The Weekly Machen
What is the function of a great book? What makes a particular book a book for the ages? How does imagination, information and entertainment fit into the equation? These questions, or variations of it, captivated Arthur Machen all his life. He wrote a full-length book, Hieroglyphics (1902), in which he attempted to codify all his thoughts and opinions on the high art of literature and its function for the reader. Below, we see him wrestle once again with this great quest as he articulates his argument under the symbolism of alchemy.
As a bonus, I’ve appended some seasonally appropriate items which ran on the same newspaper page as this week’s article.
What Is “The Book of the Year”?:
Some Notable Opinions and a Few Comments
December 12, 1911
“There must be a best book of the year 1911, but I haven’t come across it. At least I hope not.”
This is the reply to a question and with a pleasant irony it gives Sir A. W. Pinero’s response to a problem which I, operating under the shadow and by the authority of The Evening News, addressed to him, as others, a few weeks ago. I asked a number of distinguished personages whether, in their opinion, there was any book published from January to December 1911, which deserved the laurels implied in the phrase, “The book of the year,” and, supposing there were such a book, what was it?
Well, Sir A. W. Pinero tells us in his agreeable way that he thinks the year has produced no literary marvel, and with the eminent dramatist is Father Hugh Benson, who says that in his view “no book stands out very markedly.” To the same effect writes H. G. Wells, who holds that there have been “’a lot of good books this year, but none, I think, that towers over all the others.” Add to these Dr. Inge, the Dean of St. Paul’s: “I have seen no book,” he declares, “which deserves to be singled out as ‘the book of the year.’”
So two theologians—Anglican and Roman—a playwright and an all-around man of letters, are agreed that the past year has given us nothing of the highest value in literature. They do not exactly say, after the manner of Titus, the delight of the human race: “Friends, we have lost a year!” but, if we may translate their answers into terms of prophecy, they are clear that in 2011—to say nothing of 3011—no book of this present year will shine aureoled and hallowed, a possession for ever.
So much for the pessimists; there are more hopeful counsels. Mr. Jerome K. Jerome votes for Conrad’s “Through Western Eyes”; Professor Browne of Cambridge, author of a wonderful series of books about Persia, prefers the claims of “The Autobiography of Sir William Butler”; and Dr. Barry’s choice is “My Life,”’ by Richard Wagner, which, he says, “will hold a permanent rank among the biographies of genius, side by side with Goethe’s ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit,’ and Benvenuto Cellini’s ‘Memoirs.’” Mr. Andrew Lang maintains that “The Lay of Dolon” excels all others; Miss Beatrice Harraden names “Hilda Lessways,’’ and Mr. Robert Hichens “The Everlasting Mercy.” Finally Sir Robertson Nicoll sends a threefold list of eminent excellences: “Peter and Wendy,” “The Everlasting Mercy,” and “Hilda Lessways.” Sir A. W. Pinero and Sir Robertson Nicoll thus represent the two extremes of judgment; the one intimates, plainly enough, that he has no high opinion of the year’s literary output; the other finds three books which are very good.
Well, what remains to be said? Of rights, nothing whatever, save to leave the case to the jury; that is, the after ages. But if the Clerk of the Court must speak after the Bench has pronounced judgement, I would say that I have already given my opinion; it is not many days since I signified in this column my belief that Mr. Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy is a work of high and permanent value. This poem is for me above all others, the book of the year—rather of the years that are to come. It seems horribly arrogant; but I cannot help expressing my firm conviction that he who cannot see the supreme merit of “The Everlasting Mercy” understands nothing of true literature.
And then another point occurs to me. It is possible that the original question propounded may have been taken in different senses by different members of this informal symposium. Most of the answers show, I think that the query was in most cases received as meaning, “What, in your opinion, is the masterpiece of imagination in the year’s literary record?” But there is another possible and allowable sense: the question might stand for, “What book interested you most?” And that, of course, is a very different thing. My mind may be so engrossed and centered in the problem of the Ogham character or in the problem of modern democracy that a capable book satisfying my curiosity on either of these points might appear to me as more to the purpose than the Song of the Sirens or the Song of Solomon.
What is the Function of a Great Book?
Such a book, then, I might name “the book of the year,” but I think it would be a mistaken selection; for it is never the supreme office of the finest literature to inform; its distinctive business is to afford æsthetic pleasure, to slake the thirst of the imagination, not the thirst for information. These two offices may be combined; but the imagination is in the last resort at once the source from which literature flows, and the appetite which it satisfies. Music, said Pater, is the ultimate touchstone to which all the arts must be referred, by which they must all be judged; and in the true music, though not in those skilful mimicries of bellowing bulls and bleating sheep which are sometimes called music in these days there is no food for intellectual curiosity to feed on.
And, after all, what is the condition which makes a work of letters not only the book of the year, but of the long everlasting procession of the years to come? It is a great question, and I know of many answers, or rather of many forms of one answer.
“Boswell” for Ever
But for this time, thinking of my own choice, “The Everlasting Mercy”(!) I would say that it is fervour that fashions the enduring golden crown. The rough stuff of earth and life, the rude, misshapen, mingled ores must be passed through the white fires of the imagination, that the dross may be thoroughly purged away, that in the athanor of the wise the mortal may put on immorality. There was once a queer, crusty, kind old man, writer of much lumbering English, doer of many good deeds, utterer of many keen and musing sayings. Yes, “Boswell” is one of the great books of the world for ever; but if you or I had known the Doctor could we have made such a book of him?
Not unless we had sought him and viewed him and assimilated with Boswell’s unquenchable and passionate fervour.
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2 thoughts on “What Is “The Book of the Year”?”
A 1922 diary entry records C. S. Lewis’s opinion that The Everlasting Mercy was “the poorest thing” by John Masefield that he had read yet, though he hedges his opinion a bit. I’ve read Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, but not recently; I recall thinking well of it.
I don’t know if Mr. Peter Hitchens reads Machen, but he sounds amazingly like a modern-day Machen in this delightful piece you’ll probably want to save.