"George Sterling is nearly forgotten today"
By Dalton Gross
While many Bay Area literati celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's Beat masterpiece "On the Road" earlier this year, 2007 also marks the centenary of another path-breaking moment in San Francisco literary history: the publication of George Sterling's epic poem "A Wine of Wizardry," which first appeared in the Cosmopolitan magazine in September 1907.
The poem stirred a reaction that rippled back and forth across the continent, thrusting Sterling into a cultural firestorm fueled by the vitriol of his mentor, Ambrose Bierce. Critics from everywhere weighed in, and, for a brief moment, San Francisco and Sterling assumed center stage in a nationwide cause celebre.
Sterling - the colorful scion of a Long Island whaling family who had come west in 1890, to work as a secretary in his uncle's East Bay real estate firm - was then in his mid-30s, handsome, athletic and rakish. He was also Jack London's best friend. By World War I, he would be known as the King of Bohemia and the poet laureate of San Francisco, but, by 1907, he had published only one short (albeit accomplished) volume of poetry, "The Testimony of the Suns" (1903) and a scattering of poems, primarily in local newspapers and lesser-known literary journals.
That made little difference to the hyperbolic Bierce. In an accompanying essay to "A Wine of Wizardry," Bierce claimed not only that Sterling "is a very great poet - incomparably the greatest we have on this side of the Atlantic" but also that the poem itself ranked with those of Keats, Coleridge and Rossetti. With an arrogance and intellectual condescension that spilled from every stroke of his pen, Bierce contended that "not in our lifetime has our literature had any new thing of equal length containing so much poetry and so little else" and that only an "enlightened few" could recognize this "virgin gold."
Talk about a setup.
Sterling's poem, an elegiac and image-laden celebration of a Pacific Coast sunset enhanced by wine and, perhaps, opium (there is a reference to a "brow caressed by poppy-bloom"), contains several allusions to Greek mythology and demonology, and reflects not only Sterling's bohemian sensuality and sensibilities but also his studied mysticism:
For this the fays will dance, for elfin cheer, Within a dell where some mad girl hath flung A bracelet that the painted lizards fear - Red pyres of muffled light!
Sterling had written "A Wine of Wizardry" a few years earlier while commuting on ferryboats between San Francisco and Oakland, but he had failed to place it in any literary journal of distinction, commenting in letters to friends about the stack of rejection letters piling up on his desk. It was Bierce, then living in Washington, D.C., and the resident curmudgeon of William Randolph Hearst's publishing empire, who secured its publication in Hearst's monthly magazine the Cosmopolitan.
The public outcry against Sterling's poem - and Bierce's unbridled praise - was vast and swift.
The popular American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox crafted a bitter parody of "A Wine of Wizardry," which was cited in several San Francisco newspapers ("with labial echoes, tomb thrown from the dope"), while an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner declared that "five lines from [the poem] would drive a man to beat a cripple, and ten lines would send him to the bottom of the river." Critic Porter Garnett likened it to "the hammering of a tattoo on a sweet-toned bell."
In the December 1907 issue of the Cosmopolitan, the curmudgeonly Bierce responded fiercely in a perfectly titled retort, "An Insurrection of the Peasantry." Those who condemned "A Wine of Wizardry," Bierce argued, did so with "moral unworth" and "a fat and heavy hand." He took no prisoners.
In fact, "A Wine of Wizardry" was at once gravely behind and ahead of its time. Sterling's commitment to the metered and rhythmic confines of 19th century Romantic poetry placed him starkly at odds with the emerging free-verse and subjective inclinations of the modern poetry movement in Europe and the United States. Indeed, Sterling's work was consistently roasted by modernists, most notably Harriet Monroe, the influential founder and editor of the journal Poetry, who characterized Sterling's poetry as "the frippery of a by-gone fashion."
Yet Sterling was hardly a relic from the early 19th century. His dark and moody poetic vision was reminiscent of Poe (and even Baudelaire), and his reverence for nature experienced - as opposed to nature idealized - foreshadowed the poetry of Robinson Jeffers (whom he helped discover) and, later, the Beats. The talented poet Clark Ashton Smith, a protege of Sterling's, called "A Wine of Wizardry" a "fire-opal of the Titans."
By the time Sterling committed suicide in November 1926, in his Bohemian Club digs on Taylor Street, he had completed more than a dozen volumes of poetry and verse dramas, published in virtually every major literary magazine of his day and had been included in several major poetry anthologies, including Monroe's "The New Poetry" (1917). He also became a fine and widely published critic and essayist.
But posterity has not been so kind to Sterling. While the late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen greatly admired Sterling's poem "The Cool, Grey City of Love" and though a park on Russian Hill was named in the poet's honor, California historian Kevin Starr assessed his work as "tragically passe" and "overrated" (though Starr acknowledged his evaluation to be based "primarily" on just three of Sterling's volumes), and London's unreliable biographer, Andrew Sinclair, dubbed him "a minor romantic poet."
Hardly. Sterling was never "minor" about anything.
The Western writer Mary Austin, who adored Sterling, was probably closer to the mark. "One sees that whatever place he will finally take in American literature," she wrote, "if not the highest, it will certainly not be a low one. Sterling himself will become a myth there, a figure of man noble, inconsequent, but never utterly denied his desire to identify himself with truth and beauty."
Geoffrey Dunn is a writer and filmmaker from Santa Cruz. His most recent film is "Calypso Dreams." He is at work on a biography of George Sterling.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 54: American Poets, 1880-1945, Third Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Peter Quatermain, University of British Columbia. The Gale Group, 1987. pp. 464-471.