The Weekly Machen

Last autumn, I when I posted a particular Machen article, The Joy of London II, I lamented that the first part remained elusive to my grasp. Still, it avoids me. However, the third part has happily come into view and it is worth the tarrying. Here, we find Machen in one of his favorite pastimes—charting the vastissimum pelagus that is London. The following article does more than describe the strange places and people that he meets, but it presents us with what could be called Machen’s “doctrine of the Great City.” London is “a kind of lesser infinitude,” a microcosm of God’s creation. Certainly, it is always a joy to read Machen’s poetic language, but more importantly, this is a fine reminder to contemplate the hieroglyphs which surround us and to find Paradise where we live.

The Joy of London III
Arthur Machen
April 15, 1914


It was only the other day that, speculating on the immensities of London, I pictured for tried to picture, its uttermost limits, and showed the serried lines of raw red houses covering the fields that were, green yesterday, climbing the high hill, penetrating into the deep heart of the old wood. I asked who it was that inhabited all this great array of houses and streets, and the answer, I think, was: “City clerks for the most part, with a sprinkling of high mystics and a few convinced alchemists.” I knew that this was no mere rhetoric; and a day or two later I reopened the current copy of the Journal of the Alchemical Society. And several of the most prominent members give addresses in suburbs that most people would call commercial and commonplace. “Kelly” is a sage, doubtless, but much is hidden from him. He is quite unaware that the chief English authority on the Kabbala is domiciled at Ealing.

A Suburban Sea

And then, again, it was once my mission to penetrate to the newest—and therefore the obscurest—parts of Croydon to talk to a certain gentleman who ministered to some vaguely religious body there. The point—the journalistic point—about my quarry was that he had formerly served in the German army and had sailed in the northern seas on a whaler; such a career was justly considered somewhat out of the common. I found I had to leave all such homely and friendly things as railway stations and tram lines far behind me; I must put out in “vastissimum pelagus,” into the immeasurable sea of the suburb, if I would find my man. I discovered him at last in a new house in a new road that might have risen from the earth the night before my visit, and now was finally sealed as part of greater, or rather greatest, London. The pastor received me with the utmost courtesy, and told me that all the reports that I had heard were true; furthermore, he had been a priest of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, and was a licentiate of the University of Salamanca.

Theology of a Tavern

Leicester Square c. 1880

A Licentiate of Salamanca! I had never dreamed that I should be found worthy to meet such a personage, save in golden Cervantes and the picaresque romances of Spain; I received as great a pleasure as I once imparted to a friendly business man from the North, in London for the first time, who finding me, all a stranger to him, drinking absinthe at midnight at the Café de l’Europe in Leicester-square, felt that at last he was seeing life—and devilry.

But, hearing of Salamanca, I began to quote “Barbara Celarent” and to praise the scholastic logic. The pastor of . . . the Universal Church, we will call it, cordially agreed with me, and added that the Roman Catholic religion was the only Scriptural form of Christianity.

If I were a Christian,” he said, “I should be a Roman Catholic, but I am convinced that what the Gospels embody is a distorted form of the worship of Adonis.”

I was talking about this gentleman to friend a day or two ago in a Fleet-street tavern. My friend expressed his cordial agreement with the praise of Scholasticism and declared that for a really able statement of the atheistic position there was nothing to approach the opening section of St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa.”


Which reminds me that I once had a very agreeable discussion with a sub-editor on “essence” and “substance” at a newspaper dinner; also, that it was in the purlieus of Lincoln’s Inn that a Chinese gentleman handed me a cup of that curious tea called “Water Fairy,” and I have eaten, as good Bouillabaisse in Wardour-street as Pascal himself prepares at his tavern in the Old Port of Marseilles.

Here, then, is another aspect of the joys of London. He whose mind is rightly prepared is constantly affected by the sensation of strangeness, of that slight novelty which Coventry Patmore declares to be one of the masks of a work of genius in the arts. And strangeness always appears to me to be not perhaps the differentia, but, say, the inseparable accident of all excellence, whether it be excellence of life or thought of cookery or wine. We may be talking of a great saint, of one who carried out that almost intolerable command of Thomas à Kempis—“love to be unknown, and to be thought of no consequence”—and we say, “how could he do it, how could he really feel like that?” And we shall ask much the same question about Captain Scott and his companions, we shall feel that a great picture or a great poem is in fact a miracle—an accomplishment beyond all reasonable expectation—and as for an old Burgundy there is no greater applause to be bestowed than “What a wonderful wine!”

Endless Surprise

So it is with London. To its surprises of sense and of spirit there is no end. It has not only that joy, which I have pointed out before, of realising and more than realising one’s expectations, of showing the boy who has read of crucibles in books, crucibles in a shop-window; but it continually exhibits something new and altogether unexpected. A cynical character in Mrs. Leveson’s latest novel says of marriage, “one does not run after a ‘bus when one has caught it.” London is a ‘bus that no one has ever caught. It is an ocean that no one has voyaged all over, whether in body or in spirit.

I do not think that there are any more awful concepts presented to the human mind than the eternities and infinitudes of time and space. Not for one moment, as it seems to me, can one imagine beginning or end to time, or limit to space; and yet time without beginning or end and space without bounds are conceptions equally intolerable to the soul. We can neither deny nor affirm; we are left in a perpetual suspense.


And the sight of the map of London always leaves me with a sense of a kind of lesser infinitude—if the phrase may be allowed. Here are marked streets and alleys and squares and bye-ways, which strike the eye as past numbering. They are all here, in undoubted brick and stone and marble and mortar, and yet one feels that no living man has trodden them all; that to the most energetic and leisured explorer there must ever be myriads of streets that he will never enter. And, extending the notion, how many houses must remain unvisited; secrets throughout all ages to all but a very few?

Thus does London make for us a concrete image of the eternal things of space and time and thought.

The Weekly

Previous: In Memory of Edith Cavell 

Next: Marvels of To-day’s Flower Show

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

6 thoughts on “The Joy of London III

  1. Yes. Where would one be, in Machen’s day, if he were to say on a long, long walk, “Fifteen minutes ago I was still in London, but now I am not in London”?

    I suppose this would be no matter of a feature of landscape, e.g. the edge of a river, nor of a landmark left by man such as a signpost, but rather we would have to settle for some arbitrary legal definition, perhaps for tax purposes; such that -here- one is liable to pay London rates, and -here- one is not thus liable. Arbitrary, legal, “unreal”; but it might have to do in order to answer the question just posed. And the answer could change and leave no visible or tangible sign of the change, none at all; and yet one was in London fifteen minutes ago, and now one is not in London….


  2. Might London be imaginatively recognized by being (contiguously) ‘built up’, regardless of including great parks and (I suppose) Hampstead Heath, and having “suburbs”? In Oxford, for example, one crosses the canal, or goes far enough up Kiln Lane and one is suddenly, clearly ‘ in the country’ (or so it used to be), but I have never been along any ‘edges’ of London to know if something like that can happen there.

    The “chief English authority on the Kabbala is domiciled at Ealing” is, I am pretty confident, Machen’s friend, A.E. Waite, about whom R.A. Gilbert writes that he “regularly attended meetings of Runymede Lodge until 1920 when he moved from Ealing in West London to Ramsgate in Kent”. If Mrs. Leveson is not she who was Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland until the Duke died in June 1913, who is she? – and yet, I do not find any novels of hers which were very recent in April 1914… “Barbara Celarent”, I find, is not one whom, but something which he quoted: “a mnemonic poem to help students remember the names of the valid syllogistic forms” for which (Wikipedia tells me) William of Sherwood “is perhaps best known”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’re correct about Waite. I ran into the same difficulty as you in respect to Mrs. Leveson. Although it is likely that Machen is referring to the Duchess of Sutherland, I didn’t feel confident in identifying her as such.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Suddenly the phrase ‘Babylon on the Thames’ came to mind – used by someone (Lin Carter?) with reference to Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights – and going to check, I do not find it in the easily-searchable Project Gutenberg edition – but in their edition of More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, in “Somerset’s adventure: The Superfluous Mansion”, I find “Before a certain restaurant, whose name will readily occur to any student of our Babylon, people were already packed so closely that passage had grown difficult” (as sole search result). Before those searches, I suddenly wondered if Edith Nesbit was playing with London and Babylon in comparison in The Story of the Amulet – I suspect so, but have not reread to confirm. Meanwhile, I encountered an intriguing-looking 1990 article by Nancy Aycock Metz entitled ‘”Little Dorrit’s” London: Babylon Revisited’ contrasting Dickens’ depictions there and in Bleak House: I wonder if Machen’s own sense of this Dickensian attention partly informed his treatment of the growth of London in these articles?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose Dickens’s London and the London that Machen walked in had a lot of overlap in Machen’s mind and probably the outer world too.


      1. Indeed! Just checking Wikipedia to see if what I visited in 1970 as The Old Curiosity Shop is still there, I find it is – I also find a 1901 photo “showing buildings in New Inn Passage, Houghton Street, then called the Clare Market Slum, which was demolished as part of the Kingsway–Aldwych Improvement scheme in 1905”.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s