Brink of a strange world
THE COLLECTED ARTHUR MACHEN edited by Christopher Palmer Duckworth, £19.95, pp.376 Modern eyes do not care to peer too closely into the Celtic twilight. Those misty apple-garths and faerie glens are off limits to the respectable critic. Still more unnerv- ing is any suggestion of magic — black, white or greyish. 'Decadence' of the Nine- ties sort is less unacceptable, preferably when coupled with deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism, but the academic trade has always found it profoundly incon- venient that W. B. Yeats should have gone on insisting that, if he had not studied magic in The Order of the Golden Dawn, he would not have written half his early verse. As for Arthur Machen, well, the less said of him the better.
Yet Machen keeps on popping up. Perhaps no one cares now that the life of the composer John Ireland was trans- formed when he picked up Machen's The House of Souls off a bookstall on Charing Cross Road. That belongs to the same lumber-room of cultural history as Lord Alfred Douglas's belief that The Immortal Hour was the best thing since Shakespeare. Bosie told John Betjeman that he had seen the show 50 times. Rutland Boughton's lyricist, Fiona Macleod — alias William Sharp — has suffered a similar obliteration from the literary canon. Indeed, Sharp's only accepted achievement is to have invented for his female alter ego that Christian name which has since been hal- looed across a thousand Caledonian Nights.
In the same way, if anything is popularly remembered now of Arthur Machen (pro- nounced `Macken), it is that he invented `the Angels of Mons'. Even this story drips with cruel irony. All his life, Machen struggled cheerfully against recurring poverty and obscurity. He had his ups too: the family legacies which enabled him to write his best work, and later a brief vogue in the 1920s, following the publication in 1918 of the first book about him, Arthur Machen, Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin (the sort of title I recommend for any writer who feels neglected). There was even a uniform edition of his works published. But he quickly fell back into penury and literary oblivion — although he remained productive right up to his death in 1947 at the age of 84.
But when he had his one instant dazzling success with The Bowmen, nobody would believe he had made it up himself. This very short story appeared in the Evening News of 29 September 1914 — only a month after Smith-Dorrien had brought the Old Contemptibles back from Mons. All sorts of people wrote asking Machen to reveal who had told him about the archers of Agincourt (not angels) coming to the aid of the desperate British troops. Sermons were preached, variants of the story elabo- rated, dead Prussians were alleged to have been found on the battlefields with arrow- wounds on their bodies. Somebody's cousin who had served on Smith-Dorrien's staff knew for a fact, and so on. And poor Machen, who always had trouble in achiev- ing fictional verisimilitude or narrative impact, never got the credit, or indeed the royalties, since the copyright belonged to the Evening News — which later fired him when the paper published Machen's obitu- ary of Bosie, in which Machen described him as 'degenerate', which he may have been, but dead he was not.
This handsome volume of what, to be strictly accurate, ought to be described as. The Selected Machen' makes grand amends. But even here, I fear, we are left with an imperfect picture of the man and his work. The facts of Machen's life are not in dispute. He was born Arthur Jones, the son of an impoverished clergyman, at Caerleon-on-Usk, which was not only fabled in Arthurian legend but had earlier been Isca, the fort of the 2nd Augustan legion, and was later a centre of Welsh Christianity. Caerleon — Caermaen in The Hill of Dreams and other Machen works was, not surprisingly, a sacred place for him. He went to Hereford Cathedral School as Arthur Jones-Machen, his father having added his wealthier Scottish wife's surname, perhaps in the hope of a legacy. Arthur later dropped the 'Jones'. There was, however, no money to send him to university, and by the age of 17 he was in lodgings in Wandsworth, studying to be a surgeon, with no success. He spent the next decade in the grimmest parts of New Grub Street, tutoring, translating, catalo-
guing occult books.
Of the Nineties, he later claimed to be `not even a small part, but no part at all' although he did say that Oscar Wilde had told him he could not stand the taste of absinthe. But in fact Machen's first suc- cessful, indeed notorious work, The Great God Pan, was published the year before the Wilde trial by John Lane with a Beardsley frontispiece of an epicene Pan, looking rather more like Brigitte Bardot than Mick Jagger. It is an amateurish but irresistible tale, somewhere between Lord Dunsany and fin-de-siecle science fiction. A scientist performs a brain operation on a beautiful girl to enable her to see the Great God Pan:
'We are standing on the brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you say is true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?' `Yes; a slight lesion in the grey matter, that is all; a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a microscopical alteration that would escape the attention of ninety-nine brain specialists out of a hundred.'
The girl wakes up a hopeless, grinning idiot. But nine months later . . • well, nameless, unspeakable horrors ensue.
Unfortunately, Mr Palmer does not in- clude The Great God Pan. Indeed, he writes off Machen's Nineties stuff as 'weir- do classics' and speaks only of him 'dab- bling in the occult' after his first wife's death. The selection is dominated by Far- off Things, the first volume of Machen's charming, evocative but scarcely informa- tive autobiography, and The Hill of Dreams, which is the nearest Machen came to a serious literary achievement. The selection concludes with a mélange of Machen's newspaper sketches of the By- ways of Old London, Chestertonian stuff, full of rumbling paradoxes and trencher- man's reminiscences. The whole effect is to build up an image of Machen as 'one of Fleet Street's greatest characters', a jovial story-teller, never happier than in an ingle- nook by a blazing fire with a tankard in his hand, or rolling down the Strand in his great Inverness cape to some music-hall, apparently looking like Dr Johnson (from the photographs here, he looks more like Mr Asquith in his squiffier moments).
The starveling young Welshman, alone in his dismal lodgings in Notting Hill or prowling round the British Museum reading-room in search of Kabbalistic lore, does not get much of a look-in. Mr Palmer's Machen does not sound like the sort of chap who could write The House of Souls (also not included here) — a book so compelling that Aleister Crowley, 'the
Wickedest Man in the World' wrote in his copy: This book is the property of G. H. Fra Perdurabo Abbot of Dam-Car
— the Beast's equivalent, I suppose, of `If this book should chance to roam'.
Father Brocard Sewell in his little memoir of Machen adopted the same dismissive tone towards Machen's occult- ism:
Apart from some of his early works, written when his mind was unsettled and when, along with Yeats and others, he was attracted by the occultism of the 'Order of the Golden Dawn', Machen's 'outlook' was as consistently Catholic as was that of the earlier Chesterton.
But however short his membership of 'the GD' — as insiders called it — Machen's obsession with the occult lasted a good 20 years and started long before his first wife's illness. It might not be quite as startling to find Machen identified as an anima natu- raliter catholica as it is to see one's own name on Miss Barbara Amiel's list of `committed Christians'; all the same, it is not the whole truth.
Machen did indeed hate Protestantism — especially of the hearty public-school variety, which he satirised so fiercely in The Secret Glory, a favourite work of the young Betjeman. Machen described the Reformation as 'the most hideous blas- phemy, the gravest woe, the most mon- strous horror which has fallen upon the hopeless race of mortals since the founda- tion of the world.' What he yearned for, though, was not so much the Roman as the old Welsh church — primitive, elemental, a faith of the whaleback hills and hidden woods of his native land. The hero of The Hill of Dreams, who has passionate, erotic visions while stretched out on the turf of the Roman hill-fort at Caermaen, is a world away from Puck of Pook's Hill — or indeed from Chesterton's disciplined use of the supernatural. From the first words — 'There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened', all hell and heaven are let loose: He himself was in truth the realisation of the vision of Caermaen that night, a city with mouldering walls beset by the ghostly legion. Life and the world and the laws of the sunlight had passed away, and the resurrec- tion and kingdom of the dead began. The Celt assailed him, beckoning from the weird wood he called the world, and his far-off ancestors, the 'little people', crept out of their caves, muttering charms and incanta- tions in hissing inhuman speech; he was beleaguered by desires that had slept in his race for ages.
These trances and visions are contrasted with the mean snobberies of the modern town and, worse still, with the horrors of London,
the brick and stucco deserts where no trees were . . . Nothing fine, nothing rare, no- thing exquisite it seemed, could exist in the weltering suburban sea . . . It appeared to him that vulgarity and greasiness and squalor had come with a flood, that not only the good but also the evil in man's heart had been made common and ugly . . the very vices of these people smelt of cabbage water and a pothouse vomit.
No right-wing moralist could outdo the repulsiveness of Machen's description of Saturday night and Sunday morning in a working-class district — the drinking, the whoring, the hangovers, the vandalism, the Sunday newspapers. It is this loathing of modern urban life and this unappeasable longing for the imagined pre-industrial, pre-Reformation world of passion, beauty and unspoilt nature which are the true Machen, not the affable Fleet Street char- acter composing whimsical 'turnovers' on `Merrie Islington' and 'the Fogs of Yester- year'. Mr Palmer's selection is, of necessity, too brief to exhibit in full that potent turn-of-the century amalgam of Celtic nationalism, purple-stained Pan-worship, Catholic religiosity, and, by no means least, the plunging rather than dabbling in the occult.
Like Catholic apologists, the nationalist movements are diligent in cleaning up their bit of the act. The Scottish National- ists do not like to recall that the first President of the Scottish National Move- ment, Lewis Spence, claimed to be able to hear laerie singing, wordless, and of wonderful harmony', but only, I think, in the early mornings. For that matter, Fabians do not much care to be reminded how closely they once mingled with Mrs Besant and the Theosophists.
Nor is it as if the faerie-fanciers were unaware of their motives. Fiona Macleod, in her essay Celtic, acknowledged that the nationalist tradition was not solely a matter of geographical affection and loyalty:
it is also true that in love we love vaguely another land, a rainbow-land, and that our most desired country is not the real Ireland, the real Scotland, the real Brittany, but the vague land of Youth, the shadowy Land of Heart's Desire. And it is also true that deep in the songs we love above all other songs is a lamentation for what is gone away from the
`Dial-a-Curse. Can I harm anyone for you?'
world, rather than merely from us as a people . .
Machen's work is a fascinating compen- dium of these lamentations — sometimes poignant and evocative, especially in his descriptions of landscape and townscape, sometimes creepy and nauseating, some- times merely awkward and embarrassing. And one can trace lines of descent from Machen in all sorts of directions— through Crowley and the GD to Crowley's young Californian disciple, L. Ron Hubbard, who was to evolve that pseudo-scientific cult of the higher knowledge which he called `scientology'; through the hippies and the Alternative Culture to the revival of in- terest in prehistoric magic and the numi- nosity of standing stones and ley lines; through artists like Sutherland and Ceri Richards, to the Neo-Romantic art of thorn-thicket and hollow lanes, and so on, in an infinite diversity of religious and nationalist enthusiasms, all variously in revolt against the modern world. I should have thought that Heathcote Williams's vision of a gentle, erotic, whale-rich Albion was a truer descendant of Machen than the 'protestantised' Catholic church of the 1980s.
Mr Palmer rightly adds to the list the influence of Machen avowed by, Michael Powell (also a son of the Welsh foothills), in his strange supernatural films of the ,1940s, and the transformation of Machen themes — the Wild Wood, the Roman Road — into the milder romance of The Wind in the Willows, and of many another children's book. Indeed, at times it seems as if the peoples of these islands are all engaged in one great sprawling, conspir- atorial enterprise of quasi-mystical pastor- al nostalgia, into which Continental and American modernists only occasionally manage to intrude, before being roughly thrown out again. If so, Arthur Machen must be ranked among the prime conspir- ators, and he deserves another volume including The Great God Pan, The House of Souls and The Secret Glory.
It is easy enough to anatomise his technical imperfections; the lack of artistic ruthlessness, the lapses into sentimentality, the fuzzy outlines and the stock themes. Much the same criticisms could be made of 'A Paradise Lost' — that remarkable and undernoticed show of 'the Neo-Romantic imagination' at the Barbican last year. For me, the whole exhibition was almost pain- fully moving, since the world it evoked was the world of my childhood — of the Shell Guides, and John and Paul Nash, and John Piper and John Minton. English — or Celtic — nostalgia is evasive, but there is an evasiveness in international modernism too. The acceptance of brutality and alienation as the dominant themes of art is in its own way just as facile as the invention of a lost paradise of gentle and true affections. Some of the things Machen struggled to achieve still look worth strug- gling for.