The real tragedy of England’s passing is not that the England we love is a figment of the imagination, but that it is real, in the sense that Platonic forms are real. This real England is present in Old English and Middle English; in Chaucer and Chesterton; in Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens.
England: A Collection of the Poetry of Place, by A.N. Wilson (Eland Publishing, 2009)
I have just finished reading A.N. Wilson’s mostly delightful anthology of poetry, England: A Collection of the Poetry of Place. As a longtime admirer of ANW’s work, I had rejoiced at his return to Christian faith after a decade or two in the atheistic doldrums. I had prayed for such a return (though I am not claiming that my prayers were the cause of the miracle!). Nonetheless, his return to what appears to be an Anglican form of Christianity is indicative of his inability to grasp the nettle. To return to the Church of England after floundering in the desperate waters of unbelief is akin to being rescued from drowning by clambering onto a sinking ship. It is neither a satisfactory nor permanent solution to the problem.
Much of the conflicting and contradictory conundrum that lies at the heart of ANW’s inability to embrace orthodoxy is to be found in his selection for this anthology of poems about England. There is, however, much that is truly excellent and inspiring in Mr. Wilson’s selection, and I’d like to acknowledge that which is praiseworthy before proceeding to that which is problematic.
The inclusion of Hilaire Belloc’s “Ha’nacker Mill” and G.K. Chesterton’s “Secret People” was heartwarming, though not altogether surprising. Mr. Wilson, as the author of a mostly commendable biography of Belloc, is well-versed in the work and collective persona of the Chesterbelloc, and I would have been frankly shocked had both halves of Shaw’s fantastic chimaera not been represented. If only one poem from each was to be permitted, I think there are no better representations of the gist of England in Belloc’s and Chesterton’s poetic corpus than the solitary selection from each that Mr. Wilson has included. I was also pleased with Mr. Wilson’s selection from Shakespeare. John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II and Henry V’s speech before the battle of Harfleur are obvious choices, perhaps, but entirely justified. I would have liked to have seen Henry’s other famous speech, before the battle of Agincourt, which my father used to recite to me, but this sin of omission is certainly ameliorated by the inclusion of the other two Shakespearean elegies to England.
Although many excellent poems and poets are represented, the biggest and most pleasant surprise for me was the sheer brilliance of the extract from Swinburne’s “Winter in Northumberland,” a poem of which I had been previously unaware. It is astonishingly good and reminds me of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in its awe-struck reverence for beauty and, particularly, of Francis Thompson’s “To a Snowflake” in the way it connects nature’s beauty to the beauty of its Creator.
Having acknowledged that which is good in Mr. Wilson’s selection, its chief weakness is Mr. Wilson’s reduction of Platonism to relativism; his apparent belief that “Platonic England” is merely an England of the mind, i.e. a figment of the individual’s imagination. If this is all that England is, why lament its passing with such intensity? The real tragedy of England’s passing, so much a running theme through ANW’s selection and commentary, is not that the England we love is a figment of the imagination but that it is real, in the sense that Platonic forms are real. This real England is present in Old English and Middle English; in Chaucer and Chesterton; in Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. The England to be found in these places is more real than it is in present-day Birmingham or Leicester, which are only English in a superficial and fading sense. Nor does the England to be found in these places depend on our ability to see it. If England continues to sink into the primeval soup of “post-Christian” barbarism, it is possible that nobody will read Shakespeare a century from now. They will not want to read it and will probably be unable to read it even if they wanted to. Yet the goodness, truth, and beauty to be found in Shakespeare, Chaucer, et al will not be in the least diminished by the inability of future generations to see it. A tree does not cease to exist because a blind man cannot see it. England will not cease to exist because the “post-English” barbarians residing in England fail to understand that which is beyond their ken.
If A.N. Wilson could acquire the philosophical realism that would unite him with Plato and Aristotle, and with the fides et ratio of Augustine and Aquinas, he would understand the immutability of that which is truly England. Indeed, if he acquired such wisdom, he would not have ended his anthology with a comment that eulogizes the so-called “Glorious” Revolution that exiled England’s last true king and which condemned England to the sordid secularism that followed in the Revolution’s wake. If he possessed such wisdom, he would have ended the anthology with Chesterton’s “Secret People” instead of Hawker’s “Song of the Western Men,” the latter being a triumphalist anti-Catholic hymn, which, as the anthem of Cornish separatism, is about as English as “Flower of Scotland.”
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “London: The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards the City” by Canaletto (1697-1768), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.