Peter Ackroyd has written a range of great books that explore the relationships between a variety of historical times and places and the imaginations they foster. In his new book he sets out to find a ‘native spirit that persists through time and circumstance’ by looking for what was modern in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature.
For Ackroyd being English is not about race–it is the spirit we share from living in the same environment. He sees the history of the English imagination as circular rather than as a line of progress: ‘I saw eternity the other night, A ring of pure and endless light.’
Ackroyd quotes these lines from 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to express his approach. He seeks to find the continuity and repetition of certain themes across centuries of literature. He argues that the earth itself, its hills and mists and seas, creates a specifically English language of the imagination. In William Wordsworth’s phrase there is ‘a ghostly language of the ancient earth’.
He discovers emblems of Englishness and shows how they have constantly recurred in literature. Trees, oaks, beeches, and chestnut trees, have been important symbols from medieval literature to modern fiction. Other emblems of the English imagination he identifies are hills and waves, the weather and giants, fairies and monsters.
A 7th century poet, Caedmon of Whitby Abbey, began a tradition of writing about religious revelations that continued to William Blake in the 18th century. The Anglo-Saxon stories of the lives of St Cuthbert and St Guthlac were central to establishing two traditions. One was that of biography. The other was drama, inspiring plays such as ‘The Death of Thomas à Becket’ written in 1182, and Elizabethan and Jacobean drama including Shakespeare.
Ackroyd traces the tradition of bawdy English humour begun with the Exeter Book, a book of poems and riddles from the early 8th century: ‘I grow tall and erect in a bed, and when a girl remembers our meeting, her eye moistens. What am I?’ The answer could be ‘onion’–or something else.
Ackroyd then traces the development of comic writing through the wit of John Donne to the nonsense books of Lewis Carroll. According to Ackroyd the English are humorous, but they are also melancholic. A medieval word, ‘dustsceawing’, or contemplating dust, sums up a feeling of introversion and sadness.
This mournful mood found expression in books like Robert Burton’s hugely influential ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ published 1621 and in poems like Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and John Keats ‘Ode on Melancholy’ .
Ackroyd describes the rise of the novel in 18th century London and of women writers like Fanny Burney who wrote ‘in rebellion against the inertia forced upon females’. And Ackroyd seems eager to emphasise the role of immigrants in forging English culture. He quotes Daniel Defoe’s ‘True-Born Englishman’:
‘From this Amphibious Ill Born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman…
By which with easie search you may distinguish
The Venerable Bede, born in 672, began a tradition of scholarship. Another great Latin scholar who was Bede’s contemporary, Aldhelm, was educated by an African called Hadrian at Canterbury Cathedral.
Good stuff, but there is a big problem with Ackroyd’s approach. Writers do develop and respond to other literature. Their vision is shaped both by the physical world and the traditions of the past. But there is dramatic rupture as well as continuity, social protest as well as shared experience. The emblems Ackroyd identifies are invested with vastly different meanings and reflect shifting social and political contexts. The major oak in Keats’s poem about Robin Hood is a symbol of the destruction of the natural world in the pursuit of profit–it is an image that looks forward as well as backward.
And there are other traditions in English literature which Ackroyd misses out completely. These include celebrating the lives of outlaws and vagabonds, being hostile to the rich and powerful, championing the poor and oppressed and looking to the natural world as an alternative to the environmental destruction wrought by industrialisation.
Wordsworth may have spoken about the ancient language of the earth, but he developed a new poetic language to express his sympathy with the downtrodden. His was a social vision, full of inequality and suffering, as well as the beauties of nature.
Ackroyd has amassed a huge array of fascinating characters from the past. But not even Beowulf, Bede, Chaucer and Shakespeare can make his argument convincing.
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