George Sterling (1869-1926); King of Bohemia and central figure in the Californian literary scene of the early twentieth century. Pupil of Ambrose Bierce, whom he called “The Master,” mentor to Clark Ashton Smith, friend of Jack London, Robinson Jeffers and Nora May French.
Perhaps best known for his epic poems The Testimony of the Suns and A Wine of Wizardry (1907), to which Smith’s The Hashish-Eater would forever be compared, his prodigious output of poems, plays, essays and the occasional story appeared in twenty one volumes, numerous magazines and newspapers.
His work covered a broad set of themes and philosophies – from the romantic, in the tradition of Shelley and Keats, to the morbid gloom of Poe passing through the mystical and fantastic on the way. He tackled the (at the time) taboo subjects of incest and homosexuality while covering the current political and sporting news of the day.
Sterling committed suicide by taking cyanide in his room at the Bohemian Club on November 17, 1926.
As all good poets should be, he was a drunkard and a womanizer.
~ Boyd Pearson
ART & LIFE
The children of the flesh of men,
They pass from night to night;
They weep and laugh and labor, then
Are lost to human sight.
Musing on such a fate, the mind
Stirs with a tragic sense-
So brave they walk the stage assigned,
So soon they hurry thence.
The children of the artist’s brain
O’er them Time swings his scythe in
Till time no more shall be.
In many hearts, in many lands,
They live again their tale,
As, young or old, the Future’s hands
Arise to give them hail.
As here the crafts of men assure
Their presence to the years,
So too shall Memory’s bronze endure,
With all their smiles and tears.
Such lives within our lives can be;
Such comrades Art can give.
Are men but shadows? is it we
Or they who truly live?
A Wine of Wizardry
"When mountains were stained as with wine By the dawning of Time, and as wine Were the seas." -AMBROSE BIERCE. Without, the battlements of sunset shine, 'Mid domes the sea-winds rear and overwhelm. Into a crystal cup the dusky wine I pour, and, musing at so rich a shrine, I watch the star that haunts its ruddy gloom. Now Fancy, empress of a purpled realm, Awakes with brow caressed by poppy-bloom, And wings in sudden dalliance her flight To strands where opals of the shattered light Gleam in the wind-strewn foam, and maidens flee A little past the striving billows' reach, Or seek the russet mosses of the sea, And wrinkled shells that lure along the beach, And please the heart of Fancy; yet she turns, Tho' trembling, to a grotto rosy-sparred, Where wattled monsters redly gape, that guard A cowled magician peering on the damned Thro' vials wherein a splendid poison burns, Sifting Satanic gules athwart his brow. So Fancy will not gaze with him, and now She wanders to an iceberg oriflammed With rayed, auroral guidons of the North— Wherein hath winter hidden ardent gems And treasuries of frozen anadems, Alight with timid sapphires of the snow. But she would dream of warmer gems, and so Ere long her eyes in fastnesses look forth O'er blue profounds mysterious whence glow The coals of Tartarus on the moonless air, As Titans plan to storm Olympus' throne, 'Mid pulse of dungeoned forges down the stunned, Undominated firmament, and glare Of Cyclopean furnaces unsunned. Then hastens she in refuge to a lone, Immortal garden of the eastern hours, Where Dawn upon a pansy's breast hath laid A single tear, and whence the wind hath flown And left a silence. Far on shadowy tow'rs Droop blazoned banners, and the woodland shade, With leafy flames and dyes autumnal hung, Makes beautiful the twilight of the year. For this the fays will dance, for elfin cheer, Within a dell where some mad girl hath flung A bracelet that the painted lizards fear— Red pyres of muffled light! Yet Fancy spurns The revel, and to eastern hazard turns, And glaring beacons of the Soldan's shores, When in a Syrian treasure-house she pours, From caskets rich and amethystine urns, Dull fires of dusty jewels that have bound The brows of naked Ashtaroth around. Or hushed, at fall of some disastrous night, When sunset, like a crimson throat to hell, Is cavernous, she marks the seaward flight Of homing dragons dark upon the West; Till, drawn by tales the winds of ocean tell, And mute amid the splendors of her quest, To some red city of the Djinns she flees And, lost in palaces of silence, sees Within a porphyry crypt the murderous light Of garnet-crusted lamps whereunder sit Perturbéd men that tremble at a sound, And ponder words on ghastly vellum writ, In vipers' blood, to whispers from the night— Infernal rubrics, sung to Satan's might, Or chaunted to the Dragon in his gyre. But she would blot from memory the sight, And seeks a stainéd twilight of the South, Where crafty gnomes with scarlet eyes conspire To quench Aldebaran's affronting fire, Low sparkling just beyond their cavern's mouth, Above a wicked queen's unhallowed tomb. There lichens brown, incredulous of fame, Whisper to veinéd flowers her body's shame, 'Mid stillness of all pageantries of bloom. Within, lurk orbs that graven monsters clasp; Red-embered rubies smolder in the gloom, Betrayed by lamps that nurse a sullen flame, And livid roots writhe in the marble's grasp, As moaning airs invoke the conquered rust Of lordly helms made equal in the dust. Without, where baleful cypresses make rich The bleeding sun's phantasmagoric gules, Are fungus-tapers of the twilight witch (Seen by the bat above unfathomed pools) And tiger-lilies known to silent ghouls, Whose king hath digged a somber carcanet And necklaces with fevered opals set. But Fancy, well affrighted at his gaze, Flies to a violet headland of the West, About whose base the sun-lashed billows blaze, Ending in precious foam their fatal quest, As far below the deep-hued ocean molds, With waters' toil and polished pebbles' fret, The tiny twilight in the jacinth set, The wintry orb the moonstone-crystal holds, Snapt coral twigs and winy agates wet, Translucencies of jasper, and the folds Of banded onyx, and vermilion breast Of cinnabar. Anear on orange sands, With prows of bronze the sea-stained galleys rest, And swarthy mariners from alien strands Stare at the red horizon, for their eyes Behold a beacon burn on evening skies, As fed with sanguine oils at touch of night. Forth from that pharos-flame a radiance flies, To spill in vinous gleams on ruddy decks; And overside, when leap the startled waves And crimson bubbles rise from battle-wrecks, Unresting hydras wrought of bloody light Dip to the ocean's phosphorescent caves. So Fancy's carvel seeks an isle afar, Led by the Scorpion's rubescent star, Until in templed zones she smiles to see Black incense glow, and scarlet-bellied snakes Sway to the tawny flutes of sorcery. There priestesses in purple robes hold each A sultry garnet to the sea-linkt sun, Or, just before the colored morning shakes A splendor on the ruby-sanded beach, Cry unto Betelgeuse a mystic word. But Fancy, amorous of evening, takes Her flight to groves whence lustrous rivers run, Thro' hyacinth, a minster wall to gird, Where, in the hushed cathedral's jeweled gloom, Ere Faith return, and azure censers fume, She kneels, in solemn quietude, to mark The suppliant day from gorgeous oriels float And altar-lamps immure the deathless spark; Till, all her dreams made rich with fervent hues, She goes to watch, beside a lurid moat, The kingdoms of the afterglow suffuse A sentinel mountain stationed toward the night— Whose broken tombs betray their ghastly trust, Till bloodshot gems stare up like eyes of lust. And now she knows, at agate portals bright, How Circe and her poisons have a home, Carved in one ruby that a Titan lost, Where icy philters brim with scarlet foam, 'Mid hiss of oils in burnished caldrons tost, While thickly from her prey his life-tide drips, In turbid dyes that tinge her torture-dome; As craftily she gleans her deadly dews, With gyving spells not Pluto's queen can use, Or listens to her victim's moan, and sips Her darkest wine, and smiles with wicked lips. Nor comes a god with any power to break The red alembics whence her gleaming broths Obscenely fume, as asp or adder froths, To lethal mists whose writhing vapors make Dim augury, till shapes of men that were Point, weeping, at tremendous dooms to be, When pillared pomps and thrones supreme shall stir, Unstable as the foam-dreams of the sea. But Fancy still is fugitive, and turns To caverns where a demon altar burns, And Satan, yawning on his brazen seat, Fondles a screaming thing his fiends have flayed, Ere Lilith come his indolence to greet, Who leads from hell his whitest queens, arrayed In chains so heated at their master's fire That one new-damned had thought their bright attire Indeed were coral, till the dazzling dance So terribly that brilliance shall enhance. But Fancy is unsatisfied, and soon She seeks the silence of a vaster night, Where powers of wizardry, with faltering sight (Whenas the hours creep farthest from the noon) Seek by the glow-worm's lantern cold and dull A crimson spider hidden in a skull, Or search for mottled vines with berries white, Where waters mutter to the gibbous moon. There, clothed in cerements of malignant light, A sick enchantress scans the dark to curse, Beside a caldron vext with harlots' blood, The stars of that red Sign which spells her doom. Then Fancy cleaves the palmy skies adverse To sunset barriers. By the Ganges' flood She sees, in her dim temple, Siva loom And, visioned with the monstrous ruby, glare On distant twilight where the burning-ghaut Is lit with glowering pyres that seem the eyes Of her abhorrent dragon-worms that bear The pestilence, by Death in darkness wrought. So Fancy's wings forsake the Asian skies, And now her heart is curious of halls In which dead Merlin's prowling ape hath spilt A vial squat whose scarlet venom crawls To ciphers bright and terrible, that tell The sins of demons and the encharneled guilt That breathes a phantom at whose cry the owl, Malignly mute above the midnight well, Is dolorous, and Hecate lifts her cowl To mutter swift a minatory rune; And, ere the tomb-thrown echoings have ceased, The blue-eyed vampire, sated at her feast, Smiles bloodily against the leprous moon. But evening now is come, and Fancy folds Her splendid plumes, nor any longer holds Adventurous quest o'er stainéd lands and seas— Fled to a star above the sunset lees, O'er onyx waters stilled by gorgeous oils That toward the twilight reach emblazoned coils. And I, albeit Merlin-sage hath said, "A vyper lurketh in ye wine-cuppe redde," Gaze pensively upon the way she went, Drink at her font, and smile as one content.