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Recompense -- Robert E Howard

       
(Poem #261) Recompense
 I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call,
 But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.
 I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,
 But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

 I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host,
 But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.
 I have not kissed the tiger-feet of a strange-eyed golden god,
 But I have walked a city's street where no man else had trod.

 I have not raised the canopies that shelter revelling kings,
 But I have fled from crimson eyes and black unearthly wings.
 I have not knelt outside the door to kiss a pallid queen,
 But I have seen a ghostly shore that no man else has seen.

 I have not seen the standards sweep from keep and castle wall,
 But I have seen a woman leap from a dragon's crimson stall,
 And I have heard strange surges boom that no man heard before,
 And seen a strange black city loom on a mystic night-black shore.

 And I have felt the sudden blow of a nameless wind's cold breath,
 And watched the grisly pilgrims go that walk the roads of Death,
 And I have seen black valleys gape, abysses in the gloom,
 And I have fought the deathless Ape that guards the Doors of Doom.

 I have not seen the face of Pan, nor mocked the Dryad's haste,
 But I have trailed a dark-eyed Man across a windy waste.
 I have not died as men may die, nor sin as men have sinned,
 But I have reached a misty sky upon a granite wind.
-- Robert E Howard
For those of you who have never heard of Robert E Howard, he was to
swords-and-sorcery what Tolkien was to high fantasy. His Conan books
practically defined the genre for later authors; he stands along with
Tolkien as one of the founders of modern fantasy.

Unlike Tolkien, he did not intersperse his novels and stories with poetry;
nonetheless many of his poems clearly inhabit the same general fantasy
universe that his fiction does. Today's, for instance, deals with the
age-old theme of a barbarian commenting on civilized life; there is, of
course, little doubt as to where Howard's own sympathies lie.

As for the poem itself; as befits a barbarian's outpourings, it is more
energetic than polished; a somewhat disconnected sequence of highly vivid
images expressed in strong, masculine couplets[1]. The imagery is, of
course, instantly familiar to anyone who has read any sword-and-sorcery
fantasy; while it does at times appear cliched I have to wonder how much of
that was due to Howard's influence on the field.

  [1] masculine rhymes are those that rhyme on the final syllable only.

Then again, long exposure to fantasy has meant that even the triter phrases
are laden with associations, and thus evocative when set against the
backdrop of the genre. Which is only appropriate, given how heavily the
genre was influenced by Howard - it has in a sense helped lend his own works
a certain measure of timelessness. I do have a few complaints against the
poem - the occasional break in scansion, a few words I wish he'd avoided,
and especially the abruptness of the ending - but they're far outweighed by
the sheer cornucopia of strange and wondrous images.

m.

Biography:

The Britannica, oddly enough, doesn't deign to list either Howard or Conan.
There is also (somewhat ironically) a lot more on the net about Conan than
about Howard; still, I did manage to find the following biography:

  http://www.spe.sony.com/classics/www/misc/about.html

Here's an excerpt, but do follow up te link, if only for the Howard quote at
the beginning:

  Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas in 1906. The son of one of
  the southwest's most prominent pioneer physicians, Howard's youth
  coincided with the last days of Americas frontier culture, a fact that
  would forever influence him and his stories.

  Very early on, Howard steeped himself in the folklore and history of the
  southwest, the Rio Grande valley. He became fascinated with the legendary
  virility and strength of the pioneers and delighted in the innate poetry
  found in the exploration of virgin land.

  At the age of 15, he began writing his yarns, tales of savage men living
  outside the rest of society, battling against other men, for land and
  pride. Though the circumstances and settings changed, the hero, or
  anti-hero, was always somehow a shade of the same creature--part savage,
  part nobleman, part poet, part pioneer--not unlike Howard himself.

  Always described as an imposingly tall, dark, brawny man with piercing
  blue eyes, Howard's characters were as much himself as they were pulled
  from his extraordinary imagination. Howard's mentor and friend, the
  legendary father of pulp fiction H.P. Lovecraft, described him as "a lover
  of the simpler, older world of barbarian and pioneer days, when courage
  and strength took the place of subtlety and stratagem, and when a hardy,
  fearless race battled and bled...the real secret [of Howards stories] is
  that he himself is in every one of them..."

Links:

  [broken link] http://pages.ripco.net/~bbb/howard.html is a pretty comprehensive Howard
  site.

  http://collins.wssnet.com/gentzel/reh/index.html is worth a look, too

  Howard fandom is alive and well - see
  [broken link] http://www.robjob.com/rehupa/samples.html

  and the web ring at [broken link] http://markbutler.8m.com/conanwebring.htm

82 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ron Evans said...

Largely artless, boring, replete with strained alliteration and
mechanical internal rhymes that fail to compensate for the obvious --
Howard had nothing to say in this poem and did his subject justice with
his crude, fumbling imagery and utter lack of poetic sensibility. The
kindest thing that can be said of this poem is that it is short enough
to keep most readers from falling asleep. Sorry, Robert...no cigar.

Joseph William Marek said...

I read the previous comment, plus your own, on the Howard poem
"Recompense." I don't know why you chose this particular poem, but I
think you're selling him short.

During the first half of 1929 he was published regularly in serious
poetry magazines before abandoning poetry to write prose exclusively.
(I can supply a list if you want.)

Howard's best work, both poetic and prose, has strong evocative
language. There is a literary journal, The Dark Man, dedicated to
Howard's work, that you should know about.

A.C.Tambeau said...

Hello, Gentlemen.

I'd like to comment on this poem, but as I lack the technical expertise that your education has provided both of you, I fear that I'll be somewhat less exact. It is to be hoped, however, that I'll be as eloquent.

This is one of my favourite poems, and I must have read it a hundred times. I like the rhythym of the thing, the -feel- of it, especially the fifth stanza, which is the most exciting in my opinion. I -love- the way he states his accomplishments, the way his tone dares any to belittle or devalue them while remaining as humble as possible. To me, this says "I have done a hundred things you cannot fathom". While many I've discussed the poem with call it hackneyed and cliche, it must be (and thankfully has been) considered that Howard was a pioneer of the genre. This is the price one pays for being the example others emulate.

The thing I like best about the poem is the narrator himself. As a nordic barbarian we can assume that the culture which produced him relies heavily on heroic death to gain entrance to the final reward, he has not followed a life which has led him to glory. Rather, he has lived in the places between places, not facing his enemy head-on, but as a skulking tracker, a spy, and a pioneer into dark places. He stands outside his culture, as a counter-example to the virtues his society proscribes, and therefore has been judged by his own beliefs alone. Much like the narrator of Robert Frost's famous poem, he 'took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.' He's lived a life less ordinary but no less full than others. While he may not have "... died as men may die, nor sin as men have sinned" , he has achieved his final reward.

Thanks for reading!

Mark Shipley said...

Gentlemen:

I think you misjudge Howard. He is not writing of a fictional character's thoughts. His poem is a fairly powerful record of a strong writer's vivid inner world. Howard is disappointed that he himself is not a fantasy hero, or even a man of great note. Howard's "recompense" for not being a hero is the strength of his own inner vision and fantasy life. In his mind he has "seen the dragons come fire-eyed across the world."

I must confess to not giving a great deal of value to expert meter and poetic technique. I am far more interested in imagery and the way a poem acts upon my own emotions. Howard's poem succeeds well on this level.

The only sad note to the poem is that one is not quite convinced that Howard's "recompense" really sufficed. He killed himself at age 29, a disappointed and bitter man who could not defeat his own psychological foes.

Mark Shipley

Sandy Scordato said...

Hi,

I am looking for the poem that was used in the movie The Whole Wide World. I caught some of the verse...

Life loves life to live

The higher a man may travel, the lower he may fall
This skein I must unravel, it was never meant for all

Do you know where I might find it?

Infernaljase99 said...

Dear Sirs,

Before I comment let me tell you I too do not have an expertise in poetic
critcism.I fact most poetry in my opinion is unreadable...especially "The
Classics". Now we come to the subjest of "recompense" which hold in high esteem.
In Poetry the imagery is tantmount to technique or form and the imagery
in this poem is as others have said very powerful.
What I think is lacking in your comments is the observation that this is
a spiritual poem and should not be construed as a flesh and blood narrator
but as a traveler beyond death. Ifeel this poem is a manifestation of Howard's
obsession with death and what lies beyond.
The Northern barbarian analogy in my opinion does not match the
supernatural bent I sense within the imagery itself.

barbara_barrett said...

I saw in your remarks that you can provide a list of the poetry REH had
published. The only book I could locate publishes his poems from Weird
Tales. Do you know of any other published poems by REH that I might be able
to locate?
I really appreciated your defense of REH also.
Sincerely,
Barbara Barrett

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