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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