The Weekly Machen
This week, we continue our exploration of Somerset through Arthur Machen’s eyes and pen. His evocative description of the Wells Cathedral as miraculous and mystical displays the writer’s ability to pull the reader into his perception of the world, visible and invisible. At the very least, it makes the armchair traveller add the gothic masterpiece to his imaginary itinerary.
My Wandering Week:
Part II – Summer Time in Somerset
July 28, 1913
Wells Cathedral by Jack Pease
“What’s the time?” called out the driver of the station omnibus to Boots in the innyard.
“What’s the time?” answered Boots. “Why, summer time.”
I thought it a very philosophical answer, and here I would say that this good spirit flourishes in Somersetshire. I was watching two men beating a carpet in a meadow near the Bishop’s Palace at Wells. They were squatting on the ground, and their blows fell alternately on the carpet: “Thump, Thump.” was answered by “thump, thump, thump.”
Presently one of them wavered. His strokes fell languidly on the carpet and then ceased altogether. His gaze became dreamily fixed on some distant object; I think a cow. His mate delivered two or three blows at the carpet, and then his attention also was captured by other interests, and the stick dropped from his hands. Both men gazed into the blue distance, a dreamy expression in their eyes.
But concerning Wells; I think I wrote of the walks by the moat of the Bishop’s Palace. I strolled to the end of one of them, and looking across the meadow of the carpet beaters, my attention, like theirs, was suddenly rapt. The town, it is to be understood, lies in a wide and level valley; a notable champagne country, it would once have been called.
Rich green pastures are about it on every side, and the trees grow great in the good soil. But–as if one should suddenly fall on a mountain in the middle of the Low Countries–suddenly the vista of the walk showed me a wild rock, a very mountain in little, rising out of the level, half a mile or so away. On one side its lower slope was wooded, but from this greenery it rose up fierce and wild and craggy, grey rocks and peaks breaking through its thin green turf.
A GENUINE THRILL.
Here, I felt, is Bacon utterly justified by this example before me. There is no beauty, he said, without some strangeness in the proportion; and here was the strangeness of this high, savage rock, suddenly lifted up above the rich, fat meadowland. There was a thrill in the sudden sight of it, as there is a thrill in the unexpected splendour of a great phrase in literature; and when we feel that the thrill we know are in the presence of beauty.
I strolled slowly back by the moat in the shadow of the trees, and came to a still lawn, so still, so peaceful a place that the closing of a door was an event. There the constant sound was the bubbling and rushing of the wells that feed the moat; and at one corner there is a sculptured portal. It led me into the cloisters.
They go about three of the four sides of a graveyard; the fourth side is bordered by the cathedral wall. The roof of the cloisters is a fan vaulting, the unglazed windows are richly wrought in the manner of Henry the Seventh’s chapel at Westminster.
In Wells, from one place of peace one passes to another more peaceful; so from this reverend cloister I came into a more reverend close hedged with cypresses and firs and yews and trees of like solemnity, by an old, old wall, overgrown with deep ivy. And there before me rose the glorious walls and towers of the cathedral.
The cathedral of Wells is of the kindred of the wild height; it carries to a final and exquisite perfection the obscure hint given by nature. We may suppose–and we shall not be far from the literal truth–that this holy and magical house was once merely a rough rock, a mass of heavy stones; formless, unshapen.
Then the Gothic Word was uttered over that grim height, and by a veritable magic the formless received form, the hard rock burst into leaf and blossom of deeply carven capitals, and rose as pillars to sustain the far-lifted vault, were set in fair order to make strong wall-spaces, became flame-like and flower-like for the window traceries. Foolish people have said that the piers and arches of a Gothic church were suggested by the growth of forest trees, by their trunks and meeting branches. No good result could come of such a method; Wells Cathedral is, as I have said, akin to nature; but in it nature is exalted, transmuted, transfigured; not baldly and “realistically” imitated and mimcked. And something like this may be said of all great works of art; and so it is that the ill-instructed are always complaining that the never saw a sunset like Turner’s sunsets, and that the character of Mr. Micawber is “grossly exaggerated.”
I think there is one great reason why mediæval work is so beautiful; and that is that the makers did it all for “fun”–that is because they liked doing it. There is a clock in Wells Cathedral, done by a monk of Glastonbury, that is not only a clock, but also a tournament of riding knights when the hours strike. And the walls and parapets are alive with strange monsters and grotesques, “apes and owls and antics” of fantastic invention. These things are the work of men who did everything with hot relish, with exuberant delight.
Wells Clock by DeFacto
I saw the walls again at the time of the afterglow. Their creams and greys and ambers were all flushed, and were as rose-coloured samite; the figures of the Apostles and Saints, the Kings and the Martyrs that stand in their stories in the marvellous west front shone in clear glory. And then the dusk fell, and the great church became a vague height beneath the dim appearance of the evening stars.
Previous: My Wandering Week. Part I
Next: My Wandering Week, Part IV
3 thoughts on “My Wandering Week, Part II”
And here it is, a thoughtful and evocative piece of prose by Machen, another that I have never read before, and yet I have been reading him for over 50 years. Thank you.
Incidentally, one of the noted practitioners of the M. R. James type of story was R. H. Malden — who wrote The Story of Wells Cathedral, a little book in green cloth published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, with several nice photographs — I think they are what used to be called rotogravures. I have the 3rd edition, 1947.
I bought it after reading C. S. Lewis’s remark, in an essay on Malory, that this cathedral is “partly a work of nature, partly a work of art.” It’s interesting to read Machen’s take on the same or a related theme.
Thank you. I really appreciate your comment!
How do feel about Malden generally and that story in particular?
The stories were published in Malden’s Nine Ghosts (1943), which I don’t own. It’s a long time since I had a library copy in hand. It was in the 1980s and 1990s that I delved into the M. R. James tradition the most. My impression after all these years is that I thought Munby’s collection, The Alabaster Hand, was better. I’m not sure I ever read all of the Malden ones. “Stivinghoe Bank” from it seems like it might’ve been a good one.