"Hellish forms with streaming hair": A nightmarish manuscript by H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips (1890 – 1937). Despair. Holograph manuscript, signed and dated February 1919. A poem written on two 5 x 7 thin brown paper sheets that have been taped together. There is some fading and darkening to the fragile paper, but there is no bleeding or show through from the tape. The paper has been deacidified by a conservator. Once framed, it is now housed in a custom folder.
A fair copy in Lovecraft’s hand of this bleak and nightmarish poem in the manner of one of his idols (and fellow Providence resident), Edgar Allan Poe.
“Despair” was published first in the amateur journal Pine Cones in June, 1919. In the poem’s five stanzas, the narrator describes how his younger self, once alive to the world (“Skies … were beaming, / Gold and azure, splendid seeming”), is now crushed by the grotesque “daemons of despair,” physical manifestations of fear and self-doubt. Now after “All the years of fruitless quest” the narrator finds life “abhorrent” and longs only for the “Sweet Oblivion” of death.
O’er the midnight moorlands crying,
Thro’ the cypress forests sighing,
In the night-wind madly flying,
Hellish forms with streaming hair;
In the barren branches creaking,
By the stagnant swamp-pools speaking,
Past the shore-cliffs ever shrieking;
Damn’d daemons of despair.
Once, I think I half remember,
Ere the grey skies of November
Quench’d my youth’s aspiring ember,
Liv’d there such a thing as bliss;
Skies that now are dark were beaming,
Gold and azure, splendid seeming
Till I learn’d it all was dreaming—
Deadly drowsiness of Dis.
But the stream of Time, swift flowing,
Brings the torment of half-knowing—
Dimly rushing, blindly going
Past the never-trodden lea;
And the voyager, repining,
Sees the wicked death-fires shining,
Hears the wicked petrel’s whining
As he helpless drifts to sea.
Evil wings in ether beating;
Vultures at the spirit eating;
Things unseen forever fleeting
Black against the leering sky.
Ghastly shades of bygone gladness,
Clawing fiends of future sadness,
Mingle in a cloud of madness
Ever on the soul to lie.
Thus the living, lone and sobbing,
In the throes of anguish throbbing,
With the loathsome Furies robbing
Night and noon of peace and rest.
But beyond the groans and grating
Of abhorrent Life, is waiting
Sweet Oblivion, culminating
All the years of fruitless quest.
While unnamed, the speaker could well be Randolph Carter, the melancholy protagonist of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, whose investigations lead him only to gothic terror and dread. “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the first story in the cycle, was written in December 1919, some months after the composition of “Despair.” In addition to the theme of the quest that leads to revelations of horror, the poem invokes the trope of dreaming – key to the Carter cycle. But whereas the stories speak of an alternate dimension that can be entered only through dreams, the poem suggests – more disturbingly – that the gold and azure skies of youthful vigor were illusory – “I learn’d it all was dreaming – / Deadly drowsiness of Dis.” Reality is inhabited by “Things unseen forever fleeting / Black against the leering sky.” This nihilistic theme is central to much of Lovecraft’s work, in which ignorance of the true nature of the world is crucial to preserving one’s sanity. As one of his characters remarks in the famous opening lines of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
Randolph Carter is generally regarded as a proxy for Lovecraft, and it is hard not to read “Despair” in autobiographical context. In February 1919, Lovecraft was living in his mother’s house in straitened circumstances – the family breadwinners were long dead, and the inheritance which sustained the two was dwindling. His mother was ill, and on 18 January had moved to her live with her sister in the building that would inspire Lovecraft’s novella The Shunned House. Writing to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, he expressed his sorrowful state:
You above all others can imagine the effect of maternal illness & absence. I cannot eat, nor can I stay up long at a time. Pen-writing or typewriting nearly drives me insane. But my nervous system seems to find its vent in feverish & incessant scribbling with a pencil. I have written a great deal, though perhaps the results shew the effects of my condition. … She writes optimistic letters each day, & I try to make my replies equally optimistic; though I do not find it possible to “cheer up”, eat, & go out, as she encourages me to do.
In March, she would suffer a breakdown and would be hospitalized at the same sanitarium where Lovecraft’s father died in 1898 – the writer could not bring himself to visit. These were the unhappy circumstances in which Lovecraft wrote “Despair.”
Rather intriguingly, the poem is written on the reverse of two order blanks for “Books of the Month” issued by E. J. Haldeman-Julius, the free-thinking publisher of the Little Blue Books, cheap pocket-sized volumes for the common reader. Lovecraft followed the series ardently, and had written to Haldeman-Julius Weekly in early 1923. The poem is dated February 1919, but the order form leaves blank the date “192__,” suggesting that this fair copy was drafted late in the year.
This manuscript comes from the estate of the publisher Horace L. Lawson (1900 – 1981), whose Wolverine magazine published at least five works by Lovecraft in 1920 and 1921, but not this poem. The two had been corresponding since 1917. In his memoir of Lovecraft, Lawson recalled receiving the manuscript:
In 1919 a poem of his called “Despair" caught my fancy, and he was good enough to send me a copy in his own handwriting. I had it framed and it has hung on my study wall for nearly 60 years. The paper is almost brown now and the ink is faded, but still legible.
A superb manuscript executed at a key moment in Lovecraft’s personal and creative development, with excellent provenance.
- Haden, David. “Lovecraft’s letters to Haldeman-Julius, parts I and II.” Tentaclii -- News and scholarship on H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), 13 and 14 June 2022. https://jurn.link/tentaclii/index.php/2022/06/13/lovecrafts-letters-to-haldeman-julius/
- Joshi, S. T. A Dreamer and a Visionary: H P Lovecraft in His Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001)
- Lawson, Horace L. “Lovecraft was my mentor,” Amateur Offerings, No. 14 (December, 1977). Reprinted in S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ave • Atque • Vale: Reminiscences of H. P. Lovecraft (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press 2018)
- Lovecraft, H. P. “Despair,” Pine Cones, 1, No. 4 (June 1919), 13. Reprinted in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1943
- -----. Selected Letters, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. 5 vols. Sauk City: Arkham House, 1965-1976.
Earn 0Reward points