Perhaps one of the most overlooked or unconsidered aspects of Arthur Machen’s work is his use of Christian imagery, liturgics, saints and martyrology. Conventional approaches to his bibliography concentrate on his rightful triumphs in horror fiction, as well as his knowledge of occultism. Yet, this has produced a certain preponderance, or perhaps more boldly stated, an imbalance in the critical literature. Therefore, much can be gained when reviewing the vital place Christian themes play for our author. Rather than a minor subject for compartmentalization, they constitute a major concern throughout Machen’s writings.
For a “Great God Pan,” we find a “Great Return.” These twin axes are not isolated or separate, but are interrelated with one another. Both ontological horror and holy dread have their place in the hieroglyphic theory of literature as espoused by Machen, time and time again. As he chose not to situate his dark faery stories in a fictional time and undetermined place, but plant them in modern Britain, so too did Machen set stories of the Holy Grail and saintly visitations in the current day. This technique serves an important function: the mysterious and the wonderful may break upon us at any moment.
Over time, we hope to do the following: 1) identify and document the role of early saints, mostly Welsh, in Machen’s fiction; 2) describe a vision of modern-day martyrdom; 3) explore Machen’s use of his native land as a spiritual landscape; and 4) determine the significance of liturgy (both historical and imagined) in the writer’s catalog. Spoilers may be present, and as this is a work in progress, revisions may surface.
We begin with the patron saint of Machen’s homeland. (Revised March 13, 2019)
St. David of Wales
Commemorated March 1/141
Known in Welsh as Dewi Sant, the significance of St David on the historic Church in Wales is great. Flourishing in the 6th century, David accomplished much for the Christian faith by opposing heresy, performing miracles and establishing churches and monasteries. For more on David’s life and influence, it is encouraged to read this essay. Dmitry Lapa’s study is well-researched and accessible, so it seems unwise to attempt a poor replication of his work. There, one will also discover churches dedicated to David in Wales and elsewhere. Here, we will limit our attention to the role St. David plays in Machen’s own essays and fiction.
Critical to our understanding of Machen’s views on David’s importance, we may consult his essay The Sangraal, Part II (1907), which begins:
The evidence for the Celtic and Sacramental origins of the Graal legend is to be found directly, in the lives of the Welsh saints, especially in the life of St. David. (Page 77, The Great Return, Darkly Bright Press, 2017.)
Later in the essay, Machen further describes David’s importance by discussing the literature and tradition of the saint’s life.
There are many curious circumstances in this Life of St. David. At the Synod of Llandewibrefi it is said that David was acknowledged as “sovereign of the saints of the isle of Britain… as God gave Mattheus in Judæa… Christ in Jerusalem, and Peter in Rome… So He has given St. David to be in the island of Britain.”
This primacy of David finds its place in a rare example of published verse by Machen in which he invokes the saint by his Welsh name. Again, this piece received its first publication in the pages of The Academy.
The Remembrance of the Bard (1907)
In the darkness of old age let not my memory fail:
Let me not forget to celebrate the beloved land of Gwent.
If they imprison me in a deep place, in a house of
Still shall I be free, remembering the sunshine upon
There have I listened to the song of the lark, my soul has
ascended with the song of the little bird:
The great white clouds were the ships of my spirit, sailing
to the haven of the Almighty.
Equally to be held in honour is the site of the Great
Adorned with the gushing of many waters—sweet is the
shade of its hazel thickets.
There a treasure is preserved which I will not celebrate;
It is glorious and deeply concealed.
If Teils should return, if happiness were restored to the
Dewi and Dyfrig should serve his Mass; then a great
marvel would be made visible.
O blessed and miraculous work! then should my bliss be
as the joy of angels.
I had rather behold this offering than kiss the twin lips
of dark Gwenllian.
Dear my land of Gwent: O quam dilecta tabernacula. 2
Thy rivers are like precious golden streams of Paradise,
thy hills are as the Mount Syon.
Better a grave on Twyn Barlwm than a throne in the
palace of the Saxons at Caer-Ludd.
Here, one can easily sense reverence and awe for David, but we may also note Machen’s adoration for his homeland. Often, Wales is presented as a land of mystery and wonder, a country of hidden holy places and burial sites of the ancient saints. This can be further explored in sequences from The Secret Glory, which though composed during this time, did not receive full publication until 1922. From a portion originally entitled Levavi Oculos3, the young protagonist Ambrose Meyrick journeys with his father, Nicholas, to visit a holy well and hear the lives of the saints through story and song.
And Nicholas Meyrick murmured:
The cell of ILTYD is by the sea-shore,
The ninth wave washes its altar,
There is a fair shrine in the land of Morgan.
The cell of DEWI is near the City of the Legions,
Nine altars owe obedience to it,
Sovereign is the choir that sings about it.
The cell of CYBI is the treasure of Gwent,
Nine hills are its perpetual guardians,
Nine songs beﬁt the memory of the saint.
Following this, Meyrick and his father journey to the Great Mountain (as mentioned earlier in the poem) and worship before the Holy Grail. Later in the published novel (Part III, Chapter IV), Ambrose recounts the following in his diary:
June 24.4 Since I wrote last in this book the summer has come. This morning I woke up very early, and even in this horrible place the air was pure and bright as the sun rose up and the long beams shone on the cedar outside the window. She came to me by the way they think is locked and fastened, and, just as the world is white and gold at the dawn, so was she. A blackbird began to sing beneath the window. I think it came from far, for it sang to me of morning on the mountain, and the woods all still, and a little bright brook rushing down the hillside between dark green alders, and air that must be blown from heaven.
There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar. Dewi and Tegfeth and Cybi preside over that region; Sweet is the valley, sweet the sound of its waters.
There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar; Its voice is golden, like the ringing of the saints’ bells; Sweet is the valley, echoing with melodies.
There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar; Tegfeth in the south won red martyrdom. Her song is heard in the perpetual choirs of heaven.
There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar; Dewi in the west had an altar from Paradise. He taught the valleys of Britain to resound with Alleluia.
There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar; Cybi in the north was the teacher of Princes. Through him Edlogan sings praise to heaven.
There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar When shall I hear again the notes of its melody? When shall I behold once more Gwladys in that valley?’
The above examples, though told in various forms (poetry, prose and nonfiction), develop a pattern of hagiography deeply implanted within Machen’s work and one that uses Wales as a real-world setting. And so, Dewi Sant is often situated prominently within this landscape. However, on at least one occasion, David’s name and influence transcends the borderlands.
In a short story, The War Song of the Welsh (1914), Machen presents another war tale along the lines of his infamous Bowmen, published earlier that year. Instead of St. George, the patron saint of England, leading the archers of Agincourt against the Germans, we read of a host of voices singing a “terrible” and “ghost-like” song. Under this protection, a Welsh regiment defeat their foes without loss. A private, despite being a Calvinistic Methodist, leads the charge and invokes the names of Welsh saints, David being the first among them.5
As we have seen, David is treated as a subject of intercession and awe, yet in one instance, the saint breaks from the veil of history and enters bodily into the events of 20th century Wales. This great shift in Machen’s work occurs in the novella, The Great Return (1915), where Dewi Sant, accompanied by two holy companions, bring forth the once-hidden Holy Grail which has a transforming effect upon a small village.6 During the course of the narrative, the saints visit and heal the sick, end enmity, bestow peace, and climatically perform the Mass of the Sangraal.
With his usual penchant for mystery, Machen does not outwardly express to the reader the identities of the three saints. Such exposition would have been distasteful to him. Yet, throughout the novella, Machen grants us clues. One such hint can be found in a witness’s description of a portable altar, known as Sapphirus. This element of the David legends can be found in hagiographical works such as Life of St. David and Book of Llandaff, which Machen no doubt consulted. Again, from his essays in The Academy:
St. David’s altar was, in the earlier legend, a gift from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, later it became a gift from heaven… So, when William of Malmesbury was ‘writing up’ Glastonbury Abbey (c. 1130, perhaps sixty years before the earliest of the romances was written) he speaks of St. David’s altar, known as Sapphirus, as one of the treasures of the place; lost for a long time and then recovered. (Page 81-2, The Great Return, Darkly Bright Press, 2017.)
Moving from historical sources and literary excerpts, the significance of St. David for Machen can be further found in studying his earliest years. The son of a Church of England clergyman, Machen was born in Caerleon-on-Usk, but the family left that community before he was two years old. His father had been assigned the small parish of Llanddewi Fach, or Little St. David’s Church. There, Machen grew up as an only child in the rectory to St. David’s. As can be witnessed in the first volume of his memoirs Far Off Things (1922), this was formative for the future writer. According to local historian Fred J. Hando: “His father steeped the little fellow’s mind in the ancient lore of Gwent. From him he gathered the stories of Dewi, of Tegfith, of Cybi—There is a bird that sings in the valley of the Soar. Dewi and Tegfith and Cybi preside over that region…” 7 Of course, this bit of verse we have read before. Curiously, Hando conflates the fictional Ambrose and his father Nicholas with Machen and his father John. Perhaps this is literally true, but in any case, Machen grew up in a spiritually rich environment, and one in which the name of Dewi Sant was ever close.8
In conclusion, St David holds a special position of honor in the canon of Arthur Machen. Throughout it, David’s primacy to the Ancient Church in Wales is expressed through story and verse. Furthermore, the saint is not presented as a mere legendary figure, but one which remains alive and active in the life of the Welsh nation. Seemingly hidden from our eyes, he is a potent force, one which shines brightly despite the darkness of the world, both seen and unseen.
1 Feast dates for saints are given for new and old calenders.
2 O quam dilecta tabernacula… O How amiable are thy dwellings… From Psalm 83
3 Levavi Oculos…Ad te levavi oculos meos (Unto thee I lift up mine eyes)… From Psalm 120. This sequence from The Secret Glory was first published by The Academy in short story form in 1907.
4 June 24th… The date is an interesting choice as it is a feast day of St. John the Baptist. However, whether or not this has any bearing on Machen’s intention or design is not known.
5 By placing the invocation of saints in the mouth of a Calvinistic Methodist, Machen perhaps is insisting that a deep memory for the ancient church remains in the heart and being of his fellow Welshmen. This idea of a “Celtic Consciousness” forms a significant line of subtext in The Great Return.
6 For more information on this topic, please refer to the Darkly Bright Press edition of The Great Return. The identity of St. David and other saints are explored in the ancillary essays of that volume.
7 Page 55—Hando, Fred J. The Pleasant Land of Gwent (Newport, UK; R. H. Johns, 1944).
8 As for the church at Llanddewi Fach, it was built on a Medieval foundation and restored in 1864. As stated above, this is the year that the Machen family arrived. Much later, however, the church was declared redundant, stripped and turned into a private residence in 1995. For more details, see here.