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George Sterling

George Sterling

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George Sterling was an American poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 based in California
California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

 who, during his time, was celebrated in Northern California
Northern California
Northern California is the northern portion of the U.S. state of California. The San Francisco Bay Area , and Sacramento as well as its metropolitan area are the main population centers...

 as one of the greatest American poets, although he never gained much fame in the rest of the United States.

Biography


Sterling was born in Sag Harbor
Sag Harbor, New York
Sag Harbor is an incorporated village in Suffolk County, New York, United States, with parts in both the Towns of East Hampton and Southampton. The population was 2,313 at the 2000 census....

, Long Island
Long Island
Long Island is an island located in the southeast part of the U.S. state of New York, just east of Manhattan. Stretching northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island contains four counties, two of which are boroughs of New York City , and two of which are mainly suburban...

, New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

, the eldest of nine children. His father was Dr. George A. Sterling, a physician who determined to make a priest of one of his sons, and George was selected to attend, for three years, St. Charles College
St. Charles College, Maryland
St. Charles College was a seminary college in Catonsville, Maryland, originally from Ellicott City, Maryland.- 1776:Charles Carroll of Carrollton signs the Declaration of Independence for Maryland. One of the wealthiest men in the Americas, Carroll staked his fortune on the American Revolution...

 in Maryland
Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

. He was instructed in English by John Bannister Tabb
John Bannister Tabb
Father John Banister Tabb was an American poet, Roman Catholic priest, and professor of English....

, an unpublished poet. His mother Mary was a member of the Havens family, prominent in Sag Harbor and the Shelter Island
Shelter Island (town), New York
Shelter Island is a town and island at the eastern end of Long Island in the U.S. state of New York. It forms the tip of Suffolk County and is separated from the rest of the county by water. The population was 2,228 at the 2000 census.-Geography:...

 area. Her brother, Frank C. Havens
Frank C. Havens
Frank Colton Havens was born into one of the founding families of Shelter Island, New York, the son of Wickham Havens of Sag Harbor.-Biography:...

, Sterling's uncle, went to San Francisco
San Francisco, California
San Francisco , officially the City and County of San Francisco, is the financial, cultural, and transportation center of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region of 7.15 million people which includes San Jose and Oakland...

 in the late 19th century and established himself as a prominent lawyer and real estate developer. Sterling eventually followed him to the Bay Area in 1890 and worked for eighteen years as a real estate broker
Real estate broker
A real estate broker, real estate agent or realtor is a party who acts as an intermediary between sellers and buyers of real estate/real property and attempts to find sellers who wish to sell and buyers who wish to buy...

.

Sterling became a significant figure in Bohemian
Bohemianism
Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic or literary pursuits...

 literary circles in northern California in the first quarter of the 20th century, and in the development of the artists' colony in Carmel
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Carmel-by-the-Sea, often called simply Carmel, is a small city in Monterey County, California, United States, founded in 1902 and incorporated in 1916. Situated on the Monterey Peninsula, the town is known for its natural scenery and rich artistic history...

, he was mentored by a much older Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist and satirist...

, and became close friends with Jack London
Jack London
John Griffith "Jack" London was an American author, journalist, and social activist. He was a pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction and was one of the first fiction writers to obtain worldwide celebrity and a large fortune from his fiction alone...

, and Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith was a self-educated American poet, sculptor, painter and author of fantasy, horror and science fiction short stories. He achieved early local recognition, largely through the enthusiasm of George Sterling, for traditional verse in the vein of Swinburne...

, and later mentor to Robinson Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers
John Robinson Jeffers was an American poet, known for his work about the central California coast. Most of Jeffers' poetry was written in classic narrative and epic form, but today he is also known for his short verse, and considered an icon of the environmental movement.-Life:Jeffers was born in...

. His association with Charles Rollo Peters may have led to his move to Carmel. The hamlet had been discovered by Charles Warren Stoddard
Charles Warren Stoddard
Charles Warren Stoddard was an American author and editor.-Life and works:Charles Warren Stoddard was born in Rochester, New York on August 7, 1843. He was descended in a direct line from Anthony Stoddard of England, who settled at Boston, Massachusetts, in 1639...

 and others, but Sterling made the place world famous. His aunt Missus Havens purchased a home for him in Carmel Pines where he lived for six years.


Kevin Starr
Kevin Starr
Kevin Starr is an American historian, best known for his multi-volume series on the history of California, collectively called "Americans and the California Dream."-Life:Kevin Starr was born in San Francisco, California....

 (1973) wrote:
"The uncrowned King of Bohemia (so his friends called him), Sterling had been at the center of every artistic circle in the San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco Bay Area
The San Francisco Bay Area, commonly known as the Bay Area, is a populated region that surrounds the San Francisco and San Pablo estuaries in Northern California. The region encompasses metropolitan areas of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, along with smaller urban and rural areas...

. Celebrated as the embodiment of the local artistic scene, though forgotten today, Sterling had in his lifetime been linked with the immortals, his name carved on the walls of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition next to the great poets of the past."


Joseph Noel (1940) says that Sterling's poem, A Wine of Wizardry, has "been classed by many authorities as the greatest poem ever written by an American author."

According to Noel, Sterling sent the final draft of A Wine of Wizardry to the normally acerbic and critical Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist and satirist...

. Bierce said "If I could find a flaw in it, I should quickly call your attention to it... It takes the breath away."

Sterling joined the Bohemian Club
Bohemian Club
The Bohemian Club is a private men's club in San Francisco, California, United States.Its clubhouse is located at 624 Taylor Street in San Francisco...

 and acted in their theatrical productions each summer at the Bohemian Grove
Bohemian Grove
Bohemian Grove is a campground located at 20601 Bohemian Avenue, in Monte Rio, California, belonging to a private San Francisco-based men's art club known as the Bohemian Club...

. For the main Grove play in 1907, the club presented The Triumph of Bohemia, Sterling's verse drama depicting the battle between the "Spirit of Bohemia" and Mammon
Mammon
Mammon is a term, derived from the Christian Bible, used to describe material wealth or greed, most often personified as a deity, and sometimes included in the seven princes of Hell.-Etymology:...

 for the souls of the grove's woodmen. Sterling also supplied lyric for the musical numbers at the 1918 Grove play.

Bierce, who acclaimed Sterling's poem The Testimony of the Suns, in his "Prattle" column in William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst was an American business magnate and leading newspaper publisher. Hearst entered the publishing business in 1887, after taking control of The San Francisco Examiner from his father...

's San Francisco Examiner, arranged for the publication of A Wine of Wizardry in the September 1907 number of Cosmopolitan, which afforded Sterling some national notice. In an introduction to the poem, Bierce wrote "Whatever length of days may be according to this magazine, it is not likely to do anything more notable in literature than it accomplished in this issue by the publication of Mr. George Sterling's poem, 'A Wine of Wizardry.'" Bierce wrote to Sterling, "I hardly know how to speak of it. No poem in English of equal length has so bewildering a wealth of imagination. Not Spencer
Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser was an English poet best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and fantastical allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. He is recognised as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy, and one of the greatest poets in the English...

 himself has flung such a profusion of jewels into so small a casket".


Sterling fell into drinking and his wife departed. Noel, a personal acquaintance, says that when he began the poem, Sterling "was persuaded that there was another world than that we know. He repeated this to me so frequently that it became a trifle tiresome. Of the means he employed to get a glimpse of that other world, I am not so sure." He observes that "many before Sterling had used narcotics to this end;" that "George, a doctor's son, had always had access to whatever drugs he fancied;" says that Sterling's wife said "that George had purloined a great quantity of opium
Opium
Opium is the dried latex obtained from the opium poppy . Opium contains up to 12% morphine, an alkaloid, which is frequently processed chemically to produce heroin for the illegal drug trade. The latex also includes codeine and non-narcotic alkaloids such as papaverine, thebaine and noscapine...

 from his brother Wickham," and speaks of "internal evidence in the poem" in which "Sterling writes his Fancy awakened with a 'brow caressed by poppybloom.'" Despite all this, Noel makes a point of saying "there is no direct evidence that Sterling used narcotics."

Sterling also wrote for children, The Saga of the Pony Express.

Despite such famous mentors as Bierce and Ina Coolbrith
Ina Coolbrith
Ina Donna Coolbrith was an American poet, writer, librarian, and a prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area literary community...

, and his long association with London, Sterling himself never became well known outside California.

Sterling's poetry is both visionary and mystical, but he also wrote ribald quatrains that were often unprintable and left unpublished.   His style reflects the Romantic charm of such poets as Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...

, Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 and Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

, and he provided guidance and encouragement to the similarly-inclined Clark Ashton Smith at the beginning of Smith's own career.

Sterling carried a vial of cyanide
Cyanide poisoning
Cyanide poisoning occurs when a living organism is exposed to a compound that produces cyanide ions when dissolved in water. Common poisonous cyanide compounds include hydrogen cyanide gas and the crystalline solids potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide...

 for many years. When asked about it he said "A prison becomes a home if you have the key". Finally in November 1926, Sterling used it at his residence at the San Francisco Bohemian Club
Bohemian Club
The Bohemian Club is a private men's club in San Francisco, California, United States.Its clubhouse is located at 624 Taylor Street in San Francisco...

. Kevin Starr wrote that "When George Sterling's corpse was discovered in his room at the Bohemian Club... the golden age of San Francisco's bohemia had definitely come to a miserable end."

Sterling's most famous line was delivered to the city of San Francisco, "the cool, grey city of love!".

Trivia

  • Sterling Road in Berkeley
    Berkeley, California
    Berkeley is a city on the east shore of the San Francisco Bay in Northern California, United States. Its neighbors to the south are the cities of Oakland and Emeryville. To the north is the city of Albany and the unincorporated community of Kensington...

     is named for George Sterling.
  • A stone bench was dedicated to Sterling on June 25th, 1926 at the crest of Hyde Street on Russian Hill.
  • He is depicted twice in Jack London's novels: as Russ Brissenden in the autobiographical Martin Eden
    Martin Eden
    Martin Eden is a novel by American author Jack London, about a proletarian young autodidact struggling to become a writer. It was first serialized in the Pacific Monthly magazine from September 1908 to September 1909, and subsequently published in book form by Macmillan in September 1909.This book...

    (1909) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913).

External links