Shakespeare, Dickens, Wren, Austen, Hardy, Turner: in praise of ... the English

Eileen Battersby marks St George’s Day with a kaleidoscopic celebration of our noisy neighbour’s contribution to world culture

Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen: never mind the rampaging imperialism, says Eileen Battersby, feel the quality of England’s cultural heritage

Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen: never mind the rampaging imperialism, says Eileen Battersby, feel the quality of England’s cultural heritage


Today is believed to be Shakespeare’s birthday, or so 18th-century biographers decided as his baptism took place on April 26th. April 23rd is most certainly the date upon which he died in 1616, aged 52, having produced a body of work which almost single-handedly defines literature.

Any nation, rampaging imperialism aside, which can claim William Shakespeare is entitled to feel rather self-satisfied. By dying on his birthday he confirmed an innate flair for exits as well as entrances. Shakespeare was the complete showman: he knew about stagecraft, made clever use of historical sources, knew the art of spinning a great yarn and how to entertain an audience and could challenge the emotional range of all actors (and continues to do). Shakespeare remains the test of any serious actor.

His feel for imagery is second to none. Shakespeare was a poet blessed with theatrical flair and a rare understanding of the social hierarchy and most particularly he was a psychologist, attuned to the vagaries of human nature. As if that was not enough to be celebrating, today is also St George’s Day. Ironically it is not a public holiday in England. In fact St George, depicted through the ages on horseback slaying a dragon, probably never even saw one. Many countries acknowledge a St George. Yet he is England’s national saint.

If England on the verge of a general election is too busy to take pause and acknowledge this day of days, we have decided to do the neighbourly thing and celebrate the English imagination. After all, many a Paddy’s Day parade has taken place throughout England and St Patrick never faced a dragon. In fact he may never have actually banished any snakes; their absence may have something to do with the Ice Age.

Shakespeare makes it difficult; he is the universal poet. Yet consider Charles Dickens, another frenetic teller of tales, also short-lived but a literary giant. What a singular body of work: populated by immortal characters who have entered everyday life. So if tempted to shake one’s head and declare that the English, admittedly generously graced with dogged middle-distance runners, have no Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Yeats, no Joyce, no Beckett, proceed carefully – Shakespeare and Dickens are a formidable pairing, and long before them, the English imagination was well established through the poets of the Anglo-Saxon epic.

The Beowulf poet described the plight of a society dependent on the feats of a daring hero. Darkness and danger stalked the land, loud was the lamentation of the abandoned wife in Wulf and Eadwacer: “It was rainy weather and I sat weeping.” Rain plays a central role in English literature and the people of Ireland nod, in sympathy. We too share this dreary affliction.

Arthurian legend created the myth of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. The youngster Gawain set off on a quest that misfires but it does create the opportunity for a Middle English poem. All the while the language is evolving. William Langland’s Piers Plowman marked the emergence of the English eccentric, a stock presence in English culture culminating in the comic creation of PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster,a gormless young Edwardian with a liking for popular music and given to quoting freely from Shakespeare. There he is again, Shakespeare as emphatic a presence as Yeats was to remark of Jonathan Swift.

An English cavalry officer, Philip Astley, took the idea of the circus as initially devised by the Ancient Romans and introduced it to England in 1768. The English also gave us the music hall and pantomime. An island nation with a strong sense of the pastoral, its writers love trees – forests feature in English fiction as well as folklore . But one thing about the English is an interest in what was being written, sung, recited and performed elsewhere. Many Tudor and Elizabethan poets were also diplomats. Chaucer travelled widely and Latin was the language of diplomacy. Before the emergence of Caxton’s printing press, Chaucer, c.1343- 1400, was known as a poet and his fabliaux, The Canterbury Tales, highlighting man at his most burlesque, had engaged an audience and won him the title of Father of English.

Flash forward 150 years to Edmund Spenser and his Protestant epic of nationhood, the first epic in English, The Faerie Queene, with its many echoes of European romance influence. Even as early as Spenser, English artists looked to the past. The 16th-century English conquest of Ireland was filtered through Arthurian legend. John Milton, symbolically cursed by blindness as was Homer, thought differently. He looked beyond to the fall of man in Paradise Lost. By then, the English imagination had already touched God with the glorious polyphonic sacred music of Thomas Tallis and his most gifted pupil, William Byrd.

A onetime Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, alive during the years of Shakespeare’s glory, merged the sacred and profane in his poetry. Mention of St Paul brings to mind the achievement of Christopher Wren and the regard held by English rulers for the power of stone. The great cathedrals of England, as elsewhere, testify to design and craftsmen as well as prayer and worship, and of course, earthly ambition.

These sublime buildings were worthy stages for the nurturing of a superb choral tradition. Milton and John Dryden were still alive when Henry Purcell was born in 1659, 97 years before Mozart, and like him, Purcell, master of the English Baroque, died young at 36 or 37. His vast range, which included operas and anthems, saw an artist touched by French and Italianate influences, yet consummately English. Thomas Arne (1710-1778) composed Artaxerxes (1762), a full-length opera the popularity of which endured until the 20th century. His masque Alfred introduced Rule Britannia to the English canon.

Daniel Defoe was born in 1660 and with him would emerge the English novel. In Moll Flanders (1722) he gave a woman with a past an unabashedly raucous voice. Years before Defoe’s anti-heroine would help in the evolution of the English novel, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) had become the first professional woman writer in England, and wrote plays, poems and novels. Sexuality was her major theme, energy her tremendous asset. She is buried in the East Cloister, a walkway outside Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey – Chaucer was the first literary figure to be interred there.

In his engaging work Albion – the Origins of the English Imagination (2002), a true original, and a magpie of unsurpassed intellectual curiosity, the very English Londoner Peter Ackroyd makes a case for the forging of a tradition which came from within a collective national imagination very aware of outside influences: “Thomas Wyatt translated Petrarch and Marlowe translated Ovid, Jonson translated Catullus and Milton translated Horace, Dryden translated Virgil and Pope translated Homer, Congreve translated from the Greek and Johnson from the Latin, Shelley translated Plato and Tennyson translated Homer……”

Theatre, the essay, journalism, the rise of newspapers – the English played a huge role in them all. The aforementioned rampaging imperialism also pioneered the age of discovery, particularly in the field of natural history, zoology and botany. Charles Darwin was to experience sea voyages more commonly shared by soldiers – or convicts being shipped off to the colonies. In a quite corner of Oxford, a shy mathematician was dreaming up a very unusual adventure for a bossy young girl named Alice.

Half a century earlier, Jane Austen had observed her small world from the corner of the drawing room, made polite conversation and discreetly wrote novels which remain among the most respected and popular ever written. Before she published the first of her major works, Sense and Sensibility in 1811, the great artist George Stubbs (1724-1806) had already lived and died and captured a way of life through his revolutionary studies of horses including Whistlejacket (1762) and Hambletonian (1799), his final and greatest work.

English painters such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough were very much associated with portrait paintings, while John Constable focused on the beauty of the traditional landscape. If one visual artist could be said to have articulated all the glorious ambivalence of the English imagination it must be Joseph Mallord William Turner, the first great Impressionist. Any argument based on England not having produced a Picasso is immediately countered – in Turner England not only has one of the finest colourists of all, it has probably the best painter of the sea.

Attempting to celebrate the English imagination requires balancing the discipline of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the great Engish novel, along with the impassioned artistry of Turner’s paintings. Shakespeare’s images stand alone and imbue it all; the apocalyptic visionary power of William Blake, the evocative allure of Wordsworth’s ode to memory, The Prelude. It was English tenacity that inspired TH White’s The Goshawk, a chronicle about training a wild goshawk, sent to him from Germany, just as the world was lurching toward war. That same blunt yeoman candour informs the spirit which makes George Orwell’s finest novel Coming Up for Air (1939) so sympathetic, so almost nostalgic. Also written in the shadow of war, an earlier one that had already happened, is Edward Elgar’s autumnal Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85. It expresses the disillusionment of a generation wearied by the Great War.

On this St George’s Day, while England goes about its business, too busy to demand a pubic holiday, it would be a short-sighted individual indeed who would dismiss the English imagination. Look to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, or to Auden or Larkin. JRR Tolkien celebrates the English imagination on an epic scale and draws on the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition. The novels of Thomas Hardy or better still his poetry such as his three-volume epic, The Dynasts (1904-1908). In many ways, perhaps through his use of the colloquial, folktale and ballads as well as his love of the Wessex landscape, Hardy is a bastion of melancholic and ultimately doomed Englishness. He is a defining English romantic.

Perhaps the music to listen to on this day of celebrating the English imagination at its most exalted, which come to think is very exalted, is The Lark Ascending, begun by the Gloucestershire-born Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1914, when he was 42, but set aside so he could fulfil his military and medical service. Returning to the work in December 1920, he completed it and dedicated it to the violinist Marie Hall, who gave the first performance. Everything wonderful about the English countryside and the English imagination resonates through this most beautiful of violin works.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

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