The English language itself is a testament to the principle of inclusiveness. Although some writers have made a cult of preferring the sturdy, simple English words of "pure" Saxon origin to those of Latin, Greek or Norman French origin, the true glory of the English language, Ackroyd feels, comes from its richness and its ability to assimilate foreign words. Similarly, the English style is a mixed style -- or, to use an ancient term, as Ackroyd generally prefers to do, a "mungrell" style: " 'Beowulf' combines heroic adventure and horror, pathos and fantasy.... Spenser delights in his alterations of mood. Marlowe specializes in comedy and horror mixed.... Precisely the same descriptions have been applied to both Shakespeare and to Dickens.... " Shakespeare's plays pay no heed to the classic "unities" of time, place and action. And in them are mingled poetry and prose: The most exalted poetic language can be found cheek by jowl with puns to amuse the groundlings.
Everywhere he looks, Ackroyd finds continuities persisting down the centuries, whether it's a reverence for trees, a tendency toward melancholy, a preference for understatement or a fondness for intricately curved and spiral forms rather than straight lines in English art, architecture and gardens. In one chapter, Ackroyd discusses how the men who labored to produce the King James Version of the Bible incorporated the language of versions by earlier translators, such as William Tyndale. And, in turn, the language of the King James Version, deliberately archaic, breathes through the poetry and prose of Milton, Bunyan, Wordsworth, Lawrence and Eliot. Ackroyd loves continuity: "It is always wise to look for evidence of continuity rather than of violent change, because in persistence and permanence lie the true strengths of human nature." This conservative tendency, this unwillingness to throw out babies along with bathwater, also is a force that nourishes diversity -- through the realm of time rather than space. Voices from the past are not silenced by death or change but resonate in a music that transcends time.
The English imagination, like any living creature, is full of paradoxes. Many a trait that Ackroyd identifies as typically English is matched by an opposite trait, equally English. The English, he notes, are known for their bawdy humor yet are embarrassed about sex and, indeed, the physical body in general. On one hand, they are pragmatic and down-to-earth. In religion they value practical matters rather than theological speculation. In philosophy their approach is empirical: They value inductive reasoning and the kind of purposeful experimentation that led to modern science, while distrusting and disdaining speculation, systems and abstract theories and concepts. The English are skeptical.
Yet on the other hand, as he also shows us, England is a land of visions and dreams, of ghosts and revenants: Most ghost stories are set in England and written by English writers. And from time immemorial the misty island has been full of visionaries: from William Langland's "Piers Plowman" to Blake and Samuel Palmer.
Oddly, Ackroyd's chapter on Romanticism is rather weak. And he suffers from a slight tendency to overly idealize the "good old days" of England's Roman Catholic past -- today's answer to the 19th century's Protestant triumphalism. His attitude is very much in tune with current fashions in British historiography, although, to his credit, he is clearly appreciative of the Dissenting tradition, with its emphasis on individual "inner light." Yet he seems to overlook the fact that what he idealizes as the halcyon Catholic past already contained the seeds of dissent: that Protestantism was not just the politically motivated improvisation of Henry VIII. This blind spot enables Ackroyd to perform the neat trick of honoring Tyndale for translating the Bible while exalting More, who had him killed for that very "crime."
Yet "Albion" is a mansion of many rooms, richly furnished and full of surprising treasures. Ackroyd's extraordinary affinity for his grand subject has enabled him to produce a splendid book.