Moon over Japan,
White butterfly moon!
Where the heavy-lidded Buddhas dream
To the sound of the cuckoo’s call. . . .
The white wings of moon-butterflies
Flicker down the streets of the city,
Blushing into silence the useless wicks of round lanterns in the hands of girls.
—Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft, “Poetry & the Gods” (1920)
“Poetry and the Gods” was first published in the United Amateur (Sep 1920). It is a collaborative effort between Anna Helen Crofts and H. P. Lovecraft (who used the pen-name H. Paget-Lowe). Crofts and Lovecraft were both members and officials of the United Amateur Press Association, which set the stage for their collaboration. Little else is known about the creative affair, however: there are no references to “Poetry and the Gods” or Crofts in any of Lovecraft’s published correspondence; it is included on none of his own lists of his fiction, and was discovered and published by Lovecraft scholar George T. Wetzel in the 1950; in his Collected Essays, Lovecraft mentions Crofts only once, in the editorial “News Notes” (July 1921) (CE1.293):
Miss Anna H. Crofts is taking a summer course at Columbia University, where she is delving deeply into the technical secrets of pedagogy.
Anastasia Helen Crofts was a public school teacher for most of her life, retiring from teaching in 1942; according to “Anna Helen Crofts—The Rest of the Story” she married Joseph B. McCuen and passed away in Williamstown in 1975. “Poetry and the Gods” and another story, “Life” (United Amateur Jun 1921) are her only known published fiction.
The exact contribution of the co-authors to the final product is likewise a matter of speculation, as no manuscript or drafts survive. S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz in An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (209) once conjectured:
Probably the impetus of the story came from Crofts; she may also have written the tidbit of free verse in the story, since HPL despised free verse […] The prose of the rest of the story appears to be HPL’s.
Ken W. Faig, Jr. in “The Strange Story of “Poetry and the Gods'” (PDF) however discovered that the free verse was borrowed from “Sky Lotus” by Elizabeth J. Coatsworth, published in the July 1919 issue of Asia. In Faig’s estimation:
If his coauthoress Miss Crofts was responsible for the initial draft of their collaboration, I suspect that the introductory paragraphs concluding with the citation of the enchanting blank verse are most of what remains of her work. Perhaps the basic idea of the six divine bards encountered in Marcia’s dream and the ending scene with Marcia admiring the work of the latest messenger-poet sent by the Gods were also Crofts’─she may also have chosen the quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. But the richness of classical reference which one finds in the dream sequence certainly owes much to Lovecraft’s collaboration.
Whatever the exact contributions by the respective authors, there is no question that for Lovecraft this was a very unusual story. In the 1919-1920 period he was writing stories like “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Street,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” and “The Tree”—most scholars find it difficult to believe that Lovecraft wrote:
Attired simply, in a low-cut evening dress of black, she appeared outwardly a typical product of modern civilisation; but tonight she felt the immeasurable gulf that separated her soul from all her prosaic surroundings.
Given that Lovecraft is not known elsewhere to describe décolletage, this may be a fair assessment, albeit a superficial one. Certainly the choice of a female protagonist is unusual for Lovecraft, although he would do so again in other stories written in collaboration with female friends and clients, such as “The Curse of Yig” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground.” Much of the mood and ideas expressed in the later part of the piece echo elements of Lovecraft’s own personal philosophy and which echo somewhat his more famous conceptions:
In thy yearning has thou divined what no mortal else, saving only a few whom the world rejects, remembereth: that the Gods were never dead, but only sleeping the sleep and dreaming the dreams of Gods in lotos-filled Hesperian gardens beyond the golden sunset.
This is reminiscent both of Cthulhu (“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” /“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”) and a possible inspiration from reading Lord Dunsany. Yet is it not also appropriate for a young schoolteacher, whose only escape some days from prosaic life might be to dip into Milton and Keats, to dream of old gods and lose herself for a time in poetry? Lovecraft, it appears, could certainly relate to that.
Of their “hidden collaborator” Elizabeth Jane Coatsworth, not much needs be said; the striking imagery of her poetry certainly helps set the tone of the story. The general surmise among scholars is that if the free verse was part of Crofts contribution, so too was her failure to properly cite Coatsworth. Whether Lovecraft ever caught the uncredited quotation is, like much of the story, unknown. Certainly, it is interesting to think that Coatsworth, who is best known for his series of children’s books, inadvertently shared a collaboration with Lovecraft.
“Poetry and the Gods” was not the first time a woman writer would collaborate with Lovecraft, nor the last. It was the first of such collaborative efforts that was published, and in many ways it sets the stage for Lovecraft’s future collaborations, where the exact details of contribution are unknown, and the only thing sure is that on this one, Lovecraft did not go it alone.
Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help with this article.