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The Origins of the English Imagination
London: Chatto & Windus, 2002.
£25.00, 516 pages, ISBN: 1-856-19721-2.
At over 500 pages, exhaustively referential, and delivered in chapters
ranging in length from one page to thirty, Peter Ackroyd's Albion:
The Origins of the English Imagination fits best on a library
shelf next to similar tomes: Bloom's Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
and the Oxford English Dictionary. Like London: A Biography,
Albion is an impressively erudite study.
One surely cannot read the thing from front to back, even with pauses
for restorative naps and cups of tea; the sheer scope is too immensely
detailed to absorb. Dipping in here and there maintains one's sanity
and suits Ackroyd's anecdotal style far better. That said, however,
this delightful work discusses nearly every possible exemplification
of the English imagination. From Beowulf to Bronte, from piety to
poetry, and from dance to The Dunciad, Ackroyd reveals his
primary theme: the English imagination is the body of the land and
its people, as crossbred and thriving as any gardener's herbarium.
This interpretation is not an original one, but I have rarely seen
it so detailed. As a scholar of English literature, I read with deep
satisfaction Ackroyd's discussion of the written history, noting with
equally great pleasure his enunciation of relationships between the
literature of a people and their painting, architecture, and music.
As he points out on the first page, somewhat allusively, "The
English imagination [...] is endless because it has no beginning and
no end; it moves backwards as well as forwards."
This study, then, focuses on beginnings. Aelfred, Bede, and Beowulf
are thoroughly covered, sprinkled yeastily throughout the text. Anglo
Saxon gutterals, the legendry of Arthur, the giants and anchoresses
all appear as ur-Englands. From these origins spring Carroll's Jabberwocky,
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Tennyson's Idylls of the
King. But beginnings are only the simplest place for Ackroyd to
tackle his monument to the imagination: the vast majority of this
text focuses on how the beginnings advance, reincarnate, and begin
again. It is, in fact, a "Ring of pure and endless light."
Really, one wonders how long it took him to research and write. The
project, titled so ambiguously "The origin of the English imagination,"
spurs speculation about other possible titles. Ackroyd's enormous
ambition does not limit itself to imagination, so several candidates
suggest themselves: A History of the English People, Bede and His
Descendants, The Branching Hawthorne Tree, Echoes of Tintern Abbey...
each of which could equally well describe the accomplishment. The
Origin of the English Imagination is so nonspecific that, paradoxically,
the book could be called nothing else. The English delight in paradox
is, of course, another element of the imagination which Ackroyd invokes,
perhaps a bit too often.
The scholarly tone of the book should not imply that scatological
humor, men in drag, and assorted blue jokes do not play a part in
the English imaginationclearly these are, if not exclusively
English, peculiarly so. Chaucer's salty Wife of Bath is perhaps the
classic example, but John Donne, despite his religious leanings, could
be earthy: "Who wasts in meat, in clothes, in horse, he notes;
/ Who loves whores, who boyes, and who goats..." Mystic William
Blake, too, could use the vernacular: "The Hebrew Nation did
not write it / Avarice & Chastity did shite it," which Ackroyd
places alongside a second "characteristic London voice":
"If Blake could do this when he rose up from shite / What might
he not do if he sat down to write."
This leads us to the paradoxical English reactions to sexuality and
physicality in general: sexlessness (for instance, in the traditional
English detective) and extreme lewdness go hand in protectively gloved
hand. The curious aversion to sexuality may perhaps shed some light
on that global jibe at the Englishman's lovemaking abilities in contrast
to the Spaniard's; certainly it illuminates that "English disease,"
caning, the revered stage tradition of men in women's roles, Monty
Python's incongruous sexual humor, and those abrupt Anglo-Saxon shit
jokes. This raucous nature weirdly complements what Ackroyd later
refers to as the English "dislike of noise and dispute, the [...]
equivalent of not making a scene in a restaurant."
Incongruity does abound. Americans reading the magniloquent title
may well expect an equally expansive, perhaps solemn work of non fiction.
In arguably the most revealingly English bit of humor, however, Ackroyd's
pointed chapter titles are sardonic: "Why Is a Raven Like a Writing
Desk?", "Blood and Gore," "The Foolish Giant,"
"But Newly Translated," "London Calling," and
my favorite, "And Now for Streaky Bacon." Inside the chapters,
Ackroyd's discussion places illuminated manuscripts alongside Cockney
slang, bangers and mash next to royal costume balls. Multiple layers
of significance, too, prevail, which will not surprise anyone familiar
with Ackroyd. For instance, Albion, England's ancient name, may mean
"the white land," but it may also refer to Chesterton's
"elemental and emblematic giant [...] with our native hills for
his bones and our native forests for his beard." The multiplicity
of meanings enhances our understanding a thousandfold.
One of the better examples of Ackroyd's connective style involves
the enduring, intriguing history of King Arthur. Ackroyd is at some
pains to clarify the common misperceptions about Arthur's reality,
reminding us gently that although we tend to place the King in medieval
history, he belongs more authentically to late fifth century military
tradition; however, rather than dwelling on this unromantic reality,
Ackroyd moves us to the connection between Arthur's reputed resting
placeAvalonand Albion, which the Druids also associated
with Atlantis. Echoes of Avalon, Albion, and Atlantis can also be
heard in Coleridge's Mount Abora. Ackroyd likens the layers of meaning
to the layers of a rich, heady wine: "Any attempt to drink it
will inevitably lead to numbness and disorientation" of the best
Oddly, though, Ackroyd pays little attention to the pagan history
of the island, perhaps because he associates the worship of the land's
spirits primarily with the Celts. The ancient Green Man, both a lord
of fertility and a symbol of the forest fastness, represents gleeful
sexuality and earthiness; he appears in the text only twice, however,
with paganism itself, an religious path for centuries before Christianity,
ignored except for occasional mentions of clever carvings of pisky
faces, hidden in dark church corners and illuminated manuscripts.
All the obvious Anglic emblems are here, though, and they represent
some well trodden territory. Shakespeare and chapters on Romanticism
delight me particularly for their keen observations on the externalizing
of interiority, the projection of poets themselves onto characters
like Hamlet and Lear. As Keats put it so well, "A Man's life
of any worth is a continual allegory"although not exclusively
an English trait, we seek to identify inner space with outer reality,
to find patterns of meaning. Perhaps the Englishness of this particular
tenet is that as Individual rises in importance, it fragments into
a "solitary increasingly alienated individual," or as Hegel
puts it, into the "self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely
contradictory being." As an early version of the classic Romantic
wanderer (for instance, the Ancient Mariner, Don Juan, Frankenstein's
Creature), Hamlet is strung up by his imagination, caught between
his individuality and his need for community. And yet this most English
of character is the Prince of Denmark, which points up another element
of the English imagination: its constant fertilization from outside.
The greatness of London springs, Ackroyd reminds us, not just from
the grandeur of its ancestry but also from the grandeur of its naturalized
citizens. Everybody comes to England eventually and wends their way
to London, be they French, Saxon, or Viking. Curry is now nearly as
English as fish and chips. Daniel Defoe says it, charmingly:
From this Amphibious Ill Born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman...
By which with easie search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English...
Ultimately, however, Ackroyd returns from his tour of intellect, humor,
philosophy, stagecraft, literature, and sex to the land, green England
herself. A closing chapter reflects on the attractive "defensive
privacy" of the walled garden. Gardens appear as the "sanctuary,
a chamber roofed by heaven," as Kensington Gardens, as the plot
of "miniature parade-ground proportions, everything in impeccable
rows," as the "gardens bright with sinuous rills" of
Coleridge's mystery poem. It is an obvious point that the English
love their gardens, from which Ackroyd determines that the English
imagination thrives best within clearly established boundaries. Again,
while this trait is not exclusively English, it does seem peculiarly
so, and Ackroyd has certainly supported his case. One should not read
this with any particular scholarly bent, howeverit's far more
enjoyable as a literary Englishman's love affair with his land. As
Ackroyd ends, so will I:
In England the reverence for the past and the affinity with the natural
landscape join together in a mutual embrace. So we owe much to the
ground on which we dwell. It is the landscape and the dreamscape.
It encourages a sense of longing and belonging. It is Albion.
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