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Albion: The Origins of the English Imaginationby Peter Ackroyd
Synopses & Reviews
When William Wordsworth invoked "the ghostly language of the ancient earth" he spoke more, perhaps, than he knew.
The mark or symbol of the hawthorn tree is to be found in the runic alphabet of the ancient British tribes, as if the landscape propelled them into speech. The worship of the forest, and of forest forms, characterised the piety of the Druids in whose rituals the spirits of the oak, the beech and the hawthorn are honoured. According to the texts of the classical historians the centre of the Druidical caste was to be found in Britain, from whose shores the practitioners of magic sailed to the European mainland. The forest worship of the northern and Germanic tribes, who were gradually to conquer Britain from the fifth to the seventh centuries, may derive from the Druids' ministry. That is why Hippolyte Taine, the French critic and historian who in the 1860s completed a capacious history of English literature, hears the first music of England in the fine patter of rain on the oak trees.
The poetry of England is striated with the shade that the ancient trees cast, in a canopy of protection and seclusion. Thus John Lydgate, in the fifteenth-century "Complaint of the Black Knight," remarks of
Every braunche in other knet,
And ful of grene leves set,
That sonne myght there non discende
where the charm of darkness and mystery descends upon the English landscape. In the nineteenth century Tennyson recalls how
Enormous elm-tree boles did stoop and lean
Upon the dusky brushwood underneath
Their broad curved branches . . .
and in that tremulous dusk the trees themselves are images of peacefulness and protection.
In the penultimate chapter of Jane Eyre, before her final awakening, the heroine passes through "the twilight of close ranked trees" like a "forest aisle." "The Knight's Tale" of Geoffrey Chaucer is set in Athens but the funeral pyre of Arcite there is adorned with the trees of England rather than those of ancient Greece--"ook, firre, birch, aspe, alder, holm, popler"--in a refrain which was in turn adopted by Spenser in the first book of The Fairie Queene where "the builder Oake," "the Firre that weepeth still" and "the Birch for shaftes" are among "the trees so straight and hy." For Spenser in the late sixteenth century the trees prompt mythical longings, as if their ancient guardians might still be summoned by the vatic tone of English epic. The hawthorn was the home of fairies, and the hazel offered protection against enchantment; the great oak itself descended into the other world. It is Milton's "monumental Oke." As a child William Blake saw angels inhabiting the trees of Peckham Rye; as a child, too, his disciple, Samuel Palmer, was entranced by the shadows of an elm tree cast by the moon upon an adjacent wall. Wordsworth stood beneath an ash tree in the moonlight and was vouchsafed visions
Of human Forms with superhuman Powers.
The same poet saw among yew trees "Time the Shadow," and wrote other verses upon "The Haunted Tree."
The magical talismans of Puck, in Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, are the leaves of the oak, the thorn and the ash
The author of London: The Biography offers an original interpretation of English culture from its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day, demonstrating the quintessentially English quality of literature, music, painting, architecture, science, and philosophy. Reprint. 15,000 first printing.
With his characteristic enthusiasm and erudition, Peter Ackroyd follows his acclaimed London: A Biography with an inspired look into the heart and the history of the English imagination. To tell the story of its evolution, Ackroyd ranges across literature and painting, philosophy and science, architecture and music, from Anglo-Saxon times to the twentieth-century. Considering what is most English about artists as diverse as Chaucer, William Hogarth, Benjamin Britten and Viriginia Woolf, Ackroyd identifies a host of sometimes contradictory elements: pragmatism and whimsy, blood and gore, a passion for the past, a delight in eccentricity, and much more. A brilliant, engaging and often surprising narrative, Albion reveals the manifold nature of English genius.
About the Author
Peter Ackroyd is the author of biographies of Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More, and of the bestselling London: The Biography. He has won the Whitbread Book Award for Biography, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Guardian Fiction prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the South Bank Award for Literature. He lives in London.
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