The Weekly Machen

It would be difficult to over-exaggerate the influence of London upon the mind and imagination of Arthur Machen. Reading of his adventures in the Great City as an impoverished wanderera type of exile from the rural land of Gwentmakes one yearn to see that vanished metropolis of gaslight. All things change, however, and it would be equally difficult to understand fully the effect that electrification wrought upon the average Londoner. In following the article, we find a sense of wonder that has perhaps vanished from most of us who have become both dependent upon and indifferent to such a luxuryone that we do not attempt to understand or explain.

It is likely that Machen’s “M. Confrére” is poet Paul-Jean Toulet who translated The Great God Pan into French. It is known that he visited Machen in London.

The Night Sky of London:
Bizarre Effects of a New Art
Arthur Machen
October 19, 1910

I do not know that anyone has dealt thoroughly and effectively with the night sky of London.

It is vague and murky, with suggestion of furnace fires burning low behind it; it is quite different from the vast clear dome that they call the sky in the country; the London heavens are at once dim and terrific in their aspect.

I was looking at this blurred veil of the sky the other night as I strolled from Trafalgar Square towards the Embankment, when I saw a sight that struck me as strange even in the city of strange things. To the left, floating, it seemed, above the housetops, was a rosy cloud, glowing in its heart, and fade away into pale and fleecy wisps of smoke. I walked on; there was a ruby electric light on the roof of the theatre, and this smoke or steam curled about the red globe and took its colour and floated away over the dark walls.

And then I was reminded of my French friend. He spent a few days with me some ten years ago. We wanted to see London, and I let him think that he had seen it. But I knew that London, which is the study of a lifetime, cannot be apprehended in two or three days, so I exercised a wise selection. What M. Confrére saw was practically limited to Leicester-square and its neighbourhood at night and the Embarkment on a dark November afternoon. From the former quarter he obtained the impression that London was a gay and sparkling Southern town, dancing with lights; from the dark riverside and the wreathing fog he constructed a city “vast, brutal, terrible,” Babylon resurgent from its immemorial tomb. It was his business to reconcile the two impressions, and I left the task to him.

A Flaming Message

But that which most enthralled him by the river was a Flaming Tower. It rose up black against the tawny background of fog; it rose up from the confused gloom and chaos of the southern shore, vast and threatening. And from its height at intervals there flashed a flaming message, and I heard M. Confrére muttering about a temple of the Fire-Worshippers and the dread Rite of Ahriman. I let him mutter, and led him to the seventeenth-century cloisters and courts and gardens of Gray Inn; thence again to the gaiety of Leicester-square.

I know not what tales he tells in Paris of London town. But I wish he could have seen he rosy cloud that I saw the other night.

But the fact is that London has become in the last few years – even in the last few months – a city of the strangest and most brilliant and most bizarre lighting effects. Ten years ago those illuminated signs were exceptional; now they are universal. And they execute made nocturnes with melodies and harmonies and harsh discords of light and colour; they flash out from a huge, dim building and dance from red to white, from white to blue, from blue to green, from green to amber – and dart back for a moment into cloud and darkness and obscurity.

Writing on the Sky

Gigantic letters suddenly appear, apparently in mid-air, in empty space, and the electric fires that light them throw their multi-coloured radiance on far-lifted housetops, and vanish again into the night. And that Leicester-square that seemed so brilliant ten years ago! It is ten times more brilliant and ten times more eccentric than it was in those days.

Its music-halls and cafés are outlined in glittering festoons of lamps; all their windows are aglow with kaleidoscopic fires; and the changing signs show every colour that the alchemistic sages have noted in the operation of the Great Work; beginning with the darkness that is called the Engendering of the Crow, and ending with the fiery and burning redness, which is the Philosopher’s Stone, “glistering and glorious as the sun.”

And in this Leicester-square I saw the other night, as it were, a background of transmuting colours – red and blue and golden – and against this there was what looked like a worm of white fire, turning and twisting in unending gyrations. And in another quarter of the town there was a sight as strange. I think it was in the window of a shop devoted to electric apparatus; there was an opaque globe of dull glass that glowed gradually into whiteness, and faded again into a dim peacock-blue.

Poetry of the Lamps

Then in the blue rosy fires seemed to light and quicken, green sparks and spires grew from the heart of rose; and as one looked the red changed to amber; the globe was an opal of light.

I noticed, indeed, that the nuance is beginning to make its way among these effects. For the most part the colours are still vivid; but here and there one is attracted by those curious opalescent effects, by dimmer and more delicious blues, melting into fairy greens, by delicate half-tones that entice the eye rather than attack it.

Setting aside the strange and kaleidoscopic sky signs, the shop windows flooded with blue light, the gyrating fires, and the changing opal globe, there are all the differing effects of the street lamps proper.

On the Embarkment the electrics in ground-glass globes float dim and vague and misty above the river; in another street you may see the almost unendurable brilliance of electricity burning behind plain glass. Then there are the lines of amber that stretch along Oxford-street, and these, it seems to me, vary in tone from a rich orange glow to a clear sunlight flame; and the way goes west under the trees outlined by the incandescent gas lamps, which have greenish light, not unlike that of the glow-worm in the hedge.

And what about the future? It may be that the “wireless” principle will be extended into the region of lighting; that the whole intricate system of wires and pipes will be cast on the scrap-heap. So much for lighting of utility; for entertainment and advertisement I can imagine that the Londoner of a few years hence will see the heavens ablaze with strange wandering fires; that dim, silvery lamps may hover high above the street, that globes of palpitating and changing colours may hang in the sky at midnight, that dragon shapes may flame and flicker over the roof of the old Abbey.

And perhaps it will be a misfortune when all the dreams of all the dreamers and enchanters have been realised in prosaic scientific fact.

The Weekly

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Next: A Leap Into Midsummer

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

5 thoughts on “The Night Sky of London

  1. Peter Ackroyd’s 2000 book London: The Biography records a debt to Machen and other “urban pilgrims” including De Quincey, Dickens, and Gissing. Christopher Palmer’s 1988 Collected Arthur Machen includes a section of passages about London. As a young reader in the 1970s, I felt a reinforcement, in Machen, of London as a place of the imagination that had begun, I suppose, with Arthur Conan Doyle.


  2. Reading along, I wondered if we know what Machen thought of ‘nightscapes’ by James McNeill Whistler (and others), and paused to see if I could find examples – such as an 1876 one with the subject described as “Trafalgar Square Chelsea Snow”. Reading on, I found him using Whistler’s borrowed and applied musical terms for them: “nocturnes with melodies and harmonies and harsh discords of light and colour”!

    I also wonder how much the effects Machen describes endured in one form or another until the 1956 and 1968 Clean Air Acts? I grew up with suburban gas street-lighting (magical in its own way) in Cincinnati, but only visited London after the second Clean Air Act…


    1. The quality of air certainly had some impact. A few years after this article, Machen wrote an interesting piece entitled “Where Are the Fogs of Yesteryear?,” in which he bemoaned the changing atmosphere of the city. It was collected in Dog and Duck.


  3. It’s easy to forget that Machen, whom some readers think of as inhabiting the fin-de-siècle, lived through World War 2.

    I’m not sure if he was still living in Amersham then. If he was…

    I take it he would have plenty of experience of Blackout and would also have seen the glow in the sky from burning, bombed-up London 30-some miles away, unless his vision had greatly deteriorated due to age.


    1. This is an interesting point. He was residing in Amersham, but so far, I haven’t found any specific comment by Machen on the blitz, though it is known that he kept interested in news of the conflict. By the Second World War, he was publishing very little, but perhaps it is noted in private letters. As for his eyesight, I believe he was dictating his letters to his wife 1946, but this practice could have begun earlier.


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