THE DRAGON OF THE ALCHEMISTS

INTRODUCTION

Edgar Allan Poe, who was so infinitely more wonderful and more admirable than his best lovers suppose, made one great mistake. He is contrasting prose and poetry, and says, strangely, that the object of the former is truth, and of the latter, beauty. This is strange, indeed, in Poe, for none knew better than he that at the last, truth and beauty meet together and are seen to be one. It is difficult, as we must all confess, to avoid confusion when we go down into these deep waters; but for once Poe fell into a compound error. For, be it remembered, he is speaking of literature and nothing but literature. He is not referring to scientific textbooks-I am sure that he never supposed for a moment that his own "Manual of Testacious Malacology", or whatever it was called, waws literature-but to the books which are real books. And yet, for the moment, he seems to confuse truth with science, or information about the surfaces of things; such as facts about the height of Mont Blanc, about the legs of the spider, about the reactions of sulphuric acid, water, and zinc, about the date of the accession of William IV., and the depth of the Atlantic. And I suppose the confusion, which is all but universal, has arisen from a fallacy of derivation. It is true that a spider has six legs, and that William IV. ascended the throne of England in the year 1830; but neither these facts, nor any number of facts in the same order, are the truth, or have any relation, save the remotest, with the truth. What Poe probably meant was that poetry is not a suitable medium for the conveying of facts, information about surfaces-in other words, science, And the proposition is perfectly true; but it applies also to prose, that is to prose considered as a mode of literary expression. Here again is a stumbling block and a cause of confusion. For, while it is perfectly that the Latin grammar and the chemistry handbook are not poetry; it is equally true that they are not prose. They are language used as a vehicle of information; they are neither poetry nor prose. I remember, about fifty-fuve years ago or so, beginning the study of the history of my country with the lines:

 "'In 'fifty-five a Roman host
From Gaul assailed our southern coast."

 I decline to argue the question of what that medium may be; I suspect that it is beyond all definition.

Let it not be supposed that I desire in any way to sneer at science. There are excellent souls whose vocation it is to know all about stamens and pistils, the geology of Snowdon, the date of the second Reform Bill, and the name of King Alfred's grandmother. Mankind is infinitely curious, even about trifles, and I would not have it otherwise. What I want to make clear is that these trifles are no affair of literature or painting or any of the arts. Art is not concerned with true things-the particular-but with the truth-the universal-which is but another aspect of Beauty.

And it has always appeared to me that this eternal and universal Beauty or Truth, which is the subject-matter of all Art, is also the eternal and universal mystery or secret. Here you have in the book before you by Frederick Carter images of the shapes of men and women, shapes of fire, shapes of water; shapes single and shapes in combination with other shapes. And I suppose I need not labour the point that Mr. Carter has not drawn his curious and significant figures with the object of offering us instruction in anatomy or in the detail of any other natural sciences. He sees the external, natural, visible world, no doubt, well and clearly - I am not an art critic - but he chiefly sees through that natural and visible and temporal array and order; and sees beyond it to the eternal and spiritual world within. And this is the real world as distinguished from the actual world; and only those who discern it have any claim to the title of realists. This is true of all things; small or great, apparently trivial or apparently important. I was particularly struck by the picture which Mr. Carter has called Blind Understanding, where groups and masses of people are assembled in a vast and ancient hall, a place of gloom and doom, as it appears to me; a hall of judgments that are devoid of light, or knowledge, or compassion. And oddly enough, it at once recalled to my mind a very different assemblage that I witnessed a few years ago, in the days when I was a newspaper reporter. It was in the black time of the war, and a great popular meeting was to be held in Trafalgar Square, by way of appeal to all of us to subscribe to the War Loan - if that were its title. I was sent to describe this meeting, and did so as well as I could, stressing, of course, the national and patriotic significance of the great gathering. But as I wrote, standing by the eastern parapet of the square, it all assumed for me quite another aspect. There was, if I remember, some sort of platform or pavilion under the northern parapet of the square, where civic dignitaries were grouped in their robes, whence the great men spoke. Beneath them was the great mass and multitude of the people, thronged densely together. And then again, the paces and steps that form the base of the Nelson Column were occupied by line above line of men, as if arranged in a certain solemn order, according to their dignities and offices, according to the part assigned to them in some tremendous ritual. But that which chiefly caught at my heart was this. There are in Trafalgar Square lines of granite posts, between three and four feet high, as I suppose. On each of these posts a man was standing, so that he might get a better view of what was being done. But the impression, as I received it, was quite ineffable. Here were these men, high above the crowd, standing in regular and equal order, each in his set place; and I immediately named them in my mind the Witnesses, and wondered what sonorous and terrible proclamations they were presently to utter to the multitude. And so, it will be seen, I had gone far enough from the actual object of this huge gathering of men, and from the actuality of men who climbed as high as they could, on plinth or pillars, to see as well as possible. And yet the reality, as it was presented to me, was not out of all relation with the actualities of the scene. The rite or drama which I witnessed was, somehow, concerned with the awful war which then raged through all the world; and as I have mentioned the word "drama," I am reminded that I thought vaguely of the vast theatre at Athens and the multitudes that gathered there to hear how the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, how terrible beings pursue the bloodguilty man, how the mighty are set down from their seat; and above all, perhaps, there was in my mind the drama of "The Persians," and of the ruin of the insolent king. And so I saw in Trafalgar Square, as Mr. Bonar Law, or Mr. Lloyd George, or the Lord Mayor of London asked for liberal subscriptions, some unearthly drama of the Great War, set with scenic apparatus of vast and awful significance.

And as I have said, this principle of aliquid latet - of there being something hidden beneath the surface of the world - applies equally to things small and to things great. Tennyson saw the hidden mystery of the universe in the tiny flower growing in a cranny of the wall; it may appear again if the gipsies light a fire of broken sticks on a dark hill in a wild land; it is seen in the splendour of the starry heavens; it is seen also in a well by the wayside, where the cold water bubbles up from the rock in burning weather, and the basin of rock that contains it is decked with magic, delicate greenery, glittering from the drippings of the rock. And note the word "magic." It is not a vague flourish. It is used deliberately to signify that in such a wayside well there is much more than meets the eye, and a satisfaction of the spirit that is above the satisfaction of the body when its thirst is quenched by the cold bubblings of the well. We know that there is another road where the sun burns wearily and the dust is thick and bitter on our lips in this way of our pilgrimage: and on this road also are wells of wonderful refreshment, and there is cool greenness to rejoice tired and sorrowful eyes. We pass through, we perceive sensibly, temporal things in order that we may gain eternal things, the everlasting essences that are at once hidden in the visible and tangible and audible universe and communicated by it.

All things are because they are wonderful: I wrote that sentence many long years ago, and every year teaches me how true a saying it is. If this wonder, which is another name for the hidden secret of which I have spoken, were taken away, then our race would have fallen a second time. Nothing would have changed, but everything would have changed. Water would quench thirst as before, but after the manner in which it quenches the thirst of a horse or a dog. The green things would grow as richly as ever about the overrunnings of the well, but they would be invisible to us - unless, indeed, they were good to eat. All the arts would become impossible and incredible, for the arts only exist to manifest the secret mystery. I suppose that if you put a picture before a cat or a dog, there is a sense in which the animal may be said to see it; and yet in our sense it does not see it at all. In short, the wonder of the world once removed, the whole world as we know it would cease to exist, for it exists and subsists in wonder. And we should have fallen from the place of man to the place of the beasts.

It is thus, I think, that Mr Carter's symbols, and all truly-conceived symbols are to be justified. It is clearly the duty of all of us to see the truth and then to tell it - if the gift of tongues has been bestowed upon us. And the only way of telling the truth is by means of the symbol: the part that is put for the whole; that whole which for our lips is ineffable. The world is a cypher. He does best who hints most closely at the secret message latent in the signs exhibited to us.

ARTHUR MACHEN

Thanks to Mandrake Press for providing me with a digital copy of this Introduction