(New York: Hippocampus Press, 2003)
[Copyright © 2003 by Hippocampus Press. Reprinted by permission.]
In many ways it is unjust to segregate the weird or fantastic poetry of George Sterling (1869-1926) from the rest of his copious poetic output, since Sterling-who, despite his current obscurity, has a valid claim to the title of leading American lyric poet of the twentieth century-never envisioned working in such a vein; even his most "cosmic" work, The Testimony of the Suns, he passed off merely as a "'Star' poem," and perhaps only "A Wine of Wizardry" was consciously intended to inspire terror. Sterling's poetry ran the gamut of subjects-love and death, humanity and society, even politics and war-and only occasionally and incidentally did so in a manner that can in retrospect be termed fantastic. And yet it is clear that Sterling had a clear affinity for fantastic themes-perhaps more so than many other American poets of his time.
Sterling was born in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and educated there and in Maryland, where he studied with the minor poet John Banister Tabb (1845-1909). In 1890 he decided to come to California both to pursue a career-his wealthy uncle, F. C. Havens, was a prosperous businessman in the Bay Area-and to develop his literary gifts. He quickly became acquainted with Joaquin Miller (1837-1913), the flamboyant poet who had gained celebrity in England with the publication of Songs of the Sierras (1871). No later than 1896, Sterling became friends with California's Great Cham of Letters, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), who had not only established himself as a prominent short story writer and poet (although he disavowed the latter title), but also was the most feared and respected journalist and critic on the West Coast. In his weekly "Prattle" column for the San Francisco Examiner, he magisterially settled the fates of the writers, politicians, clergymen, and other hapless beings who fell under his sharp and withering glance. Sterling's first extant letters to Bierce date to 1897, and it was about that time that he began to send his early poems to Bierce. Bierce was impressed to the degree of quoting them in full in some of his columns of 1899, and in 1901 (now transferred to Washington, D.C.) he arranged for the publication of Sterling's "Memorial Day" in the Washington Post.
In late 1901 Sterling began work on the poem that would bring him his first taste of fame. The Testimony of the Suns elicited immediate enthusiasm from Bierce:
Where are you going to stop?-I mean at what stage of development? . . . This last beats any and all that went before-or I am bewitched and befuddled. I dare not trust myself to say what I think of it. In manner it is great, but the greatness of the theme!-that is beyond anything.
It is a new field, the broadest yet discovered. . . . The tremendous phenomena of Astronomy have never had adequate poetic treatment, their meaning adequate expression. You must make it your domain. You shall be the poet of the skies, the prophet of the suns. (Bierce to Sterling, 15 March 1902)
In spite of the dates Sterling affixed to the poem (December 1901 for Part I, February 1902 for Part II), he did not complete the poem until May. Bierce made exhaustive marginal notations and comments on the draft, many of which Sterling acknowledged when making subsequent revisions. For many years following, Sterling in his letters to Bierce addressed the older writer as "Master," much to Bierce's consternation and embarrassment; but such was Sterling's great respect for Bierce's wisdom and erudition.
Whether The Testimony of the Suns is Sterling's greatest poem is open to question; certainly, it is one of his most impressive. The vibrant depiction of cosmic conflict, although occasionally obscure in sense and diction, is a triumph of the imagination; but Sterling knew that it was not without human significance: "I hope that it will be clear enough to the intellectual reader that my invocation to the stars is only an allegory of man's search of the universe for the secret of life" (Sterling to Bierce, 3 June 1902). Although Bierce was worried that the second part of the poem would produce a let-down because it might involve a sentimental "human element" that would weaken the force of the cosmic first part, he was relieved when he finally read it: "You did the trick excellently well-got down to earth again without accident" (Bierce to Sterling, 20 June 1902). The fundamental message of that second part appears to be the failure of the human mind to find any "meaning" in the stars aside from the notion of constant struggle, warfare, and ultimate transience. Since the stars themselves will one day perish, what hope can human beings have of staving off oblivion?
The poem was far too long to be published in a magazine, even if Sterling had had a poetic reputation at that time; so he included it in his first book, The Testimony of the Suns and Other Poems (1903), published by a San Francisco businessman, W. E. Wood. Shortly thereafter, in 1904, the volume was reprinted by A. M. Robertson, the bookseller and publisher who would issue the majority of Sterling's books during his lifetime. Many copies of that second edition were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, so Robertson reprinted it in 1907.
Sterling continued to send his poems to Bierce for comment and approval. He quoted bits of "A Wine of Wizardry"-which he called "a poem of 'pure imagination'"-in a letter of 2 January 1904; at that time it already included two of its most striking lines:
The blue-eyed vampire, sated at her feast,
Smiles bloodily against the leprous moon.
Bierce was not slow to respond, noting that the above lines "give me the shivers. Gee! they're awful!" (Bierce to Sterling, 8 January 1904). By the end of the month the poem was finished. Its "plot," if such it can be called, is simple: the poet drinks a wine that awakens his "Fancy," who ventures on a variety of fantastic voyages, alternately lovely and horrific. (Upton Sinclair, a fervent teetotaller, suggested that the work should have been titled "The Wizardry of Wine.") On occasion the poem descends to mere catalogues of jewelled words and phrases, but on the whole it is a powerful exercise of imagination-a more earthly imagination, certainly, than The Testimony of the Suns, but one in which horror and fantasy are inextricably united.
For years Bierce strove to secure the magazine publication of "A Wine of Wizardry." Although not as long as The Testimony of the Suns, it was still a long poem, hence not easily saleable; and its exoticism made it doubly difficult to market at a time when an attenuated Victorianism still demanded that poets speak in a reserved and conventional manner. Bierce sanguinely observed, "It is impossible to imagine a magazine editor rejecting that poem" (Bierce to Sterling, 11 May 1904), but that is exactly what happened. Scribner's, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, Munsey's, the Metropolitan, the Bookman, even Cosmopolitan (for which Bierce had begun writing in 1905) all turned it down. Bierce showered abuse upon the editors of these magazines, but perhaps a bit unjustly: the poem's length, its imagery, and the fact that Sterling was by no means a well-known literary figure all militated against its ready acceptance.
Bierce then sent the poem to Herman Scheffauer (an earlier poetic pupil of Bierce's who, much to his own irritation, quickly took second rank as a disciple once Sterling emerged) to market in England, but with no success. Sterling offered it to Sunset, a West Coast magazine that had run some of his earlier verse, but to no avail. For a time it looked as if Walter Neale (1873-1933), who in 1909 began issuing Bierce's Collected Works, might include it in a magazine he was contemplating, but the magazine was never begun. A. M. Robertson thought of bringing out the poem as a pamphlet in a 500-copy edition on Japanese vellum, but Bierce expressed disapproval of this kind of "limited edition," believing that it would restrict the poem's audience to collectors. Finally, a new editor, Sam Chamberlain, took over at Cosmopolitan in the summer of 1907 and expressed a wish to print the poem. Bierce had written an effusive article, "A Poet and His Poem," to run concurrently with "A Wine of Wizardry." Both appeared in the September 1907 issue, and Sterling was paid $100 for the poem.
A firestorm of controversy ensued. Some readers and critics, perhaps offended by Bierce's high praise of the poem, misconstrued his essay and maintained that Bierce believed the poem to be the greatest ever written in America. In fact, much of the incredulity and scoffing to which "A Wine of Wizardry" was subject was a result of two passages in Bierce's essay, the first about The Testimony of the Suns ("Of that work I have the temerity to think that in both subject and art it nicks the rock as high as anything of the generation of Tennyson, and a good deal higher than anything of the generation of Kipling"), the second about Sterling in general:
. . . I steadfastly believe and hardily affirm that George Sterling is a very great poet-incomparably the greatest that we have on this side of the Atlantic. And of this particular poem I hold that not in a lifetime has our literature had any new thing of equal length containing so much poetry and so little else.
Note carefully what Bierce actually says: Sterling is the greatest living American poet, and "A Wine of Wizardry" has more quintessential poetry than any other poem written within Bierce's lifetime. Neither of these statements is, as we can now see, as controversial as Bierce's contemporaries believed. It is a brute fact that American poetry, from the death of Longfellow in 1882 to the emergence of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost in the 1920s, was at a particularly low ebb, so that to affirm in 1907 that George Sterling was America's finest living poet was to speak what could very well be the truth. Bierce's second comment is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, as it seems to give short shrift to Swinburne (a clear influence on Sterling, at least in regard to diction) and the Pre-Raphaelites; but Bierce was not fond of these poets and sincerely believed Sterling to be their superior. Other parts of Bierce's essay-especially when he likens parts of "A Wine of Wizardry" (notably the "blue-eyed vampire" lines) to celebrated passages in Coleridge and Keats-do indeed make one question whether Bierce's fondness for Sterling had gotten the better of his critical judgment.
But the furore over the poem was, as Bierce saw, a product of two quite different elements: first, the fact that very few individuals of his day (and, sadly, of ours) had any true grasp of the essence of poetry, hence could not recognise it when they saw it; and, second, the fact that several of Bierce's enemies were waiting for an opportunity to pay him back in kind for the abuse they had themselves suffered. Accordingly, a variety of hostile, jeering, or supercilious remarks about both Bierce and Sterling began appearing in the Hearst newspapers (notably the San Francisco Examiner and the New York American) and elsewhere-much of it fostered by Hearst's editors merely as an entertaining nine-days' wonder. Bierce himself relished the fray: in the December 1907 issue of Cosmopolitan he published a fiery broadside, "An Insurrection of the Peasantry," in which he took to task all the critics of Sterling and himself, in particular those (such as George Harvey, then editor of Harper's Weekly) who had written that "A Wine of Wizardry" had a kind of superfluity of poetic imagination-as if a poem could ever have too much!
Two years later, A. M. Robertson published Sterling's A Wine of Wizardry and Other Poems. The book contains many other fine works aside from the title poem, notably "Three Sonnets on Oblivion," with its emphasis on human transience, and poems on Poe and Bierce, the latter of which Walter Neale reprinted as a broadside. The House of Orchids (1911) and Beyond the Breakers (1914) also have superb work: "The Black Vulture," one of Sterling's most reprinted poems and a grim portrayal of the all-destroying power of Death; "The Thirst of Satan," whose cosmic imagery is reminiscent of The Testimony of the Suns; and "The Ashes in the Sea," a delicate elegy on Nora May French (1881-1907), the young poet who committed suicide in November 1907 while staying at Sterling's cabin in Carmel.
Bierce returned to California for lengthy visits in 1910 and 1912, going with Sterling and some others to Yosemite and other sites; in the summer of 1911 he visited Sterling at Sag Harbor. But the two men were growing apart, and a final split occurred in early 1913. The causes for the end of their friendship are a matter of conjecture, since neither Bierce nor Sterling discussed them in detail. We have only suggestive hints: Sterling's continued adherence to Socialism (as well as his friendship with the fervent Socialist Jack London, whom Bierce disdained) did not sit well with the increasingly conservative satirist; Sterling's involvements with married women (especially one Vera Connolly, about whom Sterling's wife Carrie wrote some poignant letters to Bierce in late 1911) were highly offensive to Bierce's strict sexual morality; and some of Sterling's later poems exhibited frank sexual elements that Bierce did not feel worthy of inclusion in verse. In any case, Bierce had been systematically banishing several of his close colleagues as he made plans in late 1913 to visit Mexico (ostensibly to witness the Mexican Civil War), so perhaps it is not surprising that the greatest of his poetic disciples also would be shown the door.
In early 1911, however, Sterling himself gained the opportunity to become a mentor of a young poetic disciple of his own; for it was then that Clark Ashton Smith, having just celebrated his eighteenth birthday, first wrote to Sterling. Sterling had by this time largely taken over Bierce's function as literary leader of the West Coast, and-especially upon his moving to Carmel in 1905 as the vanguard of a literary colony there-had gathered a group of like-minded colleagues: Jack London, Mary Austin, Harry Leon Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Nora May French, James Hopper, even (briefly) the young Sinclair Lewis. It was natural, then, that Smith-living in Auburn in the Sierra foothills-should write to Sterling, although Smith no doubt had found much inspiration in Sterling's early cosmic verse. Not long afterward, Sterling paid Smith the high compliment of writing a poem about him: he admitted that "The Coming Singer" was "suggested by you" (Sterling to Smith, 22 March 1912). (Amusingly enough, Sterling later included the poem as one of the 100 sonnets he wrote to his lover, Mary Craig Kimbrough, published posthumously as Sonnets to Craig .)
Sterling continued to publish substantial volumes of poetry at a regular rate. The Caged Eagle (1916), Thirty-five Sonnets (1917), and Sails and Mirage (1921) had solidified his reputation, at least on the West Coast. He later regretted issuing a collection of war poems, The Binding of the Beast (1917), but there are some worthy items even there. And, of course, there are his two scintillating poetic dramas, Lilith (1919) and Rosamund (1920), the former perhaps his greatest single work. Later poems show Sterling abandoning some of the stiff and archaic diction that had caused much of his early work to seem both antiquated and unauthentic to readers of the 1920s; such gems as "To Life" (in which fantastic imagery underscores the horror and bitterness of existence), the superb atheistic sonnet "To Science," and "The Meteor," with its modified resurrection of cosmic motifs, show that Sterling's poetic vigour was undiminished. Although Henry Holt issued his Selected Poems in 1923 and Macmillan published a new edition of Lilith in 1926, with a preface by Theodore Dreiser, Sterling's poetic star was inevitably falling: his work simply was not in conformity with the imagistic, free-verse poetry of the Modernists, and he became increasingly embittered by his failure to gain national renown. Life for him had become an endless sequence of alcohol and women, as testified in a letter to H. L. Mencken: "I did more screwing and less drinking in 1925 than in 1924. Even at that I had over a thousand drinks." It is scarcely a surprise that, when he found the effects of alcohol too onerous for his physique to bear, he took his own life in late 1926 by swallowing the vial of cyanide he always kept about him for that purpose.
Sterling was by no means merely a West Coast phenomenon. He had published in many of the leading magazines of the day-the Nation, the Saturday Review, the Century Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, Mencken's Smart Set, and others. To be sure, he also kept the San Francisco newspapers well stocked with his verse, as well as such little magazines as All's Well (run by his colleague Charles J. Finger), the Reviewer, the Sonnet, Contemporary Verse, and such West Coast journals as Pacific Monthly, Lyric West, and Sunset. If he had been a bit more canny in the marketing of his work (Macmillan had wished a collection of new lyrics to follow the republication of Lilith, but Sterling never prepared it), he could have achieved a national reputation. His longtime friend Mencken could perhaps have done a bit more toward that end. Although readily publishing dozens of his poems in the Smart Set (and a few of his longer ballads in the American Mercury in the mid-1920s), Mencken never wrote a substantial review of any book of Sterling's work, and a few years after the latter's death he urged his publisher Alfred A. Knopf not to publish a contemplated biography of Sterling: "I don't think it would be worth while to do a biography of George Sterling. His life, after all, was relatively uneventful, and his writings were scarcely important enough to justify dealing with him at length." Both facets of this judgment are questionable, but in 1931 a biography of Sterling might have been a hard sell. Perhaps the ideal sort of biography (exactly what Franklin Walker produced in The Seacoast of Bohemia  and what Sterling scholar Richard K. Hughey is now preparing) would feature Sterling as the focus of a vibrant San Francisco literary circle, whose members can all be credited with piquant and distinctive work.
Sterling's poetry is difficult to characterise, especially because much of it remains unpublished. That he retained his devotion to recognised English metres-including that most rigorous of verse forms, the sonnet, of which he is surely one of the twentieth century's masters-is easy to see, even if we would like to have seen him engage in more work of the sort embodied in that evocative ode in semi-free-verse, "To a Girl Dancing." In his later years Sterling experimented frequently with the ballad form (as for example in "The Young Witch"), but in these works one sometimes misses the tightness of structure and imagery found in his other verse. Thematically, Sterling focused on the transience and evanescence of humanity in an endless cosmos that seems to have no purpose; and yet, his cosmicism was not of the remote and chilling sort that we find in Clark Ashton Smith or H. P. Lovecraft, but one that fully recognises the depth and sincerity of human emotions in the face of cosmic meaninglessness. Vergil's lachrymae rerum ("the tears of things") were an ever-present reality to Sterling-tears evoked by the passing of beauty, by the appalling "waste" of a Nature that seems heedless of human and animal suffering, and most of all by the eternal inscrutability of all entity. Is it any wonder that the theme of self-annihilation recurs with alarming frequency in his work? From the early sonnet "To One Self-Slain" to the poem purportedly found among his papers upon his death, "My Swan Song," Sterling sees in suicide a release from the torments and struggles of human life, so perhaps it is no surprise that he himself took this avenue of escape when he could no longer endure "the Lords of Pain."
But Sterling and his work refuse to die; whether as a colleague of Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, H. L. Mencken, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser; as the "King of Bohemia" who nurtured a flowering of exotic and substantial literature in his adopted state; or as a poet and dramatist whose work continues to elicit the admiration of a select few, George Sterling is very much alive in a twenty-first century that would seem to be in far greater need of his delicate and ethereal poetry than his own time ever was. His meditations on human transience notwithstanding, Sterling's work is destined to survive as the valued treasure of those individuals, numerous or few as they may be, capable of relishing his poignant evocations of the wonders and terrors of a boundless cosmos.
1. "[Jack] London wants to criticize my 'Star' poem, but I think I'll wait and hear what you have to say about it." (Sterling to Ambrose Bierce, 4 March 1902; ms., New York Public Library). All manuscript letters by Sterling, Bierce, and Clark Ashton Smith cited in the introduction and commentary are at the New York Public Library unless otherwise indicated.
2. Sterling's draft, as annotated by Bierce, was published as The Testimony of the Suns (San Francisco: Printed for The Book Club of California by John Henry Nash, 1927).
3. "A Poet and His Poem" and its sequel, "An Insurrection of the Peasantry," are both found in the tenth volume of Bierce's Collected Works.
4. See Sterling to H. L. Mencken, 7 June 1922: "I've just signed the contract with Holt & Co. for my book of selected poems. [Robert Cortes] Holliday thought that 'Selected Poems' isn't a 'striking title,' so I've suggested 'Neglected Poems' to him." In From Baltimore to Bohemia: The Letters of H. L. Mencken and George Sterling, ed. S. T. Joshi (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001), p. 163.
5. Sterling to Mencken, 6 January 1926; in From Baltimore to Bohemia, p. 224.
6. H. L. Mencken to Alfred A. Knopf, 15 July 1931; in Letters of H. L. Mencken, ed. Guy J. Forgue (New York: Knopf, 1961), p. 332.