Chant and Empire

Print This Post Print This Post

This may be known to some of you, but apparently the Howard poem Black Chant Imperial”, which was accepted by Weird Tales in June of 1930, and published that September, was a kind of first draft to another poem, Empire: A Song for All Exiles. The Complete Poetry makes this glaringly apparent by placing the poems back to back on pages 123-5, while inexplicably leaving off the subtitle. And Steve Eng calls the latter a “variant” of the first in his intro (page xlv), while also naming it a “howling ballad in thudding trochees.” Trochees are metric feet in which a stressed syllable alternates with an unstressed one. Wikipedia notes that trochaic form is rarely perfect in English, aside from The Song of Hiawatha, but notes also The Raven as an example.  Howard no doubt was familiar with both.

After earning Howard $6,Black Chant Imperial would go on to be reprinted in Always Comes Evening, Wildside’s Moon of Skulls, and elsewhere. Empire would not see print until 1975, when George Hamilton included it in a 263-copy limited edition booklet called Verses in Ebony. This is about as rare as The Ghost Ocean. Fortunately Glenn Lord included it in The First Book of Robert E. Howard, and it was also in Night Images.

Empire is a 40 line poem, Chant is only 24.  Howard inserted four more verses then, and changed only two of the original lines. Eng marvels at the intensity of the bitter hate, uncompromising cruelty, and burning images expressed in this pair, a theme so obviously dear to Howard that he went back and revised it (we don’t know when), and to my mind, the reworking makes it a much better work. It is odd, though, that Howard left some of the trochees imperfect when he could easily have “fixed” them.
For instance, “Crimson queens with their hearts of ice,” could drop the extra syllable “their” with no change in meaning, and “Black be the night that locks around them” would not suffer by losing the “be”. But one only notices these things when looking for them..