Arthur Machen and the 'Beautiful Symbolism of Alchemy'

Photograph of Arthur Machen from the 'South Wales Argus'

Arthur Machen (1863–1947) is one of a number of writers of fantastic fiction such as Charles Williams (1886-1945) whose spirituality permeates their work. Like Williams Machen combines a mystical Christianity with an interest in esoteric practices. This includes the practice of spiritual alchemy which underwent a revival in the writer’s formative years in the nineteenth century through the publication of such works as Mary Ann Attwood’s ‘A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery (1850) Ethan Allen Hitchcock’s ‘Remarks Upon Alchymists’ (1855) and ‘The Hermetic Museum’ (1893) by A. E. Waite. Machen wrote of his interest in spiritual alchemy in the first volume of his biography ‘Far Off Things’ (1922) in which he claimed to have first heard of alchemy in a family magazine.

 “…you would expect to find good things of all sorts in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens, but you would hardly expect to find there the curious thing or the out-of-the-way thing. Still, it was in a volume of “Household Words” that I first read about alchemy in a short series of papers which (I have since recognised) were singularly well-informed and enlightened. I do not wish it to be understood that I myself have any strong convictions on the matter of turning inferior metals into superior, though I believe the later trend of science is certainly in favour of the theoretical possibility of such a process. Nor do I hold any distinct brief for the very fascinating doctrine which maintains, or would like to maintain, that the great alchemical books are really symbolical books; that while seeming to relate to lead and gold, to mercury and silver, they hide under these figures intimations as to a profound and ineffable transmutation of the spirit; that the experiment to which they relate is the Great Experiment of the mystics, which is the experiment of God. This, I say, is a fascinating theory; whether it have any truth in it I know not, and perhaps it is one of those questions of which Sir Thomas Browne speaks; questions difficult, indeed, and perplexed, but not beyond all conjecture. But, however this may be, I recollect that those articles in that old, half-calf bound volume of “Household Words,” while not affirming this, that, or the other doctrine as to alchemy in so many distinct words, did suggest that a few of the old alchemists, at all events, were something more than blundering simpletons engaged on a quest which was a patent absurdity, which could only have been entertained by the besotted superstition of “the dark ages,” which had this one claim to our attention inasmuch as the modern science of chemistry rose from the ashes of its foolish fires”.

“To the lovers in Mr. Stephen Phillips’s drama of “Paolo and Francesca” the earth appears a greener green, the heavens a bluer blue; all beautiful things are raised to a higher power by the fire of their passion; the whole world is alchemised. And this state, which is a result of love, is the condition of imaginative work in literature, and so the man who is to make romances sees everything and feels everything acutely, or, as Mr. Masefield says, excessively. Now there would be nothing amiss in this state of things if these exalted and intensified perceptions could be utilised when there was a question of making a book and then abrogated and laid aside with pen and ink and paper. Unluckily, however, this cannot be so managed; and too often the dealer in dreams finds that his magic magnifying glass is tight fixed to his eyes and cannot be moved. And thus a mere common bore or nuisance appears to him as dreadful as Nero or Heliogabalus, the possibility of missing a train is as tragical as “Hamlet,” and the pettiest griefs swell into the hugest sorrows”

Several passages  in his semi-autobiographical work ‘The Hill of Dreams’ (1907) also make extended reference to spiritual alchemy including a comparison of the work of the artist to that of the alchemist: transmuting the base metal of experience into the gold of art.

“Often he spent the night in the cool court of his villa, lying amidst soft cushions heaped upon the marble bench. A lamp stood on the table at his elbow, its light making the water in the cistern twinkle. There was no sound in the court except the soft continual plashing of the fountain. Throughout these still hours he would meditate, and he became more than ever convinced that man could, if he pleased, become lord of his own sensations. This, surely, was the true meaning concealed under the beautiful symbolism of alchemy. Some years before he had read many of the wonderful alchemical books of the later Middle Ages, and had suspected that something other than the turning of lead into gold was intended. This impression was deepened when he looked into Lumen de Lumine by Vaughan, the brother of the Silurist, and he had long puzzled himself in the endeavor to find a reasonable interpretation of the hermetic mystery, and of the red powder, “glistening and glorious in the sun.” And the solution shone out at last, bright and amazing, as he lay quiet in the court of Avallaunius. He knew that he himself had solved the riddle, that he held in his hand the powder of projection, the philosopher’s stone transmuting all it touched to fine gold; the gold of exquisite impressions. He understood now something of the alchemical symbolism; the crucible and the furnace, the “Green Dragon,” and the “Son Blessed of the Fire” had, he saw, a peculiar meaning. He understood, too, why the uninitiated were warned of the terror and danger through which they must pass; and the vehemence with which the adepts disclaimed all desire for material riches no longer struck him as singular. The wise man does not endure the torture of the furnace in order that he may be able to compete with operators in pork and company promoters; neither a steam yacht, nor a grouse-moor, nor three liveried footmen would add at all to his gratifications. Again Lucian said to himself: “Only in the court of Avallaunius is the true science of the exquisite to be found.”

“He saw the true gold into which the beggarly matter of existence may be transmuted by spagyric art; a succession of delicious moments, all the rare flavors of life concentrated, purged of their lees, and preserved in a beautiful vessel. The moonlight fell green on the fountain and on the curious pavements, and in the long sweet silence of the night he lay still and felt that thought itself was an acute pleasure, to be expressed perhaps in terms of odor or color by the true artist”.

“They were good nights to remember, these; he was glad to think of the little ugly room, with its silly wall-paper and its “bird’s-eye” furniture, lighted up, while he sat at the bureau and wrote on into the cold stillness of the London morning, when the flickering lamplight and the daystar shone together. It was an interminable labor, and he had always known it to be as hopeless as alchemy. The gold, the great and glowing masterpiece, would never shine amongst the dead ashes and smoking efforts of the crucible, but in the course of the life, in the interval between the failures, he might possibly discover curious things”.

“He had fallen into the habit of always using this phrase “the work” to denote the adventure of literature; it had grown in his mind to all the austere and grave significance of “the great work” on the lips of the alchemists; it included every trifling and laborious page and the vague magnificent fancies that sometimes hovered below him. All else had become mere by-play, unimportant, trivial; the work was the end, and the means and the food of his life—it raised him up in the morning to renew the struggle, it was the symbol which charmed him as he lay down at night. All through the hours of toil at the bureau he was enchanted, and when he went out and explored the unknown coasts, the one thought allured him, and was the colored glass between his eyes and the world”.

In ‘The Great Return’ (1915) the writer refers to experience of the supernatural as being like passing ‘through the Furnace of the Sages, governed with Wisdom that the alchemists know’.

“And thus the sailors; and thus their tales are incredible; but they are not incredible. I believe that men of the highest eminence in physical science have testified to the occurrence of phenomena every whit as marvellous, to things as absolutely opposed to all natural order, as we conceive it; and it may be said that nobody minds them. “That sort of thing has always been happening,” as my friend remarked to me. But the men, whether or no the fire had ever been without them, there was no doubt that it was now within them, for it burned in their eyes. They were purged as if they had passed through the Furnace of the Sages, governed with Wisdom that the alchemists know. They spoke without much difficulty of what they had seen, or had seemed to see, with their eyes, but hardly at all of what their hearts had known when for a moment the glory of the fiery rose had been about them”.

In ‘The Secret Glory’ (1922) Machen writes of the visit of the ‘Arabic Alchemist’ to the court of Caliph Haroun.

“…I once read of the Arabic Alchemist. He came to the Caliph Haroun with a strange and extravagant proposal…The Commander of the Faithful was to gather together all the wealth of his entire kingdom, omitting nothing that could possibly be discovered; and while this was being done the magician said that he would construct a furnace of peculiar shape in which all these splendours and magnificences and treasures of the world must be consumed in a certain fire of art, prepared with wisdom. And at last, he continued, after the operation had endured many days, the fire being all the while most curiously governed, there would remain but one drop no larger than a pearl, but glorious as the sun to the moon and all the starry heavens and the wonders of the compassionate; and with this drop the Caliph Haroun might heal all the sorrows of the universe”.


Anon, Alchemy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: [Accessed April 5, 2012a].

Anon, Arthur Machen – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: [Accessed January 22, 2012b].

Anon, Friends of Arthur Machen Website homepage: Horror Fantastic and Supernatural Fiction. Available at: [Accessed January 23, 2012c].

Anon, The Project Gutenberg eBook of Far Off Things, by Arthur Machen. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012d].

Anon, The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Great Return, by Arthur Machen. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012e].

Anon, The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Secret Glory, by Arthur Machen. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012f].

Anon, The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Terror, by Arthur Machen. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012g].

Anon, The Project Gutenberg E-text of The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012h].

Anon, Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012i].

Machen,Arthur, Hill of Dreams. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2012].



4 thoughts on “Arthur Machen and the 'Beautiful Symbolism of Alchemy'

  1. Interesting ! Thomas Vaughan alludes to Sir Thomas Browne in his writings. Did not know of Machen’s allusion to Browne, who was a hermetic man through and through, –

    ‘The smattering I have of the Philosopher’s Stone (which is something more than the perfect exaltation of gold) has taught me a great deal of divinity.’ -Religio Medici. (The very word ‘spagyricci’ can be found inscribed on Sir T.B.’s coffin-plate)

    Machen seems to have picked up on this quintessential aspect of Browne far more than his contemporary Virginia Woolf who seems to have admired his literary style alone.

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