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Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination
Peter Ackroyd
London: Chatto & Windus, 2002.
£25.00, 516 pages, ISBN: 1-856-19721-2.

Megan O'Neill
Stetson University

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 imagination—clearly 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 place—Avalon—and 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 sort.

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, however—it'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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