A vast and rich panorama encompassing English literature, philosophy, science, art, and music.
Holding together a narrative of such ambition is a Herculean task, and British biographer/novelist Ackroyd (London, 2001, etc.) occasionally falters. For instance, he never fails to signal that A Big Theme is coming, e.g.: “In the course of this narrative it will be demonstrated that English literature, in particular, borrowed elements and themes from continental texts only to redefine them in the native style.” Nor is he averse to sending readers to the closest dictionary with words such as “hypnagogic” or “oneiric.” Ultimately, though, he’s saved by his erudition and panache, as he details how, starting with the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the predominant strains of the English sensibility have been assimilation and adaptation. From Chaucer to Dickens, the polyglot culture of London encouraged creators to mix high and low, comedy and tragedy, sacred and profane, he writes. In a particularly fascinating section on how literature borrowed and blended elements from different sources, Ackroyd underscores the crucial impact of translation on the nation’s letters, not only through the King James Version of the Bible, but through Thomas Wyatt, Christopher Marlowe, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and William Wordsworth, whose poems were influenced by those they translated. Loss also figures in the English imagination, from the death of Arthur through the often melancholy strains of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Though most comfortable with literature, Ackroyd also verges afield with brio to analyze the national vogue for miniatures, gardening, and landscape painting. He can masterfully weave a creator’s life and work together, then summarize it with a pithy one-liner, as when he describes John Donne as “a disciple of death and a voluptuary of decay.”
A learned, eye-opening survey of the “mixed style” that shaped a nation’s culture and self-image. (70 pp. color and b&w illustrations)