Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin
Originally published in 1918.
Some thirty odd years ago, a young man of twenty-two, the son of a Welsh clergyman, fresh from school and with his head full of a curiously occult mediaevalism, privately acquired from yellowed palimpsests and dog-eared volumes of black letter, wrote a classic. More, he had it published. Only one review copy was sent out; that was to Le Livre, of Paris. It fell into the hands of Octave Uzanne, who instantly ordered Rabelais and Boccaccio to “shove over” on the immortal seats and make room by their side for the author. The book was The Chronicle of Clemendy; the author, Arthur Machen.
Three years ago, about, not long after the great war first shook the world, a London evening newspaper published inconspicuously a purely fictional account of a supposed incident of the British retreat from Mons. It described the miraculous intervention of the English archers of Agincourt at a time when the British were sore pressed by the German hordes. Immediately, churchmen, spiritualists, and a host of others, seized upon it as an authentic record and the miracle as an omen. In the hysteria that followed, Arthur Machen, its author, found himself a talked-of man, because he wrote to the papers denying that the narrative was factual. Later, when his little volume, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, appeared in print, it met with an extraordinary and rather impertinent success.
But what had Machen been doing all those long years between 1885 and 1914?
In a day of haphazard fiction and rodomontade criticism, the advent of a master workman is likely to be unheralded, if, indeed, he is fortunate enough to find a publisher to put him between covers. Mr. Machen is not a newcomer, however, as we have seen; no immediate success with a “best seller” furnishes an incentive for a complimentary notice. He is an unknown, in spite of Clemendy, in spite of “The Bowmen,” in spite of everything. For thirty years he has been writing English prose, a period ample for the making of a dozen reputations of the ordinary kind, and in that time he has produced just ten books. In thirty years Harold Bindloss and Rex Beach will have written one-hundred-and-ten books and sold the moving picture rights of them all.
Of course, it is exactly because he does not write books of the ordinary kind that Arthur Machen’s reputation as a writer was not made long ago. His apotheosis will begin after his death. The insectial fame of the “popular” novelist is immediate; it is born at dawn and dies at sunset. The enduring fame of the artist too often is born at sunset, but it is immortal.