The Weekly Machen

The following article presents us with an odd potpourri of literary marginalia as both Mary L Penered (1858-1940) and Douglas Goldring (188-1960) are minor writers who have not survived in the public consciousness. In the case of the latter, we may be reminded of Machen’s empathy towards lesser poets, with his summation of Goldring’s verse being perhaps more poetic than the excerpted examples. In any case, this piece allows us an opportunity, one of many, to find Machen remarking upon his favorite author, and one who is not forgotten – Charles Dickens. The following article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone & Sweester.

The Book of Common Joys
With a Note on the Original “Silas Wegg”
Arthur Machen
April 8, 1916

Boffin, the Golden Dustman, as all know, hired Silas Wegg, a literary man with a wooden leg, to read Roman history to him and Mrs. Boffin. The work selected was “Decline and Fall of the Rooshan Empire,” as Mr. Boffin said. It was in reality Gibbon’s immortal masterpiece, and so Mr. Boffin became involved in the decadence of imperial Rome, and “Commodus, under the appellation Commodious, unworthy of his English origin and ‘not to have acted up to his name’ in his government of the Roman people.”

And if that wasn’t enough,” reflected Mr. Boffin, “Vittle-us (and well-named too) eats six millions’ worth, English money in seven months … And even now that Commodious is strangled, I don’t see a way to our bettering ourselves.”

And so forth; and who has not dismissed Wegg and his readings as one of Dickens’s amusing and unfounded extravagances? But there was a real Wegg, and his name was Tam Fleck and he lived in Peebles about a hundred years ago.

Weel, Tam, what’s the news the nicht?” would old Geordie Murray say as Tam entered with his “Josephus” under his arm, and seated himself at the family fireside.

Tam and Titus

md30980437043Bad news, bad news,” replied Tam. “Titus has begun to besiege Jerusalem. It’s gaun to be a terrible business.”

The protracted and severe famine which was endured by the besieged Jews was a theme which kept several families in a state of agony for a week; and when Tam, in his reading, came to the final conflict and destruction of the city by the Roman general there was a perfect paroxysm of horror.

Tam, it is clear, was Wegg, a sort of “shot” at Wegg on the part of nature; the creation to be done more perfectly by Dickens afterwards.

I have been quoting from the very agreeable “Book of Common Joys,” by Mary L. Pendered (Dent); the account of Tam and his readings being by the author from the “Memoir of Robert Chambers.”

Mrs. Pendered’s book, is, as I have said, agreeable. It discourses on many simple things in a pleasant way; it speaks of “The Delight in Reading,” “The Delight of Kindnesses,” “The Joys of Country Life,” “The Delights of Town Life,” and so forth. All is very pleasant and amiable and worthy; and if there is no very original point of view, if there is nothing of real illumination in the book, let it be remembered that there is sometimes a Delight in Small Beer, a refreshing beverage which we moderns know as “Pilsener” or “Light Lager.”

Poems of Town and Country

On the Road, a Book of Travel Songs” and “In the Town, a Book of London Verses,” are both by Douglas Goldring, are published by Selwyn and Blount, and show a very distinct and fine quality. Thus the poem called “Roads” has undoubtedly in it the heart of poetry; and, that is as much as to say, the heart of life itself.

Long roads that stretch out hard and white,
     Long roads that climb into the sky,
They haunt me in this London night:
     I knew them well in days gone by-

Knew them and loved them! Bright they shone –
     They led to that enchanting land,
where all the throneless gods live on
     And where men go, who understand;

Where hills too lovely to be true
     Rise dazzling, in diviner air,
And under heavens for ever blue
     Love grows to friendship fine and rare!

Far from a bitter world of toil
     They led, those roads of long ago;
They climbed the skies to fairy soil,
     They glittered like a line of snow.


Love Finer Than Friendship

There is one false note in the poem. Love is a finer thing than friendship; or, one might say, friendship is a paler, dimmer love; and those hills that are “too lovely to be true” are surely in the region of transcendence, of all things exalted to the uttermost. In the gardens of that land all the roses are aflame.

Good also, in a different manner, is “In France,” also in “On the Road.”

A clean town, a white town,
     A town for you and me-
With a little café in the square,
     And Schooners at the quay;
And the terrasse of a small hotel
     That looks upon the sea!

There gay sounds and sweet sounds
     And sounds of peace come through-
The cook sings in the kitchen,
     The idle ring-doves coo:
And Julien brings the Pernods
     That are bad for me and you!

Excellent; but again: a flaw. The Pernods are not bad for me and you; they are very good for me and you if we don’t drink too many of them.

I prefer on the whole the “Travel Songs” to the “London Verses”; but in this volume there is a curious success of atmosphere. I would almost say that Mr. Goldring transmutes London into a dusky wood, murmurous and amorous with lovers’ voices. The sun has gone down red, and there is one clear silver star in the sky.

The Weekly

Previous: The East in the West


Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “The Book of Common Joys

  1. Josephus was once a household book in pious homes that could afford books, I gather; at least, it would be interesting to compile a list of authors who refer to Josephus as a familiar item of mental furniture and not, evidently, from school days but from home or rectory. He wrote The Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War, the latter about the destruction of Jerusalem, as Christ foretold, in AD 70.

    There is good reason to believe that the young Machen may have read some, at least, of the latter book in his father’s parsonage. Many years ago I argued in Avallaunius that the cry in the first chapter of The Great God Pan — “Let us go hence” — in Clarke’s dream is an allusion to the “Let us remove hence” (Whiston’s familiar translation) in Josephus. Josephus was writing about the violation of the Temple, while Machen was writing about the violation of the young girl’s essence in a scientific experiment. Josephus may have been recording the departure forever of the divine Presence, which was followed by the termination forever of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament — from now on, only the sacrifice of Christ, once for all, avails with God. In Machen’s story, it seems the good essence of the virgin girl has fled, and its place was taken by an unholy thing. If this explanation of the “Let us go hence” seems farfetched, let it be remembered that Josephus was by no means an obscure author known only to scholars, when Machen was a youngster. Authors such as John Buchan attest to the familiarity of Josephus. If he is now little-known, that is a sign of the de-Christianization of family culture in our own time. Even so, a company catering to homeschooling families reprinted Our Young Folks’ Josephus in paperback a while ago.

    Dale Nelson


  2. Machen’s enthusiasm, in Hieroglyphics, for Dickens, helped to dispose me favorably towards the more famous author, back when I was in my late teens.

    People who haven’t read Dickens shouldn’t give him a try hoping to find a proto-Machen in him IF the Machen they seek is specifically the author of “The Great God Pan” and “The White People.” But -that- Machen is only an aspect of the real Machen. There certainly is a “Dickensian” Machen, and I like him a lot. I won’t turn this reply into a long essay, but let me just suggest to the curious that they read Dickens’s essay “Night Walks.” There they will find a (if you will) “proto-Machen,” if one thinks of the Machen who wrote of wanderings in London — see the section on London in the 1988 Duckworth Collected Arthur Machen book, for example (edited by Christopher Palmer). It draws upon Things Near and Far, some Evening News material, The London Adventure, Dreads and Drolls, Dog and Duck, etc.

    But read Machen on Dickens in Hieroglyphics and the introduction to A Handy Dickens, etc. Dickens is well worth reading for his own sake.

    I suggest that the new inquirer into Dickens NOT begin with the shorter Dickens novels, attractive as that might seem to be and good as they may be; I do not advocate beginning with Hard Times, Oliver Twist, or A Tale of Two Cities, or even with A Christmas Carol.

    Start, rather, with Bleak House, or Great Expectations, or David Copperfield, or Our Mutual Friend. If you like audio books there may be some good unabridged readings available. But heed the advice of the professor from whom I took a Dickens course many years ago — settle down and read a generous amount at a time. Dickens’s novels are not, ideally, to be read in snatches. Read goodish amounts and read every day if you can. Curb the lust of checking email and so on while you do so. Indulge in Dickens.

    Dale Nelson


    1. Our Mutual Friend (which I have not yet read!) is, I see, the source of Silas Wegg and the Boffins. I wonder how well Sellar and Yeatman knew it? I’m just rereading 1066 and All That, and what Machen quotes from Our Mutual Friend would fit right in!

      I will venture to say, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club might also be a good place to start, if one is – or can settle down to trying to be – a steady nibbler: it was apparently published over a course of 20 months, and is episodic enough (to my memory) for a gradual (if steady) reading.


      1. Pickwick might be the one Machen himself would recommend as a first Dickens, as it seems to have been his favorite of the novels, but I personally didn’t find it as compelling as the ones I mentioned, for what that’s worth. But Pickwick Papers is one of Machen’s touchstone works for ecstasy in Hieroglyphics.


  3. What was to Machen “one of the choicest of books”?

    He used that phrase in connection with Peter Cunningham’s A Hand-Book of London Past and Present (published by Murray, 1850 — i.e. the period when -Dickens- was flourishing).

    By the way, Christopher Palmer, in his Collected Arthur Machen, recommends Seven Essays (1947) by George Sampson, whom he sees as a kindred spirit of Machen. I got this book and would add my recommendation to Palmer’s, though one might get it from a library and peruse it before plumping down the money for a copy of one’s own. Read “Truth and Beauty” and “A Boy and His Books,” maybe also “Bach and Shakespeare.”

    Palmer also recommends the book English for the English (published exactly 100 years ago). “The lesson in English is not merely one occasion for the inculcation of knowledge; it is part of the child’s initiation into the life of man” (p. 25). Sampson’s book may encourage parents of young children to take up homeschooling, since the mind of his book is so strikingly alien to the norm of today’s American public schools.

    It is scanned here:

    Dale Nelson


  4. Thank you for this – and giving us a chance to try the volumes of Goldring’s songs and verses for ourselves by linking them! Browsing further in the Internet Archive, I see he was prolific, and I’d like to try his books on Ford Madox Ford. His Reputations: Essays in Criticism (1920) is inviting, too – I’d like to see what he says about ‘The War and the Poets’, not least thanks to having read Machen’s related article here, not so long ago. Trying my luck at WorldCat, I find that Mary L. Pendered was prolific, too – and wish I could easily try To Luniland with a Moon Goblin : A Fairy Tale (1897). Happily, they do link a scan of Book of Common Joys, letting us have a further look there:


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