moved into a little tent for the duration of my stay. He spoke often of Nora May French, that strange and tragically gifted girl who had ended her life with poison in the same bed in which I slept nightly. She had, it seems, previously attempted to shoot herself with his revolver and had brought him a tress of her ashen-blonde hair clipped away by the bullet. He showed me the very spot beside the path up the ravine where this attempt had occurred, according to her statement. But, oddly, there had been no powder marks on her hair. I do not recall that he attributed her suicide to unrequited love for James Hopper; but there had been other reasons . . . perhaps sufficient ones. She was, he said, the most changeable person he had ever known: incredibly radiant and beautiful at times; at others, absolutely dull and colorless in her appearance. One day he brought out a manuscript of hers dictated during the delirium of illness. It was full of an otherworld weirdness; but I can remember nothing of it, but that it was "such stuff as dreams are made of" and therefore immemorable as dreams. On one occasion, I recall that George told me to keep the cabin door shut at night. "if you don't," he warned, "the cat will come in and jump on the bed. You'll think it's Miss X_ trying to climb into bed with you, and you'll be scared." "Oh. no," I rejoined, "I'll probably think it's Nora May's ghost, and I won't be scared at all. I'm sure that her ghost would be a lovely one." "You certainly have an imagination," he commented, half admiringly, half deprecatingly. Sterling was alone then; his wife Carrie (who I never met) being in Oakland. I have said that he was the genius loci of that coast: he was also the presiding genius among the artists in Carmel, who included Fred Bechdolt, Michael Williams, Herbert Heron, Redforn Mason, John Northern Hilliard, Grace McGowan Cook, and Chris Jorgensen. George was their leader in a standing feud with the forces of realty and "civic progress," headed by Perry Newberry, who wished to urbanize Carmel and promote a boom in lot-buying and house-building. The war was fought lustily and bitterly; and the two factions were scarcely on speaking terms. Life, however, seemed simple and leisurely there. Almost every morning, if I recall rightly George took me on a round of calls, often distributing surplus game among his friends. There were wagon-rides up the Carmel valley, along the 17 mile Drive to Point Lobos, and a sea-fowl haunted spot several miles below Lobos where we picnicked with the Turner family. There were mussel-stews and incredibly complicated "mulligans" cooked amid the white sand-dunes; there were walks to Pebble Beach and in the woodlands carpeted with yerba buena and wild strawberry plants. Also, there were rituals to be observed, such as the pounding of abalone steaks with a big wooden mallet on a boulder in the back yard; and the making each afternoon of a huge pitcher of punch, compounded subtly with Bourbon and soda, sliced pineapple and mint from the meadow-bottom below the house. I was priviledged to purvey the mint. George often commented on my temperance, since I would never exceed a fourth glass of that delectable brew. I do not recall any excessive drinking on George's part; unless the term can be applied to his consumption of numerous bottles of beer at a beach picnic. Later he apologized, saying that beer was a swinish drink. But the Saxons (he believed him- self to be mainly of Saxon blood) had always been prone to it. Either on this occasion or some other, he maintained the superiority of the Saxon over the Gaelic peoples. Perhaps he had this prejudice in mind when he wrote the lines of that splendid lyric, The Princess on the Headland. Anyway, his prejudices were always strongly held and stoutly supported. Among others, he frankly despised the men of mere affairs and money-making divorced from all else. "They are mutts," he said, "That's what their women call them. . ." Regarding women, his advice was often sage, and often exquisitely raffish. . . . "Don't ever let a woman get the upper hand of you," he counseled. "Rule them with a rod of iron." His physical fitness was remarkable but he told me that he had not always been as robust. He brought out a photograph taken during his Piedmont period— "Look how thin I was then!" Indeed, the picture was all profile—an esthetic-looking shadow. He attributed the improvement in his health to a system of exercises devised by Sanford Rennett, a San Francisco business man who claimed to have rejuvinated himself when past fifty. The exercises were based on a principle of alternate tension and relaxation; and one in particular involved massage of the abdominal muscles under tension. It was supposed to strengthen the digestive powers. Many years later I began to experiment with Bennett's system myself, and can testify that its claims are far from exaggerated. At the end of my Carmel stay, Sterling accompanied me to San Francisco, from which city I returned shortly to Auburn. We spent a night in Oakland as the guests of George's friend, Roosevelt Johnson, who seemed as distinctly an incarnation of the old Roman world as George was of the Greek. A. M. Robertson, Sterling's publisher, had agreed to bring out my first volume of verse, THE STAR TREADER AND OTHER POEMS. George was indefatigable in assisting me with the endless correction of galley and page proofs exchanged by mail. Previously, he had advised me in the choice of poems for the collection. The numerous letters that he wrote me at this time, as well as these in regard to my subsequent volumes of verse, testify eloquently to his unbounded generosity and helpfulness toward a fellow-aspirant to the Muses' laurels. Our next meeting occurred early in 1914, just prior to Sterling's departure for New York after his final separation from Carrie. After visits to Colt Bierce and Jack London, he stopped in Auburn and spent some time with my parents and me. I remember that he was "on the wagon" at the time but had brought along an immense box of chocolate candy, most of which he consumed himself, with the result of a sleepless night! During that brief visity he endeared himself greatly to my parents. He was vastly interested in a mining-shaft which my father and I had started, and often referred to it in his subsequent letters from the east. He sent me from New York the ms. of a mining story he had written, and asked me to revise it in regard to the correct legal points of claim-staking and filing. These details my. . . Here the manuscript stops short. It resumes on p. 11 of the manuscript. Sterling also assisted me in choosing the poems for ODES AND SONNETS, published by the Book Club of California for which Sterling wrote the preface. Three years later he was to write the foreword for my third volume, EBONY AND CRYSTAL. I made occasional visits to San Francisco during those years, and George was always my companion and cicerone. He was then domiciled permanently at the Bohemian Club. Many of my memories of him are associated with the Club, and with such favorite latin restaurants as the Trattoria Bolognese (more familiarly known as the Bologna) presided over by the affable Bigin. Here, as elsewhere in San Francisco, the spirit of Bohemia was not unduly subdued by the devastations of the Volstead Act. I recall, too, that George took me on charming visits to Mrs. Travis (Lawrence Zenda) and the tall, statuesque blond Mrs. Warlock, whom he called "Boadicen." One day, in that den of silence and solitude, the Bohemian Club library, he gave me the manuscript of "Lilith" to read. Either I did not wholly grasp the play's tremendous import and poetic opulence at that first hasty reading, or else I was backward in expressing my appreciation; for, after its publication, he seemed surprised at the enthusiasm with which I wrote of it in a letter. Truly, it is a magnificent thing, and without parallel in modern literature, apart from the poetic plays of Swinburne and D'Annunzio. I like to recall those evenings at Bigin's, which have about them the charm of a time irretrievably vanished and remote. George, a little grey, was still master of the revels. Stella was gone, but there were other dancers in that world such as Marie Parmalee, and the two Nicol girls, Margaret and Amaryllis, whom I had known during their childhood in Auburn. George Sterling died in 1926 [burn] [The last] time that my friend and I met face to face was during , between Christmas and New Years. He was ill in bed at the Bohemian Club: the result of an over-successful Yuletide celebration. I remarked then at the semi-monastic bareness of his room, aside from the pictured constellations of feminine beauty on the walls. There were few books. He told me that he no longer cared to accumulate many possessions. Long since, . . . Here the manuscript ends in burned fragments. It is a tragedy that miscellaneous works as these hod to be lost in whole or in part, but instead of crying over the irretrievable, let us be thankful for what we have left. Appendix from Planets and Dimensions Mirage Press 1973. This essay, although written ca. 1941, first appeared in Mirage, Vol. I, No. 6, Winter 1963-1964. The note by Editor Jack L. Chalker which prefixed that publication explains the origin of the essay

    Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is just now becoming recognized as a literary master. Unlike the bulk of his contemporaries, he was equally at home writing poetry or prose, although he once remarked that he would like to be remembered as a poet. As with all writers, the personality molds the piece, and the personality is molded upon past experience. The factors making up the curious entity known as Clark Ashton Smith are much too lengthy to be delved into here (see IN MEMORIAM: CLARK ASHTON SMITH, Anthem) but suffice it to say that the major influence on his literary development woe the well known American poet George Sterling. Sterling saw in Smith a fantastic literary potential, and, recognizing his duty to aid genius, made Smith his protege. The two remained close friends until Sterling's death in the late 20's. Whether the pupil surpassed the tutor is a matter of personal opinion; many scholars are inclined to think that Smith so surpassed Sterling that there is not even a comparison in this field. Be that as it may, Sterling's help was an integral part of Smith's poetic development, and it is interesting, therefore, to find this article by Smith telling of a visit to Sterling. It is a remarkable piece, unearthed by Mrs. Smith when we were compiling IN MEMORIAM: C. A. S. Space limitations kept many pieces from appearing—this included. Note that the manuscript is not complete. Ninny Smith manuscripts were burned in the fire which consumed his cabin; some, like "The Dead Will Cuckold You," were restored; but Smith did not live to restore this one. We can only regret the loss and take pleasure in what is left. The annotations in the article (represented by brackets) were by Mrs. Clark Aston Smith and Jack L. Chalker.  
[Note: Either brackets or italics are used in this edition, as appropriate, to indicate annotations .]

Planets and Dimensions: Collected Essays, Mirage Press, 1973