On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I visited Gothic Image bookshop in the High Street and picked up a reprinted edition of their publication, This enchanted isle by Peter Woodcock. Originally published in 2000, the book describes itself as a study of ‘the neo-romantic vision from William Blake to the new visionaries.’ Woodcock has written on art and literature and has an interest in the ‘shamanic’ tradition; in this book he traces the influence of William Blake and Samuel Palmer on later writers, artists and film-makers.
I discuss This enchanted isle and the neo-romantic movement in greater detail in an essay on one of my other blogs, johnkruseblog.wordpress.com. Here, I want to focus solely on the fairy aspects of Woodcock’s subject.
As I have discussed in an earlier posting, William Blake saw all of natural life as being animated by fairies and he perceived elves and fairies filling the fields and hedgerows around his cottage at Felpham. In this, his acolyte Samuel Palmer was very similar. He was brought up on stories of fairies, witches and ghosts and imagined supernatural life filling the lanes and woods of rural Dulwich near his home in Walworth on the very edge of London. Later he moved to Shoreham, the Kentish village which inspired his finest work. As Palmer’s son, Albert Herbert, later recounted in his biography, Samuel Palmer- life and letters (1892), part of the attraction of the rural hamlet was that traditional folk beliefs were still held by the residents there (and he preferred the older pastoral poets for the same reason- their close links to romantic rural life). Palmer readily imagined goblins (that is, brownies) drudging in the thatched barns of Shoreham for the reward of a bowl of cream and happily listened to tales of fairies tripping across the domestic hearths. There is more than a nod to Milton’s L’Allegro here, inevitable perhaps given Palmer’s great admiration for his verse.
The mystical landscape visions of Blake and Palmer were inherited by various twentieth century artists, foremost amongst whom was Paul Nash. His writings disclose similar responses to the English countryside; he had a strong sense of the unique character of places and the power of those with links to antiquity. Of Wittenham Clumps, which he painted repeatedly, he said:
“I felt their importance long before I knew their history… [The landscape was] full of strange enchantment, on every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old gods long forgotten.”
Later in his life, Nash encountered the stones of Avebury. Initially, he responded to the forms and colours of the stones, saying there was “no question of animism here.” This changed, however, so that in his essay for Country Life written in May 1937, The life of the inanimate object, he was able to write “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” The idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and and occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.” In English culture, he wrote, the romantic poet Wordsworth payed a major role creating mythology that gave ‘systematic animation to the inanimate.’
Sketching at Silbury Hill, he recalled that “I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid. Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by n authentic vision.” For Nash there was magic in ancient and significant places that was still real and tangible in the twentieth century. His art tried to express and to contact those deep forces of the English landscape.
Woodcock also links the Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) with the neo-romantic movement. Machen is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but like the others discussed, he believed that the humdrum world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality. Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into his vision. In his second volume of autobiography, Things near and far, published in 1923, he acknowledges the rational explanations of fairy belief (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British fairy origins of 1946):
“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the goods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania. Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”
Machen knew of these scientific interpretations, but he had little time for them. In his work he is more interested in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.” His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of and awe for faery. He repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and dread power of our supernatural neighbours.
In Machen’s masterpiece, The hill of dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.” Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory.” Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ and ‘fairy raths’ whilst the capital is imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible. All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”
Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, cabala and Dark Age history, for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.” Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”, apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy language. She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.
In Hill of dreams, Machen’s descriptions of the countryside near Gwent are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning. Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.” He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.” This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches. He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.” Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.