The Territorial Imperative


And so the English imagination takes the form of an endless en-chanted circle, or shining ring, moving backwards as well as forwards. I return again to Ford Madox Ford—returning being one of the central images of this book—who wrote that “my private and particular image of English history in these matters is one of waving lines. I see tendencies rise to the surface of the people. I see them fall again and rise again.” These “lines” of force or influence connect the present with the past. We draw half our strength and inspiration from the writers of the past. From their example we learn that the history of the English imagination is the history of adaptation and assimilation. Englishness is the principle of diversity itself. In English literature, music and painting, heterogeneity becomes the form and type of art. This condition reflects both a mixed language comprised of many different elements and a mixed culture comprised of many different races. That is why there is also, in the products of the English imagination, a characteristic mixing or blurring of forms; in these pages I have traced the conflation of biography, or history, and the novel.

The English have in that sense always been a practical and pragmatic race; the history of English philosophy, for example, has been the history of empiricism and of scientific experiment. There are no works of speculative theology, but there are many manuals of religious instruction. This native aptitude has in turn led to disaffection from, or dissatisfaction with, all abstract speculation. The true emphasis rests upon the qualities of individual experience, which are manifest in the English art of portraiture and in the English novel of character. The English imagination is also syncretic and additive—one episode leading to another episode—rather than formal or theoretical.

So there are many striking continuities in English culture, ranging from the presence of alliteration in English native poetry for the last two thousand years to the shape and size of the ordinary English house. But the most powerful impulse can be found in what I have called the territorial imperative, by means of which a local area can influence or guide all those who inhabit it. The example of London has often been adduced. But the territorial imperative can also be transposed to include the nation itself. English writers and artists, English composers and folk-singers, have been haunted by this sense of place, in which the echoic simplicities of past use and past tradition sanctify a certain spot of ground. These forces are no doubt to be found in other regions and countries of the earth; but in England the reverence for the past and the affinity with the natural landscape join together in a mutual embrace. So we owe much to the ground on which we dwell. It is the landscape and the dreamscape. It encourages a sense of longing and belonging. It is Albion.

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