In ‘A fragment of Life’ (1922) Athur Machen expounds one of his major themes- the transmutation of the mundane world into a place of wonder through the perception of a spiritually aware observer. The story opens with a juxtaposition of the protagonist Edward Darnell’s dream of ‘an ancient wood’ with the ‘varnish of the new furniture’ in his suburban home.
‘Edward Darnell awoke from a dream of an ancient wood, and of a clear well rising into grey film and vapour beneath a misty, glimmering heat; and as his eyes opened he saw the sunlight bright in the room, sparkling on the varnish of the new furniture’.
Machen also contrasts Darnell’s spiritual journey through surroundings perceived though a nascent higher consciousness with a routine bus journey to his place of work in ‘the city.’
‘Yes, I think every journey was a success. Of course, I didn’t go so far afield every day; I was too tired. Often I rested all day long, and went out in the evening, after the lamps were lit, and then only for a mile or two. I would roam about old, dim squares, and hear the wind from the hills whispering in the trees; and when I knew I was within call of some great glittering street, I was sunk in the silence of ways where I was almost the only passenger, and the lamps were so few and faint that they seemed to give out shadows instead of light. And I would walk slowly, to and fro, perhaps for an hour at a time, in such dark streets, and all the time I felt what I told you about its being my secret—that the shadow, and the dim lights, and the cool of the evening, and trees that were like dark low clouds were all mine, and mine alone, that I was living in a world that nobody else knew of, into which no one could enter.’
‘But in spite of these distractions he fell into a dream as the ‘bus rolled and tossed on its way Citywards, and still he strove to solve the enigma of his vigil of the night before, and as the shapes of trees and green lawns and houses passed before his eyes, and as he saw the procession moving on the pavement, and while the murmur of the streets sounded in his ears, all was to him strange and unaccustomed, as if he moved through the avenues of some city in a foreign land’.
Despite his limitations Darnell becomes aware of a greater reality than that of mere ‘common sense’
‘It was, perhaps, on these mornings, as he rode to his mechanical work, that vague and floating fancies that must have long haunted his brain began to shape themselves, and to put on the form of definite conclusions, from which he could no longer escape, even if he had wished it. Darnell had received what is called a sound commercial education, and would therefore have found very great difficulty in putting into articulate speech any thought that was worth thinking; but he grew certain on these mornings that the ‘common sense’ which he had always heard exalted as man’s supremest faculty was, in all probability, the smallest and least-considered item in the equipment of an ant of average intelligence’.
Machen describes life as a kind of pilgrimage- condemning a modern world which through concentration on the mundane aspects of life means that ‘a race of pilgrims had become hereditary stone-breakers and ditch-scourers on a track that led to destruction’
‘Life, it seemed to him, was a great search for—he knew not what; and in the process of the ages one by one the true marks upon the ways had been shattered, or buried, or the meaning of the words had been slowly forgotten; one by one the signs had been turned awry, the true entrances had been thickly overgrown, the very way itself had been diverted from the heights to the depths, till at last the race of pilgrims had become hereditary stone-breakers and ditch-scourers on a track that led to destruction—if it led anywhere at all. Darnell’s heart thrilled with a strange and trembling joy, with a sense that was all new, when it came to his mind that this great loss might not be a hopeless one, that perhaps the difficulties were by no means insuperable. It might be, he considered, that the stone-breaker had merely to throw down his hammer and set out, and the way would be plain before him; and a single step would free the delver in rubbish from the foul slime of the ditch’.
The work ends with an epiphany as Darnell realises that that the mundane world is an illusion and the ‘ancient wood’ of his opening dream is a hidden reality.
‘So I awoke from a dream of a London suburb, of daily labour, of weary, useless little things; and as my eyes were opened I saw that I was in an ancient wood, where a clear well rose into grey film and vapour beneath a misty, glimmering heat. And a form came towards me from the hidden places of the wood, and my love and I were united by the well.’
Text of ‘A Fragment of Life’ from ‘The House of Souls’ by Arthur Machen http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25016/25016-h/25016-h.htm