Far Off Things: Arthur Machen, the Mystic of Gwent

South-east Wales has fired the imaginations of writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wordsworth and Tennyson, who were each stirred by its mythic connections to Arthurian legend or its then untouched beauty. Arthur Machen was similarly impressed by its history, its hills and rivers, but he also possessed a singularly strange vision of Gwent – regarding the landscape, with his birthplace of Caerleon at its spiritual centre, as some form of portal in which all time could be collapsed and all concepts of space exploded.  The landscape of Gwent he regarded not only as the place of his boyhood dreaming, but also a means by which the universe beyond the obscuring veil of our perceived ‘real’ world might be glimpsed – one in which Keats’ notion that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ was an objective and eternal law.

Machen’s typically idiosyncratic autobiography, Far Off Things, was republished earlier this year by Newport imprint Three Impostors, in a handsomely produced limited edition of two-hundred and fifty copies. The author’s explorations of terror and the supernatural have always enjoyed a cult following – any writer who numbers Mick Jagger, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, H.P Lovecraft, John Betjeman, Jorge Luis Borges and Guillermo Del Toro among his admirers can be said to have an eclectic fan base – but Far Off Things merits our particular attention as it provides such a compelling account of Machen’s mystical connection with his native Gwent and his agonising attempts to render it in words.

Gwent was of much greater importance to Machen than an imaginative playground that he could populate with reincarnations of long-dead apocryphal creatures and ghostly spirits. From his earliest days, he was haunted by an apprehension that nature was supremely indifferent to human fate. So while the landscape of Gwent remained a site of great beauty for Machen, it also evoked within him tremendous terror and an overwhelming sense of his insignificance. The first and last chapters of Far Off Things detail a series of long walks the young Machen frequently undertook from Caerleon out to Wentwood, or to the hills just north of Newport, or out towards Usk or Caerwent (we might debate whether or not he was a ‘great’ writer but he was most certainly a great walker) during which he recalls falling into ecstasies of joy and awe at his surroundings. Here Machen recalls one such walk:

I saw everything in something of the spirit in which the first explorers gazed on the tropical luxuriance and strangeness of the South American forests, on the rock cities of Peru, on the unconjectured seas that burst upon them from the peak of Darien, on the wholly unimagined splendours of the Mexican monarchy.

This brief excerpt evidences the hypnotic rhythms of Machen’s prose, his incantatory invocation of place names that possess their individual magic and mystery, and his immense imaginative power. While nature might have been indeed indifferent to Machen, his responses to Gwent were of an intense engagement that verged on the religious in its passionate intensity. Reconciling the natural beauty of his native Gwent with the terrors it also inspired in him formed the dialectic that would shape almost all of Machen’s fiction, as he notes in Far Off Things, his work ’had all been the expression of one formula, one endeavour. What I had been doing is this; I had been inventing tales in which and by which I had tried to realise my boyish impressions of that wonderful magic Gwent’.

The middle section of Far Off Things is concerned with Machen’s attempts in his early twenties to forge a literary career in late-Victorian London. As Catherine Fisher observes, in her foreword to the new edition, Gwent and London were ‘always the poles of Machen’s existence, his imagination oscillated between them, they were opposites and each attracted him irresistibly’.  Whilst in London, Machen struggled, often in the face of extreme poverty, to develop a literary style and suitable medium through which he could express his highly individual vision of nature and its great mystery. His aim was always to ‘depict the eternal, inner realities – the things that really are of Plato – as opposed to the description of transitory external surfaces; the delusory masks and dominoes with which the human heart drapes and hides itself.’ For Machen, the veil of our physical word obscured a noumenal universe that was timeless and of a more profound order of reality. The literary realism espoused by the likes of George Eliot had no meaning for Machen, he was only interested in what lay underneath the ‘external surfaces’ we mistake for reality.

In the first chapter of Machen’s amazing novella The Great God Pan, the weird and dangerous Dr Raymond makes this challenge to his friend Clarke on the notion of perception and reality:

You see the mountain, and hill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woods and orchard, and the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reaching to the reed-beds by the river… I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these ‘chases in Arras, dreams in a career’, beyond them all as beyond a veil.

Machen is often reduced by many critics as a mere peddler of arcane mythology and occultist fantasy, but if you look closer at his best work it is clear that his ambition was to write novels that would reify those same joys, terrors and awe he had experienced on his childhood walks along the lanes and hillside pathways of Gwent. His stories disturb and perturb us long after we have read them not only because they feature Gothic staples, such as ancient curses and satanic evil, but because they reawaken our suspicion that reality is something that we dimly perceive and always fail to understand. He engages his readers on an emotional level, as the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges observed:  ‘Literature is a game played with words – words are the stock elements – but we should not forget that in the case of masters, and Machen is one of them, this game of algebra and chess reflects an emotion’.

H.P. Lovecraft described Machen as a creator of ‘cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch’ that ‘few can hope to equal’. What is this cosmic fear but an acknowledgement that our waking life might have little more substance than a dream? Or a sneaking dread that even the palpable sensations we daily experience in our bodies are incapable of providing us with a means of understanding the truth about our existence.

Machen appears to have believed that he came up short in his literary quest to lay his hands upon the noumenal reality that winked its existence to him in flashes of ecstasy. To escape the claustrophobic confines of his writer’s garret in Clarendon Road, he resumed his childhood pastime of walking. He traipsed for miles out into the hinterland of London that was only then slowly turning itself into drab suburbia. In a key section of Far Off Things Machen finds himself in semi-rural Harlesden, where he happens upon a ‘red row of houses’ that ‘impressed me as a wholly new and unforeseen horror, something as strange and terrible as the apparition of a rattle-snake or a boa-constrictor… I was as aghast as Robinson Crusoe when he saw the track of the foot on the sand of his desert island’. This passage points to the enduring appeal of Machen, where a lesser writer would convey terror at the sudden appearance of danger, Machen expresses the same on encountering a lonely group of half-built terraced houses.

What was it about these houses that so horrified the young Machen? Did he view them as evidence of the slow, unyielding encroachment of London’s urban blight? Or did he see these houses as proof that metropolitan modernity was emerging out of the city and desecrating the sacred peace of the countryside? Perhaps there is something of both perceptions mingled in Machen’s ‘horror of Harlesden’ but we shall never know the roots of that extreme emotion because he does not provide a full explanation. The Harlesden episode is important to Machen because it illuminates the creative crisis he was undergoing at the time. He writes, ‘I have a secret doctrine to the effect that in literature no imaginative effects are achieved by logical predetermination’. This is arguably a misguided notion, but it is one that indicates what Machen was attempting in his fiction, the expression of awe in the face of the ineffable mystery of our universe. There is no other aim in Machen’s fiction than to place his reader in this emotional state.

An assessment of Machen’s success in achieving this end would require an article of much greater length, but in works such as The Great God Pan, The White People and his masterpiece The Hill of Dreams it can be said that he was able to, at least, powerfully suggest the great truths that seemed to lay just beyond his grasp in the ancient forest of Wentwood or in the hills around Caerleon.

It could be argued that Machen’s primary importance as a writer derives from his enormous influence on those writers who followed him. We find in the fiction of Borges, for example, a similar preoccupation with parallel universes, temporal and spatial paradoxes, arcane literature and the ineffable, but Borges executes his vision with greater control and subtlety. Suffice to say that Borges might have become quite a different writer had he not read Machen.

The chief value of Far Off Things is that it presents a vivid portrait of the artist in genesis. An artist who, by his own admission, was not of the first rank, but an extraordinary man nonetheless, who made a singular contribution to a branch of literature that still appeals to the contemporary imagination. Furthermore, he was able to live out his mystical vision of the world in a manner that may have mitigated any disappointment he might have felt at his achievements. He writes of himself as one of the ‘good people’ who ‘feel that everything is miraculous’ and are ‘continually amazed at the strangeness of the proportion of all things’.

Reading Far Off Things makes you want to venture out into the countryside around Newport, which is surely some of the most beautiful in all Wales, to discover for yourself, what Machen saw and felt in those quiet reveries of awe. One might then also marvel that the mystic vision of Arthur Machen was conceived in these same country lanes and rolling hills – it is a vision that still fires the creativity of contemporary artists such as Guillermo Del Toro who paid the Gwent mystic this tribute:

‘Machen knew that to accept our cosmic insignificance is to achieve a spiritual perspective and ultimately realise that, yes, all is permitted. And that no matter how wicked or perverse we can be, somewhere in the long forgotten realm a mad God awaits, leering – and ready to embrace us all’. Guillermo Del Toro

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis