We Cast Off All Allegiance to Modern Things

And now we cast off all allegiance to modern things; to change, and the rule of steel and steam, and the crumbling of ancient visions and simple impulses. The tar and concrete roads, and the vulgar world that bred them, have ended; and we wind rapt and wondering over elder and familiar ribbons of rutted whiteness which curl past alluring valleys and traverse old wooden bridges in the lee of green slopes. The nearness and intimacy of the little domed hills have become almost breath-taking. Their steepness and abruptness hold nothing in common with the humdrum, standardised world we know, and we cannot help feeling that their outlines have some strange and almost-forgotten meaning, like vast hieroglyphs left by a rumoured titan race whose glories live only in rare, deep dreams. We climb and plunge fantastically as we thread this hypnotic landscape. Time has lost itself in the labyrinths behind, and around us stretch only the flowering waves of faery. Tawdriness is not there, but instead, the recaptured beauty of vanished centuries—the hoary groves, the untainted pastures hedged with gay blossoms and the small brown farmsteads nestling amidst huge trees beneath vertical precipices of fragrant brier and meadow-grass. Even the sunlight assumes a supernal glamour, as if some special atmosphere or exaltation mantled the whole region. There is nothing like it save in the magic vistas that sometimes form the backgrounds of Italian primitives. Sodoma and Leonardo saw such expanses, but only in the distance, and through the vaultings of Renaissance arcades. We rove at will through the midst of the picture; and find in its necromancy a thing we have known or inherited, and for which we have always been vainly searching.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Vermont—A First Impression,” Lovecraft describes, in rapturous terms, his travels through southern Vermont in the summer of 1927.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Vermont—A First Impression.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 4, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 13-5.


My Forebears in the 18th Century

My maternal grandfather—born in 1833—and his generation seemed much closer to me than the generation of my parents, uncles, and aunts, born around the ’60’s; while my forebears in the 18th century (periwigged Devonshire squires and rural Anglican vicars on my father’s side, and New-England planters on my mother’s side) seemed closest of all. That sense of immediate personal kinship with the 18th century—its costume, architecture, literary style, thought, etc.—has never left me or even diminished. It’s that which sends me rambling around the country looking for Vieux Carré’s and Charlestons and Natchezes and Salems and Annapolises and Quebecs!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft describes the affinity, the “sense of immediate personal kinship,” he feels for his maternal grandfather’s generation and for his ancestors in the eighteenth century.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To E. Hoffmann Price.” 15 Feb. 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 149-54.

Two Distinct Maladies

The serious, non-commercial aesthetics of today suffers, as I have suggested above, from two distinct maladies—the irrational & solipsistic freakishness of the subjective decadent, & the prosaic propagandism of the social theorist. The decadent concedes the existence of such a thing as disinterested art, but allows the futilities & absurdities & paradoxes & contradictions of the dying capitalist culture to disorganise him to such an extent that he can reflect nothing but chaos, paradox, hallucination, & ironic contrast. The theorist, on the other hand, refuses to admit that any such thing as art exists as an independent entity. To him (& he is usually an orthodox Marxist who reads an economic motive into everything from the motions of binary stars to the sighing of the wind in the trees), every human activity must have a direct bearing on the technical problem of organising human society for the optimum fulfillment of the majority’s physical needs; & art is justifiable only so far as it promotes the successful operation—or hastens the adoption—of a rational social order. Betwixt the two types, we get a sorry enough mess of nonsense & mediocrity. One gives us diagrams of scrambled conic sections or nightmares with locomotives floating in the sky over landscapes of skyscrapers twisted into spirals & dollar-signs, whilst the other gives us undistinctive photographic likenesses of Lenin & Stalin, educational posters urging children to brush their teeth, or grotesquely ironic murals shewing the triumph or the woes of the Mexican peon. To me, both of these attitudes seem essentially absurd. Each grows, I think, out of an excessively literal & exaggerated application of the idea that an artist should (or necessarily does) reflect something of his environment . . . . . although the Marxist position is part of a more elaborate maze of theory. This idea itself has always struck me as only loosely & partly true—& I certainly think that any attempt of the artist to keep it constantly in mind is ruinous to his work. We can produce real art only when we forget all about theory. It may be that our spontaneous results will indeed reflect something of our period & of our social sympathies in an unconscious way—but if we start out consciously with the idea of reflecting the period or airing our economic doctrines, we shall not get very far as artists. Of course, a person is now & then so naturally gifted with artistic genius that he cannot help producing real art as a by-product even when his conscious theories are of the most ridiculous & arid kind. Thus a surrealist crank or commercial hack or social propagandist may, by accident, evolve many a thing of undoubted power & authenticity. But even in such a case as this, the amount of waste is cruelly great. No matter how often the theory-handicapped or commerce-crippled artist manages to produce something good, we are always aware of how much better his results would be without the handicap. The real fact is that no artist ought to tie himself too completely or definitely to any particular period or aera. After all, the environment in which he develops is not merely that of one brief point in the time-stream. It is, rather, the sum of all that the ages have contributed to his civilisation. To the modern European, the sculpture of Phidias & Scopas & Praxiteles, the architecture of Ictinus, Callicrates, Metagenes, Dinocrates, Polyclitus, Hippodamus, & Apollodorus, the painting of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, & Raphael, & the music of Handel, Bach, & Beethoven, are just as vital & immediate & personally present as are the latest creations of his own chronological period; & any attempt to erect a new art without reference to such foundations must necessarily be hollow, barren, & fallacious. Our particular age is indeed one of decay & chaos & transition, so that it can probably contribute less fresh material to art than can most others—but why should this force all artists either to devote themselves to the job of portraying decay & chaos, or to forswear self-expression & become social & political propagandists? Are the existence & presence of the past annulled by the momentary disturbances of a readjustment-period? Is a Gothic cathedral less beautiful because we have ceased to believe what the builders of Chartres & Lincoln & Salisbury believed about the governance of the cosmos? Are the landscapes of Ruysdael & Hobbema ugly or meaningless because they were painted amidst a bourgeois-capitalist civilisation whose social & economic values we no longer accept? Suppose we do have our grain harvested by machinery & ground in complex mechanical plants with tangles of tall smokestacks? Does that alter the fact that over a great part of our racial history we used scythes & wind & water mills, or annul the powerful appeal of pictures laying stress on these ineradicable cultural landmarks? Up to a relatively recent time, no one thought of questioning the equal artistic values of themes pertaining to our past (no matter how outmoded) & themes pertaining to our present (which will soon enough be merely another phase of the outmoded past!)—both forming equal influences in the shaping of the long cultural stream. Though we did not use Egyptian pyramids or Greek galleys or Roman chariots, or believe in centaurs & mermaids, we found all these things of vital significance in art—as bearing on the life & beliefs of those ancestral ages which moulded & gave rise to ours. Why, then, must we suddenly proceed to claim that a painting of a windmill is alien & meaningless because we no longer depend on windmills—or aver that we must depict a placid meadow or woodland as a jumble of cubes & cog-wheels because (a) we feel the chaos of a dying social order & (b) are more used in an urban-mechanical culture to seeing cubes & cog-wheels than to seeing trees & kine & hedges & distant spires? To my mind, the ultra-moderns have (as in the surrender of some of the less sensitive & courageous & determinedly individual spirits to the new tottering Golden Calf of Mammon) simply flown off the handle—letting their heads become turned by the admitted rapidity & completeness of certain current mutations which really do not differ in kind from dozens of mutations of the past.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft criticizes contemporary trends in art, specifically Modernism, which has, he claims, rejected the Western tradition in favor of Marxist ideology and nihilism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 7 Feb. 1937. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 205-23.

Marblehead’s Hoary Magick

I came to Marblehead in the twilight, and gazed long upon its hoary magick. I threaded the tortuous, precipitous streets, some of which an horse can scarce climb, and in which two wagons cannot pass. I talked with old men and revell’d in old scenes, and climb’d pantingly over the crusted cliffs of snow to the windswept height where cold winds blew over desolate roofs and evil birds hovered over a bleak, deserted, frozen tarn. And atop all was the peak; Old Burying Hill, where the dark headstones clawed up thro’ the virgin snow like the decay’d fingernails of some gigantick corpse.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his discovery of Marblehead, Massachusetts, an ancient seaport so well preserved that it seems to defy the passage of time.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 11 Jan. 1923. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 112-4.

The Past Is Real

The past is real—it is all there is. The present is only a trivial and momentary boundary-line—whilst the future, though wholly determinate, is too essentially unknown and landmarkless to possess any hold upon our sense of concrete aesthetic imagery. It is, too, liable to involve shifts and contrasts repugnant to our emotions and fancy; since we cannot study it as a unified whole and become accustomed to its internal variations as we can study and grow accustomed to the vary’d past. There is nothing in the future to tie one’s loyalties and affections to—it can mean nothing to us, because it involves noe of those mnemonic association-links upon which the illusion of meaning is based. So I, for one, prefer Old New England and Old Virginia to the unknown mechanised barbarism that stretches out ahead of us—as meaningless and alien to men of our heritage and memories as the cultures of China or Abyssinia or ancient Carthage or the planet Saturn.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft defends his attachment to the past and his dismissal of the future.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To James F. Morton.” 19 Oct. 1929. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 31-5.

Intolerable Bondage

Time, space, and natural law hold for me suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat—especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole historic stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and the ephemeral.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer August Derleth, Lovecraft describes the sense of oppression he feels when contemplating the limitations imposed on humanity by natural law.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To August Derleth.” 21 Nov. 1930. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 220-2.

The Old Days

It so happens that I am unable to take pleasure or interest in anything but a mental re-creation of other & better days—for in sooth, I see no possibility of ever encountering a really congenial milieu or living among civilised people with old Yankee historic memories again—so in order to avoid the madness which leads to violence & suicide I must cling to the few shreds of old days & old ways which are left to me. Therefore no one need expect me to discard the ponderous furniture & paintings & clocks & books which help to keep 454 always in my dreams. When they go, I shall go, for they are all that make it possible for me to open my eyes in the morning or look forward to another day of consciousness without screaming in sheer desperation & pounding the walls & floor in a frenzied clamour to be waked up out of the nightmare of “reality” & my own room in Providence. Yes—such sensitivenesses of temperament are very inconvenient when one has no money—but it’s easier to criticise than to cure them. When a poor fool possessing them allows himself to get exiled & sidetracked through temporarily false perspective & ignorance of the world, the only thing to do is let him cling to his pathetic scraps as long as he can hold them. They are life for him.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Lillian Delora Clark, Lovecraft describes his attachment to the past.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 8 Aug. 1925. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 167-9.

City of Wonder

For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily […] This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last those endless balustrade steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Randolph Carter learns that the fantastic city he has been searching for in his dreams is, in reality, the Boston of his childhood.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 155-251.

An Antiquarian Miracle

But the climate, O Sage, is only the beginning of the miracle from an antiquarian point of view. Indeed—there is nothing about the place so wholly important and distinctive as the astoundingly eighteenth century atmosphere—for in all verity I can say that Charleston is the best-preserv’d colonial city of any size, without exception, that I have ever encounter’d. Virtually, everything is just as it was in the reign of George the Third—indeed, ’tis easier to count the houses which are not colonial, than to attempt to count those which are.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe, Lovecraft describes, with joy, his impressions of Charleston, South Carolina, and its colonial architecture.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Maurice W. Moe.” 4 May 1930. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 247-9.

This New Christian Creed

Olympian Gods! How can I let ye go
And pin my faith to this new Christian creed?
Can I resign the deities I know
For him who on a cross for man did bleed?

How in my weakness can my hopes depend
On one lone God, though mighty be his pow’r?
Why can Jove’s host no more assistance lend,
To soothe my pains, and cheer my troubled hour?

Are there no Dryads on these wooded mounts
O’er which I oft in desolation roam?
Are there no Naiads in these crystal founts?
Nor Nereids upon the Ocean foam?

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “To the Old Pagan Religion,” Lovecraft laments the passing of paganism and the ascension of Christianity.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To the Old Pagan Religion.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, p. 31.