The Weekly Machen

One of the least appreciated themes in Arthur Machen’s fiction is a concern for the relationship between man and creation. This focus represents an iteration of the ancient idea of man as a microcosmos. The way in which we interact with creatures – seen and unseen – is dependent upon the acceptance or rejection of this reality. The following article addresses this complexity in the guise of straight-forward reporting, yet the assignment is replete with words like ecstasy and transfiguration. Here, the harmony between man and beast boldly contrasts with the ontological struggle found in Machen’s wartime novel The Terror (1917).

The Bugle and the Birds:
A Spring Duet in January
Arthur Machen
January 26, 1915

Chink, chink, chink”; the timid and delicate notes sounded at intervals in the heart of the dun, wintry wood, where the earth was brown with the fallen beech leaves.

Silence again; for the wind was still and there was no rustling of the leafless boughs, and then anew, “chink, chink, chink,” in its hesitating tone, as if the birds were crying softly to one another, “Is it time, is it time? Is the spring at hand?”

The answer came at the wood’s verge, where it falls down towards the valley. Here, at the edge of a field of stubble, hidden amidst the boughs, a lonely bird, full-throated, sang in a great ecstasy of the wonders that are soon to be accomplished, of the passing of cold and darkness, of the springing of the green leaf, of blossoms that now lie, predestined, as seeds in the earth, but are soon to rise and appear in glory; of the brown of the winter wood to be transmuted into silvery buds and then into a cloud of tender green. The bird sang alone, trilling his exultant modulations, singing of the new life of the new year.

He was the solitary witness to the spring upon the height; below in the valley a chorus answered him and confirmed his proclamation. Below is the old red-roofed town; one lone street that follows the course of a clear stream and here all the way was musical with happy songs. The houses on one side of the street have gardens that go down to the brook, and here the chorus of the coming spring thrilled and resounded.

It had been a grey, grim day when I left London an hour before, but here the clouds were drifting away over the hills, and radiant blue sky appeared, and the sun shone warm in the sheltered valley.

And not only in the song o’ the birds is the coming of spring apparent. The delicate green catkins are drooping from the hazel boughs, in the sheltered nooks and crannies of the hedge all manner of fresh herbage is rising from the covert of dead leaves, and in the hedgerow, also, green spires of grass are shooting upward. Wherever there is a protection from frost and bitter winds the buds are swelling on the bough, and the elder is already bursting into tiny leaves in blossom to be found in the stubble below the wood. I saw a little plant which I know, not from the botany books, but because its frilled leaves often form the border of illuminated manuscripts, and this was bursting into yellow flowers, beside it another humble growth was opening a bloom of the palest, most delicate blue. At a pace’s distance there was a daisy, yellow and white and crimson. So delicately, step by step, the spring approaches; even the mosses on the old garden walls are breaking into a fine golden bloom.

In these days the words mystic, mysticism, are made, generally enough, the cover on the one hand of such frantic impostures and follies, on the other of such frigid and repulsive pedantries, that one hesitates to employ them. Yet one must not abandon one’s treasures to the enemy if by any possibility they may be saved, so one may be allowed to speak of that mystical doctrine of St. Augustine’s, in which he declares that we men are God’s beasts. And, taking this maxim as a guide, it seems to me that we can moralise these spring melodies of the birds to some purpose. They teach us, as it appears to me, that in all we do we must make music, which, perhaps, is only another way of saying that we should do all to the glory of God. For, literally and coldly considered, these antiphons that thrill from bough to bough are but an affair of nesting and eggs and more young birds. And if we could conceive that there could be a Shaw amongst the feathered people, no doubt he would croak out sentences as to the squalid imposture of family life and the gross absurdity and folly of singing over such a sorry business.

Yet, be it remembered, though these chanting choirs actually sing of nests and eggs, their chanting has enchanted all the generations of men who have had ears to hear. Keats heard the nightingale; and he heard, we may safely say, the gospel of a whole new world of beauty and wonder and splendour. That music sang to him of the perilous seas and the faery realms forlorn; and thereby a new grace and a new vision were given to the whole race of men. The old Welsh poet heard the song of the birds in the spring, and he saw a faery mass celebrated in the greenwood.

The birds, then, make their lives into music; let us, as far as we may, follow their example. I had forgotten to say that in the quiet valley there were bugle notes as well as birds’ notes: even this peaceful place cannot escape the sound of war.

Well, if we like, we can expatiate on the horrors of war, dwell heavily on the ugliness of it all, on the dismal squalors and nastiness that are, no doubt, inseparable from all wars.

We can do this if we like; but it is better to make music out of battle, to dwell rather on the splendour of the fight and the glory of heroic hearts, on the victory of those who have risked their lives and given their lives for their friends. A great man, not long dead, spoke of three splendid and beautiful things that must be appreciated by faith said, the kiss of the beloved lips, the colour and the perfume of a rose, and the sudden appearance of the enemy in the battle array against one. Battle and love and blossom: he classed them all together, each to him yielded its chord of glorious music; from the things temporal he drew everlasting melodies.

The blackbird on the bough is, from one point of view, engaged on entirely commonplace business; we also are engaged, most of us, in utterly commonplace business. Let us, then, be as the blackbird, and make music of it.

The Weekly

Previous: A Question of Dinner

Next: The Joy of Life

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

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