The Weekly Machen
For those interested in Machen’s career as a stage-actor, I suggest this essay. However, the following article, though at first glance promises to be a revelry of his days treading the boards, veers into a daydream wider and deeper than Machen’s personal experiences. Rather, it is a call to beauty, revitalization and for men to return to their right minds. By invoking St. George and William Shakespeare with equal vigor, Machen asks England to save itself from self-destruction as predicted by the modernist. For Machen, the way out is the story of the Grail, which in this instance, is suggested by his treatment of Stratford-on-Avon as Paradise.
By the Avon
The Shakespeare Festival
April 27, 1911
Sometimes I think that in Elysian meadows Mr. F. R. Benson will awake from long and wonderful dreams and call out to his stage manager, Mr. Randle Ayrton:
“What’s happened to the company, Ayrton; why aren’t they here?”
And Ayrton will wave an arm and presently a gorgeous personage will appear, tabarded and bedizened, and from his silk-hung trumpet a mighty and powerful blast will sound.
Then from all quarters of the earth the old Bensonian company will gather together to do their ancient suit and service; they will muster beside a celestial Avon, at the portals of an immemorial theatre, and I, their humble scribe in an old cloak, reclining on the banks of asphodel, will record the achievements of these strolling heroes.
They will proceed to rehearse a great mystery play, which shall be all that Shakespeare ever wrote and yet much more than he wrote, being in very truth immortal. The vestments of the players will have taken on the hues of dawn and sunset. The old actors will all have gathered together, with all old woes and hurts and doles healed and forgiven; chief among them George Weir uttering the words that are now cut on his tomb: “When my cue comes, call me and I will answer.”
A Place of Inspiration
This is what I felt last night as I stood by the banks of the mortal Avon, by the Memorial Theatre at Stratford, looking at the fading sunlight. It is strange how a place full of inspiration and magic subdues all unto itself. No building on earth be could be uglier, more grotesque, more utterly unsuitable to its purpose and its position than this crazy, red-brick, hybrid, pseudo-Gothic theatre; and yet the wonderful atmosphere of Stratford, the thoughts of him whose work it celebrates transmutes its folly, and make it dear to those who have played in it and sat in it.
Beneath the theatre walls lap the placid waters of the river, beyond the further banks are happy meadows fringed with willows that now put on a tender green; to the left is a wide-arched bridge of mellow brick, to the right the old parish church amidst the elms. And suddenly from the church tower the bells ring out in praise and celebration of Shakespeare and St. George; and as the sun dies down over the western fields the flashing lights of the sky change to that other light which shines in the region of immortal beauty—the light of which the poet Wordsworth spoke.
It is a puzzle to me why Londoners, weary of business, of “tubes,” and trams, and jangling traffic, and bellowing and bleating motor-horns, and arid streets, and of houses and things all raw and new do not come in greater numbers to Stratford-on-Avon, this place of great refreshment and rest. You can wander by the river and cool your eyes by the sight of the green meadows and the gentle stream; you can stroll in and out of those old streets, which are still there to show you what a prosperous English town was like in Shakespeare’s day.
Scent of the Flowers
At every point one is delighted. Huddled gables, dark beams, plaster wall surfaces, clustering ivy, ancient brick with old sunlight shining in it; all these are a part of Stratford; and in the heart of the town the blossoming trees peer over the walls, and a door will often open on green lawns and orchards and gardens. Here the country is never banished; men live snugly together, but do not lose the scent of the fields and of the flowers. They talk a great deal now of the “Garden City”; here it is, the perfect model, if we will only copy it.
In this wonderful and beautiful old town for twenty-five years or more Mr. F. R. Benson has celebrated the birthday of Shakespeare as a great British festival; but when I spoke to him by the banks of the Avon, he declared that the idea had broadened out, that Stratford was to become the centre and inspiration of all the Aryan race, leavening the civilised world by its beauty, by the beauty of art which is summed up in Shakespeare’s work. In fact, if I have understood Mr. Benson aright, he would say that it is by beauty and by nothing else that the modern world can be saved from that utter destruction and confusion which some of us think will come upon it. Mr. Wells has prophesied a civilisation going to war with itself and declining into barbarism; all its strange mechanical contrivances, its scientific devices, and machines working together to destroy the whole fabric which men have so painfully set up. And this doom, Mr. Benson would say, may be averted by Shakespeare; that is, by all for which Shakespeare stands; the love of beauty, the faculty of the creative imagination.
The Love of Beauty
And it seems to me, remembering last night’s sunset by the Avon, that if help is to come at all, it must be by this way.
Clearly a civilisation cannot save itself by keeping shop. Phœnicia kept shop with the most remorseless diligence; it was never weary of doing business. And yet Phœnicia fell and ceased to be. Nor can democratic politics and free talk and free votes and free everything for everybody preserve a State; or else Athens would have endured longer. It seems probable enough that the love of the idea of beauty is the true foundation-stone of real existence: there are, of course, cases of nations which have lived as the toad lives, embedded in mud and rock; alive, and yet dead to all that is real.
But the beauty that is to save a race alive must be an expression of the highest things. The mere dilettante is no good; no pretty tricks of rondeaux and ballades will avail anything; no choice taste in old china or first editions is likely to be of the slightest assistance. In a sense, the mere accomplishment, the thing done and visibly displayed is nothing; we want to measure the force, the inspiration, the imagination which lie at the back of all creative art.
Look at Shakespeare’s plays; see by his words to what an audience of Englishmen he was appealing. He was able, it is clear, to speak to a national imagination, to a national memory, to folks whose history was quick in their thoughts, not written in dead books. Shakespeare was able to touch the Elizabethans with his story of King Richard II., because King Richard II. was a real man to them, not a name attached to a date on which they were liable to be examined.
It is that vivid and quickening sense that we wish to restore in England; and I know of no better way than the way of old Stratford-on-Avon at this festival time. St. George and Shakespeare; the sense of religion, the sense of the nation, the sense of beauty: all depicted as in a symbol by the ancient town of memories, garlanded with flowers, adorned with the shields of English heroes, ringing with the triumph of the church bells, listening in the theatre to the great voice that speaks to the whole world.
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7 thoughts on “By the Avon”
Thank you for this – and the linked Vanity Fair series with its introductory essay: an excellent complementary pair!
Machen speaks of “that utter destruction and confusion which some of us think will come upon” “the modern world” – and to a considerable extent did, about three-and-a-third years later! Yet good relations with Shakespeare-loving Germans variously resumed as well. And a little less than 15 years later destruction came upon the Memorial Theatre: “The original theatre was gutted by fire on 6 March 1926” Wikipedia). Do we know what Machen thought of its successor? I have vivid memories of our magnificent coach driver taking us there and back again to Harlaxton College, Grantham, along ever wintrier ways, when we decided not to cancel our excursion of students and visiting faculty to see an evening performance of Julius Caesar. “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” – another, if very different, stirring glimpse of the countryside!
Good point. As of now, I do not know of Machen’s opinion of the newer building or if he had ever written about it. If I discover anything, I’ll try to update here.
Thank you! I’ve long meant to try Henry James’s short story, ” The Birthplace”, published in the collection, The Better Sort (1903), and this Machen article has somehow given me the nudge – and I’ve embarked upon it via the late Nicholas Clifford’s audiobook for LibriVox. I wonder if Machen knew it, and what he thought, if he did?
I have not found any specific comment by Machen on that story. However, here is a paragraph on James that Machen wrote for the September 24, 1908 issue of T. P. Weekly’s. I included it in Mist and Mystery (p. 116):
And here is another matter for congratulation. Mr. Henry James’s
novels and tales are to be published in a collected edition by
Messrs. Macmillan. Many years ago a brilliant essayist said that
Mr. James wrote as if writing were a painful duty. There is truth in
the criticism, but it is not all the truth. Personally, I like Mr. James’s
best work in spite of his manner, rather than because of it; but his
best is certainly very good indeed. He did some admirable work for
the “Yellow Book”—one remembers the “Death of the Lion” and
the “Coxon Fund.” The latter tale was, I should think, suggested
by the life of Coleridge; the former seems to refer to a great man
who is still with us. Mr. James is at his happiest in dealing with
personalities of men of letters. But his “Turn of the Screw” is one
of the very best horror stories ever written.
Thank you – very interesting! I have still only read bits and bobs of James’s shorter works, and should look up the tales Machen mentions – though I thoroughly enjoyed The Turn of the Screw after having watched The Innocents (1961).
With reference to “a collected edition” and “I like Mr. James’s best work in spite of his manner, rather than because of it”, I vividly remember the late J.D. Fleeman’s excellent bibliography lecture, in which he pointed out one poor critic’s failure to realize that James revised his earlier works for that collected edition and, based on it, mistakenly thought certain earlier works showed signs of his later manner… One can never be too careful! (I also remember the description of James’s “manner” in terms of ‘James the First, James the Second, and James the Old Pretender’ – I cannot say how justly!)
Machen’s presentation of Benson’s Shakespearean-Britain ideal reminded me of remarks by C. S. Lewis.
In That Hideous Strength, the spiritual vivification and recovery of Jane Studdock includes a hunger for Shakespeare’s sonnets. They help to connect her to “Logres” and to free her imagination from the injuries it has received from the technocratic-occultic modern state.
In an essay published in French, Lewis mused on the “spirit” of England, the spirit of France, etc. He is not advocating coarse provincialism but rather an idea of a kind of national consciousness here, and then a complementary one there, and there, and there — a plenitude of being on the level of peoples.
One would want to get a handle on these remarks before wondering about what Lewis might have thought of the traditional idea of the angels of the nations/peoples.