A world redeemed!
Who else but Arthur Machen can find alchemy in the rush of the Christmas season? Who else can seize with joy the transmutation, the lifting up of the world, its very transfiguration in the mere shops of the high-street? The madness of London becomes a peaceful unity before his eyes. And, as a gift sent to us from 107 years ago, we are able to witness the beauty of this vision.
December 15, 2019 marks the 72nd year since Machen’s repose. In the following article, we remember the man and the wonder he discerned in the smallest of things.
Merry Christmas! Blessed Nativity!
Published December 9, 1912 in the Evening News
“The windows,” I said, “are already decked for Christmas, the happy people have begun to spy out the rich land of the West, their thoughts on presents; I am going to see the fun.”
I can’t understand it,” my companion replied, “I can’t see any sense in it. A certain date come round in the calendar, and people rush out and buy a lot of useless things. There’s no reason in it.”
The man, it will readily be perceived, was a heretic: that is a person who is unaware of the fact that for all the things which are worth doing—such as falling in love and drinking good wine and keeping Christmas and martyrdom—no reason can be assigned. So I left him with a caution, and went westward as far as Leicester-square.
Here I delayed awhile. The shop-windows cried out in all directions.
What is this? A lady’s bag in black and gold beads; “special value, 10s 11d.” And whatever you can think of in the world of shops was displayed from Leicester-square westwards: things to wear, things to carry, things to hold tobacco, things to hold cigars, things to eat, things to drink, things to take your money in, all sorts of things to spend it on: but all arrayed with some gaiety of announcement or decoration as if the boots and bags and purses and pipes and walking-sticks were not quite these usual and common articles of every day use, as if they were somehow changed for the while.
And so indeed it was. For as I passed by these stores of goods cheap and dear, useful and useless, solid splendour and mere light trumpery, I was thinking of a certain “Carol of the Fir Tree,” that Mr. Noyes has written and Messrs, Burns and Oates have reprinted for this very Christmas season.
“I have found it. even I,” Ye that are lowly, say “Nowell” “The secret of this alchemy!” Ye that are poor a “Gloria.” “Look, your tinsel turneth to gold,” Sing Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! “Your dust to a hand, for love to hold!” In Excelsis Gloria “Hung by the hilt on your Christmastree,” Little children sing Nowell!” “Your wooden sword is a cross for me,” Emperors a “Gloria.” “I have found that fabulous stone,” Ocean-worthies, cry “Nowell!” “Which turneth all things into one,” Wise men all, a “Gloria.”
There you have the explanation for it all: the reason of the “special value” which had been imparted not only to the bag made of black and gold beads, but to the walking-sticks and Russia leather purses and sets of furs, and all the fal-lals and fandangoes and fripperies and ornaments that were on sale in the bright West End shops. That alchemical stone, the Stone of the Wise Men, had indeed turned all these things into one, so that even the vanity bags were now charity bags, since they were there that they might be gifts, tokens and symbols of love and goodwill.
And so by that stone the whole universe, which includes London and its shops, is resolved now into one. I do not know why anyone at any time should despise good meat and good drink—“Mass and meat hinder no man’s journey,” says our old proverb—but now as we draw on to the magic hour of Christmas the Manichees have less to say than ever for their ill doctrine.
“Barrelled Oysters for Christmas Present” is the proclamation that looks down the Haymarket; I can see each barrel turning into: “Very kind of Jones to think of us; shows he remembers the old days.” Here in Piccadilly is an A.B.C. shop: it is full of plum puddings, proclaiming with hearty symbolism that there are better things in life than two poached eggs on toast and a glass of milk.
Then, there is the corner shop on the south side, all glistening with dates and figs and crystallised fruits. They can tell you stories in that shop: of the people who come year after year and order the same gifts for the same people till the Christmas comes when this item or that drops out of the list; the major having done for ever with cigars, and Aunt Letitia with those curious plums.
So along Piccadilly. The bookshop is full of choice Christmas books; the sticks and umbrellas are “suitable for presents”; at the corner of Bond-street you may touch, if you will, a “16-20 h.p. Peugeot” with our magic stone, and in the furnace of the wise it will oddly change from a motor-car into the reconciliation of enemies.
I go up that rich and sumptuous Bondstreet; I pour into my athanor the perfumes and the jewels of the regions of the whole world; in those golden and coloured Venetian flagons there shines now liquor that is not to be bought of mortal vintners, but rare drink indeed that comes down from the still of the stars.
The clergy often tell us about a world redeemed, and usually forget to explain the exact meaning of the term that they use, rejoicing as they do for the most part in phrases which for them are empty and hollow conventions; studious, above all, to avoid the actualities of life.
A world redeemed! But here does old Jones go to an ordinary fishshop, situate in or at or near the Haymarket in the City of Westminster, and, saying to himself, “Christmas, is coming along,” he purchases for old Smith, on the Cotswolds, that famous barrel of oysters, and causes the same to be duly despatched to Gloucestershire.
And Smith reads his old friend’s name on the accompanying card, and his thoughts go back and his heart goes back to forty, fifty years ago, and to the old friendship and the old dreams, in the days when there was sunshine on the wall, and Jones and Smith had their hands upon the cup at the rainbow’s end. Smith chuckles and chokes, and says to himself. “He’s thinking of that night we ate five dozen between us in the Haymarket in ’67, and went to his rooms in Gray’s Inn, and made punch, and settled what the Fifth Book of Rabelais really meant. And it was snowing in the morning.
That is what I call the redemption of the world; the turning of a hundred or two of shellfish into a great talisman, an evoker of goodly and brave and kindly memories, the restorer of youth, the renewal of friendship and loving-kindness; and I have chosen a humble instance advisedly because there are now persons going about who are ashamed of possessing stomachs.
But let us, better instructed, be glad that the universe, which includes oysters, gold-headed umbrellas, bead bags, and illustrated classics, is capable of being thus transmuted and redeemed; that we have found the stone that turneth all things into one: even into the simplicity of love.