Arthur Machen’s literary reputation and stretch, in his lifetime as now, is considerable. He was awarded a Civil List Pension for the last fifteen years of his life, and in 1943, four years before he died at the age of 84, the literary appeal launched to address his frail finance received the support of, among others, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Max Beerbohm, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare and John Masefield. Wilde, Bram Stoker, Conan Doyle and Yeats are some of the ardent contemporary devotees who held him in high regard; Paul Bowles, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alesteir Crowley, Betjeman and Borges are some of the figures for whom he was a significant influence later, as well as any number of successive horror and fantasy writers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Stephen King. He was a forerunner of psychogeography, for his vivid prose relates the landscape as in a symbiotic relationship with the mind. Yet Machen produced no substantial body of work – the Caerleon Edition of his collected works, produced in 1923, ran to nine volumes only – and he was seemingly all but spent as a writer by the age of 40. But, even if he never contributed to Henry Harland’s The Yellow Book, he can be said to represent a distillation of the literary world of the 1890s, its bohemian spirit, its fixation with the arcane (in his case the mystical rather than the occult), and its decadent and gothic aesthetic. He was also in many ways a prototype literary model for the twentieth century: he presaged the book world’s commercial cascade, when writing fractured into genres, as if a pack of red balls struck by a cue ball on the snooker table.
This book’s title had its points of reference for its late-Victorian audience, succumbed to both paganism and Pan. It is borrowed specifically from a refrain from Browning’s poem ‘A Musical Instrument’, but has echoes of use from other poets and from Swinburne and Stevenson. The Great God Pan was inspired by Machen’s visit to a ruined pagan temple in Caerwent, east of Newport. It defies category and has been held to be an example of either Gothic horror or supernatural pagan fantasy or science fiction.
ARTHUR MACHEN (1863 – 1947) was the pen name of Arthur Llewellyn Jones. He was born in Caerleon, Monmouthshire; the Gwent landscape and mythology was to influence greatly his writing and interests. His father’s side of the family were clergymen, but a lifelong interest in the esoteric was fostered, it seems, when, aged only eight: Machen read an article on alchemy from a volume of Dicken’s Household Words found in his father’s library.
Early work as a journalist and cataloguing books for bookseller and publisher, George Redway, in London supported his writing; for Redway he translated also from French (his translations of Marguerite de Navarre and Casanova were literary models for decades after). It is said that Machen lived on dry bread, tobacco and green tea. His first publication was a poem published anonymously; his first book, The Anatomy of Tobacco, was published in 1884, for which he used a pseudonym in 1884. By 1890 he had become more confident and ambitious, and Machen started to move in literary circles, in part through his wife’s connections with London’s bohemian circles (he married a music teacher, Amy Hogg, in 1887), in part through his abandonment of his hitherto pastiche, antiquated style of writing, and in part because he began to be published in more sparky literary magazines, mostly short stories in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson. Machen had gained by now a modest financial independence through small family endowments he received through his wife, and journalism was to take a back seat in his life. What was to become the first chapter of The Great God Pan was published that year in The Whirlwind; its third chapter was published in the following year, although it was only later that Machen thought to connect these two disparate pieces; most else of the novella was written at one sitting. The book met with rejection, but was published eventually in 1894 by John Lane’s Bodley Head, whose Keynotes Series was a standard bearer for the aesthetic movement; Aubrey Beardsley provided the cover illustration. The unfavourable attention it received on moral grounds did not harm its sales. The Three Imposters was published in 1895, a threaded collection of short stories, the most anthologised of which are The Black Seal and The White Powder.
Machen’s association with decadent genres served to slow his career after the Oscar Wilde scandal and its moral backlash; to place his writing with mainstream publishers proved difficult. The Hill of Dreams, an autobiographical novel that many consider to be Machen’s literary high tide, was written at this time, but it was not published until 1907; The White People, now considered a classic horror short story, was not published in a magazine until 1904, and in book form only in 1906.
In 1899, the trajectory of Machen’s literary career suffered a catastrophic blow. His wife’s death caused both steep depression and a spiritual awakening. Thereafter he pursued an acting career, journalism, and his interest in Celtic religion and the Grail with more rigour, although a collection of short stories, The House of Souls, was published in 1906, and he wrote The Secret Glory at this time, though this was published only in 1922; some propagandist fiction was published during the First World War. The early 1920s saw a revival of interest in Machen’s work, especially in the United States where James Branch Cabell and Carl van Vechten championed him. This renewed success was short-lived and not necessarily financially rewarding (he had sold previously the rights to much of his writing). Machen’s later years, a retirement from St. John’s Wood to Amersham in leafy Buckinghamshire, were sociable but produced no work.
Machen’s worldview changed subtlety over years. In his later life he was reconciled with a High Church Anglicanism, but at heart he was a medievalist and disapproved strongly of the Reformation; he had felt almost at ease with Catholic ritual. He was emotionally opposed to science and materialism. Essentially he was a sensual mystic, his hotchpotch belief culled from the Kaballah to Hermeticism, from alchemy touching on aspects of the occult, above all else from Celtic Christianity; his friendship with the mystic poet and esoteric A. E. Waite was both enduring and influential. Machen’s overriding imprimatur however was his quest for ‘ecstasy’, the “rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.” His literary theory is presented in his tortuous book Hieroglyphics (1902), too ornate and prolix for today’s taste (Machen was no essayist). The search for ‘ecstasy’ applied to the writers he admired most — from Cervantes, Johnson and Dickens to Poe and Stevenson — but also to the world he himself inhabited, as well as the one portrayed in his writings. “Ecstasy,” wrote Machen, “is at once the most exquisite of emotions and a whole philosophy of life.” It was John Gawsworth, Machen’s friend and first biographer, who wrote that he had heard Caradoc Evans state that Machen only wrote that which God chose to write through him. Arthur Machen’s prose still sparkles today; it flows and is beautifully lyrical. It is hard to disagree with Evans.