A Necromantic Glass

A Necromantic Glass

This week’s poem is “Averoigne” by Clark Ashton Smith which I have chosen because it showcases his amazing imagination.

In Averoigne the lamia sings
To lyres restored from tombs antique,
And lets her coiling tresses fall
Before a necromantic glass.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893—1961)

Poem 256. Averoigne

In Averoigne the enchantress weaves
Weird spells that call a changeling sun,
Or hale the moon of Hecate
Down to the ivy-hooded towers.
At evening, from her nightshade bowers,
The bidden vipers creep, to be
The envoys of her malison;
And philtres drained from tomb-fat leaves
Drip through her silver sieves.

In Averoigne swart phantoms flown
From pestilent moat and stagnant lake
Glide through the garish festival
In torch-lit cities far from time.
Whether for death or birth, the chime
Of changeless bells equivocal
Clangs forth, while carven satyrs make
With mouths of sullen, sombre stone
Unending silent moan.

In Averoigne abides the mage.
So deep the silence of his cell,
Life hears the termless monarchies
That walk with thunder-echoing shoon
In iron castles past the moon—
Fast-moated with eternities;
And hears the shrewish laughters swell
Of Norns that plot the impested age
And wars that suns shall wage.

In Averoigne the lamia sings
To lyres restored from tombs antique,
And lets her coiling tresses fall
Before a necromantic glass.
She sees her vein-drawn lovers pass,
Faintly they cry to her, and all
The bale they find, the bliss they seek,
Is echoed in the tarnished strings
That tell archaic things.

Clark Ashton Smith was one of the “Big Three” pulp writers of the 1930s: H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Smith wrote some of the most influential weird fiction in the genre. Though they never collaborated directly despite exchanging many letters, they created between themselves (and with others) a whole weird pantheon of entities inimical to mankind generally described as the Cthulhu Mythos after the eponymous being outlined in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”. Smith also set stories in Zothique, far in the future of Earth and in the fictional medieval French province of Averoigne, haunted by demons, necromancers and werewolves: it is this world that Smith describes here with his soaring imagination—in four stanzas with an unusual rhyme scheme, Smith paints a landscape of his imaginary world, peopling it with fantastic folk and monsters and describing it with archaic but evocative words.

The first stanza shows us the enchantress casting her spells to “call a changeling sun”—a changeling traditionally being a fairy child left in exchange for the real child, so she wishes to replace the real sun with some fake replica, perhaps to use the real sun in some magical work. “Or hale the moon of Hecate down to the ivy-hooded towers”—she is calling the moon, traditionally associated with Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and other taboo practices. Every evening, venomous serpents glide from the enchantress’s gardens of deadly nightshade to convey her curses to their victims while she strains potions from strange leaves born of ancient graves.

The second stanza shows us the ghost-haunted cities of Averoigne, with their torch-lit festivals, sonorous bells and gargoyles with gaping mouths on the churches and cathedrals.

In the third stanza we see the mage (or sorcerer) pondering the “termless monarchies”—I think this refers to the gods that the mage recognises, since Averoigne is a Christian realm and the reference to “thunder-echoing shoon [shoes] in iron castles past the moon” definitely sounds like Zeus, Odin and the other thunder-gods. There is also the reference to the Norns (fates) who “plot the impested age/And wars that suns shall wage.” — it isn’t often I discover a new word, but impested was definitely a “what does that mean?” moment. It means “afflicted with pestilence”, so this stanza paints a picture of a country where the fates are still secretly considered to have a hand in the destinies of people.

In the last stanza, there is the lamia (a monster or night daemon) who sings to herself as she gazes into a magic mirror which shows her the men she has “vein-drawn” (vampirised) and their piteous cries harmonise with the music she plucks from the “tarnished strings” of ancient lyres recovered from the tombs of long-dead musicians.

I like this poem because it is a snapshot of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, an imaginary world that is nonetheless very detailed. Smith wrote a number of stories set in Averoigne, which can be found at the site devoted to his writings: The Eldritch Dark. Smith was considerably more worldly than Lovecraft, and his stories are correspondingly earthy and sometimes morbid, so you have been warned.

There are plenty of renditions of Smith’s Averoigne stories on YouTube but I’ve found only one performance of the poem and oddly it’s the same performance that suggested this poem to me in the first place: Mr. Jim Moon of Hypnogoria performed it (along with other Smith poems) in episode 107 of his Hypnobobs podcast back in 2013, and it has been put onto YouTube.