“Albion” is a magic, a mythic word. It is the primal name of England itself, and also of its whole island. It is the Celtic Albio and the Gaelic Alba. Its root-syllable alb, “white,” catches the whiteness of Dover’s cliffs and suggests a pristine purity or blankness. It evokes the horizon’s misty whiteness as a channel-steamer nears its English port. It recalls the huge white horses carved in the prehistoric chalk of Kent. It is the name of a mythic giant who lived in primal times on Britain’s isle.
“Albion,” in its restrictively English sense, is now the resonant title of Peter Ackroyd’s study of “the origins of the English imagination.” In this fresh and fascinating new book, Ackroyd, a novelist, biographer and the author of the vivid London: The Biography (2001), turns to the inner springs of English creativity to ask, quite simply, what it means—what it has meant for centuries—to be an English writer, painter or composer.
Albion is, in essence, a book-length essay of definition that tries to describe the English (or Anglo-Saxon) imagination in contrast to the Celtic (or British) imagination. Its purview is broad, its insights are many, and its pleasure lies both in its detailed examples and in the interplay between its insights and its examples. Here I can summarize only its insights, omitting its prolific, learned, enticing examples. Alas, alas: I omit the fun.
The English imagination, in any case, is like a ring or a circle: it has no beginning or end and moves backward and forward in time. Its music, folklore and poetry are deeply linked with England’s forests, woods, trees, waters and bleak weather. It has always scorned the boundaries between poetry and prose, and between religion and the secular. But it does have restraints. Agreeing with Matthew Arnold, Ackroyd finds understatement—so typically English to our modern eyes—present from the beginning: “the conflation of Celtic and Saxon in the national tem-perament has produced a kind of awkwardness or embarrassment—a tendency to understatement—in the characteristic productions of England...[with] one of its earliest manifestations in the verse of Beowulf.”
Such restraint, though, does not preclude intricacy and decoration, as in the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels or the interwoven poem “The Owl and the Nightingale.” Nor does it dampen a love of the marvelous, as in the miracle plays of the Middle Ages or travel narratives like The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Utopia, Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels. In truth, the English prefer tales of marvels or of madness over dull scholarship. And the visionary, sometimes melancholy aspects of English art show the national tendency to dream, given the vast waters around the island. Yet such dreamers and visionaries are hardly philosophers: the English deeply distrust theory and prefer the plain, the concrete, the practical over anything ethereal or metaphysical.
The English imagination, Ackroyd continues, is a Catholic imagination, often antiquarian (like 19th-century novels), often mixing the tragic and the comic (like the porter in “Macbeth”). English spirituality prefers practicality, optimism and compromise. Its Catholic past, like the landscape of, say, East Anglia, evokes an interest in ghosts (the ghost story is uniquely English) and foreshadows the “romantic strangeness” of 19th-century writers.
Form, for English artists, is organic rather than logical (they leave logic to the French); in place of logic and system, they prefer parallelism, contrast and linearity in music, painting and writing. They are detached, individualistic and self-deprecating rather than sentimental (that too is left to the French). And they deeply distrust sex and physicality (again unlike the French).
Within the English imagination resides a specifically London imagination: the capital’s crowds, prisons and theaters impel its writers to exaggeration, aggression, even a latent cynicism, as they try to impress. Sensationalism is London’s literary style, as in Daniel Defoe, catching the variety of both London and its interlinked citizens. Blood and gore are common, coincidences of plot are usual, and eccentric personalities prevail. Like Dr. Johnson, Londoners develop a melancholy fatalism akin to that of the ancient Anglo-Saxons.
As Albion nears its end, Ackroyd looks to the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams as almost a recapitulation of his themes: Vaughan Williams’s music is detached and reticent, harmonious and moderate, eschewing any expression of deep emotion, with “a genuine aversion toward claiming too much.” So is the English imagination.
Ackroyd’s Albion is a grand success in its originality, its detail and its insights. Its only defect is that it ends too soon. Already over 500 pages (with notes, bibliography and index), it stops offering its rich detail about the beginning of the 19th century—with two full centuries to go. Admittedly the subtitle says “Origins,” but I wish it were otherwise—and that’s the finest compliment I can offer.
Albion is a feast. Be enticed.