A Student, disagreeing strongly with the professor's interpretation of Sterling's sonnet "The Black Vulture," contended that the vulture was meant to symbolize death. To bring the lengthy argument to a close an appeal was made to the author himself. The answer1 was significant not merely for its discrediting of symbolism but also for its account of the genesis of the poem, which is one of Sterling's most enduring achievements and certainly among the memorable sonnets in our literature:
[Letterhead of the Bohemian Club, San Francisco]
Apr. 27th, 1925.
Dear Prof. Berkelman: "The Black Vulture" is a nature-poem pure and simple. There are few poems into which some kind of symbolism cannot be read, with a litle imagination—and a good many where symbolism was intended. But I am not guilty in this case.
The folk of the Santa Lucia mountains call our California condor "the black vulture," and once, when on the Big Sur river, I saw one of the great birds poised a mile or more overhead. They are larger even than the Andean condor, their wings spreading over ten feet in some specimens. It's a fine of $1000. for shooting one, as the bird is very scarce and becoming rarer yearly. I doubt if there are 20 in all California. They range from the Big Sur (a mere stream) southward into Mexico.
There is an admirable stuffed group of them, with their big white egg, out at Golden Gate park. I hope that some day you will see it for yourself.
Thanking you for your interest in my work, I beg to remain
Very sincerely yours,
The letter was followed by a notably strange chain of events. One year and a half later, on November 17, 1926, the poet took cyanide of potassium in the club from which he had written the letter. And the following winter the young student who had insisted that the vulture symbolized death, also committed suicide. Details on death of Sterling are taken from Upton Sinclair's article, "My Friend George Sterling," Bookman, LXVI, 3° (Sept., 1927).
From: American Literature; 1938, Vol. 10 Issue 2, p223, 2p