The Weekly Machen
The following piece is among the shortest articles by Arthur Machen to be posted to date. Yet, it would be a mistake to pass over it, for its brevity does not signify a lack of substance. There are a few loyal readers of this column who enjoy Machen’s reading choices, and many of these books are enticing despite, or perhaps because of their obscurity.
At the end, I have added a second excerpt from the paper which fell directly below the conclusion of Machen’s article. It has nothing to do with our writer or books, but it is… well… it is quite curious.
My Book Shelf
November 27, 1913
Political and Literary Essays. By the Earl of Cromer. (Macmillan)
“A mere word,” says the Earl of Cromer in one of these Essays, “as in the case of Edgar Poe’s ‘Nevermore,’ has at times inspired a poet.” Well, in all probability, the rule is a true one , but there are doubts as to the validity of the instance. Poe, no doubt, explains the writing of “The Raven” in these terms; in a most delightful essay he shows how that ingenious but over-esteemed piece of artifice was built by a series of logical and necessary steps on the foundation of the pathetic word, “Nevermore.” But when Poe was writing an essay he did not consider himself as being under a judicial oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There is every reason to suppose that “The Raven” was born, not of the word “Nevermore,” but of some lines by Albert Pike, a forgotten versifier. “Isadore” was the title of Pike’s “poem,” and one verse ran as follows:—
Thou art lost to me for ever, Isadore;
My head shall never rest upon that loyal bosom more.
The mocking bird sits still, and sings a melancholy strain,
And my heart is like a heavy cloud that’s over-full of rain.
Thou art lost to me for ever, Isadore.
Lord Cromer’s “Disraeli” Essay is striking. Disraeli, he says, was a political adventurer, but an adventurer of great ideas. But neither Lord Cromer, nor anyone else, seems to put the great question: Why did not Disraeli undertake in the day of his power that great social campaign which he had seen to be of the first importance forty years before 1874?
The Case for Co-Education. By Cecil Grant, M. A., and Norman Hodgson, B. A. (Grant Richards)
Co-education is a novel term signifying a novel practice: the education of boys and girls under the same roof. The authors declare that the adoption of this system here will tend “to combine the vigour and manliness of the English Public School with the softer virtues and purer atmosphere which American women and girls bring to the American; to join virility to gentleness, to strengthen without spoiling the tender graces of womanhood, and to unite freedom with a spirit of discipline.” Messrs. Grant and Hodgson are, clearly, optimists.
Tales from Ariosto. By J. Shield Nicholson, LLD (Macmillan)
“For God’s sake learn Italian as fast as you can, to read Ariosto.” So Charles James Fox wrote to a friend, and Professor Nicholson heartily echoes his counsel. But in the meantime he here retells the old, wonderful tales in good, straightforward English, that his version may excite us to the study of the original in that musical Italian that we have so shamefully neglected for the last eighty years in favour of “crabbed, yet glorious Deutsch,” as a character in “Jane Eyre” calls German. And, even in their plain English dress these stories from Ariosto come to us all golden, magical, with the ring and summons of authentic incantation sounding through them. To read “Tales from Ariosto” after a good deal of modern stuff in fiction is to pass from the asphalt courtyard of the Model Dwellings to the old enchanted forests; to breathe the winds of perilous faery seas in place of the stifling city air. Who will not desire to continue a tale that begins thus:— “Now it chanced after Orlando, in his black armour, had routed the forces of the two pagan kings with great slaughter, he came at nightfall to a hill, and from a cleft in the side there streamed out a gleam of light”?
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3 thoughts on “My Book Shelf”
Admirers of the Inklings sometimes mention that Tolkien and Lewis, at least, felt the power of “the Northern thing.” This might sometimes encourage people to overlook the importance of “the Southern thing” for Lewis, at least. When the time came to write a blurb for his friend Tolkien’s fantasy, as I recall, Lewis said something like this, that Tolkien ranked with Ariosto in the fertility of his imagination and exceeded him in seriousness. Just now I wasn’t able to find the exact words. At any rate, Lewis knew the Orlando Furioso — an important book too for Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene CSL loved well.
Readers associate Machen with what might be called “the Celtic thing,” and that’s fine, but it would be a loss if they limited Machen to it. We readily remember his evocation of the Usk region of his boyhood, but forget his vacationing in the South of France.
An interesting question Lewis’s reference raises is, which English readers might have encountered Ariosto, or something from or about him, when? I wonder if my trying to find a quick answer to part of that question may help illuminate Machen referring to “the study of the original in that musical Italian that we have so shamefully neglected for the last eighty years”? The first five English verse translations of Orlando Furioso which Wikipedia notes appeared in 1591 (and in a revised version in 1634), in 1757, 1783, and 1784 – and “an eight-volume translation beginning publication in 1823 and ending in 1831”. William Stewart Rose must have studied “the original in that musical Italian” to produce his eight volumes, and it may have encouraged his readers to take the next step to doing so, too. Though we may still wonder if Machen has a wider sense of Italian so long neglected, and what further informs that sense?
Thanks for the link to a scan of a copy of Tales from Ariosto! Following it, the contemporary reader may find the title of chapter 5 leaping from the table of contents: “Angelica, the Hermit, and the Orc”. I wonder how many readers shared my experience of encountering Ariosto’s Orc before any Orc of Tolkien’s, thanks to Lin Carter’s Golden Cities, Far (1970) for Ballantine Books with its excerpt from Ariosto translated into prose by Richard Hodgens?
That note about the Wanted advertisement is curious. Was the occupant of The Cedars inspired by Dr. Grimesby Roylott in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, and bent on outdoing him, whatever the risk?
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Enticing indeed to want to know more about the authors reviewed and matters mentioned – and what more Machen may have known and thought about both. Clicking J. Shield Nicholson’s name at the scan of Tales from Ariosto led to a fascinating variety of books, including a wild-looking historical fantasy, Thoth (1889, ed. 3) (and the idea off someone trying to achieve “the destruction of the whole human race by pestilences, with the intention of replacing it”!). (Did Machen know that, too?)
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