A Twitter friend (@idlehistorian) who is a fellow Anglophile remarked in a blog post some months ago on “the Englishness of longing and nostalgia.” Consider John Major’s famous description, also from her post: “a country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist.”
The view from Hill Top Farm in Walden Dale, a scene of classic England. © Copyright Roger Gilbertson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
These are a few of the basic tenements of Anglophilia, and more in the world are aware of their own tendencies, perhaps latent, given the Olympics and Paralympics in London this summer. My own Anglophilia developed at a young age as I practiced the art of an English tea on a card table in my bedroom with bags of Twinings and Scottish boxed shortbread.
These days, my Anglophilia comes out in full force in my novel writing, as well as in most posts on this blog. In a previous post, I considered works of literature that exude a certain Englishness, and was reminded by @perednia of this perfect description of Englishness:
Margaret Hale’s love of Helstone and her father’s parsonage in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South speak to me of how beautiful the homely can be. Here’s Mrs. Gaskell’s heroine describing her home in Chapter 1:
“Oh, only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green — cottages, rather — with roses growing all over them. … All the other places in England that I have seen seem so hard and prosaic-looking, after the New Forest. Helstone is like a village in a poem — in one of Tennyson’s poems.”
Do we contemporary Anglophiles want our world to look like one out of poems? Such a desire is part of the pleasure of an Anglophile’s sense of nostalgia.
Many Anglophiles delight in the most English of English writers from the 19th century—Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, and Gaskell are just a handful—and many, too, in English poems of the same period. To my mind, none satisfy this longing for English Englishness than A.E. Housman and A Shropshire Lad. More on that in a bit.
A taste of classic England: Shropshire Union Canal, near Soudley. © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
But when is severe Anglophilia more than just, as @idlehistorian calls it tongue-in-cheek, a bad habit?
On a listserv where I learn so much from Victorian scholars for my novel research, a point was under discussion several months ago about what soldiers read during WWI in the trenches. Were Mrs. Gaskell’s works tucked away in uniform pockets? The idea of soldiers reading such quiet domestic novels between bouts of gunfire is fascinating, but according to scholars, it wasn’t just a rumor and, what’s more, British soldiers also read Trollope and Jane Austen.
They also carried A Shropshire Lad (published first in 1896). It’s small, its poems can be read in a few minutes, and it’s plump with the kind of nostalgia that some need in times when life seems too much.
Alfred Edward Housman
Housman isn’t pure nostalgia, though; there is a good dose of death and mourning in his idyllic prose. Take this, for example:
Number VII from A Shropshire Lad
When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,
The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The tramping team beside,
And fluted and replied:
“Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.”
I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.
Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane,
It Sang the song again:
“Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road tone treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.”
Recall that as British soldiers were reading it, they were experiencing things like this:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(Wilfred Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” )
Was Housman’s gloom an antidote to the horrors of war? Or was it the Englishness of his work, death included? Perhaps soldiers longed at the thought of lying beneath those green pastures, and it gave them comfort as they prepared for the rushes into battle that so often proved fatal.
I’ll end this post with “The Lads in Their Hundreds” (1911), a setting of the Shropshire Lad poem by George Butterworth—to satisfy Anglophilia at its most acute. Butterworth was best known for his settings of these works. He was also a member of the British Army during WWI, and was awarded the Military Cross. On August 5, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, George Butterworth was killed by a sniper. His body was not found. May he, Wilfred Owen, and the other brilliant young artists, as well as the many whose names were not famous from this and so many other wars, be remembered for their sacrifices and incredible courage.