September 7, 2011

Bierce and Sterling: ignorant asses

Both Ambrose Bierce and George Sterling became strongly associated with California, though they were born elsewhere (Ohio and New York, respectively). They were good friends and Bierce was a particularly strong supporter of the much younger Sterling. However, Bierce was not known for idly ignoring his annoyances. On September 7, 1906, he wrote to Sterling to set the record straight about the latter's recent poem, "A Wine of Wizardry":

Note the deliberate and repeated lying of [Arthur] Brisbane in quoting me as saying the "Wine" is "the greatest poem ever written in America". Note his dishonesty in confessing that he has commendatory letters, yet not publishing a single one of them. [The editor] promises me a free hand in replying to these ignorant asses. If he does not give it me I quit.

It is not entirely certain if the San Franciscan editorial in question was really by Arthur Brisbane but, more importantly, Bierce did not believe "A Wine of Wizardry" was the greatest poem in America. He had written of Sterling as "a very great poet - incomparably the greatest we have on this side of the Atlantic." As for "A Wine of Wizardry," he wrote, "I hold that not in a lifetime has our literature had any new thing of equal length containing so much poetry and so little else." For the record, he actually preferred Sterling's "The Testimony of the Suns" (incidentally, both poems include an epigraph from  Bierce's writings). From "A Wine of Wizardry":

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.

*This letter is collected in A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce (2003) edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz.

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