George Sterling (1 December 1869 – 17 November 1926) was an American poet based in California who, during his time, was celebrated in Northern California as one of the greatest American poets, although he never gained much fame in the rest of the United States.
Sterling was born in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, 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 in Maryland. He was instructed in English by John Bannister Tabb, an unpublished poet. His mother Mary was a member of the Havens family, prominent in Sag Harbor and the Shelter Island area. Her brother, Frank C. Havens, Sterling's uncle, went to San Francisco 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.
A poet who called his works "pomes", Sterling became a significant figure in Bohemian literary circles in northern California in the first quarter of the 20th century, and in the development of the artists' colony in Carmel, he was mentored by a much older Ambrose Bierce, and became close friends with Jack London, and Clark Ashton Smith, and later mentor to Robinson Jeffers. His association with Charles Rollo Peters may have led to his move to Carmel. The hamlet had been discovered by Charles Warren Stoddard 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 (1973) wrote:
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. 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 and acted in their theatrical productions each summer at the Bohemian Grove. 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 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'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 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 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, 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, Keats and Poe, 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 for many years. When asked about it he said "A prison becomes a home if you hold the key". Finally in November 1926, Sterling used it at his residence at the San Francisco Bohemian Club. 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!".