BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Frieze | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

Englands Dreaming

Peter Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination

BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Frieze | 11 NOV 02

As the young, semi-autobiographical hero of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) sits at his desk at school, counting the days until the Christmas holidays when he can go back home, he looks at the flyleaf of his geography book. After his name, class and college, he has written a kind of cosmic address: 'Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe'.

The postman probably wouldn't get it, but it's a vision of place that Peter Ackroyd would understand well. His last book, London: The Biography (2000), was filled with very particular details and arcane facts, but was above all a hymn to a city 'so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything'. His latest project enlarges the scope of his literary territory in an exponential way. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002) ranges over even wider terrain, glimpsing 'the spiritual in the local and the actual' by investigating how the creative life of writers, artists and musicians living in England over the centuries has been influenced by a subliminal sense of place. It's a vast whispering gallery of a text, which conducts a ghostly conversation with a host of great, long departed cultural figures about their favourite themes.

As its subtitle implies, Albion is not so much a history as a meditation on beginnings. We don't even get within spitting distance of the 20th century here, let alone the present day. Instead, Ackroyd half plods, half swoons his way through the canon of classic literature, from the 8th-century Beowulf to the Romantic poets, and tries to illuminate eternal echoes. 'There is no progress in English writing but rather, a perpetual return to the original sources of inspiration', he declares early on, using the image of a circle to start and finish his narrative. As ever, his approach rests heavily on the legacy of the past, and shows how there really is nothing new under the sun. 'Instead of asking what is "modern" about the Anglo-Saxons', he tells us, we should really inquire 'what is Anglo-Saxon about "the modern"'.

Everything leads to something else. Cultural trace elements spread out in webs across hundreds of years. The intricate patterns of illuminated manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon period, for instance, rather like the linguistic puzzles of the Exeter Book from the early 8th century, take us on to the 'Paradoxes and Problems' (c. 1598) of John Donne and the riddles of Lewis Carroll, and even on to Jorge Luis Borges. An Old English poem, the 'Battle of Finnsburh', is strikingly similar to Siegfried Sassoon's work. Images of the shade cast by trees are traced from the Druids to Thomas Hardy, via John Lydgate, Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Knight's Tale', William Blake, John Clare, the penultimate chapter of Jane Eyre (1847), and Rudyard Kipling. In 1922 D. H. Lawrence wrote that 'I would like to be a tree for a while'. And so on, and on, in dense textual waterfalls of allusion that often leave common sense trailing far behind.

As for the traits that are characteristic of the English imagination, Ackroyd is on even less firm ground, but trudges ahead anyway. He claims, slightly tentatively: a love of 'old stones', 'broken monuments', antiquity, trees (naturally), dreams, visions, ghosts, blood and gore. No doubt owing to the dismal weather, references to cold, rain, fog and mist are never far away. Then there are supposedly native tendencies towards practicality (rather than theory), eccentricity, self-deprecation, embarrassment and melancholia. An Old English word, 'dustceawung', meaning 'contemplation of dust', suggests an early preoccupation with death and decay. 'It has often been remarked', adds our author, 'that Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard", composed fitfully between 1746 and 1750, was the most popular English poem for some two hundred years. What other nation would cherish such mournful music?'

The attribute that recurs the most is diversity. Even during Anglo-Saxon times 'English' art and literature were formed out of 'inspired adaptation' (just as the language was), freely borrowing from and absorbing any influences that came to hand. Chaucer, for example, like most poets before the 20th century, was a prolific translator, and his own 'original' poems drew extensively on French and Italian literature. Literary forms such as the 14-line sonnet and the five-act tragedy were imported. Spenser's epic poem of nationhood The Faerie Queene (1590-6) comes from European originals, and includes many passages of word-for-word translation. And Shakespeare wasn't exactly coy about using existing works as a framework. All these writers built new dwellings 'out of old stones'. They helped to 'naturalize the artificial process of becoming English', painstakingly constructing myths of national and personal identity.

English books also tend to trample over boundaries of genre, style, taste and tone. Lawrence Sterne's wayward novel Tristram Shandy (1759) offers a typically eclectic mixture of forms, taking in 'sermon and farce, treatise and biography'. Another narrative medley delved into at length is Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), described by its author as merely 'a rhapsody of rags' assembled from other books. 'We skim off the cream of other men's wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens to set out our own sterile plots', Burton wrote morosely. Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall (1658) is equally full of borrowings, and veers madly from one subject to the next in a way that is presented as being quintessentially English.

Ackroyd's assessment of Browne could be applied to himself: 'He digresses, and follows an argument fitfully through imperfect logic [...] he builds up a patchwork of quotations and sources in a somewhat theatrical display of learning.' Mirroring the texts it describes, Albion is itself spectacularly uneven and varied, made piece by piece out of other originals. In one of its many detours Ackroyd argues that the supposedly non-fictional form of biography is actually very close to fiction, since 'the radical reshaping of a life is primarily the imperative of the artist who must fashion the narrative to accord with his or her own personal vision'. He never says as much, but the same obviously applies here. At several points you'll find yourself in an archaic zone that can only be called 'Ackroydland', rather than England or anywhere else. There are far, far worse places to end up.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.