The rationalistic explanation of the whole thing is patent and on the surface.
I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, “The Dazzling Light” by Arthur Machen. Machen was born in 1863 and died in 1947. He was an author. “The Dazzling Light” was first published in 1915.
The new head-covering is made of heavy steel, which has been specialty treated to increase its resisting power. The walls protecting the skull are particularly thick, and the weight of the helmet renders its use in open warfare out of the question. The rim is large, like that of the headpiece of Mambrino, and the soldier can at will either bring the helmet forward and protect his eyes or wear it so as to protect the base of the skull… Military experts admit that continuance of the present trench warfare may lead to those engaged in it, especially bombing parties and barbed wire cutters, being more heavily armored than the knights, who fought at Bouvines and at Agincourt. – “The Times,” July 22, 1915
The war is already a fruitful mother of legends. Some people think that there are too many war legends, and a Croydon gentleman – or lady, I am not sure which – wrote to me quite recently telling me that a certain particular legend, which I will not specify, had become the “chief horror of the war.” There may be something to be said for this point of view, but it strikes me as interesting that the old myth-making faculty has survived into these days, a relic of noble, far-off Homeric battles. And after all, what do we know? It does not do to be too sure that this, that, or the other hasn’t happened and couldn’t have happened.
What follows, at any rate, has no claim to be considered either as legend or as myth. It is merely one of the odd circumstances of these times, and I have no doubt it can easily be “explained away.” In fact, the rationalistic explanation of the whole thing is patent and on the surface. There is only one little difficulty, and that, I fancy, is by no means insuperable. In any case this one knot or tangle may be put down as a queer coincidence and nothing more.
Here, then, is the curiosity or oddity in question. A young fellow, whom we will call for avoidance of all identification Delamere Smith – he is now Lieutenant Delamere Smith – was spending his holidays on the coast of west South Wales at the beginning of the war. He was something or other not very important in the City, and in his leisure hours he smattered lightly and agreeably a little literature, a little art, a little antiquarianism. He liked the Italian primitives, he knew the difference between first, second, and third pointed, he had looked through Boutell’s “Engraved Brasses.” He had been heard indeed to speak with enthusiasm of the brasses of Sir Robert de Septvans and Sir Roger de Trumpington.
One morning – he thinks it must have been the morning of August 16, 1914 – the sun shone so brightly into his room that he woke early, and the fancy took him that it would be fine to sit on the cliffs in the pure sunlight. So he dressed and went out, and climbed up Giltar Point, and sat there enjoying the sweet air and the radiance of the sea, and the sight of the fringe of creaming foam about the grey foundations of St. Margaret’s Island. Then he looked beyond and gazed at the new white monastery on Caldy, and wondered who the architect was, and how he had contrived to make the group of buildings look exactly like the background of a mediaeval picture.
After about an hour of this and a couple of pipes, Smith confesses that he began to feel extremely drowsy. He was just wondering whether it would be pleasant to stretch himself out on the wild thyme that scented the high place and go to sleep till breakfast, when the mounting sun caught one of the monastery windows, and Smith stared sleepily at the darting flashing light till it dazzled him. Then he felt “queer.” There was an odd sensation as if the top of his head were dilating and contracting, and then he says he had a sort of shock, something between a mild current of electricity and the sensation of putting one’s hand into the ripple of a swift brook.
Now, what happened next Smith cannot describe at all clearly. He knew he was on Giltar, looking across the waves to Caldy; he heard all the while the hollow, booming tide in the caverns of the rocks far below him, And yet he saw, as if in a glass, a very different country – a level fenland cut by slow streams, by long avenues of trimmed trees.
“It looked,” he says, “as if it ought to have been a lonely country, but it was swarming with men; they were thick as ants in an anthill. And they were all dressed in armor; that was the strange thing about it.
“I thought I was standing by what looked as if it had been a farmhouse; but it was all battered to bits, just a heap of ruins and rubbish. All that was left was one tall round chimney, shaped very much like the Fifteenth-Century chimneys in Pembrokeshire. And thousands and tens of thousands went marching by.
“They were all in armor, and in all sorts of armor. Some of them had overlapping tongues of bright metal fastened on their clothes, others were in chain mail from head to foot, others were in heavy plate armor.
“They wore helmets of all shapes and sorts and sizes. One regiment had steel caps with wide trims, something like the old barbers’ basins. Another lot had knights’ tilting helmets on, closed up so that you couldn’t see their faces. Most of them wore metal gauntlets, either of steel rings or plates, and they had steel over their boots. A great many had things like battle-maces swinging by their sides, and all these fellows carried a sort of string of big metal balls round their waist. Then a dozen regiments went by, every man with a steel shield slung over his shoulder. The last to go by were cross-bowmen.”
In fact, it appeared to Delamere Smith that he watched the passing of a host of men in mediaeval armor before him, and yet he knew – by the position of the sun and of a rosy cloud that was passing over the Worm’s Head – that this vision, or whatever it was, only lasted a second or two. Then that slight sense of shock returned, and Smith returned to the contemplation of the physical phenomena of the Pembrokeshire coast – blue waves, grey St. Margaret’s, and Caldy Abbey white in the sunlight.
It will be said, no doubt, and very likely with truth, that Smith fell asleep on Giltar, and mingled in a dream the thought of the great war just begun with his smatterings of mediaeval battle and arms and armor. The explanation seems tolerable enough.
But there is the one little difficulty. It has been said that Smith is now Lieutenant Smith. He got his commission last Autumn, and went out in May. He happens to speak French rather well, and so he has become what is called, I believe, an officer of liaison, or some such term. Anyhow, he is often behind the French lines.
He was home on short leave last week, and said:
“Ten days ago I was ordered to [ – ]. I got there early in the morning, and had to wait a bit before I could see the General. I looked about me, and there on the left of us was a farm shelled into a heap of ruins, with one round chimney standing, shaped like the ‘Flemish’ chimneys in Pembrokeshire. And then the men in armor marched by, just as I had seen them – French regiments. The things like battle-maces were bomb-throwers, and the metal balls round the men’s waists were the bombs. They told me that the cross-bows were used for bomb-shooting.
“The march I saw was part of a big movement; you will hear more of it before long.”
Thank you for listening. For more information about the words I have read and the music to follow, please visit A Man of Letters. amoletters.com.
Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.
Ben Selvin Orchestra – Hot Cha Medley (Columbia 18000-D 1932)