THR Web Features   /   July 10, 2024

The Unlikely Verse of H.P. Lovecraft

Conjuring horror from the darkest deep down things.

Ed Simon

( Nyarlathotep the Crawling Chaos by Jacob Walker, © 2013; courtesy of the artist.)

During the summer of 1997, an array of passive sonars intended to monitor Soviet submarines but repurposed for scientific research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration detected a low-frequency sound emanating from latitude 50 degrees south and longitude 100 degrees west, in near-Antarctic waters off the coast of Chile. The loudest sound ever recorded, it was cheerfully dubbed “The Bloop” by scientists, who proceeded to venture assorted hypotheses as to what it was. Today, many conjecture that it was the result of glacial shifting or ice collapse, but uncertainty remains. David Wolman, writing at New Scientist in 2002, noted that The Bloop’s “signature is a rapid variation in frequency similar to that of sounds known to be made by marine beasts.” Yet this subterranean, aquatic scream was so loud that whatever creature may have produced it would be far “bigger than any whale…lurking in the ocean depths.”

The Earth’s oceans remain a source of anxious uncertainty. For all that we’ve chartered upon the waves of the sea, that which lies beneath remains as dark as the impenetrable barriers through which surface light does not penetrate, a black kingdom of translucent glowing fish with jagged deaths-teeth and of massive worms living in volcanic trenches. More than even interstellar space, the ocean’s uncanniness disrupts because the entrance to this unknown empire is as near as the closest beach, where even on the sunniest days a consideration of what hides below can give a sense of what the horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote in a 1927 essay from The Recluse, when he claimed that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is a fear of the unknown.” The conjuring of that emotion was a motivating impulse in Lovecraft’s weird fiction, in which he imagined such horrors as the “elder god” Cthulhu, a massive, uncaring, and nearly immortal alien cephalopod imprisoned in the ancient sunken city of R’lyeh, located approximately 50 degrees south and 100 degrees west.

Despite often being passed over by more respectable scholars and critics, Lovecraft (1890–1937) has remained remarkably popular for over a century. Arguably the greatest horror writer since Edgar Allan Poe, he was unquestionably instrumental to the invention of “weird fiction,” with an influence obvious everywhere from Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian to Batman. In purple prose, Lovecraft generated a rich and endlessly variable mythos, apparent in characters, scenes, ideas, and tropes ranging from the aforementioned R’lyeh and the tentacled Cthulhu, to the cursed, incantatory grimoire The Necronomicon and the occult library of Miskatonic University in haunted Arkham, Massachusetts, a stand-in for the author’s own steep, red-bricked and cobblestoned Providence. Almost equal to his narrative inventions, at least in terms of his appeal, was Lovecraft’s philosophy of horror, which abandoned the supernaturalism of the genre in favor of a cold, barren, unfeeling, materialistic cosmos, a nihilistic mythos reflective of the terror that the incommensurable distances of the actual universe inculcate within us.

“I saw the world battling against the blackness,” writes Lovecraft in his short meditation “Nyarlathotep,” a prose-poem concerning an elder god who is an immortal Egyptian pharaoh. In addition to Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, there is the somnolescent but omnipotent Azathoth, the fish-god Dagon, and the cosmic entity Yog-Sothoth, among dozens of others. What’s fascinating is that they’re not deities in the traditional sense, because despite their power, vastness, and longevity, they are purely material beings. The metaphysics of the author is one in which the “universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles,” as French novelist Michele Houellebecq (who could challenge his study’s subject in sheer misanthropy) writes in H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Houellebecq explains that this metaphysics implies an ethics whereby “human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism.”

Obviously, there are philosophical precursors here, such as Friedrich Nietzsche who died only fifteen years before Lovecraft’s first publication. As literature, however, there is something fascinating about Lovecraft, especially in the verse, where such an affected Victorian diction is deployed to demolish those very same “Victorian fictions.” Within “Nyarlathotep,” Lovecraft recounts apocalyptic visions of the “world battling against blackness; against the waves of destruction from ultimate space; whirling, churning; struggling against the dimming, cooling sun.” Eschewing traditional rhythm and meter, Lovecraft’s prose-poem still has a distinctive beat, an onomatopoeic scansion that mimics the very chaos which he describes. It is a remarkable work, not only in its evocation of the decadent poets and symbolists who were unheralded influences on him, but also in the fact that it is poetic. It is remarkable, in other words, because popular culture has misremembered Lovecraft as primarily a worker in prose.

Not only a prolific lyricist, Lovecraft considered his main vocation to be poetry. And at its best, his verse can be judged an apt expression of his philosophical vision, in which cosmic horror embodies the predicament of all sentient beings in a meaningless universe. That Lovecraft’s poetry never reaches the heights attained by such Modernists as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound should not diminish the fact that his is verse that, in the most archaic of ways, advances a startlingly modern metaphysic, a poetic encapsulation of what Thomas Ligotti in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race describes as an affirmation that the universe is a “place without sense, meaning, or value.” Lovecraft, with his antiquated prosody and his anti-human ethics, presented readers with a type of counter-modernist poetry. Ironically, he is the radical culmination of William Carlos Williams’s injunction of “No ideas but in things;” he is an author for whom there are only things. Graham Harman in Lovecraft and Philosophy describes Lovecraft as a “violently anti-idealist” who “laments the inability of mere language to depict the deep horrors his narrators confront.” Unpleasant stuff, for sure. It is verse that at best exemplifies something that controversial poet Frederik Seidel called for in the Paris Review: “Write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.”

Despite his own pretensions, it would be an act of critical malpractice to claim Lovecraft for any kind of Modernist canon. What Lovecraft shared with Pound and Eliot was bigotry rather than poetic talent. A representative sample of Lovecraft’s style would be the first stanza from “Hallowe’en in a Suburb,” wherein he describes how the “steeples are white in the wild moonlight, / And the trees have a silver glare; / Past the chimneys high see the vampires fly, / And the harpies of upper air, / That flutter and laugh and stare.” From the risible Augustan rhyming couplets to the affected archaism of the (incorrectly deployed) elision in the title, this is, for lack of a better critical term, a bad poem. Perhaps this sort of thing recalls the forerunners of the New England Gothic in the form of Michael Wigglesworth’s seventeenth-century Day of Doom, but that is hardly high praise. Then there are verses coupled with objectionable politics, including (despite his deep Yankee, Rhode Island roots) odes to Robert E. Lee and paeans to the Confederacy, as well as a lyric so racist that I won’t even quote the title.

But when it comes to his better verse, part of what makes Lovecraft’s poetry interesting is the same quality that renders his prose so arresting—the union of an almost Victorian manner of description with a nihilistically modern sensibility. Even among the dross, there are poems that are interesting, even a few that are actually good. Most remarkable is the 1929 sonnet cycle of thirty-six poems, Fungi from Yoggeth. Working within the most venerable form of English poetry, the genre of Surrey and Wyatt, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Lovecraft builds ingenious little fourteen-line mechanisms expressing a ghoulish sensibility. Ostensibly, the cycle recounts the journeys of a man in possession of a volume evocative of the Necronomicon which allows him to travel between parallel realities. However, as in the cosmic horror of his prose works, there is always Lovecraft’s potent anti-vision of a cold and dead universe.

“The daemon said that he would take me home / To the pale, shadowy land I half recalled / As a high place of stair and terrace, walled / With marble balustrades that sky-winds comb, / While miles below a maze of dome on dome / And tower on tower beside a sea lies sprawled,” he writes in the fifth sonnet. Deploying the elegance of the Petrarchan sonnet’s inter-couched rhyme schemes, Lovecraft produced a poem that sounds archaic (as he intended) but somehow unaffected, unlike so much of the rest of his verse. Although it was written in 1929, it’s easy to imagine the sonnet with its marble balustrades and towers, its domes on domes, its towers on towers being written in 1829. There is more of Coleridge than Pound in the work. Uncharitably, a critic could accuse the sonnet of being a mere imitation of a Gothic-Romantic sensibility, but in my estimation Lovecraft’s poem feels as if it was a forgery, and a forgery is very different from an imitation. Unlike Lovecraft’s poetry at its most awkward, the sonnets in Fungi from Yoggeth avoid obvious rhymes while taking advantage of clever enjambments; they are the work of somebody who clearly knew how to write verse. “Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,” writes Lovecraft in sonnet 20, “But every night I see the rubbery things, / Black, horned, and slender, with membranous wings, / And tails that bear the bifid barb of hell.” What is obvious in Lovecraft’s rhymes here (“things/wings”) is a delightful exuberance in diction, all of those adverbs and adjectives that empurple his prose standing defiantly at the moment that modernist, imagistic minimalism held dominion. And how glorious is “bifid” or “membranous.”

Still, it is “Nyarlathotep” that is Lovecraft’s poetic victory, that mad rush of words unspooling freely, that imagery of free association, but all in trepidation of the “sightless vortex of the unimaginable.” From Lucretius to Carl Sagan, scientifically minded poets and writers have often emphasized the experience of wonder, seeing in evolution, whether biological or cosmic, the same sense of the numinous that inspires the religious. This aesthetic and spiritual approach is often wed to a philosophical positivism that understands science as ever progressive, supplanting all previous ways of understanding. Yet neither of these potential responses—the aesthetic or the ethical—is strictly empirical or scientific; they are equally subjective and emotional responses. By contrast, Lovecraft can examine the same data—the billions of years of cosmic history, the terrifying distances between the galaxies, the inevitable trend toward entropy and the heat death of the universe—and feel revulsion rather than wonder. In Lovecraft’s estimation, this revulsion results not from the mere possibility that the universe might be inert, cold and dead, but from the absolute confirmation that it is all of those things.

Our universe is a “revolting graveyard,” as Lovecraft writes in “Nyarlathotep,” with “corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low.” What Lovecraft the thinker offers is a radical anti-positivist materialism that takes stocks of the horror of the world, the sheer size and scope of a universe larger and older than any elder god. Philosopher Graham Harman writes in Speculative Realism: An Introduction that “realism is always in some sense weird. Realism is about the strangeness in reality that is not projected onto reality by us. It is already there by dint of being real.”

There is nothing of the occult or supernatural in Lovecraft’s metaphysics; his understanding is of a naked materialism pushed to his own psychological breaking point. As explored in his 1926 story “The Call of Cthulhu,” this metaphysics holds that we exist on a “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,” defined by “such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein.” Even Nietzsche had a lusty sense of how such nihilism implies an existential freedom. Lovecraft did not. His is a horror based not in Genesis but in the Big Bang, in which we fear not the Devil but nothing at all. As Lovecraft opines, the “most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” A universe where a hidden creature’s screams can penetrate the obsidian blackness of the deepest and coldest waters.