When Flowers Are Flames

From The Hill of Dreams (1907), by Arthur Machen.

And in the rose-garden every flower was a flame! He thought in symbols, using the Persian imagery of a dusky court, surrounded by white cloisters, gilded by gates of bronze. The stars came out, the sky glowed a darker violet, but the cloistered wall, the fantastic trellises in stone, shone whiter. It was like a hedge of may-blossom, like a lily within a cup of lapis-lazuli, like sea-foam tossed on the heaving sea at dawn. Always those white cloisters trembled with the lute music, always the garden sang with the clear fountain, rising and falling in the mysterious dusk. And there was a singing voice stealing through the white lattices and the bronze gates, a soft voice chanting of the Lover and the Beloved, of the Vineyard, of the Gate and the Way. Oh! the language was unknown; but the music of the refrain returned again and again, swelling and trembling through the white nets of the latticed cloisters. And every rose in the dusky air was a flame.

Two Elizabethans on Wisdom vs. Riches

From The Sixth Booke of the Faerie Qveene, Canto IX, Stanza XXX (1590), by Edmund Spenser.

It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill,
That maketh wretch or happie, rich or poore:
For some, that hath abundance at his will,
Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store;
And other, that hath litle, askes no more,
But in that litle is both rich and wise.
For wisedome is most riches; fooles therefore
They are, which fortunes doe by vowes deuize,
Sith each vnto himselfe his life may fortunize.

And from Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607), by William Shakespeare.

I hold it ever,
Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches: careless heirs
May the two latter darken and expend;
But immortality attends the former,
Making a man a god. ‘Tis known, I ever
Have studied physic, through which secret art,
By turning o’er authorities, I have,
Together with my practise, made familiar
To me and to my aid the blest infusions
That dwell in vegetives, in metals, stones;
And I can speak of the disturbances
That nature works, and of her cures; which doth give me
A more content in course of true delight
Than to be thirsty after tottering honour,
Or tie my treasure up in silken bags,
To please the fool and death.

(The word cunning is used here with its older meaning of dexterity or knowing.)

Sky Watching with J.R.R. Tolkien

This time of the year, when the trees are in their full leafy glory, I always find myself rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. However, I must admit that I have always had mixed feeling about this hugely popular saga. LOTR is an adventure story which seems to be aimed at very juvenile minds. And as such, it has never seemed like something for a grown-up to bother with. All those endless battle descriptions, all those deeds of derring-do, and all of them taking place in a very masculine universe where anything female is pretty much out of sight… well, this isn’t my idea of great literature.

Yet Middle Earth is a wondrously enchanted world which is described with unparalleled vividness. Tolkien possessed astounding imaginative powers. The various types of beings who inhabit his world are so lifelike that they practically jump off the pages. His plot is exciting and compelling. The landscape, vegetation and topography seems even more real that what you can find in, well, reality. And his themes about the evils of power (in LOTR) and the evils of possession (in the Silmarillion) continue to resonate, perhaps even more so today than when the novel was published half a century ago.

Tolkien was also a master at describing the beauties of the natural world. If you read LOTR carefully, you will find yourself frequently stopping to ponder the power of the lyrical descriptions which he gives us. Tolkien could condense a momentary experience of nature’s enchantment into words filled with such energy and meaning that they literally take your breath away. But there is more than just descriptions of nature in these pages—you can also get a sense that something very profound is being revealed about the physical world. All of which means, in my opinion, that Tolkien was a mystical visionary in the best tradition of the great British seers, up to and including Thomas Traherne, William Blake, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. There seems to be something about the British Isles that produces, in generation after generation, men and women who merely have to step outdoors and who can immediately understand the secrets of the physical universe which surround them, secrets which are completely invisible to the rest of us.

Tolkien was up there with the best of them. He lived an ordinary middle class life in an ordinary middle class town, where he would have experienced all the nuisances of modern living, up to and including the eternal sound of the internal combustion engine. But he was as open and as responsive to the wonders of the natural world as any human being who has ever lived. When he turned his eyes to nature, he found beauty, enchantment, and revelation, and he was able to convey his impressions in some of the most evocative prose ever written. Example:

The hobbits sat in shadow by the wayside. Before long the Elves came down the lane towards the valley. They passed slowly, and the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. They bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet.


He watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains and shine down. Slanting through the thin silver mist, the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush.

Try closing your eyes and imagine these kind of scenes, with their shimmering light and wondrous beings. If you’re like me, you don’t just want to read about the enchantment of Middle Earth, you want to crawl right into the sentences and actually live it. Indeed, countless fans of Tolkien have always felt that Middle Earth is a real place, much more real than the ordinary world which surrounds us. Some have even go into convulsions trying to prove that it actually existed in historical time and space. Why do we have to be stuck in drab ordinary 21st century reality? Why can’t we all move to Middle Earth and revel in its enchanted beauty, its melodies, and its shining colors of gold and silver, every day of our lives?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, if Tolkien could find his way into this world, we can, too. All it takes is one little secret. You simply need to go outdoors, lift your chin, and look up. Look up at the sky, mind you, not at the billboards or utility wires or the satellite receivers which surround you. Looking up at the sky is something Tolkien must have done every single day of his life. If you read his books carefully, you see that his descriptions of the natural world almost always involve some kind of light from the sky, and his biographers tell us that he was fascinated with astronomy. If you want to experience the bewitchment of Middle Earth, you simply have to start watching the sky as much as he must have done.

After all, the sky’s endless and ever-changing pageant is available to every human being in every corner of the planet, every hour of the day. But how few of us ever take a moment just to pause and look at all that wonder up there, the light and the clouds and the moon and the stars? Says Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring: “I like walking under the stars.” When I reread this sentence a few years ago, I found myself stopping in astonishment at the thought. Walking under the stars? Just walking? Not going anywhere, not striving for anything, but just being outdoors on a warm summer night and walking under the stars… Had I ever done that in my life? Had anyone? Well, of course not. Who in the world would bother about something so … pointless?

Well, I do. There are times in my life these days when I do leave the house in the middle of the night, just so I can go outdoors to sit or walk in the starlight. Or I get up an extra hour earlier at dawn so I can see the kind of golden light which shone over Lothlorien. Or I take a moment to watch the rain, or the mists rising, or the moon gleaming in an autumn sky. I frequently make time in the evening and so I can watch as the shadows and the twilight start to gather. At times like these, when the world seems to dissolve into spirit, I can easily lose myself in dreams and thoughtless sensation. In other words, I’ve found my way out of Middle West and into Middle Earth.

And all I had to do was look up.

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet

The American Scholar has an interesting new article about the fiftieth anniversary of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  Durrell has always been one of the very few 20th century novelists whose work I have always appreciated.  Certainly he has his weaknesses–he doesn’t know Alexandria the way Joyce knew Dublin or Proust knew Paris, he wastes too much energy playing the antiquated Victorian game of épater le bourgeois (yawn), and by the last volume of his saga it’s obvious that he has run of ideas about what to do with his characters.  But his prose is rich and luminous, his poetry is is first rate, and his ideas make you think.  I also find much to admire in his use of the four primal elements as the underlying metaphysic of the series.  Justine is the fire novel, the saga of passion and spirit, Balthazar is a thoughtful intellectualization of everything that has gone before, Mountolive gives us seasonal cycles and the rhythms of the earth, and Clea shows us both death and rebirth through the power of water.  Fire, air, earth, water–Empedocles would have approved.  The Quartet has its flaws, but compared to the nothingness of most post-modern fiction, it can be very rewarding.