The Holy Things
by Arthur Machen
The sky was blue above Holborn, and only one little cloud, half white, half golden, floated on the wind’s way from west to east. The long aisle of the street was splendid in the full light of the summer, and away in the west, where the houses seemed to meet and join, it was as a rich tabernacle, mysterious, the carven house of holy things.
A man came into the great highway from a quiet court. He had been sitting under plane-tree shade for an hour or more, his mind racked with perplexities and doubts, with the sense that all was without meaning or purpose, a tangle of senseless joys and empty sorrows. He had stirred in it and fought and striven, and now disappointment and success were alike tasteless. To struggle was weariness, to attain was weariness, to do nothing was weariness. He had felt, a little while before, that from the highest to the lowest things of life there was no choice, there was not one thing that was better than another: the savour of the cinders was no sweeter than the savour of the ashes. He had done work which some men liked and others disliked, and liking and disliking were equally tiresome to him. His poetry or his pictures or whatever it was that he worked at had utterly ceased to interest him, and he had tried to be idle, and found idleness as impossible as work. He had lost the faculty for making and he had lost the power of resting; he dozed in the day-time and started up and cried at night. Even that morning he had doubted and hesitated, wondering whether to stay indoors or to go out, sure that in either plan there was an infinite weariness and disgust.
When he at last went abroad he let the crowd push him into the quiet court, and at the same time cursed them in a low voice for doing so; he tried to persuade himself that he had meant to go somewhere else. When he sat down he desperately endeavoured to rouse himself, and as he knew that all the strong interests are egotistic, he made an effort to grow warm over the work he had done, to find a glow of satisfaction in the thought that he had accomplished something. It was nonsense; he had found out a clever trick and had made the most of it, and it was over. Besides, how would it interest him if afterwards he was praised when he was dead? And what was the use of trying to invent some new tricks? It was folly; and he ground his teeth as a new idea came into his mind and was rejected. To get drunk always made him so horribly ill, and other things were more foolish and tiresome than poesy or painting, whichever it was.
He could not even rest on the uncomfortable bench beneath the dank, stinking plane tree. A young man and a girl came up and sat next to him, and the girl said, ‘Oh, isn’t it beautiful today?’ and then they began to jabber to one another — the blasted fools! He flung himself from the seat and went out into Holborn.
As far as one could see, there were two processions of omnibuses, cabs, and vans that went east and west and west and east. Now the long line would move on briskly, now it stopped. The horses’ feet rattled and pattered on the asphalt, the wheels ground and jarred, a bicyclist wavered in and out between the serried ranks, jangling his bell. The foot passengers went to and fro on the pavement, with an endless change of unknown faces; there was an incessant hum and murmur of voices. In the safety of a blind passage an Italian whirled round the handle of his piano-organ; the sound of it swelled and sank as the traffic surged and paused, and now and then one heard the shrill voices of the children who danced and shrieked in time to the music. Close to the pavement a coster pushed his barrow, and proclaimed flowers in an odd intonation, reminding one of the Gregorian chant. The cyclist went by again with his jangling insistent bell, and a man who stood by the lamp-post set fire to his pastille ribbon, and let the faint blue smoke rise into the sun. Away in the west, where the houses seemed to meet, the play of sunlight on the haze made, as it were, golden mighty shapes that paused and advanced, and paused again.
He had viewed the scene hundreds of times, and for a long while had found it a nuisance and a weariness. But now as he walked stupidly, slowly, along the southern side of Holborn, a change fell. He did not in the least know what it was, but there seemed to be a strange air, and a new charm that soothed his mind.
When the traffic was stopped, to his soul there was a solemn hush that summoned remnants of a far-off memory. The voices of the passengers sank away, the street was endued with a grave and reverent expectation. A shop that he passed had a row of electric lamps burning above the door, and the golden glow of them in the sunlight was, he felt, significant. The grind and jar of the wheels, as the procession moved on again, gave out a chord of music, the opening of some high service that was to be done, and now, in an ecstasy, he was sure that he heard the roll and swell and triumph of the organ, and shrill sweet choristers began to sing. So the music sank and swelled and echoed in the vast aisle — in Holborn.
What could these lamps mean, burning in the bright sunlight? The music was hushed in a grave close, and in the rattle of traffic he heard the last deep sonorous notes shake against the choir walls — he had passed beyond the range of the Italian’s instrument. But then a rich voice began alone, rising and falling in monotonous but awful modulations, singing a longing triumphant song, bidding the faithful lift up their hearts, be joined in heart with the Angels and Archangels, with the Thrones and Dominations. He could see no longer, he could not see the man who passed close beside him, pushing his barrow, and calling flowers.
Ah! He could not be mistaken, he was sure now. The air was blue with incense, he smelt the adorable fragrance. The time had almost come. And then the silvery, reiterated, instant summons of a bell; and again, and again.
The tears fell from his eyes, in his weeping the tears poured a rain upon his cheeks. But he saw in the distance, in the far distance, the carven tabernacle, golden mighty figures moving slowly, imploring arms stretched forth.
There was a noise of a great shout; the choir sang in the tongue of his boyhood that he had forgotten:
SANT… SANT… SANT
Then the silvery bell tinkled anew; and again, and again. He looked and saw the Holy, White, and Shining Mysteries exhibited — in Holborn.
Throughout his artistic life, Arthur Machen pursued a single goal and one which is seldom even considered in the letters of his day or our own. Whether it be ventures into darker regions or into the supernal mysteries of his faith, Machen’s work, though varied in its externalities, remained consistently focused at its interior. Ecstasy, in its radical original meaning, is the end goal of great Literature. Therefore, its purpose is a revelation of truth.
Machen argued this thesis rather beautifully in his book Hieroglyphics (1902). However, a bite-size summary can be found in a letter to his American friend Munson Havens:
“Literature must be informed with ecstasy, because literature is to tell the truth about life, about the world, about everything. And the truth-you will remember the distinction between the truth & accurate (or scientific) information-about everything is, that everything is a profound mystery, the veil of a secret & ineffable glory.” 1
It is an intriguing claim that begs for an example. So, let us move from theoria to praxis, by examining The Holy Things (1907) a short story by Machen and published originally in The Academy periodical. At only 1200 words and consisting of a single mise en scène, this story can be easily overlooked, yet its slightness is deceptive for it exposes much about our author and his lifelong vision.
Here, is the story:
Despondent, an unnamed character wanders about the bustling streets of Holborn, a district in London. Sour and anxious over his lot, the man is annoyed by the town’s activity and its inhabitants. In this crowd, he feels only isolation. However, in the midst of his funk, the scene of the grey world melts before his eyes to reveal a vision of a heavenly service. Even more incredibly, the sights and sounds which had seemed to conspire against him now participate inexplicably with the supernal reality. Shaken, the man is undone.
There is much to mine from this piece, short in form but not in substance. Holy dread, that sensation of awe that eclipses mere craven fear, is a mostly misunderstood concept rarely attempted in literature. This nuanced subject appears again in Machen’s work, rather notably in segments of The Great Return (1915).
The story may also be examined from a biographical perspective. As a young man, Machen suffered isolation and poverty after having relocated from rural Wales to the great metropolis. Ever passionate to pursue literature, he viewed writing as an avocation rather than a career. His idiosyncratic and dedicated approach promised little commercial success, and therefore, he suffered many lows amid a few moderate highs. In the unnamed man, we may easily discern an older Machen in an open confession of early self-doubt and faint-heartedness. 2
However, most prominent in the story is the theme of a revealed reality, one that is not dependent upon scientific facts, but in its revealing confirms Man as cosmically significant. The street in Holborn, with its clang and clamor, cannot obscures this, and remarkably, even participates in the mystical liturgy, that is the litos ergos, a “work of the people.” It is synergistic. Our young man is not alone, except in self-deceptive despondency. In spite of this interior state, a grace is granted and he is given eyes to see it.
Profoundly, the story issues us a challenge, one referencing our relation to the cosmos and to one another. Are we able to see the “secret & ineffable glory” behind all things? It exists in and beyond the view outside our window, whether it be picturesquely rural or disgustingly urban. It sings in the tones of a universal chorus, but in the voices of other people, even those that hate us.
With The Holy Things we have in miniature, execution of Machen’s lifelong theme so admirably expressed in Hieroglyphics and further demonstrated in his most significant fictional works such as A Fragment of Life (1906), The Secret Glory (1922) and The Great Return.
1 A Few Letters from Arthur Machen, page 18. The Aylesford Press, 1993.
2 As a side-note, Machen often expressed a philosophical acceptance of his persistent poverty, but mourned over a perceived failure to bridge the heights of his imagination with the reality of his finished work. This can be explored in his letters and the excellently penned memoirs Far Off Things (1922) and Thing Near and Far (1923).