The Weekly Machen
Traditionally speaking, Midsummer is most often associated with the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, observed on June 24. In a spirit of anticipation, Machen wrote the following piece for the Evening News in early May of 1912. In truth, it cannot be called a news article, but rather, it is a poetic meditation on the gradual shifting of both season and color. Here, Machen writes in a spirit similar to his reminisces in Far Off Things, and even invokes his native region of Gwent.
As a bonus, a later essay by Machen on fairy-lore has been appended. Originally collected in Dog and Duck: A London Calendar Et Cætera (1924), it appears in the recent collection Dreamt in Fire by Darkly Bright Press.
Kew Gardens: Photo by David Iliff
A Leap Into Midsummer
May 9, 1912
To-day we have leaped into the full tide of midsummer weather.
So far the procession of the year has passed with a glad swiftness and exuberance to which there has been no likeness in my memory. Even with the coming of January and in its early days the note of the spring was sounded. It was, I think, on the very first day of the first month that I strolled through a wood in Buckinghamshire and listened to the birds proclaiming that winter was already past.
The trees, of course, were all dark and leafless, save that here and there buds showed on the elder and the honeysuckle; but from bough to bough the song reechoed, and the sweet voices called, “Philip, Philip,” “my dear, my dear,” “I need you, I need you.”
So, as the year began it went on. There were a few days of bitter weather as February entered but the snow soon melted and the ice dissolved, and thence onward leaf broke out on leaf and blossom on blossom; a green mist fell swiftly on the bare bough, and as one looked the crocuses made the slopes of the parks golden and purple; upon them followed instantly the fairy chorus daffodils, and then, in the dark grass beneath the trees, appeared the wonderful bluebell smoke.
Yesterday I made a journey from the centre to the circumference of London; and everywhere there was bright evidence of hastening year, of spring quickly being transformed into the rich pageantry of summer.
The Lamps of the Grey Streets
In the very heart of London the bright banners are hung out. If you know where to look you can find them in the central grime of the dismal interminable maze of streets where grim street leads to grim street, where the horrible monotony of grey bricks is most hopeless; there swells out the sudden cloud of the green lime tree, the apparition of the dear lilac boughs, swaying in the gentle breeze.
I look at the lilac blossoms shining in the midst of these weary, wandering streets, and I think of their fellows that I remember, tossed about the porch of the old white-washed farmhouse in the wind that blew from the broad mountain side in Gwent. That wind, that swayed the scented lilac there, made the boughs of the high pines sings together, and stirred the deep hazel thicket that went down to the sliding, shining brook.
And so in the stony wilderness of central London the fragrant lilac blooms, and the faint, sweet purples hang out over the bitter walls; giving the word to the initiated exile of the lands beyond the limits of the the town, of the hills and woods and valleys that are still happy.
As I went outward and westward the marks of the flowering spring grew more plentiful. Bayswater and Kensington were bowered in greenery; golden laburnum drooped in every other garden over purple iris, and the lights of red and white may were everywhere. Further west, and from the great green swelling of the chestnuts rose myriads of creamy spires, a gentle warm rain began to fall, and the air was full of odours. From blossoms and green leaves and the springing growth of the hedgerows in lanes and paths near Richmond there rose that sweet scent of late spring and early summer that will make one man glad and another melancholy, according to his humour. And on all sides the chorus of the birds sounded; in Kew Gardens half-a-dozen liquid tongues came singing from the thickets.
Rhododendrons of Kew
The soft rain had scared away visitors; down by the river the long green alleys under overhanging boughs stretched solitary, lawn melted into lawn untrodden and blazed with none to look on them.
They grow these exotic shrubs in a protected valley on high, sloping banks. Mountains of pure white, bursting from rose-tinted buds greet hills of purple, crimson hues breaking from sombre green hills of purple, deep crimsons, red so glaring that it is almost scarlet, then delicate lilac shades; such is the colour entertainment of the rhododendron valley at Kew.
And close at hand is the azalea garden; and here it is as if the earth had blossomed into steadfast flames. From the palest lemon blooms to the deep, still red that is at the heart of the fire, the colour scale moves.
And there are yellows so wan, so dim, so purged of brilliancy that they have almost the solemn sadness of sackcloth, and red azaleas that are like fallen, faded leaves that lie on the ground in autumn; there are hues that seem to defy all naming, that are rather the “harmonics” of colour than actual colours.
And everywhere one sees that the procession of the year speeds splendidly and apace. The lilac begins to fade and turn brown, while we talk of “Chestnut Sunday” the river path between Kew and Richmond is pink and snowy with fallen chestnut blossoms. In the hedgerows the sheaths of the dock are swollen, and in the fields the grasses are already thick with the coloured dust that is their blossom.
The Universal Green
And amidst all this show of the blossoming springing year, there is this thought that occurs to me. I say I am looking at green everywhere, as if green were one colour; but as I look I perceive that I am using one word for innumerable shades. There is the grave green of the willow leaves, the vivid, piercing hue of the chestnut boughs that spring from the root of the tree, a tinge of purple on the sycamores, a deep, full green on the spreading dock-leaves, something of yellow in the plane tree foliage; and so on, and so on, without end.
And here is the point. We say sometimes that the Romans had no acute colour sense, because in Latin a white swan is “purple” and men’s lips are “purple,” and the Tyrian scarlet—the colour of the uniform of an officer in the Life Guards—is “purple.”
But are we much more discriminating, when we class shades so various under one common name of “green”?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It was in April, if I remember, that I said something about fairies. I am afraid I was talking about April fools, and more or less maintaining that they flourished, not only in April, but all the year round. And one example was the case of the Yorkshire Fairies, as we may conveniently call them. Or, if you like, we will be good journalists and call them the “alleged” fairies. You know the story. Two young ladies of Yorkshire—one of them, I think, has had some practical and professional experience in the art of photography—were in the habit of taking country rambles and snapshots together. When the plates were developed, strange to say, besides the portrait and the leafage and the flowers there appeared certain forms which were easily recognizable as fairies—as the fairies of a somewhat third-rate artistic conception. Scaling the little figure against the girl’s face, I should give the tiny being some nine or ten inches of height. It was draped. It had the familiar wings of the fairies in all the pictures in all the children’s fairy-tale books. If you were producing a fairy play for Christmas you would dress your chorus exactly as the photographic fairy is dressed; and the “principals” would wear a similar, though richer, habit, and have like wings, more brilliantly spangled. In a word, the fairy of the photo graphs is the conventional fairy and nothing else. And that is why I cannot believe in that fairy. For I cannot suppose that the modern inventions of nineteenth-century story-tellers, artists, and stage managers can have projected themselves into nature; and no such fairies as these deal in have any place in ancient tradition. It is June, the month of the fairies, of the midsummer night’s dream; let us occupy ourselves a little with the fair people.
To begin with the conventional fairy, the fairy of the photograph, the fairy that we have been discussing: I trace this little creature back to Shakespeare and Herrick. Queen Mab, in Mercutio’s speech, rode abroad in an empty hazel-nut; Herrick’s Oberon drinks his wine from a daisy and his loaf is a grain of wheat. Here are minute entities, indeed. Queen Mab is to be conceived as of about the size of a house-fly; Oberon may be almost as huge as a harvest mouse. Hans Andersen, who dealt more in fancy than in folk lore, has such fairies in some of his tales—fairies that he concealed in tulips. But, so far as I know, this minute fairy is a purely literary invention. It is first met in Elizabethan literature; it puts on a few inches in the fairy-tales of the nineteenth century, chiefly, I suppose, because a fairy queen no bigger than a fly is too small to be handled, either by writer or artist. The children’s fairy-tale fairy becomes about the size of the Yorkshire photographic fairy: anything be tween six inches and a foot high. But, as I say, neither the minute Mab, the tiny Oberon of Her rick,-nor the picture-book sprite of modern times has any original in true popular tradition. The fairies were, indeed, the “Little People,” and hence, perhaps, the poets, exaggerating, thought of Mab small enough to ride in a hazel-nut. But the older conception is also illustrated by Shakespeare. The sham fairies who plague Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor are impersonated by Windsor children. They are imagined, then, to be beings from three to four feet high; and such was the traditional height of the “Little People.” Such is the figure of the Irish Leprechaun, the fairy cobbler with the pot of gold.
There is a very tempting theory which now comes in our way. It has been held that the tradition of the fairies is, in fact, the tradition pre served amongst the Celts of the small, dark race which they supplanted. There is a good deal to be said for this. It is only a few years ago that a certain hill in Ireland was excavated. This hill had been known from time immemorial, and was still known, as a Fairy Rath. The “Little People” dwelt within it; the light of their fires had been seen shining from it of dark nights.
And the queer thing is that this was perfectly true. Or rather, it had been true—a thousand years ago. For the exploration of the hill showed that the primitive pre-Celtic race had dwelt within it, till the Danes broke into their hiding place somewhere in the tenth century. And the fairy lights? The blocked-up chimney shaft of the hidden house in the hill was disclosed. No doubt, when the “Little People” made great fires the flames shot up and flickered on the hill-top, and were seen by some trembling wandering man astray in the wilds and the darkness. What a tale that man told when he found his way at last to friendlier fires—with the door set fast! And the stories of the fair children taken away to live in the hollow hill by the “Little People,” of the dark, wizened babes, the changelings, left in their place? Likely enough, these things happened.
It is probable, then, that the pre-Celtic inhabitants of these islands may account for a great deal of fairy tradition; but not, I think, for all. The fairies are also gods and goddesses of the old time, now diminished in dignity but still potent, and, be it remarked, always, or almost always, evil. About forty years ago I was talking of old ways with an elderly Monmouthshire farmer, and he told me that in his youth people used to put the May blossom on the doorsteps of their houses—to keep the fairies out. So, when I was driving eight years ago in the country near Belfast, my friend, a hard-headed Presbyterian man of business, showed me the mountain-ash trees planted by every house—to keep the fairies out. We have come a long way from the fancies of Shakespeare and Herrick, a long way indeed from the benevolent little beings of the children’s books. In true popular tradition the fairies are always dreaded; partly, perhaps, because they were old gods and goddesses, accursed by the Christian Faith, partly because they were the little dark people who lived in the hills and stole away the fair Celtic children from the Christian hearth. There, I think, you have the main strands in fairy tradition. But there are others. A fairy is sometimes an “elemental,” a spirit of one of the four elements, according to the ancient theory of elements: air, fire, earth, water. The Sylphs were of the air, the Salamanders of the fire, the Gnomes of the earth, the Undines of the water; and I am sorry to say I do not know how far Paracelsus, who made this classification, was deriving from tradition and how far he was inventing or drawing on his reading in queer, forbidden manuscripts. And I am not clear as to the character of these spirits of the elements. Some servants’ “characters” are obscure, and so it is here. But I do not remember to have heard any particular good of Salamanders, considered, that is, as spirits of flame, and insinuating nothing against a harmless lizard of that name or against a cooking-utensil which might be used more than it is. But on the elementals, read Le Comte de Gabalis, a singular treatise of the seventeenth century.
Again, you have another kind of fairy: the Robin Goodfellow, Lob-lie-by-the-fire, the Lubber fiend, who would work hard for you at nights and thresh out your corn if you set a great bowl of cream for his refreshment. And last of all there is the Fairy Queen whom mortals sometimes visit, who, as in Walter Map’s tale, makes three hundred years seem but the passing of a single night. Such was the lady to whom Thomas of Ercildoune returned at last. I am not sure whether she is the lady whom Tannhäuser knew—the lady Venus—but I am certain that she has nothing to do with the Yorkshire fairy on the photographic plate.
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6 thoughts on “A Leap into Midsummer”
Here again is Machen the could-have-been Inkling, in that how he sees and what he writes recall them. Having one’s eyes opened to the wonderful variety really existing in what we casually call “green plants” is close kin to Tolkien’s recognition (in “On Fairy-Stories”) that we need to “recover” the world we are apt to lose by being preoccupied, lacking in gratitude, materialistic, and inattentive.
Inklings-like also is the gentle implied rebuke Machen delivers towards his contemporaries who would think themselves to have progressed beyond the Romans on the score of color discrimination, with an assumption of superiority to the past (when really they have their own defects of perception). But his remark about the Romans’ lack of attention does remind me of Machen’s remark, made more than once, I believe, about the inability to -see- Gothic architecture that developed in later centuries. It seems, then, that Machen, like Lewis, perceived gains and losses together in what we call different historical “periods,” rather than assuming that progress has marched on so that the more recent is generally bound to be better.
I’ve jotted a couple of paragraphs in response to the first essay posted here & hope we can have some discussion here of it, as well perhaps as the appended one.
I’ve just returned from a long weekend in the Texas Hill Country. It was beastly hot, but the fields were lush with grasses. With this article in my recent memory, I noticed a similarity in the variation of “green.” I could not count the tones and hues! In the evening, as the sun set behind the clouds, I experienced a similar experience with “purple.” Perhaps the greatest gift from Machen and the Inklings is the encouragement to see the world as it truly is. The fields of green or the skies at sunset are a secret language.
Dale, please fell free to share more of what you’ve written on these articles.
Machen objects to the same tiny, insectlike “fairies” that Tolkien objects to in his essay, which cites, as I recall, a poem by Drayton called Nymphidia. There seems to have been a sophisticated, courtly fad for such around 1600, but over against this should be set Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where the “fairies” or “elves” are of human size and may be fierce knights. Lewis reported that Tolkien didn’t like Spenser “because of the forms” somewhere. I have wondered what the “forms” meant; Tolkien didn’t like the structure of Spenser’s stanzas? Tolkien didn’t like the use of allegory? That’s believable, particularly since the First Book gets going with an adventure that includes an attack on the Roman Catholic church (to which Tolkien belonged).
I came late to Spenser but have enjoyed him very much. He was certainly one of Lewis’s favorite poets and many readers might be surprised if they added up how much CSL actually wrote about him — quite a lot, particularly when the posthumous Spenser’s Images of Life (from lectures) is counted.
Loving this selection!
Thank you for this diverse double portion! Our suburban lilacs are delightful but imperialistic, yet how unbotanical I am in comparison to Machen – I shall have to look up some photographs to match many of the names…
Fortunately for us non-Francophones, I find at least one translation (from 1714) of Le Comte de Gabalis scanned in the Internet Archive with the title: The Count de Gabalis: being a diverting history of the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits, viz. slyphs, salamanders, gnomes, and dæmons; shewing their various influences upon human bodies. Done from the Paris edition. To which is prefixed, Monsieur Bayle’s account of this work: and of the sect of Rosicrucians
Thanks for the comment. Personally, I know very little about the Rosicrucians. From his writings, it seems the Machen believed the historical group to be a complete fiction.