Word and Voice:

The Sound of Arthur Machen

Every writer, great or small, creates not only the voices for the characters of his imagination, but lends his own voice for the discernment of a careful reader. For our enjoyment or discomfort, it may add a distinct timbre that can be found throughout that writer’s body of work. Charles Dickens sounds like Dickens, and never like Wilkie Collins.

For once, and perhaps for the only time, we are able to hear the actual, physical voice of Arthur Machen.

The following brief audio clip is taken from a forgotten BBC Radio program and is probably the only extant recording of the Welsh writer. This is a shame, for the voice of a storyteller reading his own stories is always a revelation. Yet, that circumstance is what makes this relic so precious.

Earlier in the month of this broadcast, Machen had turned 74, so he conjures an image of an elder statesman of letters. Additionally, this year also saw the publication of his final piece of fiction, The Ritual. Afterward, he would live the remaining ten years of his life in relative quiet.

For myself, the first listen granted both a surprise and a comfort. I was first struck by the sonorous, rich tones of a grandfatherly cadence, and as it progressed, I understood this to truly be the voice of the man with which I have spent so many hours via the written word. Here, voice meets word. Machen’s phraseology and syntax becomes incarnated, if only briefly.

As mentioned earlier, it would be wonderful to have a record of Machen reading The Shining Pyramid or The Great Return. As tantalizing as that thought may be, Machen grants us something more vital than the reading of a single tale or poem. In the little time he is given, Machen tells us the great secret for which he had labored his entire life. It is the same message he preached for decades. In every single story, and across the large corpus of articles and personal correspondence, and finally, by the very ether… he insists on this one thing needful.

Literature, like a painting of William Turner, is meant to show us truth… wonderful and inebriated truth… beyond the thin veneer of daily life. Personally, I am grateful to have received it.

Following the clip, a transcription has been provided with notes.

From the March 19, 1937 issue of Radio Times, Page 38:

Points of View, Regional Programme Wales, March 22, 1937 at 7:30 PM

Arthur Machen: This is the last in a series of talks by literary men who have shown an individual attitude towards life and literature. Most of the speakers have been Welshmen by birth and all of them writers who have displayed a keen interest in Wales and all things Welsh.


Machen in 1905.

Announcer: This is the Welsh program, Points of View. The last speaker in this series is Arthur Machen, a man of Gwent and the author of many books including Far Off Things and Things Near and Far. Mr. Arthur Machen…

Machen: I remember G. K. Chestertononce remarking on the essential difference between Dickens and Thackeray. In Dickens, he said… I’m quoting from memory… you admired Mr. Micawber,but you scarcely expected to meet him or anybody like him. In Thackeray, you admired Major Pendennis,but so far from not meeting him, the trouble was to avoid meeting him at your club, if it was a really good club, in pell-mell, in the Row during the season, at Leamington, Bath, Cheltenham, {?} and the autumn shoot. In other words, Major Pendennis is imminently life-like, life-like almost to excess, while nobody has really encountered anyone a bit like Micawber.

And, I am sorry to say that I forget whether G. K. drew the legitimate conclusion, but if he didn’t, I will draw it for you. I knew only that he held it firmly, and that conclusion is that Dickens is an infinitely greater artist than Thackeray, the reason being that the supreme artists have no interest in life-like characters and don’t depict them save perhaps in casual moments of fatigue and depression. The artist creates what neither he nor anybody else has ever seen or ever will see in actual life. The artificer, the secondary man, copies and compounds from the life about him.

You will remember the classic Turnerstory: the lady looks at a flaming canvas and says to the artist, “Well, I never saw such a sunset like that.” Turner replies, “No, but don’t you wish you had?”

There is the principal of it and if we run over the immortal books in our minds, we shall find that we never know anybody a bit like their great characters. No one in ancient Greece had never met anybody at all like Oedipus or Ulysses. And, though they have dug deeply in the Round Table at Caerleon,they have not found sign or trace or relic of King Arthur and his famous knights. No one ever encountered Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they rode through Spain.The raiding Danish kings had never a single Hamlet at their courts or in their companies. And, no one ever drank a cup with Sir John Falstaff at the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap.And, I was speaking of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as men unmet, unseen. So, in our own country, Mr. Pickwick and Sam Wellerwent about it invisible to all eyes save those of Charles Dickens.


1 Though he and Chesterton were acquaintances, Machen had a closer relationship with G. K.’s brother, Cecil.

2 Wilkins Micawber is a character from Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850). The character’s surname has entered into our language as a person who bears hopeful expectations or unending optimism despite difficult circumstances.

3 An uncle to the protagonist, Major Pendennis is a snobbish and interfering character from William Thackeray’s novel, Pendennis (1850).

4 J. M. William Turner (1775-1851) was a brilliant painter of the English Romantic movement. As Machen’s anecdote suggests, his work tended to be vibrant and imaginative.

5 Arthur Machen was born in the Welsh city of Caerleon-on-Usk. The early historian Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155) wrote of Caerleon as King Arthur’s capital in Historia Regum Britanniæ (c. 1136). There has been some suggestion that the excavated Roman amphitheater, which is circular, may be influential in regards to the Round Table element of the legends. (See Castleden, Rodney. King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend. (London; Routledge, 1999.)

6 From an early age, Machen became enamored with Cervantes’s immortal tale. From his volume on ecstasy in literature, Hieroglyphics (1902): “Consider Don Quixote as an example; it is, I suppose, the finest prose romance in existence. Essentially, it expresses the eternal quest of the unknown, that longing, peculiar to man, which makes him reach out towards infinity; and he lifts up his eyes, and he strains his eyes, looking across the ocean, for certain fabled, happy islands, for Avalon that is beyond the setting of the sun. And he comes into life from the unknown world, from glorious places, and all his days he journeys through the world, spying about him, going on and ever on, expecting beyond every hill to find the holy city, seeing signs, and omens, and tokens by the way, reminded every hour of his everlasting citizenship. From the great deep to the great deep he goes-”“The eternal moral, then, of “Don Quixote” is the strife between temporal and eternal, between the soul and the body, between things spiritual and things corporal, between ecstasy and the common life.”“It seems a mere comic incident when the knight dreaming of enchantment is knocked about, and made ridiculous; but I tell you it is the perpetual tragedy of life itself, symbolised.”

7 Sir John Falstaff is a roguish knight who appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays and is mentioned in a fourth. Both boastful and cowardly, he often caroused with criminals and lowlifes at the Boar’s Head Inn.

8 Like Don Quixote, Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1837) had a lasting influence on Machen, so it is quite appropriate for his brief lecture to end with this novel. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of the book, Mark Womald drew similarities in the relationships of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with that of Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller.

All original essays, artwork & supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Christopher Tompkins

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