England of the Mind; Books

By Sanderson, Mark | The Evening Standard (London, England), September 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

England of the Mind; Books


Sanderson, Mark, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: MARK SANDERSON

ALBION: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd (Chatto, pound sterling25)

TWO years ago, in the book London, Peter Ackroyd produced an epic guided tour of the capital. By pounding its pavements, and finding sermons in stones, he was able to expound the history of the city and prove that its streets were indeed paved with gold: car exhausts emit minute traces of the precious metal. Now, in Albion, he has gone way beyond the extra mile to create a guide to the whole of England as it exists in the collective imagination.

Lesser mortals might have been daunted by the prospect of such an undertaking, but not our Peter. He knows where he's going: "There is a path that leads through English literature; it is the path of human agency and human settlement, a pact with the earth leading the traveller forward.

It is the forest path, the waldswathu in Beowulf; it is the trackway along which Jude Fawley walks, weeping, in Jude the Obscure. John Clare rejoiced in 'those crooked shreds/Of footpaths', of which Edward Thomas remarked that 'the more downtrodden, the more they flourish'; they are themselves a sign or token of national feeling, like the long serpentine line which in The Analysis of Beauty William Hogarth named as the line of beauty."

Only a long quotation such as this can illustrate Ackroyd's method. He studies works of the imagination - poems, novels, paintings and buildings - so that, by juxtaposing samples of them that echo and chime, he can highlight a particular theme: in this case, "the allegory of the winding path".

The above list of examples does not end there: Bunyan's Pilgrim, Spenser's Red Crosse Knight and Dickens's Little Nell are also called as witnesses.

Ackroyd believes such an approach is peculiarly English. Roger Bacon's essays are said to reflect "a linear imagination" that is "accustomed to consider matters in sequence rather than in system". Discussing Walter Raleigh's History of the World, Ackroyd declares, "the history of literary learning in England is the history of inconsequence and random accretion".

Albion, like Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, is "an encyclopaedic and synthetic work". …

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