The Roses of Heliogabalus

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

c.1836-c.1912

Netherlands Victorian Neoclassical, Olympian Classical Revivalist painter and draftsman

The Roses of Heliogabalus

1888

132.1 x 213.9 cms | 52 x 84 ins
Oil on canvas

The author of over 700 poems and prose poems, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) continued well into the twentieth century the Decadent and Symbolist traditions of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Algernon Swinburne. Born in Long Valley, California, C.A. Smith was hailed early as a poetic prodigy, and compared to Keats and Shelley. He was distinguished by a sure and delicate sense of rhythm and a taste for exotic or archaic words. In this he resembled his English contemporary Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), who along with Smith combined a sensuous response to life with a world-weary attitude to love. In their love for the rare, the exquisite, the gemlike, and even the perverse, they might be described as fin de siecle.
    Fin de siecle also is the subject, if not the treatment, of Alma-Tadema's delicately wrought masterpiece The Roses of Heliogabalus. There is no known connection between the poem and the painting other than the choice of the same incident from the life of 3rd century Roman emperor Heliogabalus (Varius Avitus Bassus). The episode is that of Heliogabalus literally (and fatally) smothering his guests in a shower of rose-petals. Alma-Tadema, unlike Smith, has eschewed the morbid connotations of this subject and focussed more on the frolicsome pleasures of the Roman aristocracy. Frolicsome was not the process of painting this piece, which took some time and labour, with Tadema having to import roses out of season.
    C.A. Smith's poem is an interesting counterpart to Alma-Tadema's painting as it focusses more on the personality of the emperor, who is seen as something of a decadent aesthete. An exhaustive search has not turned up an individual called 'Christophe des Lauriëres', and is assumed by this author to be Clark Ashton Smith writing pseudonymously.

Heliogabalus
Clark Ashton Smith
Translated from Christophe des Lauriëres
    I

    He, the supreme idealist of Sin,
    Through scarlet days a white perfection sought
    To make of lyric deed and lyric thought
    One music of perverse accord, wherein
    The songless blatancy and banal din
    Of all the world should perish: he had wrought
    From Vice a pure, Pentelic Venus, fraught
    With lines of light and terror, that should win
    The plaudits of the stars. . . . But prevalent
    For him, above the achievable desire,
    And Life perfectible by Sin and Art,
    Such lusts as leave the Titans impotent
    Allured, and Life and Sin, in worlds apart,
    Were fair with suns of quintessential fire.

Source: The Eldritch Dark.