The mystical vision of England

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Avebury, by Penny Morrison

My starting point for this posting is, once again, Peter Ackroyd’s Albion.  In chapter twenty three, The mysterious voice, he discusses the mystical tradition of medieval England and its contribution to the overall theme of his book- ‘The origins of the English imagination.’

Ackroyd writes that:

“The mystical tradition on England is of mysterious origin.  It must be in some way associated with those early intimations of the supernatural in the land of mist and ghosts [he refers here to Anglo-Saxon poetry which he covers earlier in the book]; English is the language of vision.”

He notes the evolution of the term ‘mystical’ from its original sense, which is properly employed in respect of such religious writers as Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle and William Hilton.  In this context the word describes a personal, ecstatic spiritual experience; as such, it “is not directly related to the visionary imagination.” From the seventeenth century onwards, though, the word is acquired its sense of “ancient or occult wisdom.”  In this sense we have used it of later writers and artists and their responses to the English landscape.

Nonetheless, in the works of the solitary and meditative writers like Rolle, Ackroyd traces the origins of native individualism, of a visionary strand in English art and of the “unheard melody” of their prose, full of singing and sweetness.  Even in its origins, there is a suggestion of mystical meanings in landscape and nature.  For example, Julian of Norwich describes a submarine vision or revelation:

“I was led in imagination down to the sea-bed and there I saw green hills and valleys looking as though they were moss-covered, with seaweed and sand.”

The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing shapes that most British of features, the enveloping grey cloud, into a symbol of mystic significance:

“Ween not, for I call it a darkness or a cloud, that it is any cloud congealed of the humours that flee in the air, nor yet any darkness such as is in the house on night when the candle is out.  For such a darkness and such a cloud mayest thou imagine with curiosity of wit, for to bear before thine eyes in the lightest day of summer and also contrariwise in the darkest night of winter.”

Behind these homely and familiar images, there lies a more mysterious meaning.

Hidden meaning in the British landscape  has, of course, been a theme of many of my previous posts and has run through the work of many artists and writers about whom I have written, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Paul Nash to name only a few.  Today, I’ll cite novelist and poet John Cowper Powys, of whom Philip Pulman has said that:

“Powys evoked the English landscape with an almost sexual intensity.  Hardy comes to mind, but a Hardy drunk and feverish with mystical exuberance.”

Powys himself described the “psychic chemistry of religious sites older than Christianity” and the sense that the land around Glastonbury “reeked with the honey lotus of all the superstitions of the world.”  His general position was set out in the Meaning of culture (1929, p.178):

“It is strange how few people make more than a casual cult of enjoying Nature. And yet the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all. One needs no strange spiritual faith to worship the earth.”

This connection was felt by fellow Cymru-phile David Jones and by Gwent born author Arthur Machen, a sense encapsulated in his novel The hill of dreams.  We”ll have more to say about this theme; in the meantime, go out and make contact with the profound among the hills and valleys of Albion!

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Bant’s Carn, St Mary’s, Ian Cooke
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“The ghostly language of the ancient earth”- finding (and founding) Albion

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John Piper, ‘Wiltshire archaeology’

Albion– an old word for an old place.  But I feel we need to use it in a new way, to express an old emotion free of some of the associations that have attached themselves to other names.

Love for your home country is an inborn sensation, just as a sense of national identity seems to be.  But what is that identity formed from?  We are all just stories we tell to ourselves and nationality is just one element in those stories.  It’s woven from many things: from memories of home, of holidays, of history lessons at school and from books we have read; it crystallises out of pictures we have seen and views enjoyed from trains and cars.  It is the product of a set of accidents and is shaped as much by choice as by circumstance.   With Yorkshire roots but with antecedents also from Sunderland, Manchester, Cornwall, Ireland and Germany, what are my origins, what are my roots? Does ‘home’ change with time, so that a couple of decades resident in London now make me more attached to the capital and to Essex than to my birthplace?  Is belonging just a matter of imagination and volition?

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John Piper, ‘Cartoon for the stained glass window at Wiltshire museum.’

And yet, there is no denying a sense of attachment to certain places and certain landscapes, and to the ideas and that they evoke- to my own particular formulation and conception of ‘national pride.’  I might have said Englishness, which would have been accurate enough, except whilst chalk figures, downland, hill-forts, fields and pastures, woods and castles are all configurations of natural and built environment that can be uniquely English, I hesitate about the labels:

  • English describes a country from the south coast to the Border at Hadrian’s Wall, but it carries with it other meanings- wars with France, invasions of neighbouring lands, drunken football fans on the rampage, a particular ethnic pride waving the St George flag;
  • British evokes an island and the rich diversities of landscape and culture from Cornwall to Caithness, but there are too memories of the British Empire and those other connotations of ‘Great’ Britain, outdated but persistent as they are; and,
  • United Kingdom is a purely political identity; I may more readily say that I am English or British but few can identify with the UK as a real place, not least now that it faces dissolution though devolution and since UKIP gave it a particular separatist and isolationist meaning and further narrowed and politicised it.

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John Piper, ‘Salisbury plain.’

Which brings us to Albion, a name unfreighted with the burdens of the past.  It’s a name from literature and history that more readily suggests the unique combination of land and culture, of geography and  history, of art and imagination, memory and inspiration that inspires and motivates me.  Albion has emotional meaning- and not just for me: witness Peter Ackroyd’s 2002 cultural history entitled Albion.  He quotes Ford Madox Ford (The spirit of the people, 1912) to the effect that “It is not- the whole of Anglo-Saxondom- a matter of race, but one quite simply of place- of place and of spirit, the spirit of being born of the environment.”  Ackroyd also shares with John Cowper Powys a sense that “the spirit of the earth called out to him from the green shoots beneath his feet so that he was filled with the genius loci and sustained by it.”  In his earlier novel First light he described in the Dorset landscape an “almost human presence,” as if the foregoing generations had left an echo.  With Wordsworth (Prelude, Book 2, School tree) Ackroyd hears “the ghostly language of the ancient earth,” and himself concludes (p.448) that his subject is “the landscape and the dreamscape.  It encourages a sense of longing and belonging.  It is Albion.”

Perhaps the time is right to rediscover and reestablish Albion.

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John Piper, ‘Avebury restored’

 

‘Into the valley’- The mystery of hidden vales

It’s rooted in human nature to be drawn to the enclosed and mysterious.  Perhaps we’re drawn by our deepest instincts; as towards caves, we are attracted to safe and secluded spots where we can rest and eat.  There is too a romantic attraction: we are excited by the prospects of discovering the unknown; we hope to uncover secrets; we are inclined to explore- impelled by curiosity and enticed by the chance of finding something new and previously unseen.

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In my recent trip to Cornwall, we made a journey of exploration that had been long promised but never undertaken.  Sailing on the ship the Scillonian from Penzance to the Scillies, you pass along the south coast of Penwith; just west of Lamorna is the wooded valley of St Loy.  There are houses there, amongst the trees, but there is no public road.  We had been lured for many years- and on this trip we finally got there.  We parked the car on the edge of the highway and followed a wooded valley by a stream down towards the coast.  It felt remote and private- although it was none of these things in all truth, something that was revealed when we reached the expensive residences near the mouth of the valley- where the coast path traverses the cove.  Still, it was our adventure; our mission of discovery.  The stream cascaded pleasantly down to the sea; there was a private beach- entirely composed of giant boulders, I must admit- but, nonetheless, our beach for which we had worked that morning.  The sun was hot and the sea lapped on the rocks and we felt that the decades of waiting had been worth it.

You can stay there in a B&B, and have the beach entirely to yourselves (and the few other residents at night).  The drive down the private track, through overhanging trees and round twists and turns, will surely engender the same sense of being explorers in a new and hidden world.  There will never be crowds and there will always be seclusion and silence.

Other valleys that I love to explore include:

  • Cusop Dingle, just outside Hay on Wye.  It’s lined with houses along its length, as the road peters out into the depths of the hills, and a wide and rocky stream tumbles down towards the Wye.  You can walk up on the road- but return along the bank and through the fields, with vistas of the town and castle spread before you.

Cusop

  • Holy Vale on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.  You can reach this by three ways, from the main road down a side road- which is as dull as it sounds; by walking up from the coast through a nature reserve and then into the wooded lower reaches of the valley, which is pleasant or, my favourite, my turning off the road near Sunnyside farm and following a rutted and rocky track down into the Vale.  Even on peaceful Scilly, this place seems quiet and out of the way.  This has to be a theme and part of the attraction of these spots: it is enclosed, hidden, free from traffic and noise.  There has to be the sense of being the first discoverer, of arriving for the here before anyone else has trodden these paths.

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Rocky-Valley

  • St Nectan’s Glen– another Cornish site, to be found just north along the coast from Tintagel (of purported Arthurian fame).  The glen extends on both sides of the main road heading towards Bude.  The coast-ward site which is called Rocky Valley and by the National Trust features ruined buildings and rock carved mazes.  The upper side is a path which follows the tumbling River Trevillet towards it source.  There are three waterfalls, but at the ‘kieve’ at the head of the glen there is an impressive 60′ fall cascading into a pool.  Access is through a rather pleasant cafe which has a new age gift shop.  The walk is a modest challenge (muddy in wet weather with some slight scrambling involved) but the cafe provides a fitting end, especially the outdoor area surrounded by trees, birds and the sound of the water.

St Nectan's Kieve

  • Luxulyan Valley, mid-Cornwall.  A road runs through this from Luxulyan village down to St Blazey, but you have to stop, best near the Trefry viaduct, and climb up the slopes to explore.  It’s a remarkable combined landscape or ancient and modern, and it takes my breath away.  The valley is littered along its slopes and the river bed with vast boulders.  They are concentrated in this one spot, huge and incredible.  Amongst these obstacles weaves the remnants of earlier industry- a leet half way up the slope and the bridge, which is in fact an aqueduct with water still running beneath your feet under granite slabs.  The whole thing is stunning and overwhelming for the geographical and human scale; man and nature have reshaped the land in amazing ways.

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Valleys have always had their special place in art, too, from William Blake’s Vales of Middlesex to Samuel Palmer’s Valley of Vision at Shoreham.  His pictures there capture exactly the sense of protection and mystery I am seeking to evoke.

A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

 

This peculiar people…

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‘Vexilla regis’, (detail), by David Jones

In my last posting I mentioned the verse of David Jones.  I recently read his book The Anathemata and particularly was struck by these lines:

“according to the disciplina 

of the peculiar people

in accord with the intentions

of all people

and kindreds

Et gentium, cenheilloedd und Vȍlker…”

He saw the British as uniquely compounded of three elements, ancient British (Celtic), Latin (Roman and French) and Germanic (English).  He was thinking primarily culturally, but it could apply genetically too.

The cultural and racial mix of the population of the British Isles is indeed complex: there is the ancient British strain, to which are added Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman, French and (more recently) African and Asian.  It would be untrue to suggest that this is unique: for example, the French too could point to Celtic roots, overlain with Roman, Frankish Norman and Breton.  Whilst the Gaulish influence is minimal, long before submerged by Roman and other inputs, the role of British/ Breton culture is far more significant, as demonstrated in the Arthurian legends.

Assertions of national or racial distinctiveness risk accusations of chauvinism, if not racism. Every people wants to feel special and will gather the stories and artifacts to prove this. Nevertheless, the British people do have a claim to their own special-ness, their own peculiarity.  They have combined a very particular blend of people, myths, languages and landscapes.  This in turn has produced a ‘peculiar’ or distinct art and culture, with such products as our ancient monuments- Stonehenge, Avebury, Stenness and similar; the hill figures on our chalk uplands; a literature with European and then worldwide influence in the form of the Arthurian romances along with many other notable poets and playwrights.

Separately, in my work on British folklore (see my blog britishfairies.wordpress.com and my book British fairiesGreen Magic Publishing, 2017), I have been reading recently about contemporary thinking on the nature and purpose of ‘fairies.’  One view often advanced is that the represent the spirit of land, the ‘genius loci’ as we have called it in previous postings.  This may be a very helpful way of understanding these beliefs- they are an animation of the natives’ response to their home- the land personified, perhaps.

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“Like long barrow sleepers”

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Eric Ravilious, ‘The Long man of Wilmington.’

I return to the issue of myth, inspiration and the British landscape.  On the recent E17 Art Trail in Walthamstow, London, I visited an exhibition by local artist Henriette Monteiro. Her pencil drawings and water colours were imaginative illustrations of ancient sites around England, such as Avebury, Kit’s Coty House in Kent, Belas Knapp long barrow on the Cotswolds and Cymbeline’s Castle in Buckinghamshire.  She complemented the art with poetry, and I was thereby introduced to the work of Andrew Young (1885-1971), whom I had not previously encountered.

Here’s his poem A prehistoric camp, which has been used by TfL as a ‘Poem on the Underground’:

A Prehistoric Camp

“It was the time of year
Pale lambs leap with thick leggings on
Over small hills that are not there,
That I climbed Eggardon.

The hedgerows still were bare,
None ever knew so late a year;
Birds built their nests in the open air,
Love conquering their fear.

But there on the hill-crest,
Where only larks or stars look down,
Earthworks exposed a vaster nest,
Its race of men long flown.”

Eggardon-Hill-Dorset

Eggardon Hill, which is east of Bridport, Dorset, is an Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence of much earlier use in the form of several tumuli or long barrows on its summit.  The presence of barrows within the defences is what interests me here: it is quite a common feature, as for example at Hambledon Hill further east in the same county.  The barrow within the ramparts at Hambledon provided scenes for my one of my ‘fairy tales;’ the conjunction of ancient sites and supernatural mysteries makes intuitive story telling sense.

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Also by Young is the poem ‘Wiltshire downs’ from which I quote here the final stanza.

“And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.”

I like the verse, but I’d take issue with his depiction of the bones like broken sticks. Young has connected to a key feature of our landscape and folk lore, but he does not take advantage of the full mystery associated with these features.  Welsh poet and artist David Jones in his extended prose-poem concerning the first world war, In parenthesis (1931), described slumbering British troops in Flanders dugouts as being “like  long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach.” He returned to this theme decades later in The Anathemata.  In the poem Sherthursday and Venus day Jones mentioned “the hidden lords in the West-tumulus.”  In the same poem he also recognised the intriguing mystery of hill-forts as well as barrows, imagining a climb “up by the parched concentric bends over the carious demarcations between the tawny ramps and the gone-fallow lynchets, into the vision lands.”

“Into the vision lands…” Jones intimately knew and worked with the legend and myth of the British Isles. Rudyard Kipling also drew on the deep wells of folklore and in his poem ‘Song of the men’s side’ from the book Rewards and fairies advised:

“Tell it to the Barrows of the Dead—run ahead!
Shout it so the Women’s Side can hear!
This is the Buyer of the Blade—be afraid!
This is the great God Tyr!”

In Kipling’s story The knife and naked chalk Puck introduces Dan and Una to a neolithic herder who tells a tale of “a Priestess walking to the Barrows of the Dead.”  He sees a girl he knows at a tribal ceremony- “I looked for my Maiden among the Priestesses. She looked at me, but she did not smile. She made the sign to me that our Priestesses must make when they sacrifice to the Old Dead in the Barrows. I would have spoken, but my Mother’s brother made himself my Mouth, as though I had been one of the Old Dead in the Barrows for whom our Priests speak to the people on Midsummer Mornings.”  The ancestors lie beneath the tumuli and their purpose is to advise and help their living descendants.  Perhaps that function is not yet exhausted…

A vital element of British folk stories (the so-called ‘Matter of Britain’) is the concept of the sleeping hero.  King Arthur, most commonly, is not dead and buried in Avalon but lies hidden beneath some ancient feature- a hill fort or cave, perhaps- awaiting the time when he is summoned to save the island and its people.  On the ancient heights of those tribal fortifications, warriors lie in wrapped in the dreams of centuries, patiently biding their time until the call is sounded and their slumbers are ended.

In another of his poems, Rite and fore-time in the collection Anathemata, David Jones equated tumuli with altars, regarding both as places of worship and of burial of holy relics.  His analogy is perceptive and powerful.  The sleepers in the barrows are our ancestors, our predecessors on the land, and doubtless one element in their interment and the rites associated with their monuments was a reassertion of community links not only with those who had gone before but also with the landscape over which their remains now watched.  They had become both features in the landscape and guardians of that landscape.

Today campaigners declare ‘The Land is Ours.’  The barrows and stones carry the same message.  The land is a common inheritance and a common resource.  The long-barrow sleepers repeat and protect that message.  This is where we dwelt and where we dwell.

To return to Andrew Young, I must again demur from his description of Eggardon hillfort- “its race of men long flown.”    They, we, are still here.  They still speak, albeit faintly and only if you are attuned.  What’s more, in times of trouble, they may perhaps:

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.”

“Albion”- where, when and what is it?

Plate 4 of 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' c.1795 by William Blake 1757-1827
Plate 4 of ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’ c.1795 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03374

“All the nightmares came this year/ And it looks as though they’re staying here.”

I have been blogging about the idea Albion for some weeks.  Where can it be found; what does it look like? When will we arrive there?

Albion is a three part concept, derived from the work of poets, painters, visionaries and radicals.  Albion is:

  • a place- Albion is a landscape; it is an ancient land, made by nature and by generations of it s occupants.  It is the white cliffs; it is the chalk figures of Cerne Abbas and Wilmington.  It is an environment and an expression of culture- high hedgerows and deep-worn lanes; clumps of trees on barrows high on hill tops. Albion is not the same as Britain, though.  It may share its island boundaries but it is a new land without labels.
  • a story- Albion is myth that is the subject of stories and of poems.  It is how we imagine ourselves and the story we tell ourselves about our past and our possible futures.  It is a giant, it is a nation, it is a dream.  As it is a story that we tell ourselves, it is a story that we can choose.  The story of Britain is a familiar one- it is an nation alone in adversity, it is the underdog bravely struggling- it is Dunkirk, it is the Battle of Britain, it is the first day of the Somme.  It is bravery against the odds, it’s all about keeping your head when all around are losing theirs- etc.  The myth of Albion need not be identical; we might instead choose different struggles to commemorate- Peterloo, the battle of the Beanfield, the battle of Orgreave, for example- if we are creating a new nation we get to tell its founding stories.  We get to choose our heroes too- perhaps Arthur returning from his centuries’ sleep instead of Churchill and Kitchener?
  • a dream- Albion is a better land than Britain; it is a fairer society than that in which we live.  It is something we can aspire to and aim for, something to build.  It is a concept; it is a dream yet to be dreamed.  Albion is a blueprint for another way of life that has yet to be made, yet to be lived.

Albion can only be when we want it to be.  Some have already worked to create it; some are working now.  Has the time come to awake and arise?  Without the striving and the struggle, nothing will be achieved and nothing made.  Let’s not forget William Blake’s (edited) words on this subject:

“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:

On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

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Me, David and Bill

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In a recent post I quoted a very early song by David Bowie in the context of a discussion of the free festivals movement and the idea of the Albion Free State- a state with a state, a community of people living according to different rules to those of mainstream society.

During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when I wrote for a literary magazine in Southampton called The definite article, and contributed a piece linking Bowie and the politics of anarchism, I tended to read a great deal into David’s lyrics.  This conviction that he was a writer of depth, with a message to convey, was inspired by a Melody Maker special issue I found in the late 1970s.  This included a piece that analysed the intellectual foundations of Bowie’s work, noting his references to Tibetan Buddhism, Nietzsche and Kabbalah.  I was seventeen or eighteen at the time, and the essay in question seemed to contain the philosophising of an undergraduate of about the same age to me.  I was deeply impressed, nonetheless, and I was convinced that Bowie understood the meaning and structure of society in a way that I did not and saw that we were heading inexorably for the collapse of our society, perhaps after a nuclear holocaust (and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was all too easy to believe in the doom represented by cruise missiles parked just up the road at Greenham).  He predicted panic in Detroit; he envisaged failed revolutionary struggle and only a singe survivor of the National People’s Gang; he feared a nightmare world in which tribes of peoploids roamed the streets; as 1984 drew nearer he foresaw the spread of a totalitarian state in which love might be an act of defiance.  He predicted that we only had five years left…

AS

I was convinced that Bowie’s analysis of the solutions was the same as mine- a demolition of hierarchies and an more egalitarian society instead.  I am far from sure now about the validity of my understanding.  Society didn’t collapse as David had imagined- and very possibly he never seriously expected it.  I doubt too whether he had any real sympathy with my stateless solutions.  At the time I first got hooked by his music and his changing personas, he was in Thin White Duke phase and toying with dictatorship.  But- as in all great artists- we can find meaning in their work even if they did not wholly intend it- in that form or even at all.

 

Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05059

Great songs or great literature can provide a springboard for our imaginations; they can offer the material from which to construct new stories and images of our own.  In a 2016 posting on my broadcastbarnsley blog on WordPress I noted that Martin Fry, of early 1980s pop stars ABC, appeared to have stolen a line from John Keats.  And why not?  Great lyrics are great lyrics, whatever their source and always deserve to be reworked.  Art very often echoes and quotes from what has gone before, to some degree or other.

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William Blake more recently has offered me the same food for thought- and has been a source of inspiration for many.  He had his own dense and convoluted symbolism with its own arcane meanings.  Whilst I do not understand many of these these, and do not always sympathise with them, they can offer a starting point for me to construct images and myths of my own.  Blake’s concept of Albion provides the bedrock for a twenty first century conceptualising of an Albion that might meet our current needs and concerns.