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The Vice of Collecting by Arthur Machen


This year I spent my holiday with a party of collectors, as, in point of fact, I always do spend it. They are not people of mature years, their ages ranging from five to fifteen. They do not collect First Folios or Conrads or Masefields or incunabula—a pleasing word, which means in English very early printed books. They collect shells. Every day, this dozen of children, members of four or five families, comes down to the beach as if for enjoyment. They might bathe in the genial sea, well warmed by the Gulf Stream. They might play games on the mile-long stretch of firm sand. They might get up parties of hide-and-seek among the grassy dunes, up hills and down dales purple with wild thyme, golden with Ladies' Slipper, starred with burnet-roses. The older ones might play golf on the natural links, a wonderful sporting course as I am assured. They might even follow my example and do nothing at all, the best of all sports. Instead of which, they collect shells. As each party arrives, it scatters abroad. Some make for Giltar Head, some for Tenby town, some for the rocks, some for the smooth verge of the sea. In a few minutes the happy party has dissolved itself into melancholy individuals, who walk very slowly to and fro, their bodies bent double, their eyes glued to the sand. Land and sea and sky, craggy rocks and the golden sweep of the bay are all lost for them, blotted out; they see nothing but shells. They gather these shells every day for three weeks. When the night falls they sort them out. Finally, they mount them on sheets of cardboard. And then, the day before the end of the holidays—they throw them away. I believe that the landladies' garden paths consist of the accumulated collections of the last ten years. But commoner sorts gathered with less pains would make as good paths or better. You want about a bushel of pectens to make a foot of good, dry path.

I write, it will be observed, with some degree of venom. But I have always been the enemy of collectors or collections, whether on the large scale or on the small. I love the shell on the seashore, glittering from the water, gleaming and pearly in the sun. That very shell, dry and desiccated, gummed on to a cardboard square, seems to me dull, insignificant, uninteresting. And so with the hedgerows, with the deep, shaded banks where flowers of all kinds flourish and grow luxuriant and great and green, with the eyebright and the pink centaury and the enchanting Ladies' Tresses—an exquisite little orchid—on the dunes; with the singular growth of the water plants at the edge of the great marsh; with that patch of luminous blue at the edge of the deep wood where you would say that summer sky had fallen, if you did not know that the forget-me-not blossomed there every year; with the blue rounds of the chicory, the strangely mingled colours of the viper's bugloss, the dwale or deadly nightshade growing sinister, in stony places; with all these beauties and wonders I am enchanted, and on them in their natural places I cannot gaze long enough. But pick them, dry them, press them to death, bury their poor dead bodies in a folio book and call your crime a Hortus Siccus: then for me all the enchantment is over. These dismal things are not flowers, but the corpses of flowers. You may take your Hortus Siccus, your 'Dry Garden,' to the rubbish heap, for all I care. I don't like corpses. And so with other collections. Years ago a very young man was trying to impart to me the art of sucking eggs with a perseverance and an energy worthy of a better cause. He 'put me through it' smartly, he poured his precious balms of art, literature, culture on my head, he rebuked me in his righteous indignation. Well do I remember his stinging tones as he said to me one day: 'You talk sometimes as if you cared for beautiful things, and yet you never go near the South Kensington Museum!' I hung my head and had not a word to say. The fact was that I had paid a visit to the South Kensington Museum in the year 1880; and this visit had lasted me till 1910. I changed the subject hastily; and soon after my young friend gave me up as a hopeless case. I spent a few more happy years in keeping away from South Kensington Museum; and then one fine day I had to make a second visit, whether I would or no. I shall never forget the horror of that afternoon. Here was another 'Dry Garden'; a collection of beautiful things of all sorts torn from their natural places, their natural purposes, their natural and fit surroundings. The rare and costly plate that should have shone on the cupboard of some high lord was in a case, the chasuble that should have been on a priest's back was in a case, the Persian carpet that should have been on the floor was in a case. In short, everything was out of its place and in a case—except one object, the most melancholy ruin of all. This was, in itself, an exquisite piece of work. It had been an outer winding stairway. It was of carved oak, unpainted and untreated in any way. It was a beautiful piece of fifteenth-century workmanship, and it had been torn from its place, which was, I think, an old house in Rouen. Once, no doubt, these richly balustraded stairs had led up to a doorway as rich, to a goodly house of equal craft and beauty; now they took you to a blank wall and to empty space in the room at South Kensington Museum. I had never thought that there could be such a thing as the corpse of a staircase; but there it was before me; a staircase torn up by the roots, rent from the soil whence it had sprung, deprived of all its fit meaning and significance; truly a ghastly and repulsive spectacle.

I shall be asked, of course, whether I hold that the Rouen staircase should not have been preserved. Certainly I hold that it should be preserved, and preserved in a Museum, for the instruction of technical students, architects, wood carvers, and all such persons. But the general public should not be admitted. It is highly necessary that human bodies should be dissected, that human skeletons should be preserved; for the instruction of students of medicine, surgery, anatomy. But the general sightseer is not admitted to the Dissecting Room or to the Museum of Anatomy. We do not make a general and public show of a charnel house. Then there is another and very virulent form of this crime of collecting; that is the collecting of books. Take a notorious instance; the First Folio of Shakespeare. What on earth does anybody want with a copy of the First Folio? It is a thoroughly ugly book, vilely printed from a very poor fount on indifferent paper. It is quite difficult to read the text, which is choked with printer's errors. Its size makes it thoroughly unhandy. If you possess a copy you must keep it guarded like a royal treasure, for fear of expert thieves. You hardly dare to turn a page for fear of its 'condition' deteriorating. Practically you have to treat the thing as a magpie treats a bit of glass or a ring; that is, bury it; and which, I wonder, is the more sensible, the collector or the magpie? The only person to whom a first folio can do any real good is that happy man, the convinced and enthusiastic Baconian. For him the printer's errors and blunders are a goldmine. Nothing like the First Folio for those who work the various cyphers. No limit to the gorgeous secrets that can be extracted by this method; the hidden history of the Court of Queen Elizabeth, the true parentage of Bacon, the fact that he wrote the whole literature of the age, English and foreign; that he left ground plans and elevations from which Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court and the City churches a little later, that he designed the watermarks (containing great mysteries) for the paper-makers of his time, that he was the founder of the Society of the Rosy Cross, that he knew all about the Sons of the Widow; all these marvels and many more are to be discovered in the First Folio by the true Baconian. I wish there were enough First Folios to go round these enlightened men; I would shut them and their copies up together.

And then there are the collectors of modern books. They are almost as bad. The other day I was speaking of the habit to an author whose books are just beginning to be collected. 'Of course,' he said, 'I'm glad in a way, because in the long run it means money for me. But what rot it all is! You know those little books of mine, Waite and Waite and Hedger and Mixer? Well, people are giving a couple of quid for first editions, when they can get infinitely better editions for a bob a time. What do they do it for?' I could not put my author wise—to use an idiom to which he is addicted—and I don't believe anybody can. Why don't people leave the shells on the shore, the flowers in the hedgerows, and the first editions in the booksellers' shops? It is all a mystery. But then life is full of mysteries and, after all, it is mystery which gives life its delight, its joy and its savour.


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