The Imagination of Albion & The Spirit of Place
Albion may not be at all familiar to most Americans, but is the oldest known name of the island of Great Britain. Gallo-Latin Albiōn (Albio in Celtic and Alba in Gaelic), meaning “white,” derives from the Proto-Celtic “Alb-ien,” sharing the same stem as Welsh word translated as “earth,” or “world.” Many classical writers used the name, and by the 1st century CE, the name refers unequivocally to Great Britain. Some historians recognize it as a common poetical name for England. Mythologically speaking, Albion was the name of the primeval giant, “elemental and emblematic,” who made his home upon the isle of Britain, whose white cliffs greeting sea-voyagers suggested pristine purity.
Thus, although the name “Albion” was known in Roman times (which may have been passed down to the Romans by the Celts), it wasn’t however until the late eighteenth century that its truly poetical character was enshrined in history. This was mostly due to the visionary poet, artist, and political revolutionary William Blake, who took up and used the name of “Albion” throughout his poetic prophecies.
What I’m calling the “Anglo-Celtic Imagination” is a kind of cosmic memory, an imaginal memory that lives in the land itself. For the ancient ancestors of the British Isles the land itself holds these stories, as if the storytellers invoke what is traditionally known as the spirit of place. In early Ireland, the tribe’s memory was entrusted to a special class of priests called Druids. As guardians of an oral-based culture, they were the living libraries of its history. When the Druid order was destroyed, others, a class called “bards” or poet-seers kept the flame of the memory tradition alive. Together with a lesser order of the bards, they kept their culture alive through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance eras in Ireland, Whales, and Scotland. After this time, the memory-knowledge was passed on into the modern age by generations of village storytellers known as shanachies.
The bardic caste also consisted of dindsenchas poets. The Dindsenchas or Dindshenchas meant “lore of places” (the modern Irish word dinnseanchas means “topography”) and is a class of onomastic (the study of the origin, history, and use of proper names) text in early Irish literature, recounting the origins of place-names and traditions concerning events and characters associated with the places in question. The Metrical (verse) Dindshenchas is a series of ancient legends connected with the origin of Irish place-names. They come to us from the distant past and survived mainly by word of mouth over the centuries. Knowledge of the real or putative history of local places formed an important part of the education of the elite in ancient Ireland. This was especially the case for the bardic caste, which was expected to recite poems answering questions on place-name origins as part of its professional duties. Since many of the legends related concern the acts of mythic and legendary figures, the literary corpus of the Dindsenchas is an important source for the study of Irish mythology. (Although they are known today from these written sources, the Dindsenchas are clearly a product of the pre-literary tradition and are structured so as to be a mnemonic aid as well as a form of entertainment.) Professor of English and Research Professor of Anthropology, Dennis Tedlock, seems to be referring to his Dindsenchas tradition of the “lore of places” when he writes:
Myths and the characters whose stories they are live in the quiet of mountains and valleys, forests and meadows, rocks and springs, until someone comes along and thinks to tell them. They have other hiding places, too, inside the language we use every day, in the names of places where they happened, or the names of trees or days on the calendar.
This Celtic “lore of places” seems to have survived in the English Imagination (or the “Imagination of Albion”). It has been compared, from as early as the sixteenth century, with a stream, a river, or a fountain, in the same manner as English poetry. It has also been compared to an Aeolian harp, as in Coleridge’s verse: “ . . . the long sequacious notes / Over delicious surges sink and rise.” These lines suggest in turn the drawn-out melodies and vast chromatic harmonies of the English musical tradition. In the seventeenth century, Henry Vaughan used the literary metaphor: “Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.” Thus, it can be said that the English Imagination is like a circle of light; it has no beginning and end, moves forwards and backwards, and is therefore endless. But we must ask: Why “English Imagination”? There is a special sense of belonging that is the hallmark of what has been identified as “Englishness.” But this should not be interpreted to mean that the poetic imagination is tied to one race. Given that there are no pure Anglo-Saxon people (and so any atavistic native element is out of the question), this English or British sense of belonging has to do with location and territory.
Thus, in order to complicate the simple notion of what is called “Englishness” as it relates to the people of the British nation, I would remind you that the designation “Britons” originally identified the Celtic peoples who settled in Great Britain. Sometimes referred to as Brythons or British, the Britons were the Celtic people culturally dominating Great Britain from the Iron Age through the Early Middle Ages. They lived throughout Britain, and after the 5th century they also migrated to continental Europe, where they established the settlements of Brittany in France and the obscure Britonia in what is now Galicia, Spain. The “British” as we know them today did not appear in history until Julius Caesar crossed the English Channel from northern Gaul and began his failed conquest of Britain. The Romans returned in 43 CE and began a systematic conquest of the island until they encountered the fierce Pictish tribes in the Scottish highlands. However, Rome didn’t abandon northern England until 117 CE. After the Roman conquest of 43 CE, a Romano-British culture began to emerge. With the advent of the Anglo-Saxon settlement in the 5th century, however, the culture and language of the Britons began to fragment. Despite this, the Celtic tribes were established all over England for over a thousand years. These separate British tribes or kingdoms survived from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the sub-Roman period and the Saxon invasions. Their verses of prophecy and legend remain in the Irish, Welsh, and Cornish vernaculars but in no other source.
The presence, then, of a thousand years can never wholly die out; it lingers still not only in some of the words of the English language, but also Celtic words lie buried in the landscape, especially in place-names. Many of the place-names in southern England have Celtic origins. Among them are Avon and Downs, Leatherhead and the Isle of Man—even London itself is a Celtic name. And in the realm of religion, the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons, which survived for many centuries after Augustine brought Christianity to England in 597 CE, may in turn be traced back to the much earlier beliefs of the Celtic tribes.
Therefore, for the purposes of this musical essay I am suggesting that there is a very close connection between the Celtic and the English memory and imagination; indeed, close enough to be considered as heterogeneous. I have just cited the historical reasons for this. But there are also genetic ones. A recent study, conducted by geneticists at University College London, found that as many as three-quarters of the men tested in some parts of the south of England have the same Y-chromosome as the ancient Britons or Celts, rather than that of the Anglo-Saxons. The new research revealed that the majority of Britons living in the south of England share the same DNA as their Celtic counterparts. This means that the Celts are not as racially different from the Brits as we like to think. And even Scotland the proportion of those with Celtic ancestry was found to be little different from the population of southern England. According to Professor David Goldstein, who led the study: “The evidence is quite strong that there is a substantial indigenous component remaining in England.” Thus, the ethnic history of England is a mixed one, prominently a hybrid of Celt and Anglo-Saxon. This is why, concerning the native imagination of Britain, I’m confident in calling it the “Anglo-Celtic Imagination” or, more poetically, the “Imagination of Albion.”
The main reason for understanding it as such is that ancient Celtic bardic tradition survived in English poetry. So it might be said that the poetry of England rises naturally from the common stock like the melody of a land, a land of dreams. There have been many theories about the persistent Celtic presence in native British art and literature, the most eloquent of them found in Matthew Arnold’s 1867 work, The Study of Celtic Literature. This famous Victorian-Romantic critic puts forth the observation that even if we no longer hear of the Celts after the Roman and Saxon invasions, that by no means proves that had ceased to exist in England, since the conquerors write their own history, while the vanquished must endure in silence. In fact, there is no record of extermination or general exodus (despite the tendency for the old Britons to move westward) so that, according to Arnold, “one would suppose that a great mass of them must have remained in the country . . . their blood entering into the composition of a new people.”
For the purposes of this musical essay, then, what is important is Arnold also noted that among these early Britons “a turn for the melancholy and natural magic,” together with a “passionate, turbulent, indomitable reaction against the despotism of fact” was their outstanding characteristic. In other words, this indigenous temperament of the Celts is essentially different from that of the invading Anglo-Saxons. However, if we must revise the conventional history of the English—and Englishness itself—in the light of the new discoveries and new information I’ve been discussing, then, the temperamental mysticism of the Celts must have mixed with the practical utility of the Anglo-Saxons to result in the “Englishness” we know today. The absorption and assimilation present within the English sensibility has been described as of a mixed or mongrel kind, a hybrid like the people from which it derives, but it is distinctive precisely because of its willingness to adopt and adapt to other influences.
Therefore, in learning about the name “Albion,” we discover that it is almost impossible to separate what we moderns call “history” from the mythology of the British nation. In order to appreciate this, we must understand the concept of spirit of place in Britain and its engendering facilitator, the poetic imagination of the British people—what I’m identifying as the Anglo-Celtic Imagination, or the “Imagination of Albion.” For the ancient ancestors of the British Isles, imaginal memory lives in the land itself, which holds mythic stories, and the storytellers—the bards—invoke the spirit of place. This means that dreams and dream-visions are interwoven within the fabric of the Imagination of Albion. Albion is William Blake’s giant form: “His body covers the British Isles.”
The concept of spirit of place refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; often those celebrated by artists and writers, but also those cherished in folk tales, festivals and celebrations. It is thus as much in the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, and etc.) as it is the tangible physical aspects of a place (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, architectural style, pathways, views, and etc.) or its interpersonal aspects (the presence of relatives, friends and kindred spirits, and etc.). Often the term is applied to a rural or a relatively unspoiled or regenerated place. The Roman term for spirit of place was Genius loci, by which it is sometimes still referred. This has often been historically envisaged as a guardian animal or a small supernatural being (puck, fairy, elf, or a ghost).
In modern times, the theory of the imperative of place has been suggested by Ford Madox Ford, who thought it was more significant than any linguistic or racial element. In The Spirit of the People: An Analysis of the English Mind (1912), Ford wrote:
It is not—the whole of Anglo Saxondom—a matter of race but one, quite simply, of place—of place and of spirit, the spirit being born of the environment.
The ancients knew this as the genius loci, the genius or presiding spirit of place. Thus, in Ford’s account, tradition is in some sense transmitted or communicated by place. Another writer, Lawrence Durrell, has written in his essay Landscape and Character (1960):
My books are always about living in places, not just rushing through them. As we get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses, and characters of different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all—the spirit of place. Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture—will express itself through the human beings just as it does through its wild flowers.
This theory of the spirit of place (genius loci) and its relationship to acculturation has lately been picked up and elaborated in the discipline of ecology and applied to culture as a whole. Its literary aspect has been best articulated by poet Gary Snyder, who writes “The World Is Places.” He expounds his idea of “home place” and theory of “bio-regionalism” by beginning with the following statement:
I want to talk about place as an experience and propose a model of what it meant to “live in place” for most of human time, presenting it initially in terms of the steps that a child makes growing into a natural community.
Snyder attempts to answer the following questions: Why does a particular landscape or environmental setting move us, and what is it that attaches us to those places? What is the essence of these special and often sacred places? What are the universal themes that repeatedly show up in the “literature of place” that connect people across time, space, and cultural differences? Snyder has also contributed the concept of “bioregionalism” to both the environment and literature. “Bioregionalism” is a term used to describe an approach to political, cultural, and environmental issues based on naturally defined regional areas, consistent with the concept of bioregions. These areas are usually based on a combination of physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, with phrases such as “the politics of place” and “terrain of consciousness” appearing in bioregionalist writings, and places emphasis on local populations, knowledge and solutions.
The spirit of place is explicitly recognized by some of the main religions. The Western cultural movements of Romanticism and Neo-romanticism are often deeply concerned with creating cultural forms that “re-enchant the land,” in order to establish or re-establish a spirit of place. Modern earth art (sometimes called environment art) artists have explored the contribution of natural/ephemeral sculpture to spirit of place. Many indigenous and tribal cultures around the world are deeply concerned with spirit of place in their landscape. Therefore, we can see that the concept of the spirit of place is being revived in a number of different cultural and artistic domains, all of which help us recognize and re-value those ancient traditions that fostered imaginal memory of the sacred, animated landscape. My focus here has been the tradition of the Anglo-Celtic Imagination—the “Imagination of Albion.”