A Few Thoughts on "Polaris"

  1. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Below are some notes I wrote up for myself a while back, when I was thinking of doing a piece on some of the "influences" on Lovecraft's early tale, "Polaris". I am now at work on a first draft of the full piece, and thought, if anyone would be interested, I'd post the original notes here, either for the reader's enjoyment or to spark discussion, as the case may be:

    "Polaris" is an interesting piece in Lovecraft's oeuvre for several reasons. First, because it strikes an almost quasi-Biblical cadence and archaic rhythm and word-choice, all bearing striking similarity to the work of Lord Dunsany, with which Lovecraft was not yet acquainted; yet when he did encounter it slightly over a year later, this common chord wold resonate so strongly that, for some time, the Irish fantaisiste would almost dominate Lovecraft's own work. Secondly, it begins that series of tales that has come to be called the "Dreamlands" stories (though Lovecraft himself never so designated the tales and indeed vacillated between them taking place in dream or in a prehistoric past). And thirdly because, in this tale Lovecraft would pull together very disparate threads from his letters, poems, and philosophical views as well as personal experiences, and make of them a story that -- at least on the surface -- is logically flawed but nonetheless haunting.

    As has been noted, the dream of the city was described in the letter to Maurice Winter Moe of 15 May 1918 (included in Selected Letters I, pp. 60-68); but Lovecraft was also inspired to take a fictional position directly opposed to that in his letter by here arguing -- or at least making plausible -- that the dream-state (both disembodied spirit and later inhabitant of the city) was as real as the modern man who has the dream; that, in fact, the dream is a memory of something from an unknown prehistoric past in which the dreamer, in a previous incarnation, played a part; a point discussed at some length by S. T. Joshi (see, e.g., A Subtler Magick, pp. 72-75). It is this nagging sense of pseudo-memory, and the tension between the poles of it being a true memory or an obsessive dream, that gives the tale much of its power.

    But Lovecraft brought together other things as well, sometimes in reversed or distorted form, from his own experiences. That the narrator is "denied a warrior's part" because he is "feeble and given to strange fantings when subjected to stress and hardships" is an obvious reference to his rejection by the R.I.N.G. (and subsequently during the draft), and his feelings of bitterness resulting from that (possibly revived by the publishing of a verse entitled "Only a Volunteer" by one Sgt. Hayes B. Miller, to which Lovecraft wrote a response, "The Volunteer", a possibility strengthened by Lovecraft's comments written on the tearsheets for the issue of The Tryout in which his response also appeared -- see A Winter Wish, pp. 119-121, 171,n.76). But some of Lovecraft is also reflected in Alos as well, whose speech was that "of a true man and patriot", not of a peace-advocate such as Lovecraft constantly castigated at this point; and when he (Alos) "spoke of the perils to be faced, and exhorted the men ... to sustain the traditions of their ancestors" (who bear considerable resemblance to Lovecraft's version of the ancient Teutonic warriors -- note his description of their descent from the north and how they swept more primitive peoples aside, and compare it with numerous similar passages in his letters), as opposed to the Inutos, who "were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour" which held back the Lomarians from "ruthless conquest", it rings uncannily close to such Lovecraftian exhortations as "Ad Britannos". There is also the common notion or feeling that Lovecraft had of the modern day being a mad dream and the "rational" eighteenth centyry being the reality (see, for example, De Camp's Lovecraft: A Biography, p. 22), which he here gives an especially poignant and chilling form.

    Yet it is Lovecraft's artistry, even in such a minor tale as this, that allows for that "willing suspension of disbelief" that enables the tale to work. His careful choice of what details to include and what words and rhythms to use are immeasurably important to conveying a convincing atmosphere. He had not read Poe or the Gothics or Hawthorne (though it was only later he learned his major lessons from Hawthorne) in vain. Use of such terms as "uncanny light" for the Pole Star; or north winds that "curse and whine"; Coma Berenices shimmering "weirdly" -- all from the first few lines of the story -- may indeed be "meaningless" in a literal sense (though, with Lovecraft's penchant for imbuing the setting of a tale with a form of sentience, even this is debatable), but as descriptions of an emotional state or response to a thing they add a texture and color that incrementally slips the reader from everyday reality to a particular nightmarish vision; giving, upon finishing the tale, a new layer of perception to reality itself.

    Choice of such details as how "the red-leaved trees of the swamp mutter things to one another in the small hours of the morning under the horned waning moon" or "the night of the great Aurora, when over the swamp played the shocking coruscations of the daemon-light"; the creation of the Pnakotic Manuscripts; or even the "damnable rhythmical promise" (altered in wording after considering the criticism of his fellow amateur poet John Ravenor Bullen; see In Defence of Dagon, p.32,n.3) are indeed very carefully made, and hint of things beyond the view of the reader, giving the tale a depth not only historically (the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the cyclical curse uttered by the Pole Star), but in allusion to mysteries never explained but rich in possibilities. For example: Why call the Aurora a "daemon-light"? Is it a portent of what is to come, perhaps even a breaking-through of the past into the present, a rupture in the fabric of those "laws of nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space"? Note that, in the sequence of events given in the tale, it is after the night of the aurora that the city appears and the protagonist's dream/memory begins, and recall that Aurora is the goddess of the dawn....

    Even with such a brief and relatively minor piece, Lovecraft is extremely careful to choose that which will enhance the effect, blur the lines between reality and dream, and bestow an emotional plausibility that is the hallmark of a consummate craftsman.
     
    Jun 30, 2008
    #1
  2. GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Thank you for sharing. As always interesting, insightful and entertaining.

    Will the final draft be up for publication?
     
    Jun 30, 2008
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  3. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    At this point, who knows? I just had a chance to get started writing the piece earlier today, so it's going to be a bit, with my crowded schedule. However, I'm hoping something worthwhile will come out of this, anyway....

    At any rate, thank you for your kind comment, Mr. G....
     
    Jun 30, 2008
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  4. GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Well in your case they're waranted. Let's not forget my bios have been put to air in the US and they have asked me to do a series for them. At the moment I don't have a lot of time to devote to that but if I can make headway w/o even meaning to then you surely will.

    Keep the faith..
     
    Jun 30, 2008
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  5. Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Well-Known Member

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    Is it just me or did anyone sense a similarity between "Polaris" and Clark Ashton Smith's tale "Planet of the Dead"? In both tales, a man is fascinated by a particular star, and in gazing at it is transported there at which time their "true" memory returns and during which time they try to effect events but end up being forced to return to their exile.

    I'm not sure which story was written first but surely one must have been influenced by the other anyway...
     
    Oct 14, 2009
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  6. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    It's possible, but that sort of theme was fairly common at that period: A Princess of Mars, A Voyage to Arcturus, The Worm Ouroboros (in conjunction with the Zimiamvian books) being among them. The parallels aren't exact, but generally adhere.

    As for which came first: "Polaris" was written in 1918, long before CAS's tale, but Smith may have been influenced (albeit unconsciously) by Lovecraft's... however, even that is rather doubtful. I think it more likely that the theme itself was simply a common one for writers in the field at the time.
     
    Oct 14, 2009
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  7. Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Well-Known Member

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    Being more widely read than I, you may well be right. I haven't read "A Princess of Mars" or "A Voyage to Arcturus" but I have read "The Worm Ouroboros" and the similarity never occurred to me when I read it. Although in the Worm, it is hardly the central focus of the story, the character (Lessingham) that projects to the observed astral body is merely an observer and quickly ceases to be mentioned. "Polaris" and "Planet of the Dead", the character each time has no memory of whence they came until they go back , and then get sent forth (banished) again against their will. In other words, the similarities between these stories seem stronger.

    But like I said, I am not familiar with the other stories you mentioned.
     
    Oct 14, 2009
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  8. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    I see the similarities you mention, yes (though it has been decades since I last read Smith's tale, I must admit); and, as I said, it is possible that he was influenced by Lovecraft's piece -- but I think it more likely it was a development of his own, given that the theme of such travel, either "psychically" or physically, was fairly common in Smith all along, even in his early poetry.

    As for the Eddison: I mentioned it in conjunction with the Zimiamvian books, where Lessingham is the main character and is both the familiar earthbound figure and an avatar in Zimiamvia (mentioned and described in Ouroboros), which makes the connection with this theme much more apparent. (Even in The Mezentian Gate, it is an avatar of Lessingham who plays one of the central roles, though not the Lessingham we have come to know.)
     
    Oct 14, 2009
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  9. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    I happened to re-read this story yesterday, and decided to run a search on it here; and lo! I find this excellent essay. There's really nothing I can add except to perhaps expand on one minor detail: as J.D. notes, the narrator of 'Polaris' is 'denied a warrior's part', which reflects Lovecraft's own experience at being found unfit for military service. 'The Statement Of Randolph Carter' was written in 1919, a year after 'Polaris'. In his relation of the original dream which inspired the story, although not in the story itself, he mentions that at one point in the dream, the dream-figure of Samuel Loveman turns to him and tells him to follow him no further, saying that 'At any rate, this is no place for anyone who can't pass an army physical examination.'

    This statement is removed in the fictionalisation of this dream, but it seems as if his rejection by the U.S. Army and the National Guard became a repeated motif in Lovecraft's stories, at least for a while. I wonder if they also recurred in his dreams - it is not clear whether this aspect of the story 'Polaris' was from the dream, although I think not. Still, I wonder if the sense of being able to watch what was going on but unable to 'remember' what it was reflect his sense of exclusion from the conflict his nation was involved in. From what I understand, this is how dreams deal with something that has caused a deep emotional shock - they bring the source of the shock up again and again, in different ways sometimes, in an attempt at forcing a coming-to-terms that may not be possible on a conscious level. I might be over-reading things here, of course, but it is still certain that Lovecraft's dreams nourished his fiction in a way that is true of few other writers I have studied and it's fascinating to trace how his dreams turned autobiographical facts into dream story-elements that were then consciously refined into written stories.
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2010
    Mar 4, 2010
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  10. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    J. P.: The opening post here was simply the beginning of my putting together a piece on "Polaris"; sharing my thoughts and looking for some discussion to help me clarify some things to my own satisfaction. At any rate, I did indeed write something on it... something of considerably more length than I could fit into a single or, for that matter, several posts. If you would be interested, I could send the original draft of it to you. Just let me know if you'd like to take a look at it....
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  11. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    Yes, please. I assume you mean by email? My ID is jayaprakash at gmail dot com.
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  12. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    'Tis on its way....
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  13. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    Thank you. I also had a question on the Supernatural Horror In Literature thread which you may be able to cast some light on, should you have the time to do so.
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  14. Nesacat

    Nesacat The Cat

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    Could you send it me too JD. Thank you.

    I was also wanting to ask how or why several of you re-read Lovecraft's tales. (This is possibly the wrong place for this).

    This is assuming you are not doing so in order to write an essay, article, critique, etc. Knivesout says he 'happened' to re-read Polaris yesterday.

    Do you choose to re-read ... make a conscious decision that 'I am going to re-read this now.' Or do you walk past a shelf and find yourself picking out the book, opening it and starting to read? And do you keep going story after story or do you stop after the one?
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  15. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    I'll start a new thread.
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  16. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Ask away... or is that the question you already asked in the SHiL thread....?
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  17. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    Yes. Thanks again!
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  18. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    You are quite welcome.

    Nesa... if you wish, yes, I can send that one along to you, too....
     
    Mar 4, 2010
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  19. w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Well-Known Member

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    Unable to write new fiction, I have begun a project that has been on my mind for some years, to revise portions of my prose-poem/vignette sequence, UNCOMMON PLACES, as full short stories. I did this with the final sections as they were publish'd in my second Hippocampus Press book and turned them into a story called "Gathered Dust." Just to-night I have taken segments IX, X, and XI and revised them into one solid narrative, whut I have entitl'd "To Kiss Your Canvas." I am now looking at segment VIII, whut was inspir'd by section 18 of Lovecraft's Commonplace Book: "Calamander wood--a very valuable cabinet wood of Ceylon & S. India, resembling rosewood." Reading over that segment to-night, I was reminded that it was also influenc'd by E'ch-Pi-El's "Polaris"; & thus I just did a wee Google on the tale, & was guided to this thread. I love this thread, had forgotten about it, & just nigh printed it out. I want to expand my prose-poem, add new portions, emphasize (obliquely, if possible) connections to Poe and Baudelaire, and see how I can transform the wee thing into a solid piece of weird fiction. I wish y'all the happiest & healthiest of New Years.
     
    Jan 9, 2014
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  20. Ningauble

    Ningauble Lovecraftian

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    Wow! keep up the good work, Wilum!
     
    Jan 9, 2014
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