Clouds Without Water

Arguably Crowley’s most sustained achievement is the sonnet-sequence Clouds Without Water (1909) which appeared during his middle or ‘Equinox’ period (1908) when much of his best work was accomplished. Compared with the earlier Alice: an Adultery – an ecstatically monotonous account of a love affair – this is original Crowley rather than “Swinburne and water” and has a robust and varied vocabulary, mingling Greek, Latin and Egyptian tags, and creating a voice which is brutally forthright yet at the same time mocking and darkly erotic. With predictable Crowleian irony, it is introduced by an Anglican minister, the Reverend C. Verey, who feels compelled to edit the “atrocious manuscript” and set it before the public as a dire warning to all those who indulge in Atheism and Free Love. It ends with a prayer wherein the fervent cleric implores the Almighty to confer o­n him “a double portion of Thy holiness.” This is funny, anticipating the Nabokov of Pale Fire, except Crowley’s poem is superior to the rather tedious pastiche of the latter. But still o­ne begins to see something self-protective in the number of times he presents his work as a lavish, jocular whim. He seeks praise and adulation, yet hopes by assuming varied colorations and disguises, he will baffle the critic and be rendered immune from barbs of the sharper kind. Of course, the ‘exploding text’ had already been touched o­n by writers like Lawrence Stern and Lewis Carroll, but Crowley introduced innovations of his own and was far more daring in his sexual content.

Crowley gives a background account of the poem in his Confessions, stating that he was inspired by a beautiful English girl named Vera, an exotic Highland sculptress, Kathleen Bruce (she later married Captain Falcon Scott!) who was studying under Rodin and delighted in drawing married men away from their wives, and a society woman [almost certainly Ada Leverson], who was a writer of subtlety and distinction and a loyal friend of Oscar Wilde. The latter attracted Crowley by filling him with “fascination and horror” and reminding him of a “devourer of human corpses, being herself already dead.” A bout of “fierce and grotesque” passion sprang up between them and helped provide the dark, hysterical climax to the poem.

Clouds Without Water chronicles a very physical, very ecstatic love affair with a woman named Lola. The lovers enjoy an adulterous liaison, flout social mores, indulge in every variety of sexual experiment, catch syphillis and commit suicide with an overdose of laudanum. Despite the grimness of the subject matter, the tone is o­ne of stoic celebration.

It is divided into eight sections, all of which bear occult names appropriate to the changing moods and fortunes of the lovers: The Augur, The Alchemist, The Hermit, The Thaumaturge, The Black Mass, The Adept, The Vampire, The Iniation. The Augur contains the intimation that the lover’s lot will be tragic (“no happy end”) while the ‘The Alchemist’ praises the wine that transmutes their guilt and sense of sin. The Black Mass hints at various masochistic and sadistic variations o­n the act of love.

Extremes of pleasure and pain create a non-human nightmare realm:

So in this agony of enforced silence
The sober song breaks to a phrenzied scream;
The shattering brain admits the mad god’s violence,
And wild things course as in an evil dream;
Devils and dancers, druid rites and dread,
Horrible symbols scarred across the sky,
Invisible terrors of the quick and dead,
Impossible phantoms in mad revelry
Conjoined in spindthriae of bestial form,
Human-faced toads and serpent-headed women,
All lashed and slashed by the all-wandering storm
Caricature of all things holy and human –
Such are the discords that absorb the strain
As this wild threnody dissolves the brain.

Clouds Without Water has a strong theme and shows a progression of feeling. Formally speaking, it is far from perfect. (Erotic imagery, for instance, is so insistently ‘molten’ that o­ne is left with the impression that being kissed is like getting attacked with a branding iron!) But at least the execution is reasonably artistic. In this ecstatically sustained sequence, the poet preaches, ‘Forget society, respectability, middle class morals, live and die for the white-hot moment.’ Esoteric plumes are flaunted and gratification is elevated to the level of religion. As for the magical terms, so irritating in other contexts, here they add a dash of sinister local colour.

Between bouts of sexual frenzy, dignified meditative patches intrude where the mystic anticipates the completion of his spiritual voyage:

Even as the holy Ra that travelleth
Within his bark upon the firmament,
Looking with fire-keen eyes o­n life and death
In simple state and cardinal content:
Even as the holy hawk that towers sublime
Into the great abyss, with icy gaze
Fronting the calm immensities of time
And making space to shudder; so I praise
With infinite contempt the joyous world
That I have figured in this brain of mine.
The sails of this life’s argosy are furled;
The anchor drops in those abodes divine.
Master of self and God, freewill and Fate,
I am alone – at last – to meditate.

Not o­nly is Ra invoked but Pan also, not as an orgiastic goat-god, but as the ever-abiding presence behind all phenomena, dignified, fierce and inscrutable. “To be god is to be lost to God,” Crowley observed in an earlier sonnet. Thus, in order to make himself immortal, he has to be absorbed by the greater radiance:

Yet I abide; for who is Pan is all.
He hath no refuge in deceitful death.
What soul is immanent may never fall;
What soul is Breath can never fail of breath.
The pity and the terror and the yearning
Of this my silence and my solitude
Are broken by the blazing and the burning
Of this dead majesty, this million-hued
Brilliance that coruscates its jetted fire
Into the infinite aether…

Chesterton or Belloc would have enjoyed this sonnet praising wine, despite the fact that the vintage has been strained through The Golden Bough and assumes a little too confidently that the reader is acquainted with the elements of Egyptian myth:

This wine is sovereign against all complaints.
This is the wine great king-angels use
To inspire the souls of sinners and of saints
Unto the deeds that win the world or lose.
One drop of this raised Attis from the dead;
o­ne drop of this, and slain Osiris stirs;
o­ne drop of this; before young Horus fled
Thine hosts, Typhon! – this wine is mine and hers.
Ye Gods that gave it! not in trickling gouts,
But from the very fountain whence ’tis drawn
Gushing in crystal jets and ruby spouts
From the authentic throne and shrine of dawn.
Drink it? Ay, so! and bathe therein – and swim
Out to the world’s everlasting rim!

What is to be admired about Clouds Without Water is that the imagery takes o­n the chameleon hues of emotion. At o­ne point Crowley is the corrupt, ecstatic satyr; the next the magician, grave, pontifical and wise; then the anguished lover, “his soul like the savage upland plains…in Tartary”; then a genial man of the world who accepts his lot gratefully and a then a gasping sex-craxed satyr o­n the brink of orgasm:

Which? All’s the same. Go o­n. No – what is this?
Why dally? To the hilt! Ah mine, ah mine!
Kiss me – I cannot kiss you – kiss me! Kiss!
Oh! God! God! Oh God! Forgive me; I am thine –
Horses and chariots that champ and clang!
The roar of blazing cressets that environ
The form that fuses in the perfect pang.
A blast of air through the molten iron –
One scream of light. Creating silence drops
Into that silence when creation – stops.
(Sonnet XII)

A jerky, breathless, entreaty-riddled syntax echoes the rushes and jolts of passion and the smithy metaphor – ‘blast of air through the molten iron’ – brings the proceedings to a total eclipse. Not o­nly does Crowley replicate the physical urgency of the moment, he also buoyantly hymns the phenomenology of love. In Sonnet lV (The Thaumaturge), for instance, he shows a London transformed by the alchemy of Venus. Generosity spills over from the happy couple and gilds the bustling commercial world.

We knew enough to wake a choral rapture
All answering Nature: I will swear the sun
Came out; you saw the moulting trees recapture
Their plumage, and the green destroy the dun.
Nothing could jar; the British workman took
A kindly interest in our caresses;
The loafing nursemaids and the musing cook
Agreed with us entirely. Love impresses
Its seal upon the world; is skilled to wake
The sympathy of everything that lives.
Kindness flows, not venom, from the snake;
The trodden worm dies duly – but forgives.
The cabman asked four shillings for the job,
And almost boggled at my glad ten bob.

If we compare Clouds Without Water to Rupert Brooke’s contemporaneous sonnets, we find the robust, affirmative tone entirely absent in the younger man. Brooke is lost, petulant and emotionally confused:

Love is flung Lucifer-like from Heaven to Hell.
But – there are wanderers in the middle mist,
Who cry for shadows, clutch and cannot tell
Whether they love at all, or, loving, whom:
An old song’s lady, a fool in fancy dress,
Or phantoms, or their own face o­n the gloom;
For love of Love, or from the hearts loneliness.
Pleasure’s not theirs, nor pain. They doubt and sigh
And do not love at all. Of these am I.

Contrast this with Crowley’s:

For truth it is, my maiden, we have had
Already more than our fair share of pleasure.
The good god Dionysus ivy-clad
Hath poured us out a draught of brimming measure.
Let us rather give the lustiest praise
Our throats can sound than pray for further favour;
Even though our sorrow, eating up our days,
Devour us also. Gods enjoy the savour
Of Man’s thanksgiving…

Where Brooke is doubting and muddled, Crowley is grateful; he shows “a proud glad face” and thanks the gods for his good fortune. Both responses are perfectly valid and Brooke’s sonnets are delightfully accomplished. However, while the soldier-poet’s love-sighs have gone through many popular editions, Crowley’s spririted chronicle of sacred and profane love is totally unknown. A niche should be found in English poetry for these round and ringing sonnets which appear to have never been properly read or acknowledged. Even Crowley’s astute and able biographer, John Symonds, has little to say about Clouds Without Water, finding it dull save for two lines which struck him as funny:

The British public grunts and growls and grovels,
Swilling its hogwash of neurotic novels.

As for the death of the lovers at the end, Crowley was forced to consider why he ended o­n such a tragic note. “The powers of life and death,” he observed, “combine in their most frightful forms to compel the lovers to seek refuge in suicide, which they, however, regard as victory. ‘The poison takes us…’ The answer is that the happy ending would have been banal. The tragedy of Eros is that he is dogged by Anteros. It is the most terrible of all anticlimaxes to have to return to the petty life which is bounded by space and time.”

Lola, dear Lola, how the stillness grows!
How drowsy is the world, that folds her wings
Over us, folding like a sunset rose
Her crimson rapture to the night of things!
How all the voices and the visions fail
As we pass through into the silent hall
Beyond the vapours and beyond the veil,
Beyond the Nothing as beyond the All!

If he had been more adept at expressing “the petty life which is bounded by space and time,” Crowley might have been a better poet, but subtle gradations of sensation evade him. He pitches himself at the outermost poles, either groaning with despair or shrieking with joy. Hence the closing sequence is less absorbing than what has preceded it. The poet indulges his obsessions – disease and physical deterioriation are gloatingly detailed; the language becomes coarse and commonplace; an inevitable pollution of sensibility takes hold. In contemplating a hellish extinction, the poet wastes too much breath belabouring “meal-mouthed mountebanks, that prate of Jesus, ethics, faith and reason,” deliberately piling up more enemies than necessary and then encumbering them with irrelevant coprophilic imagery – hinting, possibly, at some profound link between constipation and middle-class values:

O costive crapulence!
They ache and strain within the water closet
Of church and state, their shocked bleat of offence:
“The poet’s life was such a failure.” Was it?

At least, the final sonnet ends happily as the lovers anticipate the Elysian groves and bowers that await them:

Farewell! O passionate world of changeful hours!
Come, Lola, let us sleep! Elysian groves
Await us and the beatific bower
Where Love is ours at last where we were Love’s.
Come, with our mouths still kissing, with our limbs
Still twined, relax the ecstasy! pass by
To the abyss of night where no star swims!
o­n to the end beyond prophecy!
Ah Lola mine! “No happy end is this” –
I love you – ah! you love me – you love me!
For we have passed beyond imagined bliss
Into the kingdom of reality,
Where we are crowned with flowers – yet closer creep!
Sleep, Lola, now! I love you – sleep – ah, sleep!

As a sequence of love poems, Clouds Without Water is unique in English Literature. It graphically depicts a catalogue of sexual peccadilloes in a remarkably unabashed way for Edwardian England. o­ne would normally expect a mood tapestry ranging from stately devotion to gentle melancholy, garnished with wistful recollection and pangs of loss. Instead we are confronted with a vigorous, persistent note of passionate affirmation; the emphasis is o­n raging excess – excess of ardour, of bodily pleasure, of religious intoxication. To maintain such a tone, and at the same time provide a banquet of wit, erudition and metaphysics, is an achievement of a high order.