In “A Letter to a Friend upon Occasion of the Death of His Intimate Friend,” composed in the 1670s, Sir Thomas Browne noticed the change in the human countenance just before death; the man about to die began to resemble his uncle “the Lines of whose Face lay deep and invisible in his healthful Visage before.” Thus before our mortal end “by sick and languishing Alterations, we put on new Visages: and in our Retreat to Earth, may fall upon such Looks which from community of seminal Originals, were before latent in us.” Our ancestors shine through at that moment of quietus and we are but a palimpsest of past times.
And is this the condition of the world itself? As the lachrymose eighteenth-century poet Edward Young asked, in his Conjectures on Original Composition, “Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die Copies?” It is a question of absorbing interest for those who contemplate the persistence through time of certain patterns of behaviour or expression. It has often been remarked how the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands retained such a primitive way of life that they remained in the ninth century for many hundreds of years. But more unequivocal evidence was discovered in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar Gorge. Here was found the skeleton of a man who had expired at some moment in that great expanse of time known as the Middle Stone Age; his mitochondrial DNA was subsequently tested, and a close match found with a history teacher residing in the late twentieth-century Cheddar village. Thus a genetic link can be directly established over a period of approximately eleven thousand years. But can it also pose a question of place, rather than of tribe or family? Can dwelling become a form of indwelling or imaginative life? To attempt to elucidate the characteristics of the English imagination over a period of two thousand years may not then be a futile or unworthy task.
For over one thousand years the Celtic tribes were established all over England; these separate British tribes, or kingdoms, or civitates , survived in situ 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. While extant inscriptions and symbols “make it certain that sub-Roman [British] literacy included both letters and poems”1 none of them has been found in England; just as there are almost no Syriac manuscripts dating from the Macedonian occupation of Syria, no British Celtic texts survive from either the Roman or Saxon periods. One British manuscript survives, the Vergilius Romanus of the early sixth century which is “the earliest British book known to us today.”2 It is of course composed in Latin. Those who had mastered writing naturally preferred to employ the “prestige” language. No music remains and, since early British churches were constructed of wood, no public architecture.
Yet the presence of a thousand years can never wholly die; it lingers still in the words that spring most easily and fluently to the lips, among them “kick,” “hitch” and “fudge.” Celtic words lie buried in the landscape, like their quondam speakers immured in round barrows, in such familiar names as Avon and Cotswold and Downs. The names of London and the Isle of Man are Celtic.
The settlement of the Saxon invaders was a more gradual and intermittent process than has generally been acknowledged; new scholarly emphasis is upon assimilation rather than conquest, and, for example, Celtic patterns of farming have been found in medieval surroundings.
There may have been some compact or understanding, then, between the indigenous population of the island and the invading Anglo-Saxon tribes of the fifth and sixth centuries. There is evidence, both in place-names and in personal names, of absorption or intermingling; there was an Anglo-Saxon term, “wealhstod,” meaning one who can understand and translate native Celtic (British) speech. In the bleak and forbidding landscapes of the north, the Celts (the British) were often left within their own communal areas; there seem to have been British settlements just north of the Thames, also, and in the forests of West Suffolk and Essex. It is possible that the British language was being spoken as late as the end of the seventh century, in Somerset and Dorset. There are many who claim that in Northumbria, for example, there are still Celts, distinctive in appearance and even in behaviour, among the local population.
There are deep patterns of inheritance and transmission still to be found etched in the stone or metal of surviving Celtic objects. We need not call it “art” because it furnished the texture of life itself. Consider the characteristic motif of the spiral in Celtic workmanship both secular and spiritual; there are reverse spirals or whirls, and trumpet spirals, and “hair-spring” spirals, circling like some persistent pattern or obsessive secret. It may come as no surprising revelation, therefore, to note the presence of the same spirals, or “rings,” carved upon sandstone rocks of the earlier Neolithic period. Here, chipped with hard stone tools, are the same symbols upon cremation covers or cist covers or outcrop rock, in locations such as Broomridge and Goat’s Crag and Hare Law. They are sometimes known as “radiates,” and indeed they seem to shine from prehistory into the annals of recorded time. Some of them, marked upon stones beside burial cairns, were never meant to be seen; but they rise again, like the twelfth-century spiral markings in the church of St. Laurence Pittington, Durham.
This is no archaeological reverie, however. The paganism of the Anglo-Saxon English, which survived for many centuries after Augustine had brought Christianity to England in 597, may in turn be traced to much earlier beliefs. The idols and demons, the spells and amulets, of the Anglo-Saxons may derive some of their power from Neolithic avatars. Just as the spirals are found within the Durham church, so concealed within the fabric of the church of St. Albans were discovered rolls which contained magical invocations and the details of pagan rites.
The lineaments of a style and sensibility which have over the centuries been characterised as entirely English can be traced to Celtic work. The motif of the spiral, for example, is deployed within a severe and abstract patterning. The tendency towards elaborate pattern, aligned to surface flatness, will become increasingly apparent in this narrative of the English imagination. The vision of the Celts was an intense and graphic one, executed with a grave sense of form and a majestic, almost numinous, style. Theirs was not an art based on the representation of nature but one rooted in the essential truths behind appearance. Animals are depicted in long, flowing, ribbon-like movements; they become zoomorphs, or images of life as part of the calligraphy of significant form. This visionary capacity of the Celts is of the utmost importance in understanding the English genius.
Twelfth-century spiral markings: church of St. Laurence Pittington, County Durham
There have been many theories about the persistent Celtic presence in native art and literature, the most eloquent of them embodied in The Study of Celtic Literature by Matthew Arnold in 1867. He proffers the observation that even if we no longer hear of the Celts after the Roman and Saxon invasions, that by no means proves they had ceased to exist; conquerors make their own history, while the vanquished must endure in silence. There is no record of extermination or general exodus (despite the tendency of the old Britons to move westward) so that “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.” Arnold noted among these early Britons “a singular inaptitude for the plastic arts” yet also a “turn for melancholy” and “natural magic” together with a “passionate, turbulent, indomitable reaction against the despotism of fact.” In his somewhat deterministic vocabulary this natural temperament of the Celts is different from that of the Anglo-Saxons which is “disciplinable and steadily obedient within certain limits, but retaining an inalienable part of freedom and self-dependence,” with a propensity for “spending its exertions within a bounded field, the field of plain sense, of practical utility.” Succeeding chapters of this book will suggest the extent of this “practical” or empirical genius, but it is worth noting that according to Arnold the conflation of Celtic and Saxon in the national temperament has produced a kind of awkwardness or embarrassment—a tendency to understatement—in the characteristic productions of England. We may trace it through Chaucer and Auden, and will find one of its earliest manifestations in the verse of Beowulf.