The Weekly Machen
In the following article, Machen artfully targets the hieroglyphical, or mystical reality of man’s impulse towards poetry. No doubt, he would have agreed with Elder Porphyrios: “he who would become a Christian must first become a poet.” Poetry is an expression of the inner life, of the mystery borne from man’s creation.
On another track, Machen’s sympathy toward the desire of tenth-rate “poets,” may signify dissatisfaction with his past experiments in verse. During his career, Machen wrote little poetry, published less and always with later regret. Yet, Machen’s work, including his journalism, is deeply and profoundly poetic. This proves the Elder’s and Machen’s thesis – Man is a poet by nature, because Man is supernatural.
War and the Spring Poets:
“A Certain Liveliness” on Parnassus
February 15, 1915
Verses, verses everywhere.
And not an one to print.
For some time the discerning will have marked omens and portents of the spring. For, in spite of wild weather, the birds are signing in the wood, the moss is blossoming on the wall, the catkin hangs green and yellow on the hazel tree. And last Saturday, being the eve or vigil of St. Valentine, there was an oracular sentence in The Evening News: Poets are again warned off. And these signs are all signs of spring.
I made inquiry as to the last of them – that threatening statement in the paper – and high editorial authority informs me that third-rate, fifth-rate, tenth-rate verse is descending upon the office like the former and the latter rains. It is all about the war, of course; it charges, or rather limps, over the field of battle; it celebrates heroic deeds with heroic disregard for the laws of metre, it calls for recruits in such a way as would make the boldest hesitate in coming forward. It is all about the war; but this is its only singularity. For the experts in this crop say that every spring is marked by this immensely increased output of the verse-makers. There is assuredly nothing singular in the fact that most of it is bad, or indifferent at best, all through the succeeding springs. For it is one of the great laws – and great mysteries – that human effort is rarely successful in a supreme degree. Admirable cooks are few; admirable poets are (naturally) fewer still.
The Old Primeval Call
But there is something curious in the fact that this old primeval call of the spring still ferments in a people that is City-bred, and, as it would seem, but weakly linked to the woods and the fields, and to all the miracles that are being accomplished in the green of the earth. But as the blade of grass will shoot up between the cracks of the City pavement when the spring approaches, so the town poets mark the season of the year in their own fashion – by writing verses and sending them to The Evening News.
And the explanation, so far as there is an explanation, is this: that both processes are entirely natural. We have departed so far from our original state that we have come to regard poetry as a kind of exotic, or as an artificial product, a grimace of the mind, as it were, not its entirely natural expression. This is a profound error. Poetry is, in reality, a much more natural expression of man than prose. Prose came later, it was an elaborately acquired art, it belongs to man when he has wandered away from the mountains and the woods and the wild places that were his first home; to man enclosed in cities and encompassed by all manner of conventions. He learns to speak in prose, and learns the lesson so well that he can rarely speak in anything but prose. With the primitive man, the truly natural man, it was far otherwise.
Where Speech is Song
Poetry and song are more truly natural to man than prose and common speech. This sounds odd to our sophisticated ears, but it is undoubtedly true. A very brief glance over any history of any literature will convince as to the truth of the proposition so far as poetry is concerned. Every nation has leaped in numbers in its early and primitive stages; prose is always a later development. Homer wrote many hundreds of years before Thucydides, Chaucer begins English literature, Scotland produced ballads long before she discovered (in prose) the merits of the philosophy of Common Sense. Indeed, so strongly marked is this primitive preference of poetry over prose that in early days treatises on farming were written in verse, and popular proverbs often had a jingle in them. “Cast not a clout till May be out” was not expressed, as some have vainly affirmed, because the rhyme made the precept more easy to be remembered, but because the jingle charmed the ear of the hearer, because he liked to have it so. So with “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” That is, no doubt, a native-born, true English proverb; but there is an odd Greek proverb exactly to the same effect; and that, too, is a verse.
As for the priority of song over the unmodulated speech of the streets; it is only necessary to go as far as Wales or Northumberland to be assured of that truth. In these regions speech is still song; I once heard a servant girl in Morpeth make a statement as to the near approach of tea that was an exquisite musical phrase. Even here in London we have a few street-cries left which are musical.
All those tormenting flies!
is not noble poetry – “flies” and “alive” make an assonance, not a rhyme – but it is chanted by the man with the flypapers to a melody in the seventh mode.
Groping for Phrases
Man, then, is, by his inmost, primitive nature, a lyrical being, he naturally uttered himself in song long before he took to the habit of speaking in prose and in flat, unmusical accents. And in spring, as Chaucer tells us, “pricketh them nature in their corages”; in spring there is a yearly resurrection and renewal of all the life and all the vital interests of all the world. The moss is blossoming on the wall, the exultant song of the birds is heard in the woods – and the “poets” send their verses to the editor of The English News.
The blossom of the moss and the song of the bird are beautiful, each according to its order; but the verses are not exactly beautiful. They are often pitiful; as the utterance of a man who has lived an exile from his native land since he was a little child, and has forgotten his proper speech, so that when the impulse strangely comes to him to use it again he stutters and speaks brokenly, and gropes vainly for half-remembered words and phrases.
We are indeed exiles and very few of us are able to recollect our true and ancient and noble speech, or to utter with firm, well-modulated voices, its mighty incantations. And, so it is, that the editor speaks sadly of the work of his spring poets.
But let it be said in fairness to the verse writers that editors are not always better instructed than they in the poetic art.
A contributor of poetry once met an editor on the office stairs.
“What about that sonnet of mine?” asked the poet.
“Sonnet, sonnet, sonnet,” said the puzzled editor. “What the devil is a sonnet?”
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6 thoughts on “War and the Spring Poets”
“In our day many ingenious theories have been put forth as to the origin of language. But Dr. Pusey believed that the only one which does justice to what it is in itself and to its place in nature as a characteristic of man is the belief that it is an original gift of God; the counterpart of that other and greater gift of His, a self-questioning and immortal soul. Language is the life of the human soul, projected into the world of sound; it exhibits in all their strength and delicacy the processes by which the soul takes account of what passes without and within itself; in it may be studied the minute anatomy of the soul’s life – that inner world in which thought takes shape and conscience speaks, and the eternal issues are raised and developed to their final form. Therefore Dr. Pusey looked upon language with the deepest interest and reverence; he handled it as a sacred thing which could not be examined or guarded or employed too carefully; he thought no trouble too great in order to ascertain and express its exact shades of meaning…”
— H. P. Liddon, 1884, referring to the great Victorian scholar Edward Bouverie Pusey.
Machen’s reflections brought a favorite book to mind…
In C. S. Lewis’s prophetic novel (I use the adjective sincerely), That Hideous Strength, when the created god Mercury/Viritrilbia descends upon the St. Anne’s household of Dr. Elwin Ransom and his friends, they find — I take it — language restored to them. Ransom “found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning” (Chapter 15, Section 1).
St. Anne’s, though, has been a place in which courtesy and converation go together. In a setting in which quietness is appreciated, the word may be more valued. At St. Anne’s, while there is much to be done, there is time for good talk; it might be quasi-pastoral and private, as when Jane and Ransom “Fisher-King” discuss her marriage, or it might be genial and amusing, as in kitchen-talk times; or it might be devoted to problem-solving. Always it is courteous, though not always formal. “Rudeness and disrespect are forms of iconoclasm, an assault upon God’s image in our fellow human beings. When Christian culture is severely undermined, such as in Russia during the Soviet regime, and as is happening today in many parts of this country, courtesy that is basic to making a joyful common life, disappears. … In Romans 12:10, the Apostle Paul outlines the basics of traditional Christian culture: ‘Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love,” he admonishes, “in honor preferring one another'” (“Christian Courtesy: Grace-Filled Manners,” in Doxa: A Quarterly Review Serving the Orthodox Church Summer 2003).
Everyone gets his turn to speak in the household Lewis describes, because everyone has something worthwhile to say. They don’t seem to go in for “multi-tasking” at St. Anne’s. Perhaps Lewis’s evident enjoyment in creating the conversations at St. Anne’s reflects his great pleasure in the twice-weekly gatherings of the informal Oxford-based group, the Inklings, which included Lewis, his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, and others. Lewis’s brother, Warren, has left accounts of some of their sessions in his diaries, published some twenty years ago as Brothers and Friends.
Owen Barfield’s book Poetic Diction might (I write with tongue in cheek a little) be regarded as a footnote to Machen’s piece this week. The first edition was published in 1928, in plenty of time for Machen to have read it, but I know of no evidence whatever that he did so. Machen and Barfield were, I think, both in some degree Coleridgeans.
I was reminded of Barfield while reading your selection from That Hideous Strength. Surely, Poetic Diction influenced Lewis. It is on my bookshelf, but I can’t claim it has influenced me! Too overly-intellectualized for my taste, but no doubt, it is an important work in its field. (I do enjoy Barfield’s fiction. In particular, I find Night Operation well done and prescient.) I would agree that both he, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Machen were Coleridgeans.
All authors worth ongoing study and memory must show a concern for language. Not only for the benefit of their craft, but in their recognition of its importance to Man as a created being. Machen, the Inklings, Eliot and others understood this reality. Their theories and practice of literature as a not only an aesthetic, but spiritual art form serve to remind us and guide us.
More than ever, we live in an age where the counterfeit floods our senses. Social media, “new sources,” and entertainment media lead us astray with lies, disinformation and propaganda. It is language used in opposition to the truth as it pertains to God, the cosmos and ourselves.
As Lewis commented in his introduction to On the Incarnation… (and I am paraphrasing)… We need to read the old books, so that we may identify the faults of our own time and culture. Circumstances have developed at such a rapid pace, that it feels as though Lewis and Machen lived centuries ago! So, I’m heartened and refreshed to read a simple, beautiful observation such as “speech was once song.”
Perhaps one function of the Darkly Bright site will prove to be serving as a place for identifying literary works making up a canon of right reason and wholesome sentiment, as a great resource against the anti-wisdom of our time.
For example, what a refreshment for our souls is there in Machen’s story “A Fragment of Life,” in this time when the divine design of Man and Woman is under assault by the deconstruction of “gender” that is promoted by the American State. Conversely, it is significant that in one of Machen’s consummate scenes of horror, the vile thing that was “Helen Vaughan” “deconstructs” even as regards its sex. Now THERE’S “gender fluidity” for you!
Monastery and household will need to become like Rivendell, “a refuge for the weary and oppressed, and a treasury of good counsel and wise lore.”
In case anyone wasn’t sure which Machen story concerns “Helen Vaughan,” it’s “The Great God Pan.” I should have mentioned that.