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! For fuller details of my fiction and nonfiction writings on British folklore, see my website.