During his long writing career, Arthur Machen furnished a score of forewords and prefaces to the published works of other authors on wide variety of subjects. Among this eclectic body of contributions one may find: The Pageant of the English Landscape by George A.B. Dewar, The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin, Afterglow: Pastels of Greek Egypt 69 B.C. by Mitchell S. Buck and Civilization and Art of China by F. T. Cheng. As with Machen’s newspaper articles and book reviews, the reader is promised an articulate and confident guide whatever the subject or circumstance of these introductions. Wielding the style of a craftsman, we meet with an old friend on each happy occasion. Below, we present an excellent example of such work.
While Machen had been acquainted with the tragic Richard Middleton, it would not be accurate to consider the two men as friends. (More on this situation can be found in the Spring 2016 issue of The Faunus.) Regardless, Machen approached Middleton’s collection of stories, published posthumously, with care and enthusiasm. In his pleasant way, the elder author extols the virtues of Middleton’s prose, pointing out those qualities which orient toward wonder and ecstasy.
The title story can be read here.
Audio from Librivox
The Ghost Ship (1912)
by Richard Middleton
Preface by Arthur Machen
The other day I said to a friend, “I have just been reading in proof a volume of short stories by an author named Richard Middleton. He is dead. It is an extraordinary book, and all the work in it is full of a quite curious and distinctive quality. In my opinion it is very fine work indeed.”
It would be so simple if the business of the introducer or preface-writer were limited to such a straightforward, honest, and direct expression of opinion; unfortunately that is not so. For most of us, the happier ones of the world, it is enough to say “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” and there is an end: the critic has to answer the everlasting “Why?” And so, I suppose, it is my office, in this present instance, to say why I like the collection of tales that follows.
I think that I have found a hint as to the right answer in two of these stories. One is called “The Story of a Book,” the other “The Biography of a Superman.” Each is rather an essay than a tale, though the form of each is narrative. The first relates the sad bewilderment of a successful novelist who feels that, after all, his great work was something less than nothing. 1
He could not help noticing that London had discovered the secret which made his intellectual life a torment. The streets were more than a mere assemblage of houses, London herself was more than a tangled skein of streets, and overhead heaven was more than a meeting-place of individual stars. What was this secret that made words into a book, houses into cities, and restless and measurable stars into an unchanging and immeasurable universe?
Then from “The Biography of a Superman’ I select this very striking passage:—
Possessed of an intellect of great analytic and destructive force, he was almost entirely lacking in imagination, and he was therefore unable to raise his work to a plane in which the mutually combative elements of his nature might have been reconciled. His light moments of envy, anger, and vanity passed into the crucible to come forth unchanged. He lacked the magic wand, and his work never took wings above his conception.
Now compare the two places; “the streets were more than a mere assemblage of houses;” . . . “his light moments . . . passed into the crucible to come forth unchanged. He lacked the magic wand.” I think these two passages indicate the answer to the “why” that I am forced to resolve; show something of the secret of the strange charm which The Ghost-Ship possesses.
It delights because it is significant, because it is no mere assemblage of words and facts and observations and incidents, it delights because its matter has not passed through the crucible unchanged. On the contrary, the jumble of experiences and impressions which fell to the lot of the author as to us all had assuredly been placed in the athanor of art, in that furnace of the sages which is said to be governed with wisdom. Lead entered the burning of the fire, gold came forth from it.
This analogy of the process of alchemy which Richard Middleton has himself suggested is one of the finest and the fittest for our purpose; but there are many others.2 The “magic wand” analogy comes to much the same thing; there is the like notion of something ugly and insignificant changed to something beautiful and significant. Something ugly; shall we not say rather something formless transmuted into form! After all, the Latin Dictionary declares solemnly that “beauty” is one of the meanings of “forma” And here we are away from alchemy and the magic wand ideas, and pass to the thought of the first place that I have quoted: “the streets were more than a mere assemblage of houses,” The puzzle is solved; the jig-saw—I think they call it—has been successfully fitted together. There in a box lay all the jagged, irregular pieces, each in itself crazy and meaningless and irritating by its very lack of meaning: now we see each part adapted to the other and the whole is one picture and one purpose. 3
But the first thing necessary to this achievement is the recognition of the fact that there is a puzzle. There are many people who go through life persuaded that there isn’t a puzzle at all; that it was only the infancy and rude childhood of the world which dreamed a vain dream of a picture to be made out of the jagged bits of wood, There never has been a picture, these persons say, and there never will be a picture, all we have to do is to take the bits out of the box, look at them, and put them back again. Or, returning to Richard Middleton’s excellent example: there is no such thing as London, there are only houses. No man has seen London at any time; the very word (meaning “the fort on the lake”) is nonsensical; no human eye has ever beheld aught else but a number of houses; it is clear that this “London” is as mythical and monstrous and irrational a concept as many others of the same class. Well, people who talk like that are doubtless sent into the world for some useful but mysterious process; but they can’t write real books. Richard Middleton knew that there was a puzzle; in other words, that the universe is a great mystery; and this consciousness of his is the source of the charm of The Ghost Ship.
I have compared this orthodox view of life and the universe and the fine art that results from this view to the solving of a puzzle; but the analogy is not an absolutely perfect one. For if you buy a jig-saw in a box in the Haymarket, you take it home with you and begin to put the pieces together, and sooner or later the toil is over and the difficulties are overcome: the picture is clear before you. Yes, the toil is over, but so is the fun; it is but poor sport to do the trick all over again. And here is the vast inferiority of the things they sell in the shops to the universe: our great puzzle is never perfectly solved. We come across marvellous hints, we join line to line and our hearts beat with the rapture of a great surmise; we follow a certain track and know by sure signs and signals that we are not mistaken, that we are on the right road; we are furnished with certain charts which tell us “here there be water-pools,” “here is a waste place,” “here a high hill riseth,” and we find as we journey that so it is. But, happily, by the very nature of the case, we can never put the whole of the picture together, we can never recover the perfect utterance of the Lost Word, we can never say “here is the end of all the journey.” Man is so made that all his true delight arises from the contemplation of mystery, and save by his own frantic and invincible folly, mystery is never taken from him; it rises within his soul, a well of joy unending.
Hence it is that the consciousness of this mystery, resolved into the form of art, expresses itself usually (or always) by symbols, by the part put for the whole. Now and then, as in the case of Dante, as it was with the great romance-cycle of the Holy Graal, we have a sense of completeness. With the vision of the Angelic Rose and the sentence concerning that Love which moves the sun and the other stars there is the shadow of a catholic survey of all things; and so in a less degree it is as we read of the translation of Galahad. Still, the Rose and the Graal are but symbols of the eternal verities, not those verities themselves in their essences; and in these later days when we have become clever—with the cleverness of the Performing Pig—it is a great thing to find the most obscure and broken indications of the things which really are. There is the true enchantment of true romance in the Don Quixote—for those who can understand—but it is delivered in the mode of parody and burlesque; and so it is with the extraordinary fantasy, “The Ghost-Ship,” which gives its name to this collection of tales. Take this story to bits, as it were; analyse it; you will be astonished at its frantic absurdity: the ghostly galleon blown in by a great tempest to a turnip-patch in Fairfield, a little village lying near the Portsmouth Road about half-way between London and the sea; the farmer grumbling at the loss of so many turnips; the captain of the weird vessel acknowledging the justice of the claim and tossing a great gold brooch to the landlord by way of satisfying the debt; the deplorable fact that all the decent village ghosts learned to riot with Captain Bartholomew Roberts; the visit of the parson and his godly admonitions to the Captain on the evil work he was doing; mere craziness, you will say?
Yes; but the strange thing is that as, in spite of all jocose tricks and low-comedy misadventures, Don Quixote departs from us with a great light shining upon him; so this ghost-ship of Richard Middleton’s, somehow or other, sails and anchors and re-sails in an unearthly glow; and Captain Bartholomew’s rum that was like hot oil and honey and fire in the veins of the mortals who drank of it, has become for me one of the nobilium poculorum of story.4 And thus did the ship put forth from the village and sail away in a great tempest of wind—to what unimaginable seas of the spirit!
The wind that had been howling outside like an outrageous dog had all of a sudden turned as melodious as the carol-boys of a Christmas Eve.
We went to the door, and the wind burst it open so that the handle was driven clean into the plaster of the wall. But we didn’t think much of that at the time; for over our heads, sailing very comfortably through the windy stars, was the ship that had passed the summer in landlord’s field. Her portholes and her bay-window were blazing with lights, and there was a noise of singing and fiddling on her decks. “He’s gone,” shouted landlord above the storm, “and he’s taken half the village with him!” I could only nod in answer, not having lungs like bellows of leather.
I declare I would not exchange this short, crazy, enchanting fantasy for a whole wilderness of seemly novels, proclaiming in decorous accents the undoubted truth that there are milestones on the Portsmouth Road.
1 On this point, Machen could certainly sympathize. In his first volume of memoirs, Far Off Things (1922), he wrote: “But that gulf between the idea as it glows warm and radiant in the author’s heart, and its cold and faulty realisation in words is an early nightmare, and a late one, too. For the beginner, if he suffer from many terrible disappointments, has also the consolations of hope, fallacious though these may prove to be. This scheme that looked so well has certainly come to the saddest grief, but there may be better luck next time; if this road have led to nothing but a blank wall of failure, that way may rise from the valley and climb the hill and lead into a fair land. It is later in the life of the literary man, when he has tried all roads and made all the experiments, that his final sorrow comes upon him. He may not be forced to say, perhaps, that he has been a total failure; he may, indeed, be able to chronicle achievements of a minor kind, successes in the estimation of others. But now, with riper understanding, he perceives, as he did not perceive in the days of his youth, the depth of the gulf between the idea and the word, between the emotion that thrilled him to his very heart and soul, and the sorry page of print into which that emotion stands translated. He dreamed in fire; he has worked in clay.”
2 Here, Machen assigns to Middleton the gift of alchemy, indeed high praise from the Welshman. This theme is a common one in Machen’s works and he treats not only as a hieroglyph necessary in the function of art but as a method of theological reflection. For more on this topic, see Alchemy & Transfiguration.
3 Even in the most seemingly banal objects such as a jigsaw puzzle, Machen senses wonder. In a November 8, 1915 article for the Evening News entitled “How Should We Spend Christmas,” Machen writes: “And then; how about games and puzzles for the winter evenings? We are going to spend a good many of the winter evenings by the fire this Christmastide. I wish the people who think of these things would send me any original games or puzzles they may have invented. I want something a little difficult, for there is no fun without difficulty; something mysterious like the jigsaw puzzle-or the Universe.”
4 nobilium poculorum… Latin for “noble cup.”