Ecstasy in Literature: Reading Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a beautifully produced new edition of Arthur Machen’s study of literature

The Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947) wrote some truly unsettling horror fiction, some notable novels about the Holy Grail, some subtle pioneering weird fiction (which I’ve previously reviewed here), and what many (including myself) consider his masterpiece, the 1907 novel The Hill of Dreams, in which the struggling author Lucian Taylor has a series of visions of ancient Roman Britain while living in the Welsh hills. Yet Machen remains unknown to many people, even avid fans of writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and H. P. Lovecraft (on whom Machen was a considerable influence). Even those who’ve heard of him often mispronounce his name (it’s MACK-un, in case you were wondering).

Machen never really got the recognition he deserved even during his lifetime. After a brief period of fame – and then, following the appearance of the ‘scandalous’ book The Three Impostors in 1895, notoriety – he largely disappeared from public view, although he continued to write. He was arguably writing at the peak of his powers in the ten years stretching from the early 1890s to the early 1900s. This week’s Secret Library choice, his non-fiction book Hieroglyphics, dates from towards the end of this decade of activity. Published in 1902, the book is subtitled A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature. The book has recently been republished by the small publisher, Tartarus Press, which has for many years championed Machen’s work and rescued it from oblivion.

In Hieroglyphics, Machen propounds his theory that ‘fine literature’ (a phrase used throughout) contains the quality which he calls ‘Ecstasy’. Machen’s persona in the book, known simply as the Hermit, states that Ecstasy is ‘the infallible instrument, as I think, by which fine literature may be discerned from reading-matter, by which art may be known from artifice, and style from intelligent expression.’

But what is ‘Ecstasy’? Machen’s attempts to pin it down are only partially successful, and we are left with a stimulating but only semi-convincing account of how the ecstatic manifests itself in great literature. Machen is controversial in choosing his examples:

I claim, then, that here we have the touchstone which will infallibly separate the higher from the lower in literature, which will range the innumerable multitude of books in two great divisions, which can be applied with equal justice to a Greek drama, an eighteenth century novelist, and a modern poet, to an epic in twelve books, and to a lyric in twelve lines. I will convince you of my belief in my own nostrum by a bold experiment: here is Pickwick and here is Vanity Fair; the one regarded as a popular ‘comic’ book, the other as a serious masterpiece, showing vast insight into human character; and applying my test, I set Pickwick beside the Odyssey, and Vanity Fair on top of the political pamphlet.

What emerges, then, is Machen’s own personal ‘canon’ of great literature, which eschews Great Works that are ‘great’ for often nebulous or even spurious reasons (‘masterpiece’, ‘insight into human character’) in favour of works which are often left out of the room when Great Masterpieces are being discussed. The problem is not that Machen would opt for The Pickwick Papers over Vanity Fair (I’m inclined to agree with him on that), but the grounds on which he justifies such a preference beyond subjective personal taste.

Nevertheless, Hieroglyphics provides an insight into the literary tastes of a fascinating and varied writer, as well as provoking discussion of what exactly characterises great literature if it isn’t, at bottom, some kind of enjoyment, whether we call that by the name ‘Ecstasy’ or, as Machen himself acknowledges, some other name, such as ‘rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.’

This handsomely produced new edition of Machen’s book, Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literarure, contains Machen’s ‘A Note on Poetry’ as well as two essays which bookend Machen’s text: an introduction by D. P. Watt (himself one of the leading lights of British weird fiction; I own a copy of his short-story collection, Almost Insentient, Almost Divine, which I treasure) which grounds Machen’s theories in philosophy, and an informative and astute afterword by Nicholas Freeman.

Freeman’s essay on ‘ecstasy and epiphany’ in Machen’s work reminds us that, despite his conflicted views about Catholicism, Machen clearly had a reverence for much Catholic ritual alongside his interest in Wales’s pagan past. In this respect, he seems to be not so much the precursor to writers of ‘the Weird’ like H. P. Lovecraft as the forerunner to another Welsh writer, the poet and artist David Jones, whose writing is similarly informed by the author’s fascination with the Catholic mass and ideas of epiphany arising out of the history of the Welsh landscape.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

2 thoughts on “Ecstasy in Literature: Reading Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics”

Leave a Reply

Discover more from Interesting Literature

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading