George Sterling (1869-1926), the author of Babes in the Wood, was one of the most highly-acclaimed American poets of the first quarter of the twentieth century. He also wrote plays, songs, fiction, nonfiction, and movies.
Sterling's often-dazzling poems were printed in almost every American literary magazine and in scores of major newspapers across the nation. His work was admired by writers as diverse as Jack London (who called Sterling "the greatest living poet in the United States"), H. P. Lovecraft, Upton Sinclair, H. G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Dreiser, and Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis.
Babes in the Wood was Sterling's only longer work of fiction.
George Sterling was born December 1, 1869 in Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York. He first seriously studied poetry while studying for the priesthood at Saint Charles College, a seminary in Maryland. Sterling dropped out of college and in 1890 moved to Oakland, California to work for his wealthy uncle, Frank C. Havens. On a campout in 1892 he met the writer, reporter, and fierce literary critic Ambrose Bierce.
In 1896, Sterling married Caroline "Carrie" Eugenie Rand, his private stenographer. That year Sterling began writing poetry and Bierce became his mentor. In 1898 George and Carrie Sterling moved to Piedmont. In 1901 Sterling's first major poem was published in the Washington Post and he met struggling writer Jack London, who became his best friend. Sterling was a member of "The Crowd," a group of writers, artists, and musicians in Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont, and he was one of San Francisco's Coppans, creative people who turned Coppa's Restaurant into a tourist attraction where visitors gawked at local celebrities. Under London's influence Sterling became a socialist. He self-published his first book in 1903, The Testimony of the Suns and Other Poems, which generated nationwide acclaim. He was invited to join the Bohemian Club and worked to have the club admit Jack London as an honorary member.
In 1905, George and Carrie Sterling moved to the tiny village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. For five more years he continued to work parttime in Oakland and San Francisco for his uncle Havens. Many writers and artists followed Sterling to Carmel, where he became the center of a circle of creative friends. He continued to write poetry, plays, and songs, which were published in leading magazines and newspapers. He became the mentor to young poet Clark Ashton Smith. He flagrantly conducted several adulterous affairs, leading his wife Carrie to leave Carmel. Sterling wrote short stories and movie scenarios to earn money.
The Sterlings divorced in 1914, and George moved to New York City. He starved, and moved back to San Francisco and into the Bohemian Club. Except for trips to Hollywood to write plays and movies and one more successful visit to New York, Sterling lived for the rest of his life in the Bohemian Club, where he commited suicide in 1926.
In his lifetime, 15 volumes of Sterling's poetry were published, 7 plays, and one book of nonfiction. His poems were widely reprinted. He became one of the most-acclaimed American poets in the first quarter of the twentieth century. In addition, Sterling played a major role in the growth of the cities of Oakland, Piedmont, and Carmel.
Jack London: "The greatest living poet in the United States."
Upton Sinclair: "His work possesses the qualities of the greatest poetry; sublimity of thought, intensity of emotion, enchanting melody, and severe and reverent workmanship. He is especially sensitive to the sensuous elements of life; for instance, no painter glories more in the magic of color. … What is most representative of Sterling's work is his thrilling sense of the infinite—of the starry spaces, and the equally vast spaces within the soul of man. … There has been nothing so fiercely passionate and at the same time so coldly masterful."
Los Angeles Times: "There is strength as well as grace in his verse, a richness of metaphor and simile, and seldom a weak line—never a careless one. His blank verse has no equal among his contemporaries."
Ambrose Bierce: "George Sterling is a very great poet—incomparably the greatest that we have on this side of the Atlantic."
Theodore Dreiser: "The ranking American poet, greater than any we have thus far produced."
Sinclair Lewis: "So gracious and lofty a poet."
Impressions Quarterly: "A poet of the first magnitude."
H. L. Mencken: "No author of American verse will ever quite reach his heights."
Contemporary Review (London): "There is the energy of inspiration, a certain freshness of phrase and idea; a sense of mystic vastness, a stretching out to the infinities, and an effort to make language go beyond itself and express the ineffable."
Edgar Lee Masters: "One man of outstanding genius."
John G. Neihardt: "No man now living knows the color-values of words better; no man now living is nearer to the secret of poetry."
Long Island Forum: "One of America's great poets."
Clark Ashton Smith: "He's inconceivably greater—especially in pureness of style and distinction of mood—than any other English-writing poet of the present."
Edwin Markham: "In his sonnets, George Sterling holds a high place—perhaps the highest in our American achievement in this field. Longfellow's exquisite sonnets have less sweep."
Robinson Jeffers: "His work is individual as well as beautiful, you recognize the best of it instantly, for his own and no other person's."
Frank Belknap Long: "I think that the ages will place him beside Poe [and] Whitman."
Benjamin De Casseres: "I have known no better poetry of its kind being written in the present-day America than Sterling writes."
Arnold Genthe: "Some of Sterling's poems—the simpler ones—have a beauty that has hardly been surpassed by any other American poet."
Cary McWilliams, Los Angeles Times: "There is hardly a writer in California today who is not heavily in debt to Sterling's name and memory."
Gouverneur Morris IV: "I believe a great poet was lost to the world when he passed. He had an entertaining style and a beauty of rhythm that no other poet has attained."
Raine Bennett: "It is my opinion that George Sterling was, and is, America's greatest poet."
Volumes written by George Sterling
- Babes in the Wood, written 1913, first published as a book in 2020.
- The Testimony of the Suns and Other Poems, 1903, 1904, 1907, 1970.
- A Wine of Wizardry and Other Poems, 1909.
- The House of Orchids and Other Poems, 1911.
- Beyond the Breakers and Other Poems, 1914.
- Ode on the Opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915.
- The Evanescent City, 1915.
- The Caged Eagle and Other Poems, 1916.
- Yosemite: An Ode, 1916.
- The Binding of the Beast and Other War Verse, 1921.
- Thirty-Five Sonnets, 1917.
- To a Girl Dancing, 1921.
- Sails and Mirage and Other Poems, 1921.
- Selected Poems, 1923, 1970.
- Strange Waters, 1926.
- The Testimony of the Suns, Including Comments, Suggestions, and Annotations by Anbrose Bierce: A Facsimile of the Original Typewritten Manuscript, 1927.
- Sonnets to Craig (Upton Sinclair, ed.), 1928.
- Five Poems, 1928.
- Poems to Vera (Vera Connelly, ed.), 1938.
- After Sunset (Robert H. Barlow, ed.), 1939.
- A Wine of Wizardry and Three Other Poems (Dale L. Walker, ed.), 1964.
- George Sterling: A Centenary Memoir-Anthology (Charles Angoff, ed.), 1969.
- The Thirst of Satan: Poems of Fantasy and Terror (S. T. Joshi, ed.), 2003.
- Complete Poetry (S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds.), 2013.
- The Triumph of Bohemia: A Forest Play (music by Edward F. Schneider), 1907.
- A Masque of the Cities (with Henry Anderson Lafler, music by several composers), 1913.
- The Play of Everyman (based on the play by Hugo Hofmannsthal; music by Victor Schertzinger), 1917; (music by Einar Nelson), 1936.
- The Twilight of the Kings (with Richard Hotaling and [uncredited] Porter Garnett; music by Wallace A. Sabin), 1918.
- Lilith: A Dramatic Poem, 1919, 1920, 1926.
- Rosamund: A Dramatic Poem, 1920.
- Truth (music by Dominico Brescia), 1923, 1926.
- The Thief of Bagdad (uncredited), 1924.
- Songs (music by Lawrence Zenda [pseudonym of Rosaliene Travis]), 1916, 1918, 1928.
- "You Are So Beautiful" (music by Lawrence Zenda [pseudonym of Rosaliene Travis]), 1917.
- "We're A-Going," 1918.
- "Love Song," 1926.
- "The Abalone Song" (with verses by Opal Heron, Sinclair Lewis, Michael Williams, and others), 1937, 1943, 1998.
- Robinson Jeffers: The Man and the Artist, 1926.
- The Letters of Ambrose Bierce (uncredited editor with Bertha Pope), 1922.
- Continent's End: An Anthology of Contemporary California Poets (editor with Genevieve Taggard and James Rorty), 1925.
- Give a Man a Boat He Can Sail: Letters of George Sterling (James Henry, ed.), 1980.
- From Baltimore to Bohemia: The Letters of H. L. Mencken and George Sterling (S. T. Joshi, ed.), 2001.
- Dear Master: Letters of George Sterling to Ambrose Bierce, 1900-1912 (Roger K. Larson, ed.), 2002.
- The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith (David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, eds.), 2005.