The Weekly Machen

In the following column, Arthur Machen presents the reader with a quartet of curious books. Each seem worthy of pursuit, including the volume which received the least complimentary review. However, the first item is particularly interesting when it comes to studying not only Machen’s literary theory, but his personal experience in the craft. As a result, one may recall Machen’s excellent phrasing: “I dreamt in fire, but worked in clay.”

Overall, here is an excellent example of Machen’s role as a reviewer. He performs the task critically, but without rancor whilst writing efficiently in the space he has been given. Additionally, we find fascinating flourishes such as a clear understanding and concern for characterization displayed in his reading of Beresford. And unexpectedly, there is a wonderful retelling of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Among My Books
Arthur Machen
May 23, 1912

I do not myself believe that there ever was any first-rate piece of work done in this world in the frame of mind which is known as content.”

Algernon_Freeman-Mitford_(portrait_by_Samuel_Lawrence)This is a judgment which occurs in Lord Redesdale’s collection called “A Tragedy in Stone and Other Papers” (Lane); and it is to me as refreshing as the bubbling of cold well-water by a dusty road. I like the phrase because it is good, hard, gritty common sense; and I am getting to feel that common sense and the simple truth about anything whatever are rarer and more precious than right Orient pearls.

Lord Redesdale bases his essay—it was originally an address delivered to the Students of the Art School, Chipping Campden—on the text of “The Divine Doctrine of Discontent”; and he explains that he does not mean ‘‘that vulgar form of discontent which snarls and growls at fortune because some neighbour is more prosperous, more lucky, as it is called, than ourselves; but that high form of discontent which prevents a man when he has executed a piece of work from looking at it and seeing that it is good. That is only possible for the omnipotent Divine Creator.”

Excellently well said; and the author goes on to show that all the really fine things in art have come out of fierce struggle and great tribulation; the artist has wrestled in agony with the difficulties of his task, and at last, when it is done, he has to confess that it is but poorly done, an imperfect approximation to the ideal in the maker’s mind.

Grey Roses

220px-Henry_HarlandHenry Harland, that fashioner of pleasant, airy and fantastic fictions, once put this truth in two words, the title of one of his books. It was a collection of short stories, and the author called it “Grey Roses,” and explained the sense by a quotation from an imaginary author. I have not the book by me, and so I cannot give the passage literally; but the purport of it was that every artist tried to create scarlet roses, and only succeeded in creating grey roses. The thing done, in other words, always falls lamentably short of the thing imagined.

This is a truth of the utmost importance. An amiable Nonconformist divine was once mildly amused by hearing one of his brethren, an excellent old man, who had never committed a murder, or a perjury, or a theft in all his blameless days, describing himself in prayer as a “miserable and unworthy sinner.”

The poor old man had really a heart of gold, the famous preacher explained. What was the sense of his calling himself a wretched sinner?

There was plenty of sense; the soundest of all sense, and the clearest sight. The old man had recognised the gulf between perfection and approximation, between scarlet roses and grey roses.

Sound, too, is Lord Redesdale’s contention that the real things are done with pains and difficulty. Here is a doctrine very necessary for the present time, which has got into its silly head the falsehood that important things are to be secured easily, that, everything is to be gained without tears. It would be true to say that nothing is to be had without tears. Fire and hammer go to the making of a horseshoe; and fire and hammer, in one form or another, will be found to go to the making of most things that are worth making. As Mr. Bixby, the pilot, told Mark Twain, it was a terrible business to learn the river, but there was “no getting around it.”

Irish Folk History

Lady_gregoryI find myself in some difficulty in dealing with “Irish Folk-History Plays” by Lady Gregory (2 vols. G. P. Putnam’s Sons).

I desire to recognise with all respect the high seriouness of the author, her vision of the old, unhappy, far-off things of Ireland, and the obvious sincerity with which these plays have been written.

And it is eminently just and right. I think, that modern poetic writers should return and ever return to a misty and legendary past, and make new work out of the gold of old treasures.

The one school in literature for which I have no patience, and I fear but little courtesy, is what may be called “le mot juste pour le mot juste.”

This school tells its pupils to drive out, in the first place, all ideas from its mind, to cure themselves of the superstition that the universe is full of meaning, that the things seen are only valuable so far as they are symbols of the things unseen; signs of the surface which speak to the good scout of hidden water or hidden fire. This is the school which tells a young man to sit down and describe a lamp-post, qua lamp-post, in the neatest and best phrases obtainable; the end of it is an infinite boredom, an illimitable insignificance.

Lady Gregory has none of this nonsense; she knows that in fine literature words are only of consequence as the tokens and symbols of ideas and emotions; and she goes back, as Sophocles went back, to a misty and heroic and luminous past for the themes of her tragedies.

But I can’t like the way in which the plays are written. Here are some phrases from “Grania”—

Is it to fail me you will now?
He not to have caught me in his arms
I would have fallen in the stream.
To live on the wind and on the air you cannot.
You to be the man and the young woman I am searching after,
I have to give a message and get a message.

I presume that these sentences uttered by Finn and his companions are in the idiom of bilingual Irish peasants of to-day. They are certainly not English; and the result is that “Grania” reads like a clumsily literal “crib” to an Irish original.

Candidate for Truth

A Candidate for Truth” (Sidgwick and Jackson) is a curiously interesting piece of work, written by Mr. J. D. Beresford, the author of that amazingly ingenious, original, and suggestive fantasy, “The Hampdenshire Wonder.”

It is a long time since I have read anything so well done in its way as the character of the parson, Cecil Barker, the fisher for men, the man whose passion it was to take hold of the hopeless human failure and convert him or her into a success.

Mr. Beresford is a curiously subtle and elusive writer. The “Hampdenshire Wonder” was a child—and also pure intellect, without any kind of emotion. And the only human being who felt any sympathy with the Wonder was the village idiot, or “natural.” It is for the reader to judge whether Mr. Beresford meant to let us know that in his opinion intellect by itself was next door to idiocy.

So with this book; the impersonal teller of the tale writes of the parson, Barker, with unconcealed venom and dislike; he is a hostile witness, and yet he is honest in his hostility. Thus on the first page, after calling Barker “a fisher,” he states that the clergyman avoided all use of the old metaphor, because “to speak of himself as a fisherman was to label himself a descendant of Peter, to advertise his purpose . . . . and he never allowed his shadow to fall over the water.”

Note how the parson’s avoidance of the fishing metaphor is set down to a crafty and Jesuitical habit of mind; the worst construction is given to it. And yet the author, in spite of his bias against his character, states the case so fairly that the reader is strongly inclined to bring in a verdict of “Not guilty.” Mr. Barker’s aim in life was to rescue wastrels and runagates from misery and make them into serviceable human beings. And being a sensible man, he knew that this eminently practical end would not be achieved by allusions to the sinner’s “pore soul” in the manner of the Salvation Army crew in the Jacobs story.

A Candidate for Truth” is a fascinating and curious tale—till we come to the last chapters. Then the hero and the heroine decide “to live their own lives.” The result of this decision, I regret to say, is pagan but tiresome.

The Weekly

Previous: The Desire in Our Hearts for Colour

Next: Among My Books (August 1912)

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Among My Books (May 1912)

  1. Am I the only one? — As soon as I read the passage from Lady Gregory, I was reminded of the pseudo-archaic diction with which William Hope Hodgson hobbled his tale The Night Land.


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