“For literature, as I see it, is the art of describing the indescribable; the art of exhibiting symbols which may hint at the ineffable mysteries behind them; the art of the veil, which reveals what it conceals.”
– Beneath the Barley
Throughout his career, Machen displayed a remarkable ability to craft essays about objects and subjects most of us take for granted, but presented with a brilliant and refreshing take. Thematically, as the above quote illustrates, he crafted such studies with a keen eye constantly trained upon the inherent glory in the most commonest of things. Therefore, each seemingly stray bit of writing, whether it is be a short tale, a forgotten article or an excerpt from his massive corpus of letters, serves as a glittering fragment to a great and mystical mosaic.
A subject such as the changing of seasons, so vulnerable to prosaic treatment in the hands of a lesser artist, can provide us an excellent example. From his youth in the magical and picturesque landscape of his native Gwent, Machen developed a deep attachment to time and place which would figure so prominently in his mature works such as The Hill of Dreams (1907) and The Secret Glory (1922). For Machen, geography, time and spirit are intimately intertwined and there are delicately phrased and constructed passages throughout his writing to show the execution of this concept.
Early on in his career, Machen experimented along these lines in such gentle meditations as Candletime and Cidermas, short essays published in periodicals of 1889. Both deal with the passage of time and the importance of marking yearly events. Below, we offer another example published in the same year, yet sadly, never anthologized as the other two works.
The Globe and Traveller – October 10, 1889
“Good October, a good blast To blow the hog acorn and mast”
says the old rhyme. A practical view, certainly, but yet containing within itself, like much that seems practical and commonplace, the germs of poetry and sweet fancy. Though the old saw rings the horn of the swineherd of Cedric the Saxon, and that still more immortal blast blown by the swineherd in “Don Quixote,” which brought the final touch of transformation to the roadside inn, and made it a (possibly enchanted) castle. The “good blast” by turns roars and sighs through great forests of oak and beech stretching far away over hill and dale—forests of mighty trees that might have heard the winding of Arthur’s horn, and have sheltered his knights on their quest of the Grail; forest whose depths hermits might have dwelt, in whose glades the last vestiges of the ruined realm of Faerie might well linger. And the mention of hogs leads us to the long, low kitchen of the farmhouse on the hill, to the dark panelled walls, the roaring of the wood fire on the hearth, to the place, in short, where weary hogs rest after all their wanderings, or purge away their grossness over the wide chimney. Good October!
In the deep orchards, too, on the hillside, where the sun still lingers, October has work to do. From the old trees by the hedge, all gnarled and twisted with many years, but still bearing, to the graftlings that have not seen four summers, the fruit is being plucked and stored away. From the full glare of July and August and the mellow warmth of September the apples have drunk strength and sweetness, and stored away the memories of long sunny afternoons, when the mist swam over the woods. In the long, rich grass beneath the trees many an apple lies fallen before the wind already, and now the time of the rest has come. Some are stored in the dry loft for the pies and puddings of the winter; but most go to the heap in the outhouse to await their conversion into good, strong, unwatered cider—a mighty beverage and a comforting, both on winter nights and days in June. For as men sit on the settle and round the hearth on a roaring night in December, telling old tales of the storms and tempests of long past winters, it is pleasant to think that they are in a way drinking summer; that sunshine, and gentle winds, and soft scented rains are distilled into the juice; and one more meditative than the rest may fancy, as he marks the rich oily flow, that before him on the table stands July in a jar.
It is pleasant to walk along the forest lane on a fresh sunny morning midway between Michaelmas and Allhallows. The ground is still crisp with the morning frost, and on the shady side of the road the fallen leaves are still covered with crystals. The lane gives a sudden turn, and you see it before you, a sharp dip down, then level for a little way, and then up again and round another corner. Above and below is the forest—the oaks still green, the elms paling, the maple yellow, and the beeches deep rich gold, deepening to a red brown. And here and there amid these blending colours is a wild cherry tree, the richest and most glorious of all, a fiery, bloody red. Down in the sheltered lane the sun is shining with all its might, and not a leaf stirs in the hedge, save when one falls off the bough and eddies slowly to the ground. But above, far above on the hilltop, one can hear the wind from the sea rustling in the tree-tops, it seems a long, long way from us. And all along the sunny lane there lingers some faint sweet of summer-time. A man smells it first when he goes out on a fine March morning, the last on some such October morning as the one we are describing. It is the scent which Herbert had in his mind when he says:—“I once more smell the dew and rain. And in the forest lane it is still lingering on, and will linger till all the roadway is soft with fallen leaves, and the beeches are brown and the elm bare, till the snow has a night on the mountains and the north-easter sweeps the forest from end to end.” But that is after All Hallowe’en, or the Night Before Winter, as the Welsh call it, and for the present down in the lane it seems like May. October is the month when the bracken on the hillside looks its best. The great domed mountain looks like a hill of gold in the autumn sunlight; well might we fancy it a fairy hill as it rises up against the dreary distant blue. Who knows to what magic uses fern-seed gathered there might be put? It is a hill of enchantment. There must be mystic treasure hidden deep in the deepest depths of that great golden dome. Always it looks wonderful and lovely, but most of all on a sunny afternoon in “Good October.”
But the hearty month has its sad moods as well as cheerful ones. A day breaks wild with wind and rain, the trees groan and shriek before the blast, the windows clatter and the rain drives in great pillars along the valley. All day long the grey clouds sweep over the heavens, and the leaves fall fast, the cock stands sad and silent, the sign-posts make mournful music, and many a byway that has been dry all the summer now stands in pools of water. But this day also has its appropriate scene. Far up the mountain side, twelve hundred feet above the sea, stands an old parish church that has borne the brunt of five hundred winters and more. The parish is called Heullis – the Old Palace – and the very memory of any palace, old or new, has utterly passed away, and no record remains of such a thing ever existing. Maybe the last few crumbling stones of the Old Palace formed the foundation of the old church; and who can tell what spiritual or temporal prince lived in this palace, that has left a name but not a memory? Here in the churchyard the great wind from the sea has laid low every leaf, and the dark grass is covered with the spoils of the south-easter, but the old yew still stands as green as ever. The tombs are rained on pitilessly, but the grey mountain limestone is hard, and the inscriptions on them are as clear as when they were cut, eighty, a hundred, aye, two hundred years ago. Quaint epitaphs these, some in English, but many in Welsh, with Welsh rhymes written by departed bards, all commemorating worthies “of this parish,” most of whom have left descendants who yet till the mountain fields, and remember their forefathers on “Flowering Sunday.” And the rain and the wind drive on, and the mist lies thick over the valley till sunset; and then comes a break. To the west the clouds part asunder, and show a little space of blue, and the rain gives over, and the wind seems to lull, and then down over the mountain sinks the sun, and, as he goes, turns all the leaden clouds that beset him to glories of pale gold, and presently to deep gold, and to red, and at last, as it seems to blood. Perhaps one ray comes down, passing through the bare boughs of the churchyard trees, and shines through a chancel window, and gives for a moment some splendour to the whitewashed wall above the altar. Then all turns cold and grey again, the rains returns, and up there on the cold hill we know the summer is done, and that it is the Night Before Winter.
A month of dreams sad and merry, a month of great winds and gentle silences, a month of stories and legends and old rhymes, a month wherein to stroll for many an hour along deep and sunny lanes, a month wherein summer and winter meet and for a little while do dwell together; this is Good October.