A Masterful & Provocative Debut

Telegonos-coverIn Jonathan Golding’s Telegonos, formidable poetic artistry and a familiar yet expanded Homeric cast are on impressive display. Grounded in literary and classical tradition while evincing powerful individual talent, this five-act play deploys defining conventions of Attic and Shakespearean dramatic mythos. At the same time, it boldly reorients Aristotelian features of tragedy—hubris, catharsis, peripeteiaand challenges cheap fatalism in light of the fertile depths of time. A masterful and provocative debut.

Gaelan Gilbert (PhD), Adjunct Professor of Literature & History at Hellenic College, and Visiting Professor of Arts & Humanities at the University of Saint Katherine


When the son of Odysseus and the goddess Circe sets out to seek his father’s land, disaster strikes and the wanderers are shipwrecked on a mysterious island. As dreams and omens gather around him, Telegonos must make the most harrowing decision of his young life. Told in poetic form, Telegonos offers a vision of the world of classical myth with allegorical overtones.

Telegonos by Jonathan Golding will be published this summer by Darkly Bright Press.


NEW POETRY

…and memory is scars of light in the darkness.
The Ancient Modern: The Forest Shade by Joshua Alan Sturgill

A split in the heart of the cotton…
The Pilgrimage: Part 27 by Phillip Neal Tippin

An Upcoming Tragedy

Telegonos-cover

Darkly Bright Press is pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Telegonos: A Tragedy in Five Acts, the first book by playwright Jonathan Golding with illustration by Megan E. Gilbert. Previously, DBP has published poetry and essays by the author.

 


RECENT POETRY

The Ancient Modern: A Little Rhyme About Trash by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Jesse K. Butler: The Eleventh Hour

Silence is not complicity / It is the sound of the human scale:
The Pilgrimage, Part 25 & 26 by Phillip Neal Tippin

The World’s Most Beautiful Melody

MACHEN STUDIES

Guest essayist Jonathan Golding takes the helm this month to share his thoughts on Arthur Machen’s classic work of literary criticism, Hieroglyphics (1902).

Last year, we published Golding’s personal views on literature as found in the essay: The Garden of Moral Delights. Most recently, he contributed to Clearing Paths: A Darkly Bright Anthology of Poetry. In the coming months, Darkly Bright Press will issue his first book Telegonos, a drama in five acts. Please visit his website.


The Most Beautiful Melody in the World:
The View of Art in Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics
by
Jonathan Golding

Machen-figure

There is perhaps nothing so necessary and yet so difficult as to speak of the nature of art. What is art? What is its purpose? What are the criteria by which we judge? Are these judgments merely subjective and a matter of personal taste? Or may we not find some universal standard to apply?

These questions have vexed poets, philosophers, visual artists, and thinkers for millennia. And particularly in the last two hundred years, Western culture has seen peculiar and intense debates over the substance of art. These have ranged from Tolstoy’s attempt to establish a moral foundation for art to Marcel Duchamp’s aphorism that when he spits, that is art, for he is an artist.

Perhaps the most unique exploration of this subject flowed from the pen of Arthur Machen. His work Hieroglyphics offers a valuable exploration of these aesthetic questions.

Machen approaches his subject as if he were telling a gothic horror story. He tells us of his frequent visits to a literary friend living in seclusion and study. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, so that we half expect he is leading up to a mysterious disappearance or the revelation of some spectral apparition. Yet what follows is a rich discussion of literary art.

Machen purports to merely relate his imaginary host’s views, adding a charming touch of fantasy to what might otherwise be a dry and academic tome. The work, then, hovers ambiguously between fiction and essay in a way that is sure to give delight. And if at times Machen’s fictional interlocutor expresses views which sound strange to our modern ears, we forgive him for the many passages which ring with sublime poetry and wisdom.

Machen begins by recounting his friend’s fondness for lyric poetry. “He was always ready to defend the thesis that, all the arts being glorious, the literary art was the most glorious and wonderful of all. He reverenced music, but he was firm in maintaining that in perfect lyrical poetry, there is the subtlest and most beautiful melody in the world.” 1

The discussion turns quickly to what, for Machen, is the chief criterion for art: ecstasy. “If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature; if it be absent, then in spite of all cleverness, all the talent, all the workmanship and observation and dexterity you may show me, then we have a product which is not fine literature.” 2

HieroLike a wise lover, though, Machen shies away from approaching too directly or boldly the object of his adoration. He refuses to define too closely just what he means by the term “ecstasy” but sprinkles hints throughout the work which draw us onward toward his view. Perhaps the most explicit expression of his thought comes when he says, “fine literature is simply the expression of the eternal things that are in man, that it is beauty clothed in words, that it is always ecstasy, that it always draws itself away and goes apart into lonely places far from the common course of life.” 3

So for Machen, art is the ecstatic utterance of the eternal things in the human person. But, we may ask, what are these eternal things? He gives us another hint when he later says that art is not a product of the conscious mind and “we had better take refuge in the subconscious, that convenient name for the transcendental element of human nature. For myself, I like best my old figure of the Shadowy Companion, the invisible attendant who walks all the way beside us, though his feet are in the other world; and I think it is he who whispers to us his ineffable secrets, which we clumsily endeavor to set down in mortal language.” 4

Such sentiments place Machen squarely within the Romantic tradition, which valued emotion and spontaneity of expression. We might perhaps draw a straight line from the opium-induced vision of Coleridge’s “Xanadu” to the jazzy improvisational prose of Jack Kerouac. The author of The Great God Pan would undoubtedly fall somewhere on that axis.

For Machen, then, art is that which best expresses the mysterious utterances of our subconscious or Shadowy-Companion-self. And I think this brings us to the central conundrum of all criticism. There is a sublime quality to all artistic expression that eludes our attempts to capture it in words. And in all our efforts to define art, we are like hunters in a forest whose nimble prey often doubles back and slips from us at the moment of our triumph. We are left alone to listen to the whisper of the leaves as night comes on and wonder just what fantastic beast we glimpsed.

Art is mysterious because the human person is mysterious, deep, and filled with distant vistas. As the novelist, Neil Gaiman once put it, “Is there anyone who does not dream? Who does not contain in them worlds unimagined?” 5 And when we make art, we tap into that part of ourselves that is eternal and often hidden from our workday minds.

Like all good discussions, Machen’s Hieroglyphics raises perhaps more questions than it answers and leaves the reader with rich fields for exploration. We might ask, for example, if there might not be a more vital role for the conscious mind than Machen seems to allow. If art is an expression of the eternal in the human person, is not our conscious mind also eternal?

Or, at times, Machen seems to eschew any moral intention in literature. And we might ask whether moral values might not play a part in that which is timeless in the human experience.


But certainly, we may affirm with Machen that art, the best and truest art, is an expression of what is divine and eternal in us. When an artist gives voice to these things, we feel it in our bones. We cannot always articulate what touches us when we read a passage in Shakespeare or gaze at the enigmatic smile of La Gioconda, but we know that we have heard a fragment of the most beautiful melody in the world.

 


Notes

  1. Machen, Hieroglyphics, Alfred A. Knopf, p. 12

  2. Machen p. 20

  3. Machen p. 65

  4. Machen p. 73

  5. Gaiman, World’s End, DC-Vertigo Press, New York, p. 28


The Most Beautiful Melody in the World: The View of Art in Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics: Copyright 2021 by Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.

Nicholas Kotar… Epic Fantasy Writer and Poet

For the recent announcement on Arthur Machen & the Inklings Festival, read here.

This week, Darkly Bright Press welcomes Nicholas Kotar, a writer, translator and educator to our ongoing series of contemporary poets. Visit his small press and personal site for more information. Kotar is truly a man of many talents and we are pleased to publish one of his poems.

Speaking of which…

A Work Week’s Worth of Poetry

Nicholas Kotar: The Maple

Joshua Alan Sturgill: Lear

Jesse K. Butler: The Living Law

Bryn Homuth: Aix Sponsa

Phillip Neal Tippin: The Pilgrimage: Part 19


fairy 2Fairies & Ghosts

This section has been reorganized for ease of use with additional stories.

The Story of Vox Angelica and Lieblich Gedacht by Maurice Baring

The Intoxicated Ghost by Arlo Bates

C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien… and?

Recently, during an all too-infrequent pilgrimage to Eighth Day Books (and those who have been there know I do not exaggerate), I beheld a wondrous sight. I had heard rumor of it, but now I came face to face with the reality. Truly, it pleased while it simultaneously perplexed me.

I’ll digress for the uninitiated.

Imagine that you walk through a blue door into what appears to be a quaint home of dignified years, but instead of finding a family residence, you’ve entered through a portal into fairyland. True, you find real objects from everyday life: shelves containing books, places to sit and daydream, a set of stairs leading up to the heights and second set leading below. There are human faces and mortal drink. Yet all the same, it is also fairyland.

(“But in a place like Kansas?” a skeptic may ask with raised brows. Well, if you’re not prepared to meet fairyland in a plains town as seemingly common as Wichita, then I’m afraid you’ll won’t be able to find it anywhere else.)

Amidst a section on poetry, a wall of religious classics and shelves of Orthodox icons, there is a particular two-sided bookcase which draws many of the bookstore’s visitants with a force not unlike a magnet. This quiet monolith is adorned by a blue plaque with white script: C. S. Lewis and Friends.

On its shelves, you’ll find scholarly tomes on the great writer and Christian apologist, studies on the languages of Middle-earth, philosophical treatises by the confounding Owen Barfield, and a row of thrillers both sacred and profane in the manner only accomplished by Charles Williams.

But the club is less exclusive than the names of these four historical Inkings may suggest. The space is well stocked with the radio plays of Dorothy L. Sayers, the fairytales of George MacDonald and the blustering genius of G. K. Chesterton. Because of their natural affinity, these authors have been posthumously grouped by academics and casual readers as the Seven.

But, what is this eighth I see?

An interloper, it appears, has inserted himself like a thief snugly between The Literary Lives of the Inklings and The Golden Key. He hasn’t appropriated much of the landscape, only a Penguin edition and a few rarer volumes from a less-reputable publisher. And below, I read in black type: Arthur Machen.

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I must admit, this singular sight made me smile. Arthur Machen… a friend of C. S. Lewis? “But is this this true?” I doubted. From a strictly literal or historical perspective, I must confess no. Yet, as the work of both men would tell us, we oughtn’t be concerned solely with the surface of things.

Like MacDonald and Chesterton, Arthur Machen belonged to an earlier generation. Indeed, the Welshman turned 74 the same year that both his final piece of fiction, a short story entitled The Ritual, and The Hobbit found publication. Ten years later, Machen passed into the glassy floods of Avalon before Lewis’s children first stepped through the Wardrobe.

Unlike MacDonald and Chesterton, Arthur Machen did not experience renown despite six decades of literary endeavor. His obscurity has often been proclaimed unjust by the occasional author or critic, but it has remained in such a condition to both the general reading public and to academia. Some would even question the notion that as a literary figure he has survived as anything more than an odd footnote to the more specialized reader.

And true, Machen, unlike fellow outsider and fantasist E. R. Eddison, was never invited to a meeting of the Inklings. In any case, he contrarily preferred the company of stage actors to literary men. In the end, Machen led a life far from the scholastic atmosphere of Oxford, of Lewis and Tolkien, or the fast-set of London’s bright literati of his generation.

Yet… to cast doubt upon doubt, I wonder. Could there be something to this after all?

Commenting on the Angel of Mons controversy, Chesterton called Machen a “prose-poet.” In terms of theology, they held common ground as defenders of Anglo-Catholicism in the years before Chesterton’s submission to Rome. For that cause, each wrote brilliant essays in journals and newspapers. Furthermore, both men were acquaintances, though Machen knew G. K.’s brother Cecil more intimately.

Grevel Lindop discovered Machen’s The Great God Pan referenced in the margins of an early notebook belonging to Charles Williams’. Later, Machen would add assistance to the Latin and Hebrew phrases which pepper Williams first novel, The War in Heaven. This occurred through correspondence with the publisher, but the unpublished letters show messages were passed between the two writers through the middle man. Furthermore, Glen Cavaliero is quite clear about Machen’s influence upon the burgeoning novelist.

As a compiler and editor, Sayers thought enough of Machen and his work to write for permission to reprint one or two stories for the second volume of the Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror series. Again, in unpublished letters, one may read of his encouragement to Sayers to includThe Great Return, a suggestion she accepted.

It is reported that at the time of his death, the library of Lewis yielded a copy of one of Machen’s most inebriated and intoxicating creations, The Secret Glory.

And more recently, Douglas A. Anderson felt Machen’s position in Christian fantasy to be strong enough that he included an abridged version of The Terror in his anthology, Tales Before Tolkien.

All the writers thus mentioned, belong to a river of tradition that remains vitally critical to the intellectual and spiritual nourishment of those of us who cling to tradition and culture in this mad age of unreason.

Whether through his dark fairy tales, or through the exquisite awe of saintly visions of the Holy Grail, Machen is speaking to us of a needful thing through mythopoeic language. This needful thing is found time and time again as fractals throughout his fiction and essays. There is a greater reality to the one that we see and feel: wild, dangerous and sanctifying. I, for one, have benefited greatly from such ministrations. Truly, Machen, despite his obscurity and the inaccurate assertion that he is simply a horror writer, belongs to this great river of tradition as a curious current to be discovered and cherished.

He once wrote, “I chose the mysteries first and I chose the mysteries last.”

A Prose-poet & Mytho-poet

Arthur Machen belongs on the shelf.

All the above clumsily serves as a rambling preamble…

This coming October, I look forward to further exploring the topic of Arthur Machen’s position in Christian fantasy at the 7th annual Inklings Festival held by the Eighth Day Institute. Quite beyond my expectations, I’ve been invited to be a keynote lecturer for this wonderful event. It is my sincere hope that my upcoming presentation, Dreamt in Fire: The Dreadful Ecstasy of Arthur Machen, will encourage further reading and scholarship of the Apostle of Wonder.

Christopher Tompkins

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