Born in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York in 1869, George Sterling came from an old and respected family descended from the Puritans. His father wanted him to become a priest, so George at age 17 was sent to a Catholic college in Maryland. Fortunately, his studies included poetry -- and the priesthood's loss was literature's gain.
The father sent the wayward son to Oakland, California where the uncle -- Frank C. Havens -- was a leading real estate and insurance agent in the area. Here Sterling obtained an office job -- little more than a sinecure that allowed him to continue reading and writing poetry.
In 1892, Sterling met the dominant literary figure on the west coast, Ambrose Bierce, at Lake Temescal and immediately fell under his spell. Bierce -- to whom Sterling referred as "the Master" -- guided the young poet in his writing as well as in his reading, pointing to the classics as model and inspiration. Bierce also published Sterling's first poems in his "Prattle" column in the San Francisco Examiner.
Sterling also met adventure and science fiction writer Jack London, and his first wife Bess at their rented villa on Lake Merritt, and in time they became best of friends. In 1902 Sterling helped the Londons find a home closer to his own in Piedmont, near Oakland. In his letters London addressed Sterling as "Greek" owing to his aquiline nose and classical profile, and signed them as "Wolf." London was later to depict Sterling as Russ Brissenden in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1908) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913).
The Sterling-London friendship disturbed Bierce. London's socialist leanings were sharply contrary to those of the great cynic, and also Bierce feared political philosophy would distract the young poet from his appointed task. After Bierce left for the east coast in 1896, the contest for Sterling's soul was lost, though "the Master" continued to guide his steps from afar.
In November, 1903 W. E. Wood of San Francisco published The Testimony of the Suns, poems written prior to 1901; it was dedicated to Bierce. On first reading the title poem, Bierce had written to his protégé "you shall be the poet of the skies, the prophet of the suns" -- then proceeded to suggest several revisions!
Also in 1903, Sterling completed what many consider his magnum opus, "A Wine of Wizardry," though it was not to be published for four years.
Sterling's wife Carrie (Carolyn Rand) later told journalist and writer Joseph Noel that the poet had experimented with opium during the poem's composition, having obtained it from his brother, a physician. In the meantime Bierce campaigned on its behalf, finally arranging for its publication in his employer William Randolph Hearst's newly acquired magazine, Cosmopolitan, in the September 1907 issue. In an introductory note Bierce proclaimed: "no poem in English of equal length has so bewildering a wealth of imagination. Nor Spenser himself has flung such a profusion of jewels into so small a casket. . . it takes away the breath!" Such hyperbolic praise could not go unchallenged, and a counter-wave of deprecation followed, to which Bierce replied in the December issue with "An Insurrection of the Peasantry" with such further bold claims as "Sterling is a very great poet -- incomparably the greatest that we have on this side of the Atlantic" and "[the poem] has all the imagination of 'Comus' and all the fancy of 'The Faery Queen'." Bierce thought so highly of this defense he included it in his collected works. A. M. Robertson published A Wine of Wizardry and other Poems in 1908.
In 1905 Sterling and his wife moved from Piedmont to the sleepy village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, south of Monterey. Here they built a cottage to escape city life; but other poets, writers, and artists soon followed them. An artist colony developed over which Sterling presided, including Mary Austin, photographer Arnold Genthe (whose portrait of Sterling is pictured above), poet Nora May French, James Hopper, John Hilliard, and others.
Sterling also maintained a room at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, to whose exclusive fold Bierce had given him entrée. This Club (founded in 1872, it was the first in the U.S.) sponsored summer outings on the Russian River, north of San Francisco, which were called "High Jinks" and were attended by Sterling, London, Stewart Edward White, and many others. Sterling wrote and directed a number of plays for these events, including The Triumph of Bohemia: A Forest Play and Truth; A Grove Play.
In 1911, Sterling took on a protégé of his own, the young Clark Ashton Smith. Smith sent Sterling a few poems and was invited to visit the Sterlings in Carmel. Smith stayed a month before returning to Auburn, but maintained contact through correspondence.
Before Bierce's legendary disappearance in 1913, he bade farewell to his few remaining literary friends, including Sterling. He wrote the poet a harsh and damaging letter, which left Sterling bitter. He described Bierce's criticism of young writers as so merciless it was like "breaking butterflies on a wheel." Nevertheless he continued to revere "the Master," writing several appreciations and an introduction to Bierce's Letters edited by Bertha Clark Pope (1922).
Bierce's biographer Richard O'Connor decries "the piddling inconsequentiality of the balance of his [Sterling's] life, largely spent as the resident 'character' of the Bohemian Club." Of course, this ignores what many believe to be Sterling's finest work, the dramatic poem Lilith (1919, 1926) as well as the gracious support Sterling provided to a number of promising writers such as Smith and Robinson Jeffers. All the same, Sterling engaged in "compulsive" love affairs and Carrie divorced him in 1915. Successes included his unofficial status as San Francisco's Poet Laureate, in which mode he wrote an ode to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, a number of verses dedicated to San Francisco, and a long ode to Yosemite Park. But a string of tragedies also unfolded. As early as 1907, Nora May French committed suicide in his house in Carmel; in 1916 his best friend Jack London died, evidently by his own hand (this is disputed); and his ex-wife Carrie ended her life with poison on August 5, 1918.
In November 1926, the Bohemian Club held a dinner in honor of the critic H. L. Mencken (another Bierce protégé, from the East Coast). It was Mencken who had once suggested Sterling as the "leading contender" for America's Poet Laureate. Sterling had prepared for the visit but illness confined him to his room. On the night of November 17, depressed, Sterling swallowed the vial of cyanide he had carried for some years. He was fifty-seven.
Besides his eleven volumes of poetry and four verse dramas, Sterling wrote a critical work on Robinson Jeffers and a number of short stories. Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti has described Sterling as "a kind of leashed Swinburne" and pointed to the influence of Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets.
San Francisco has preserved a park on Russian Hill in the poet's honor, bounded by Larkin, Lombard, Hyde, and Greenwich Streets. First named George Sterling Glade in 1928, its only bench cracked in the 1960s and the original plaque was stolen in the 1970s. In 1982, a new plaque on was installed at a ceremony attended by the city's literati. In November 2005, the park was rededicated as Sterling Park and a new plaque will soon be in place.
Sterling in Italian!
The May 2009 issue of Poesia 238, XXII includes the article "George Sterling: Quasi un'evocazione" by Franco Pezzini and Massimo Scorsone, featuring translations by Scorsone of twelve Sterling poems, with facing English originals. Pezzini and Scorsone intend to follow-up with a feature on H. P. Lovecraft's poetry, and possibly one on Clark Ashton Smith.
Joshi, best known for his contributions to H. P. Lovecraft scholarship, has prepared a Sterling bibliography that is "extensive, if not yet exhaustive." They are currently seeking a publisher for this, as well as for an authoritative new printing of Sterling's poetry. Joshi has edited and published The Thirst of Satan (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2003).
They welcome contact from other scholars and from volunteers to help with their many projects involving such writers as George Sterling, Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, and, of course, Lovecraft. Email David Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or S. T. Joshi at email@example.com.
(See my Lovecraft page for more on the work of Schultz and Joshi.)