(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

As Ackroyd sets out to define what it means to be English, he turns first to his home’s landscape. For most of its history, England was heavily forested. To the druids, trees were sacred, and that sentiment lingers. Ackroyd notes that the first design to be placed in a large church window was that of a tree. Wells Chapter House (begun c. 1290) contains a palm-tree vault. As late as the end of the seventeenth century, boys were paid to howl near apple trees to frighten diseases from the plants. The art of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough was inspired by trees. Ackroyd quotes Constable’s statement, “The trees . . . seem to ask me to try and do something like them.” In “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” William Blake imagines God as an English oak.

Like England’s forests, its climate has penetrated the psyche of the island’s inhabitants. Saint Bede the Venerable described life as resembling a sparrow that flits into a warm, bright mead-hall from the cold, bleak winter weather and then darts out again. The quintessential Englishman (and Englishwoman) always carries an umbrella. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe makes one on his desert island; in the eighteenth century umbrellas were called “Robinsons.” Rain, fog, and cold suffuse English literature. English literature may, in fact, be said to begin with rain: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) opens with the line, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote.” The clown at the end of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1600-1602) sings, “For the rain it raineth every day.” Would the adventures of Sherlock Holmes retain their charm without a heavy fog, or “London particular,” outside and a sea-coal fire burning brightly within the grate at 221B Baker Street? J. M. W. Turner and J. M. Whistler were impressed with and inspired by the fog on the river Thames. Such weather seeps into the soul, creating what the French call the English disease, melancholy. The most famous melancholic in literature is a Dane, but the Hamlet the world knows is the creation of an English imagination.

Ackroyd observes that, from its inception, English literature has been suffused with the elegiac. The Old English poems “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer” sing of isolation and exile. No other literature has so rich an elegiac tradition: John Milton’s “Lycidas”; Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Wrote in a Country Church-yard” (to use the title of the poem’s first two editions); Adonais (1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lament for the dead John Keats; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam(1850) for his dear friend Arthur Hallam. Keats devoted one of his great odes to the subject of melancholy.

In prose, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) presents the quintessential study of the disease in all its manifestations. This book was Samuel Johnson’s favorite. Johnson considered writing a history of his own melancholy. He did not do so, but his diaries and the biographies written about him attest to the fact that melancholy marked him for her own. From the legends about King Arthur to James Macpherson’s eighteenth century Ossian forgeries, English legends tell of loss. This same note of sadness is heard in the music of all the great English composers, from Thomas Tallis and William Byrd to Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Peter Warlock.

The sea has shaped the English imagination quite as much as has the land. Ackroyd suggests that the alliterative half-lines of Old English poetry echo the music of the sea. Certainly its sounds suffuse the most anthologized poem in English, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles where the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

(The entire section is 1593 words.)