Monday, February 4, 2019

Ornaments in Jade by Arthur Machen

Published in 1924 by Alfred A. Knopf, the print run was limited to one thousand copies, all signed by the author. I own number # 378. My copy is dog-eared, faded, so much so that only a digital scan and restoration of the title page revealed the green ink they used on the scrollwork. No reissue occurred by Knopf, although modern reprints now exist because the book is in the public domain. Machen’s popularity at the time resulted in this book’s publication. The book is comprised of ten short prose pieces that read like poetry. The sections are not connected and the book seems like a virtuoso piece. I have never encountered any source material by Machen explaining the book’s intent, so what I’m left with are assumptions. With these vignettes Machen explores folklore, sensuality, the pleasures of decadence and mysticism. Ornaments, by their definition, are used exclusively to make something attractive. So Machen has taken his pen, put his mind to work, and decorated these pages with symbols and ideas and story fragments. The prose is often hypnotic: “The old farm-house on the hill flushed rose in the afterglow, and then, as the dusk began to mount from the brook, faded and yet grew brighter, its whitewashed walls gleaming as though light flowed from them, as the moon gleams when the red clouds turn grey.” There is a hint of other worlds, seldom seen, and accessible to a rare few individuals. His topics and minimal characterizations flit across the pages, ethereal, confounding by their lack of depth, leaving us yearning for more. Here, he delivers but small doses; Machen is offering us naught but ornaments. The ten sections offer various topics: The Rose Garden, The Turanians, The Idealist, Witchcraft, The Ceremony, Psychology, Torture, Midsummer, Nature and The Holy Things. Ornaments in Jade is barely 60 printed pages, with the special signature page at the end. As a Machen fan I find Ornaments in Jade at once delightful but lacking in depth. I prefer more, and indeed he gave us more the prior year with The Chronicle of Clemendy, but that book was a work of medieval satire. Ornaments in Jade is best viewed as a prose poem, offered to us as a dessert in a literary banquet. The main feast would include The Hill of Dreams and The Great God Pan, and perhaps The Bowman. Perhaps the book is meant for a select few, such as those connoisseurs that prefer jade over turquoise. Ornaments in Jade might be thought of as a minor work by some, but I view Ornaments in Jade’s ripe imagery and short simplicity as elements that help make it a mysterious but essential piece of Arthur Machen’s canon.

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