…..a dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware
This is a beautiful, transcendent view of both England and her cultural inheritance, and individual inheritance and history, as seen through the relationship between father and son.
It is sometimes hard to feel pride in what it means ‘to be English’, as like all colonial or once colonial powers, there is much to be sorry for in our history.
Ackroyd looks at a different way of perceiving ‘how are we English’ by suggesting that ‘English Music’ (a way of describing a history of the mind and spirit through artistic heritage) influences our character, spirit, identity in the same way that we inherit ways of perceiving the world, ways of being in the world, from our parents. There is genetic inheritance, and there is our whole nature from nurture – but the nurture is not just the individual in isolation – there is a collective conscious and collective unconscious which arises out of our myths, imaginations and hearts and souls – shaped by our art. I’ve never seen so clearly as with this book that there is a certain ‘English mysticism’ which Ackroyd focuses on as also part of who the English are.
The book is a transcendent song of praise for the line of music, art and above all, poetry and visionary Utopian and imaginative writing which can be traced back through history (focusing, in this book, mainly from the Renaissance onwards to the 1920s)
Ackroyd views this as a male inheritance – passed from an artistic ‘father’ to an artistic ‘son’ (the true inheritors of the mantle of ‘English Music’ creation may be unrelated physically – for example, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton) as of course in his historical period of tracing the line, it was mainly a masculine body of work, particularly this ‘transcendent visionary mysticism’ which he identifies as ‘English music’. Though initially I was going to 4 star my review because of the missing female artistic history input, on reflection, the particular line of ‘English music’ he celebrates has few known female creators – though I did wonder whether Emily Bronte and George Eliot shouldn’t have carried the mantle.
Yes, the book does take some willingness to work hard, on the reader’s part, and certainly holds even more depth on re-reading, and with greater familiarity with our cultural heritage.
William Blake : Ancient of Days, Wikimedia Commons
I know some reviewers have implied that Ackroyd is possibly just showing off his learning, and being ‘clever’ (rather than wise); for me, there is so much heart and love for our culture, and the ordinary man, and the relationships we have with each other in this book, that it seems heartfully FELT rather than mindgames.
It has inspired me to revisit some of our visionary artistic history.