The Weekly Machen

Never afraid to give his opinion on a controversy, Arthur Machen stands on the side of Peter Pan’s rightful place in the famous Kensington Gardens. Below, Machen bypasses what he sees as a superficial argument, and calls to mind the meaning behind the symbol. All of art is meant to orient man and to awaken his eyes to the greatest things.

Peter Pan:
Should He Have a Place in Kensington Gardens?
Arthur Machen
May 3, 1911

Photo by Peter Clarke

A day or two ago in the almost deserted halls of the Academy I noticed a piece of sculpture that struck me as innocent and delightful.

On the summit of a rough pyramid of a rock a little figure stood joyous and alert playing on his pastoral pipe; and in all the hollow places and refuges of this stone pedestal the gentle creatures of the wood and of the wild field lay snug and sheltered and enchanted; listening to the magic melody.

There were mild rabbits and tiny cowering mice and soft-plumed doves; and they all delayed secure, safe beneath the shelter of song.

I looked at all this imagery, not as one knowing in the sculptor’s art, for so high a pretence, if I made it, would be but to my own confusion, being certain of quick detection and exposure; but rather as noting that here was a pretty modern harmony based on a tune ancient and eternal:

     Over wide streams and mountains great we went
     And, save where Bacchus kept his ivy tent,
     Onward the tiger and the leopard pants,
     With Asian elephants:
     With zebras striped, and sleek Arabians prance,
     Web-footed alligators, crocodiles.

And again:

     Everything that heard him play,
     E’en the billows of the sea,
     Hung their heads and then lay by.

In the old days, in the antique legends, Bacchus the Wine God, both terrible and ecstatic, compelled by his power all the wild and fierce creatures of the earth to follow him in still obedience: Orpheus, too, made such music that not only the beasts, but dead, inanimate nature, stocks and stones, obeyed the calling of his lyre.

These were great and wonderful stories, vitally and essentially true beneath their veil of fairy-tale and legend; but these were for the wild mountains and the dark ilex groves of ancient Greece, for a people that, looking on the world with the eyes of children, saw its secret and hidden wonders shine out before them.

Why Not in Modern London?

We are living not in old Greece but in modern London, our eyes, alas, are old and dim and weary. Not for us the great and noble mythologies and mysteries of the antique world; but why should we not put the imagery of Peter Pan in a London park?

Kensington Gardens are not Cithæron or Helicon or Olympus or any fabled mountain of the gods and the nymphs; but they are very pleasant. The Basin is not Hippocrene; but it is a comely pool.

Why, then, should not this figure, taken from a popular fairy play, preach prettily and gracefully to the haunters of the gardens some broken hint of the olden doctrine?

Mr. Robert Ross says “no.” Writing in the Morning Post he says, truly enough, that Mr. Barrie’s play has not yet taken its place with the immortals; that Swift and Defoe have done greater work; that while these are left without material commemoration it is not right that Mr. Barrie should receive marble honours.

The Symbol of Music

Quite so; but suppose we regard the “Peter Pan’’ as commemorating not Mr. Barrie or his book or his play—but that old idea of which I have spoken; that idea of Music, which is form, which is inspiration, which is mind, controlling and subduing all nature to its ends. I venture to say that if Mr. Ross will think of the “Peter Pan” from this standpoint he will bless where he now bans; he will see in the figures of the little piping boy and the shy wood creatures our modern testimony—the best, perhaps, that we can utter—to an age-old truth.

For, if one thinks it out, these stories of Bacchus and Orpheus and their world-compelling music are of the most vital and practical truth.

People may say that it cannot be true that anyone could make stones move by playing to them. Well, on the face of it, it does sound a bit unlikely; but even literally there is a great deal to be said for the tale.

The Spirit, Not the Letter

Is there not the legend of the singer who shattered the gas globe to splinters and fragments by the power of his voice? It must be remembered that music, like all sound, is composed of vibrations; a song is a series of shocks in the air, and where there are shocks it is not unlikely that something will be shaken and so moved from its place.

And then there is the experiment, which is now an old one, by which grains of sand on a kind of parchment drum are seen to fall into a rhythmic and ordered dance when harmonies are sounded and to rush about in disordered confusion at the summons of a discord. Let Orpheus take heart; he is not hopelessly unscientific.

But all this is of the letter: it is the spirit that signifies. Look, then, at a great Gothic cathedral, that perfect and miraculous work of beauty, and consider what it once was and whence it came. It was once rough, unhewn, unshapen rock, buried in the ground, without form and void of beauty. And to the brute rock came music, in the high sense of the word, and uttered its incantation to the unseemly stones and bade them arise and be formed into fair enduring walls, and the fretted tracery of windows, and the carven work about the capitals, and the aspiring wonder of those peaks and pinnacles that direct the eye, by a symbol, to an infinite mystery.

Suffer Peter Gladly”

Photo by Colin McLaughlin

And, indeed, taking music in its ordinary and common signification what is the most beautiful symphony made of but noise? Only noise has been given such measure and significance that it can express things which shake the heart and make the intellect bow down in adoration.

Hence let us gladly suffer “Peter Pan” in Kensington Gardens as a marble reminder of heavenly melodies and their power.

But let it be understood that we are to have no gravel deserts, no sandy or stony wildernesses or roads or drives made around it about it.

Simple on green turf, amid green boughs, let Peter pipe to his little beasts; so his melody will accord well with the lawns and leaves and play of sunlight and shadow.

{Editor’s Note: As the photos attest, Machen’s wish came true.} 

The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Peter Pan

  1. I wonder if Machen would like the idea that Peter is playing Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” —

    — on his pipe!

    In any event, another piece worthy of retrieval from oblivion.

    I wonder if Machen was acquainted with Barrie’s eerie play Mary Rose.


  2. With respect to the Gothic, I happen to have just been reading various short reflections by Frederick van der Meer about the interrelations of various sorts and examples of Gothic architecture and liturgical texts, texts that would be sung, and often be about singing to the Lord! About song and building giving a sense of the New Jerusalem…

    The shepherdly, and shepherdly music, as well as songs about the Lamb, are part of that, too (I’m also practicing Handel’s Messiah with my oratorio choir: ‘Worthy is the Lamb’!).


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