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"Astrophobos" by H.P. Lovecraft : The Disillusionment of a Stargazer

While Howard Phillips Lovecraft is mainly known for his horrific short stories, his work was not limited to narratives. The writer from Providence also developed his vast and complex universe in a series of poems. It is that aspect of Lovecraft's work that this brief analysis proposes to explore, as one of these poems in particular appears to be a very accurate poetic representation of Lovecraft's cosmogony.

Published in 1918, "Astrophobos" is a poem composed of seven stanzas, each one of them constructed as a sestet and based upon a regular ABABAB rhyme scheme. Before even starting the brief commentary of the latter, it seems relevant to notice that when the poem was published, one of Lovrecraft's short story considered as a cornerstone of his cosmogony was already published, Dagon. What may appear as a detail is actually indicative of the fact that the author had already conceived his cosmogony at that point, and so it becomes relevant to insert this poetic work within that cosmogony, even though the literary form of the piece is different. Indeed, this highlights the fact that Lovecraft effectively wanted to create a cosmos that would serve as the canvas for his literary work in general. Astrophobos appears to be an intimate door opened onto this cosmogony, and the following brief commentary proposes to analyze and treat the poem as a poetic representation of Lovecraft's cosmogony.



Figure 1: Illustration of Cthulhu by Andrée Wallin

The very title itself, "Astrophobos", is already very significant. It is composed of the prefix Astro, meaning "of" or "in relation to the stars", and "phobos", which means "fear". from the very start, this title sets both the cosmogonic background and the emotional resonance of the poem. It opens the reading horizon to a vast background and establishes the thematics of the poem: it is about the emotional relationship with the celestial bodies. With this title, a certain grandeur is instaured by the poet, as he inserts his work in a larger scale than the only "human" perspective. Fear is effectively a human emotion, but in this case, through the poetic object of the stars, it is put in relation with a vaster notion, the cosmos.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." (Lovecraft, 1927, p.1)

Also, by using ancient greek linguistic inheritance, with"Astro" and "phobos", the poet directly establishes a link between his verses and classical literature, and by doing so, gives an epic dimension to the poem. By extrapolating, one could also theorize that through this classical inheritance, it is also universality that the poet intend to reach, the classical references working as a literary authority argument. What he is about to show in these verses was valid in past time, as it is in the moment when the reader faces the poem.

This epic and universal dimension is reinforced as the first sestet starts with the following verses:


"In the midnight heavens burning / Thro'ethera deeps afar," (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49)

Indeed, in these two first verses, the references to both the biblical myth, with the heavens, and the ancient myths, with the etherea, places the poem in a mythical and vast thematic canvas. The feeling of vastness is also emphasized by the second part of the second verse, with deeps afar being placed at the end of this verse in order to reinforce the grandeur of the cosmos the poetic subject is facing.

It is with the fourth verse of the sestet that the presence of a particular celestial body is brought to light in the poem:


"Once I watch'd with restless yearning / An alluring, aureate star" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49)

This particular "star"is connected with the "deeps afar" previously described through the rhyme scheme BAB, creating an emphasis on the distance firstly characterizing the celestial body. It allows the poetic subject to create a distance between this particular star and the ones usually looked at. By being far away, it is far from what is known, characterizing it as an "alluring" objet. Again, the poet uses a mythical lineage, with a mention in the last verse of the sestet of the "Arctic car", to reinforce this poetic effect. By associating biblical and classical mythical elements with this "alluring, aureate star", he improves both a felling of grandeur and a curiosity for the reading horizon.


"There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind: coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it..." (Lovecraft, 1927, p.1)

This first stanza, along with the second one and its "Mystic waves of beauty blended / With the gorgeous golden rays ; " (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49) definitely establishes "Astrophobos" within Lovecraft's cosmogony, as it is already possible to see some of the main structural elements of this cosmogony in the poem, with notably the presence of a distant celestial body, and the fascination it operates on the one watching it.

Indeed, with the second stanza, the poetic subject is considering the celestial body beyond its only aesthetic beauty and manifests a mystical feeling emanating from it:


"Phantasies of bliss descended / In a myrrh'd Elysian haze ; " (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49)

By contemplating the star, the poetic "I" feels as if the previously mentioned "heavens" were coming down on him from the distant cosmos. It is relevant to notice the archaic spelling "Phantasies" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49) because it instaures a distance both in space and time. As confirmed by the mention of the "Lydian" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49) kingdom in the last verse of the stanza, the celestial body fascinating the poetic subject is at the same very distant from him in distance and time, but also penetrates deeply in his individuality, almost operating as an epiphany. The effect this star is producting on the subject contemplating it seems to be a recurrent characteristic of many of Lovecraft's cosmogony elements. Elements such as the celestial bodies or the creatures constituting this cosmos often inspire attraction, fascination, and repulsion at the same time, in the sense that they appears very distant from what is known by the narrator/ poetic subject. Pete Rawlik, editor, specialist in Lovecraft's work and author of the Lovecrafian novel Reanimators, accurately verbalized this ambiguous relationship, named "Cosmic Horror" in his "Defining Lovecraftian Horror" essay:


"Becoming even more specific, there are in Cosmic Horror distinct brands [...]most commonly defined by distinct artificial mythologies including creation stories, pseudo-deities, inhuman intelligences and forbidden texts that reveal or hint at the true nature of the universe." (Pete Rawlik, 2013)

This duality related to the present star is already perceptible in the following verse, at the beginning of the third sestet:


"There (thought I) lies scene of pleasure" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49)



Figure 2 : "Lovecraft country" by Brian Taylor

The mention of the poetic subject in parenthesis is very interesting, firstly because it is a direct insertion of the poetic "I" in the poem, as a reflexion upon the episode he is telling through Atrophobos. It is almost a narrative element the reader is facing with this insertion, reinforcing the link between this poetic work, and others narratives by the same author. This celestial element the poetic subject is describing in these verses is probably part of the same cosmos as elements from other works, prosaic and narrative. Also, this brief incursion of the poetic subject introduces the first doubts about the nature of the star, as it breaks the rhythm, pulling both the reader and the poetic subject out of the oneiric nature of his contemplation.

The first verse of the fourth stanza presents a similar structure, creating a repetitive scheme, whose purpose is probably to emphasize the growing doubts and suspicions concerning the star.

While the panegyric description of the celestial body is still present in both the third and the fourth stanzas, these two insertions of the poetic subject thoughts already brings nuances to the highly meliorating ton of the verses, as if these positive characteristic were in fact an illusion.


Indeed, the fifth stanza marks a turn in the perception of this star, and so, by extension of the cosmos :


"Thus, I mus'd, when o'er the vision / Crept a red delirious change" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49)

The word "change" itself being placed at the end of the verse, right after "vision" explicitly reveals a change of this vision, of the perception that the poetic subject has of the celestial body. While the previous stanzas were tainted with adoration, and could be perceived as an epiphany caused by the contemplation of this star, the following verses expresses the disillusionment of the poetic subject as he realises its true nature. In this way, we notice the return to the "burning heavens" of the first verse of the poem, thanks to the use of the colour "red", except that this time the colour is associated with "delirious". The following verses are actually a symetrical opposition with the first stanzas :


" Hope dissolving to derision, / Beauty to distorsion strange ; /Hymnic chords in weird collision / Spectral sights in endless range" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49)

Here, the virtues change into "derision", the beautiful harmonies into "hymnic chords" and the "Phantasies" into "Spectral sights". The fact that Lovecraft kept on with the rythmic scheme reinforce the mirror effect, this stanza and the following ones operating as a negative of the previous one, marking a change in the poetic subject perception of the cosmos he is facing.

The following sestet even mentions "Cacodaemons" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49), as the red turns "Crimson" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49) and the adoration a "fever".

Finally, the apex of the poetic subject's lucidity about the star's true nature appears in the last stanza, as he claims:


"Now I know the fiendish fable / That the golden glitter bore;"

Figure 3 : H.P. Lovecraft, June 1934

By using the present, he states that he realises the illusions he was first submited to, and expresses a deep disillusionment. His epiphany is a reverse one, as the poetic subject only found a truth that would "Haunts [his] soul for evermore" (Lovecraft, 2013, pp.48-49). In this way, Astrophobos reveals another main topoi of Lovecraft's cosmogony, which is the rapport existing between the human subject and the cosmos, and more precisely the position of man in this universe, and the position he holds in it. Olivia Maikisch clearly verbalized it in her thesis "Existential Reaction to Modenity: An Analysis of Lovecraft's Nihilistic Cosmicism & Dostoevsky's Christian Existentialism":


"Lovecraft asserts the universe as a space where humans can come to understand the nature of their existence, whith this serving as a key point from which the horror of his weird fictions emerges." (Maikisch O. (2021), p.9)

Through the poetic expression of the deep disillusionment of the poetic subject, presented as a stargazer, Lovecraft is expressing in Astrophobos one of his recurrent topoi, which is the fear and adoration caused by the contemplation of a particular cosmos and its elements. The growing and disturbing understanding of the mad nature of this cosmos is also a cornerstone of Lovecraft's work, and by using poetic structures and schemes to express it, the Providence's writer offers to the reader a new door opened on his cosmogony.







Bibliographical references

Camp, L. Sprague (1975). Lovecraft: A Biography (First ed.). Garden City, New York: Doubleday


The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft (revised second edition). New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2013, 48–49.


https://www.hplovecraft.com/,


Lovecraft H.P. (1917), "Astrophobos" in The United Amateur

https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/poetry/p122.aspx


Lovecraft H.P. , Lippi G. , Grendel G. (2017), Necronomicon, Mondadori,


Lovecraft H.P. , Lippi G., De Turris G., Fusco S., Grendel G. (2019), I miti di Cthullu, Mondadori


Lovecraft H.P. (1927), Supernatural Horror in Literature, in The Recluse,

https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx


Maikisch O., (2021), "Existential Reactions to Modernity: An Analysis of Lovecraft's Nihilistic Cosmicism & Dostoevsky's Christian Existentialism". Master’s Theses. 248

https://digitalcommons.bucknell.edu/masters_theses/248?utm_source=digitalcommons.bucknell.edu%2Fmasters_theses%2F248&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages



Rawlik P., (2013/04/15), "Defining Lovecraftian Horror," The Lovecraft Ezine, https://lovecraftzine.com/2013/04/15/defining-lovecraftian-horror-an-essay-by-pete-rawlik/



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