Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
The name H. P. Lovecraft conjures up many connotations when seen or uttered. The virtual embodiment of American pulp horror in the early decades of the 20th century, Lovecraft influenced generations of subsequent writers with a lavishly descriptive prose style depicting subterranean and otherworldly horrors in his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos.” These stories envisioned a harsh and incomprehensible cosmos, symbolized through chaotic alien monster gods for whom humans were a miniscule part of a vast primal struggle.
Readers were captivated by these vivid, loosely-linked tales, and their creator’s influence extended further due to his voluminous correspondence. Though he traveled fairly infrequently, Lovecraft faithfully wrote thousands of substantive letters to friends and fellow weird fiction writers. By the time of his death in 1937, Lovecraft’s devotees were scattered across the country, keeping his works and reputation alive long after his primary venue for publication, the magazine Weird Tales, had ceased print.
Despite his eclectic reputation, though, Lovecraft is seldom considered a poet. This is not through lack of trying, however. Until very recently, drama and prose fiction were regarded as inferior to pure poetry, and many writers we now regard as prose masters would have preferred to be known as poets. While that is unlikely to happen anytime soon for most of them, the rise of well-developed small or scholarly presses has allowed such poems, often unpublished, to see print at last. Such is the case with Lovecraft, whose poetic writings can now be purchased by the enthusiastic fan or scholar.
Even Lovecraft himself would admit that not all of his verse was of the highest quality. But one set of poems received special care from his hand: his sonnet cycle Fungi from Yuggoth. Though the sonnets have been printed before, Hippocampus Press’s thorough new annotated edition helps demonstrate their worth not just as curiosities for the Lovecraft enthusiast alone but as substantive and even beautiful literary products in their own right. Fungi from Yuggoth certainly demonstrates Lovecraft’s defining theme of cosmic terror, but the sonnets also gesture toward a countervailing tendency to recognize the importance of the concrete and the local.This poetic fusion of the cosmic and the local brings Lovecraft to the very doorstep of one of Christianity’s most foundational beliefs.
In his thorough discussion of the background to Lovecraft’s poetic magnum opus, editor David E. Schultz discusses its context in his broader poetic “career.” Lovecraft was an antiquarian at heart, deeply in love with a vision of his native New England in its colonial times, a love that permeates his fiction and his poetry. As a result, his favored poetic mode in his early career was not the sonnet, a form which was all but ignored from the late seventeenth century until resurrected by Charlotte Smith in the 1780s. Rather, he adopted the dominant mode of the Augustan period, the rhymed couplet. By the time Lovecraft started penning fiction in earnest, however, he had largely abandoned poetry.
This changed toward the end of the 1920s when, partially influenced by Donald Wandrei (a fellow weird writer), Elizabeth Toldridge (a poet), and Maurice Winter Moe (a teacher), Lovecraft developed a renewed enthusiasm for verse. In a flurry of activity from late 1929 to early 1930, he churned out most of the sonnets that would ultimately constitute the final version of Fungi from Yuggoth. The book’s odyssey didn’t end there, however.
Lovecraft spent years publishing individual sonnets across a variety of venues, some professional and others amateur, some mainstream and other genre-specific (most obviously Weird Tales). He revised extensively and sent out both manuscripts and typed copies to friends, though throughout the process, he did have an overall arc to his cycle and hoped to see it printed in book form.
This printing did not occur in his lifetime, though manuscripts and copies circulated after his death, resulting in early book publication attempts in the 1940s. Since then, over half a dozen editions have appeared, though these were often incomplete or based on problematic manuscripts (an understandable difficulty, given the cycle’s complex textual history). Even when the full cycle was published, these editions were often limited or difficult to obtain.
Perhaps such scarcity is unsurprising — a sequence of sonnets called Fungi from Yuggoth surely is a tough sell. Part of this may be due to the title, which suggests a collection of poems about alien mushrooms. This impression is misleading, however. The eponymous fungi, barely even referenced in the work, are primarily symbolic. Some of the thirty-six entries retain elements of Lovecraft’s signature Cthulhu mythos, but many are more straightforward lyric poems.
Hippocampus Press’s edition of Fungi from Yuggoth can help readers navigate the sonnets’ complexity. The Lovecraft devotee will still find plenty of new material to chew on, between the facsimile prints of the manuscript pages, the copious annotations, and the various appendices. Jason C. Eckhardt’s illustrations strike just the right note, evoking the classic pictures from the heyday of Weird Tales, sinister without the gauche grotesquerie characterized by some Lovecraft-inspired art.
The poems themselves are, of course, the star of the show, but the most valuable resource — for Lovecraft aficionado or neophyte alike — will be Schultz’s long essay “Dim Essences: The Origin of Fungi from Yuggoth,” which not only traces the work’s history but examines it on the technical and interpretive level. The scholarship is considerable, and it would be tempting to say that Schultz has done his homework. But Schultz’s edition is clearly a labor of love. He cross-references lines of the poems with references from far-flung corners of Lovecraft’s corpus and does his subject matter the due diligence of treating Fungi from Yuggoth as a serious work of literature worth close scrutiny.
I do sometimes wish that Schultz had devoted a little more space to analyzing Lovecraft’s interaction with older works of literature. The essay and annotations focus primarily on his reliance on contemporary weird writers and poets, occasionally going back as far as Poe. Yet Lovecraft was exceptionally well-read and knew the history of the forms in which he chose to operate. Placing his work in the wider tradition may have added further impetus toward a recognition of his poetry’s literary merit. That said, the volume as it stands is packed with thoughtful and useful details; and yet, as should be true of any annotated edition, the focus never strays from an appreciation of the book itself.
So if Fungi from Yuggoth isn’t just a narrative of ’shrooms from space, what exactly is it? Schultz devotes a good portion of “Dim Essences” to addressing this question (147-57). There is no doubt the initial three sonnets — “The Book,” “Pursuit,” and “The Key” — begin a story arc similar to many of Lovecraft’s tales, in which a narrator discovers secret lore that leads him to the threshold of cosmic terror. By his own testimony, Lovecraft saw those three as an introductory unit, after which the remaining works, though somewhat interrelated in ambience, could stand semi-autonomously.
Entries like the “Zaman’s Hill” or “St. Toad’s” read almost like tiny verse stories, while others, such as “Night-Gaunts,” “Azathoth,” and “Nyarlothotep” are largely descriptive suggestions of beings from his mythology. As the cycle proceeds, however, more and more of the poems become more thematic and more evidently personal, exploring in vivid imagery the thematic concerns that stretch across Lovecraft’s corpus.
Superficially, all the poems appear to break down in the standard 8-6 line division of a Petrarchan sonnet, suggesting unconsummated longing. However, the actual rhyme schemes are often really the 4-4-4-2 structure of the English sonnet. Lovecraft admitted that he strayed from many of the technical aspects of the sonnet form, a conscious attempt on his part to break the habit of stale technical proficiency he saw in his earlier verse. Still, the broad sweep of the sonnets is decidedly Petrarchan in nature. Of course, there is no unattainably distant woman, as in Petrarch’s original sonnets, but the general orientation of attempting to articulate and celebrate a desire that cannot be fulfilled is well suited to such a sonnet form.
That pursuit of an unattained desire manifests itself in the enduring theme of the sonnet cycle, which Schultz terms “continuity.” It is a term from Lovecraft himself, one that furnishes the title of the book’s thirty-sixth and final poem:
There is in certain ancient things a trace
Of some dim essence — more than form or weight;
A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
A faint, veiled sign of continuities
That outward eyes can never quite descry;
Of locked dimensions harboring years gone by,
And out of reach except for hidden keys.
It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow
On old farm buildings set against a hill,
And paint with life the shapes which linger still
From centuries less a dream than this we know.
In that strange light I feel I am not far
From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.
As the final few sonnets build to “Continuity,” they increasingly slide away from the mysterious or weird into such philosophical explorations, as in “Expectancy,” “Nostalgia,” “Background,” “Alienation,” and “Recapture.” These poems articulate Lovecraft’s ideas vividly, but they are by no means abstract treatises in verse form. Quite the contrary, they are the strongest links in the cycle and, I would contend, are not just scribblings useful to Lovecraft scholars but stand on their own as beautiful poetry by any artistic standard.
That is because Lovecraft’s notion of continuity involves one of the very projects of poetry itself, the fusion of the universal and the particular. I have elsewhere discussed in some detail the cosmicism that pervades Lovecraft’s fiction, that indeed animates the horror of his best tales. The sense of human insignificance in the face of an immense, incomprehensible universe lurks just beneath the surface of virtually every paragraph he penned.
Yet how often was that cosmic terror set in the quaint old streets of Providence, Rhode Island, or in fictional towns like Arkham that bear uncanny and obvious similarities to sleepy Massachusetts hamlets? I’m a New England native myself, and I can testify to the intimacy of these places, even if I never have stumbled upon a church with midnight masses in praise of Dagon or a farmstead haunted by aliens. Though he is often castigated for the inhumanity of his writing, Lovecraft’s stories would surely never have gained such an audience were it not for the loving attention he paid to the authenticity of his settings.
And he did love them. Here more than in any other regard do we see the other side of Lovecraft’s legacy, his abiding humanity. It’s found in this continuity, this suggestion in the “ancient things” and “old farm buildings” of something vaster. And often in Fungi from Yuggoth, that sense of the sublime is more than raw, dripping horror. As the final sonnets gather to a greatness, we can see a sense of awe that approaches nigh unto joy in the descriptions. In the thirtieth sonnet, “Background,” Lovecraft asserts that he “never can be tied to raw, new things” and that the sights of his youth, particular as they are, possess also an echo of transcendence:
Such treasures, left from times of cautious leaven,
Cannot but loose the hold of flimsier wraiths
That flit with shifting ways and muddled faiths
Across the changeless walls of earth and heaven.
They cut the moment’s things and leave me free
To stand alone before eternity.
Though he himself would doubtless reject any such affinity, this poetic fusion of the cosmic and the local brings Lovecraft to the very doorstep of one of Christianity’s most foundational beliefs: the doctrine of incarnation. In principle, any orthodox Christian would affirm that the man Jesus Christ was the all-powerful Creator God taking on human frailty. He is Word who existed in the beginning (John 1:1), but also the Word who became flesh (John 1:14). And he was born into a specific cultural and specific moment, “at just the right time” (Romans 5:6, NIV).
In practice, however, our current Christianity’s pragmatism tends toward deemphasizing the faith’s cosmic implications. We like the regular guy Jesus who loved and cried and got his hands dirty like one of us; we have a harder time fathoming the incarnate preexistent Son, who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
He is, according to the apostle Paul, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). This picture of Christ seems at times distant to us, unrelatable, as it were.
It is something of an irony that our current cultural moment should be so short-sighted, given that we have a better idea now than ever of just how vast creation truly is. Despite the limitations of their geocentric worldview, early Christian theologians often seem better prepared to capture the incomprehensible paradox that is incarnation. In his treatise On the Unity of Christ, Cyril of Alexandria articulates it this way:
Indeed the mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful. For God was in humanity. He who was above all creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who was from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death. All this followed because the body which tasted death belonged to no other but to him who is the Son by nature. (61)
But perhaps no theologian was more cosmic in scope than Maximus the Confessor. In Ad Thalassium, he discusses “the mystery which circumscribes all the ages, and which reveals the grand plan of God (cf. Ephesians 1:10-11), a super-infinite plan infinitely preexisting the ages”:
Because of Christ — or rather, the whole mystery of Christ — all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ. For the union between a limit of the ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurability, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. (124-25)
H. P. Lovecraft could not reconcile the incalculable and perplexing scope of the universe with any religious notion of a loving and omnipotent god. In telling his stories and writing his poems and sharing his correspondence, Lovecraft returns again and again to this emphasis on human insignificance. To read any closeted religiosity into his fiction or Fungi from Yuggoth would be intellectually dishonest.
Nonetheless, the Christian can surely appreciate his almost mystic juxtaposition of the cosmic and the regional. This juxtaposition can be found frequently in his Cthulhu tales. But the best sonnets in Fungi from Yuggoth distill this dynamic more beautifully than almost any of his other writings. They are gestures toward “the union… between finitude and infinity.” Their beauty is not the sole provenance of Lovecraft’s fellow atheists but can serves as a reminder to Christians that any gospel we propound must be cosmic in scope, or Christ’s Incarnation means nothing.
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