John Masefield (1878-1967) served as Poet Laureate for the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death. The Everlasting Mercy, a book-length poem that remains one of his best remembered works, received an early review by Machen in the following article. In the piece, Machen not only extolls the quality of Masefield’s verse, but questions if the public is ready to receive it. This concern can be seen to transcend the following example and be further applied to Machen’s interest in literature generally. In the narrow confines of the newspaper column, his steadfast position of art’s role in pointing toward the ecstatic purpose of man finds eloquent expression.
Many years before this review, Machen published his first book Eleusinia (1881), which also consisted solely of one long poem. Despite this start, he quickly abandoned poetry and only published a few more examples during a long career. Yet, though Machen never achieved the quality of verse that can be found in a Laureate, his stories and novels ring with poetic invention and beauty.
The Everlasting Mercy can be read in its entirety, here.
A Poem for the Street in the Street: Does He Want It?
December 8, 1911
One of the most remarkable books of the year is Mr. John Masefield’s poem, “The Everlasting Mercy,” which came out originally in the English Review, and has been republished.1
I wonder whether we are sincere when we deplore the lack of poetry in our day; whether in our hearts we want poetry at all. I shall be more certain of the existence of a general longing for the truly poetical in a few months, when I hear how Mr. Masefield’s book has succeeded. For it will be remarked that from beginning to end of “The Everlasting Mercy” there is not the faintest trace of obscurity, of learned idiom, of archaic diction, of “precious” treatment of a subject or of phraseology brought from a far unknown land of thought. The subject is simple, the words are of the plainest English, the construction is pellucid in its clearness; so far as the plain sense goes Bill and Tom in the four-ale bar can understand every word of it.
The question to me now is, will the people in the drawing-rooms and the studies understand the poem in the true sense; will its ardours and its splendors and its raptures penetrate to hearts that have thrilled to so many sickly notes, that have been stirred by false sentiment, false pathos, false heroics, false ethics for so many years?
Here for once in a way is the real thing offered for us, to take her to leave; the reality of our literary enthusiasm will be judged by our reception of it.
Thackeray, they say, was one of the greatest of our English writers. I suppose he was; I can say at least this much, that I do not know anyone who has a greater relish than I for the wonderful achievement of “Vanity Fair.”2 What a scene; rather, what a great act it is! With what unfailing irony and wit are all the passages of that epic of the second-rate contrived. Who was there, alive or dead, who could imagine anything better of its sort than Becky, any old-time Anglo-Indian more fatuous then Josh, any image of a good man mistaken, in the end of man more tragically triumphant, than poor Dobbin; any reward of faithful patience more free from blame or more disenchanting than Amelia?3 And assemble all these admirable puppets together, and take the book as a whole; who else has displayed with one-tenth of the author’s skill the blight of modern life and modern thought; and this, be it remarked, before it fell into anybody’s head to suspect that modern life was anything but a triumphal progress, from glory to glory advancing. There are plenty of profits of evil now, and the optimists are beginning to be the rarer characters; but Thackeray lived in the days of Macaulay,4 when the first Reform Act had been passed,5 and everything was very good.
I take Thackeray, then, as the type and representative of the whole family or tribe of literature, both in prose and verse, and I say quite deliberately that I would give the whole family up for this rough and ragged and glowing poem of Mr. John Masefield’s called “The Everlasting Mercy.” For the difference between the two is, to me, simply the difference between death and life, between man seen on the whole falsely, and man (and all else) seen on the whole truly. The great distinction in literature is not between verse and prose; it is between essential truth and accidental truth, between the temporal and the eternal.6 Becky is always entertaining and true as far as she goes; Saul Kane is true for ever.
Let it be noted that in the plot of the poem there is nothing very remarkable. A drunken, fighting, poaching wastrel is “converted”; as it would appear by sheer satiety; that is all. Kane fights with a fellow poacher over the right to set wires in a particular field; and Billy Myers would have beaten him if it had not been for a sprained thumb. Then there is a tremendous drinking bout to celebrate the winner’s victory; Saul runs amok through the Gloucestershire village, breaks the lawyers windows, insults the parson, is cursed by a woman for venturing—villain as he was—to talk to her little boy. He is then admonished by pious Quakeress—and sees the light. That is all; and taken as a mere story, according to the letter, it is surely not much; it is the contents of thousand tracts and “goody-goody” little books and nothing more. And yet, out of the simple, edifying tale of this simple country reprobate the author has made an amazing and beautiful piece of literature.
Here is an example of his method:—
All the old monks' singing places Glimmered quick with flitting faces, Singing anthems, singing hymns Under carven cherubims. Ringer Dawe aloft could mark Faces at the window dark, Crowding, crowding, row on row, Till all the Church began to glow. The chapel glowed, the nave, the choir, All the faces became fire Below the eastern window high, To see Christ's star come up the sky. Then they lifted hands and turned, And all their lifted fingers burned, Burned like the golden altar tallows, Burned like a troop of God's own hallows, Bringing to mind the burning time When all the bells will rock and chime And burning saints on burning horses Will sweep the planets from their courses And loose the stars to burn up night. Lord, give us eyes to bear the light. 7
And then this site of a landscape:—
The blood-edged clouds were all in tatters, The sky and earth seemed mad as hatters; They had a death look, wild and odd, Of something dark foretold by God.
It is thus that the poacher hears the summons that calls him:—
The water's going out to sea And there's a great moon calling me; But there's a great sun calls the moon, And all God's bells will carol soon For joy and glory and delight Of someone coming home to-night.
And then to the revived and re-illuminated soul, the common things of the world become suddenly manifest in their true light and their true glory, which before had been invisible to eyes dimmed and stained with sensual mists.8
The station brook, to my new eyes, Was babbling out of Paradise, The waters rushing from the rain Were singing Christ has risen again. I thought all earthly creatures knelt From rapture of the joy I felt. The narrow station-wall's brick ledge, The wild hop withering in the hedge, The lights in huntsman's upper storey Were parts of an eternal glory, Were God's eternal garden flowers, I stood in bliss at this for hours.
I must stop quoting, or else I shall end by quoting “The Everlasting Mercy” in its entirety; but I hope that I have shown by these citations what an amazing piece of work Mr. Masefield has offered to a generation which sometimes complains of a lack of true poetry. Here undoubtedly and undeniably is the true, clear, and enchanted voice of poetry, here in this book, if any man will, he can taste that everlasting and inebriating wine of the spirit,9 in which beauty and truth are reconciled and are at one.
1 The long poem was published in book form by Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd of London.
2 One of the most popular British authors of the nineteenth century William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), is most well-known for his satirical novel of British society, Vanity Fair (1848).
3 All characters from Vanity Fair, Machen briefly and expertly summarizes their types and importance to Thackeray’s story.
4 Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a British politician, historian and essayist famous for the five volume work: The History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1848). The work was heavily influence by Macaulay’s Whig ideology.
5 Introduced by Lord Grey, the Reform Act of 1832 greatly extended the franchise of voting for Members of the House of Commons. Macaulay supported the bill.
6 Here is a fine and succinct example of Machen phrasing his own approach to literature, both as a writer and reader. This approach, which he recognizes in Masefield’s work, boldly underlines his belief in a literature that is hieroglyphic, or iconic, for the purposes of symbolizing a greater reality. This quality he fails to see in many great books such as Vanity Fair.
7 All poetical quotes are excerpted from the 1911 Sidgwick & Jackson edition of The Everlasting Mercy.
8 Though Machen is specifically referring to Masefield’s poem, it is difficult not to imagine this sentence applying to much of his own work, including The Great Return (1915) and The Secret Glory (1922).
9 In his Introduction to The Angel of Mons, Machen later wrote on this favorite theme: “Man is created to be inebriated; to be ‘nobly wild, not mad.’”