Best-known for his gothic horror stories, H. P. Lovecraft was also a master of a similar genre of poetry. Within ‘Astrophobos’ he utilizes skillfully crafted allusions to Greek and apocalyptic mythologies to touch on themes of the universe, other worlds, dreams and fears.
Summary of Astrophobos
In the first lines of ‘Astrophobos’, the speaker begins by describing his love for the otherworldly darkness of outer space. He expresses the pleasure he feels when he can stare up at the stars, especially one that’s close to Ursa Major. The speaker yearns for this particular star and crafts an entire narrative around it. He interprets it as being a place of joy, virtue and heavenly music. While celebrating the star and those that live on it a change comes over the scene.
The star is suddenly shrouded in crimson and its true nature becomes clear. Now, all he can see is horror and woe. There are demons in the flickering light, staring back at him and all the music is discordant. He feels as though he’s been shown the truth of outer space and turns his back on his previous love for stargazing.
Poetic Techniques in Astrophobos
‘Astrophobos’ by H. P. Lovecraft is a seven stanza poem that’s separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABAB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Lovecraft also makes use of several other poetic techniques. These include alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “beauty blended” in stanza two and “dissolving” and “derision” in stanza five.
Allusion is an indirect, passing reference to something, such as a person, historical or mythological event of relevance to the larger poem or just that particular verse. It is used broadly within ‘Astrophobos,’ such as in the title itself, as will be explained below.
Other allusions can be found at the end of the first stanza when Lovecraft refers to “the Arctic car,” an allusion to the constellation Ursa Major. Another example is at the end of stanza three when Lovecraft speaks of the “lute of Israfel”.
It is also important to consider the title of the poem, ‘Astrophobos’. Lovecraft coined this term in order to depict the emotional landscape of the text. The prefix, “astro” means of, or in relation to stars or outer space. The suffix, “phobos” means fear. It is an allusion to the personification of fear in Greek mythological, the offspring of Aphrodite and Ares.
Analysis of Astrophobos
In the midnight heavens burning
Thro’ ethereal deeps afar,
In the first stanza of ‘Astrophobos’ the speaker begins by describing the sight and feeling of the “heavens”. They were dark, but also gave the impression of being on fire due to the number of stars burning in the blackness. He was looking up into the sky, “afar” into the “ethereal deeps” the darkness has to offer.
The word “ethereal” sets the tone for the rest of the poem. It refers to something that is heavenly, or spiritual, but also, more broadly, to something that is too perfect for our world. The world of the stars above the speaker feels close enough to meditate on, but is obviously too far away to grasp and fully understand.
Once I watch’d with restless yearning
An alluring, aureate star;
Ev’ry eye aloft returning,
Gleaming nigh the Arctic car.
The speaker recalls how “Once” when he was watching the stars, he settled upon one in particular. While viewing it, he felt restless with a “yearning” for that one light. It was “alluring” or entrancing, as well as “aureate”. Through this line Lovecraft is able to make use of alliteration and therefore improve the rhyme of the text, while also speaking to the beautiful gold-like qualities of the star.
Alliteration is used again in the fifth line with “Ev’ry eye”. Here, he explains how his yearning did not decrease. He was continually looking up at this particular star positioned “nigh” or near, the “Arctic car”. As mentioned above, the “Arctic car” is a reference to Ursa Major, also known as the great bear.
Mystic waves of beauty blended
With the gorgeous golden rays;
Phantasies of bliss descended
In a myrrh’d Elysian haze;
And in lyre-born chords extended
Harmonies of Lydian lays.
It’s clear by the second stanza that Lovecraft’s speaker is taking more than just an appreciation of the star’s aesthetic beauty. He’s watching it and feeling something mystical emanating from it. It comes in “waves of beauty blended”. The golden rays of the star are vibrant and carry a beautiful mystical quality along with their light. Alliteration is used heavily in these lines.
In the second line Lovecraft uses the word “Phantasies”. This is an archaic spelling of the word “fantasies”. When he looks up at the star he feels dreams of bliss descending down onto him. He can imagine an entire world in that star that surmounts his own. It feels like heaven itself is shining down at him, carried on “Harmonies of Lydian lays”. This complex allusion refers to the ancient kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia and “lays” to a short, narrative poem meant to be sung aloud.
There (thought I) lies scenes of pleasure,
Where the free and blessed dwell,
And each moment bears a treasure
Freighted with a lotus-spell,
And there floats a liquid measure
From the lute of Israfel.
Continuing on, in the third stanza of ‘Astrophobos’ the speaker describes how he “thought” in that star he would find “scenes of pleasure”. From the emotional and spiritual connection he’s established with this specific light in the sky he has begun to craft a narrative around it. He can imagine it as the home of a people far freer and happier than his own. Only the “blessed dwell” there.
The third line is enjambed and used to explain how “each moment” on this star is filled with “treasure”. Nothing bad is ever born of time spent there. The last two lines are filled with a variety of references. First, to “Israfel” an angel depicted in the Quran that blows the trumpet to signal the start of armageddon.
Additionally, there is a connection to one of Lovecraft’s biggest influences, Edgar Allan Poe. He wrote a poem called ‘Israfel’ in which he quotes the Quran and speaks on the beauty of the angel and his voice. The passage from the Quran reads: “And the angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’ creatures”.
There (I told myself) were shining
Worlds of happiness unknown,
Peace and Innocence entwining
By the Crowned Virtue’s throne;
Men of light, their thoughts refining
Purer, fairer, than our own.
In the fourth stanza Lovecraft uses parenthesis again to note that he “told himself” the following lines. He doesn’t know them to be true, they’re how he felt then. The speaker looks back to the star and describes how “There” he thought there “were shining / Worlds of happiness unknown”. It is interesting at this point to consider that the poem is in the past tense, perhaps something is going to change, or the speaker’s opinions about this star will shift.
But for now, he still thinks of it as a place of “Peace and Innocence entwining”. In this line he capitalized “Peace” and “Innocence”. This was done in order to increase their importance, but also allow the words, as embodied forces, greater agency. They are personified and envisioned as “entwining” together as humans would “By the Crowned Virtue’s throne”. These three forces are those which the speaker thinks rule over the “aureate” star.
It’s not just spiritual energy on this star, there are also “Men of light” who are similar, but much fairer than men on earth. Their thoughts are refined and purer.
Thus I mus’d, when o’er the vision
Crept a red delirious change;
Hope dissolving to derision,
Beauty to distortion strange;
Hymnic chords in weird collision,
Spectral sights in endless range.
In the fifth stanza, there’s a turn, something changes and the speaker’s perception of the star’s greatness is destroyed. He was watching, when over “the vision / Crept a red delirious change”. Everything he felt about the star, its inhabitants and virtues dissolved into “derision”. No longer was there beauty, instead, there was “distortion strange”.
The beautiful harmonies he thought were coming from the star were also transformed. They became “Hymnic chords in weird collision”. The beautiful spiritual fantasies become “Spectral sights in endless range”.
Crimson burn’d the star of sadness
As behind the beams I peer’d;
All was woe that seem’d but gladness
Ere my gaze with truth was sear’d;
Cacodaemons, mir’d with madness,
Thro’ the fever’d flick’ring leer’d.
The star that used to appear gold is now “Crimson”. It’s burning in the sky with a distinct sadness. When he looks closer, behind the obvious beams he saw that “All was woe”. He mistook the terrible sights he’s now seeing for scenes of gladness.
In the fourth line of the sixth stanza of ‘Astrophobos’ the speaker’s own fear, and how it relates to the star, begins to unfold. The “woe” is the truth that seared over the false “gladness”.
The speaker sees now that “Cacodaemons” live on the star. They are evil spirits or demons. The word comes from the Greek “κακοδαίμων” or “kakodaimon”. They were bogged down and controlled by “madness” and stared back at the speaker through the “flick’ring” of the crimson light.
Now I know the fiendish fable
That the golden glitter bore;
Now I shun the spangled sable
That I watch’d and lov’d before;
But the horror, set and stable,
Haunts my soul for evermore.
In the final stanza of ‘Astrophobos’, the speaker reflects on what he saw and learned. Now, he states, he “knows[s] the fiendish fable / That the golden glitter bore”. He knows the morality story that the “golden glitter,” or star, carried within it. His knowledge has turned him against the sky and outer space in its entirety. He refers to it as the “spangled sable” or more clearly, the sparkling dark, that he used to love to admire.
Through another skillful use of alliteration, Lovecraft concludes ‘Astrophobos’ with his speaker saying that the “horror” is stuck, “set and stable,” in his soul “for evermore”. There is nothing that could be done to pull the horror from his breast and reinvigorate him with love for the darkness above his head.