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    old stone wall in the Lake District in the UK

    In the Land of Logres

    An Ode to the English Landscape and the English Psyche

    By John Milbank

    August 23, 2021
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    • Matthew Milliner

      A stunning essay. Thank you.

    England is unreal. Situated on an isle of dreams, forever out at sea, under a sky that always seems more proximate than it does elsewhere, it is a continuous garden, in a state of contrived and waving disorder, of organized seduction that only appears to be unconscious.

    No wonder its denizens are so embarrassedly attached to it. Meanwhile, visitors slumber awake as they coast across billowy downs as though they had never left their beds. They enter readily into copses and out of them over meadows that offer neither peril nor resistance. Even the northern mountains turn out to be vast ornamental rockeries, and where the thread of hedging fails, the hard stringing of stone walls takes over. Every place seems private and enclosed, yet opens out seamlessly upon every other, in an entanglement of mutual conspiracies that never needs to risk collective disclosure.

    It is, if one ignores its many rude urban intrusions, the perfection of the pastoral. The limiting of reality to an island, then to the gentler part of that island. A retreat of a continent into a summary where geology alters rapidly on a small scale, rendering every shock of transition only an intimacy of variation as one passes from chalk to sandstone to limestone to granite, and from buildings in wood, brick, and flint to those in variegated stone. A simplification of life to the interplay of cultivation with quiet carousal. The grazing sheep and cattle, the waving barley, the interludes of commons, pubs, churches, woods, and crouching homesteads. Life like a silent song, an uninterrupted murmur.

    England has only one natural city apart from a few ancient ports: London, intended to be the hub of an empire. The place of rule and of exchange: the new Rome, and so the new Romans always retreated to their rural otium. They sought the simplification of agricultural origins and within them the still more primal focus of the hunt – decked out in exotic colors to overbear the quieter plumage of English birds and animals, just as the hunters reinstate their pre-linguistic cries.

    A retreat in order to declare that simplicity, with its confinement of the spirit held in reserve, may still be nobly borne. Or is all of life just such a retreat, in any case? the English ask you to wonder. The martial life, the human hunt, is after all another such simplification: the life of adventure, exploration, and heroism in war which the Anglo-Saxons have so often sought, at once to further and to disguise their more mundane devotion to trucking and to trading.

    old stone wall in the Lake District in the UK

    Photograph by Ryan Hughes

    It is easy after all to exercise suspicion: no one is really now a squire and rectories are no longer inhabited by rectors. Living in the country is the seal of success and the pretense that there exists no money or virtual power. All the free wanderings are joyless illusions, with not a shepherdess in sight. Long ago the real inner beauty of the landscape was squandered: the glebe lands were expropriated, most of the commons were enclosed, the fields amalgamated, hedges reduced, oaks felled, great swaths of wildflowers inhibited.

    But this mode of disguise is more than an illusion. It is what has always been most intensely wanted. The oldest of desires, after all: the overborne prince seeking the life of the shepherd, the shepherd made to speak in learned verse. Or the truly aspiring plowboy; the plowboy elevated into judge, the suffering servant unmasked in his simplicity as lord of life.

    For the sake of our humanity there has to be complexity, increasing sophistication. There has to be the town, ease of transport, abstraction for improvement and facility of communication. But the need for food and water, for space and air and recreation is not thereby abolished. All that civilization is only for the sake of a readier return and an embellishing of the original domain. Artificial simplicity is, after all, the human thing itself. To play, like a gentleman, at being a farmer is no mere fantasy but almost inevitable.

    Likewise the turning of the necessity of the hunt into the thrill of a gratuitous chase. Does it insult the deer, the foxes, and the otters? Or is their continuous and unending search for food and mating not itself also a play, as their delight in mimesis and pretense would suggest? And if, within life, need grimly rules, then what is the point of all the chasings, feedings, and couplings taken together? Life lived is a spiral, but viewed as a collective whole it is one continuous flight of an arrow: the questing beast whose quest is its own object.

    That seems to be what the English settle for. Uninterested in art because they have turned landscape itself into art and themselves into perpetual actors within its sufficiently changing drama. However corrupted, the pastoral truce still holds and still entrances. Who would not wish to take the narrowing path of the southwestern peninsula, ever further out into the resounding ocean? A path bedecked in April with daffodils, primroses, violets, cowslips, white campion, sea campion, and lesser celandines, passing between sunken hedges of ash and elder that seem to be leading you, with Persephone, always further underground.

    Devon is indeed the epitome of England, with its twining dells and bosomy hills like the domes of sunken temples, dedicated to buried cults of earthiness. Edged by an exotic southern coast that intimates the Mediterranean, by a wilder coast to the north that always presages storm, smuggling, pirates, and disaster. And concealing in the middle the shorn-off mountains of the moorlands, whose lack of height only reveals their more sublime antiquity. Wraiths wander through the random stones that could be equally the work of giants, ancestors, or nature. The unidentifiable howling among them might likewise be the voice of the enraged abandoned gods, ever scouring the night skies for victims, or of canine vengeance upon Royalist squires, whose cleaving to tradition did not really excuse the swerve of their spurred jollity into unmentionable wickedness.

    Yes, the dark side. Everywhere present because everywhere domesticated. On the Saxon shore, the sea beasts and the dark elves were held at bay by the warmth of the mead hall and lordly generosity. On the Celtic marches the intoxication of the high hills and the cauldrons of inspiration were viewed but warily. The fairies were miniaturized in a gesture of further pastoral concentration. At grass and dandelion level they could safely enshrine the grandeurs of Rome, while at the human level the entire Christian story was rather seen as an occasioning of further field-mirth, dotings, and gatherings, always in due season. The complications of transcendence and the anxiety of salvation were rerouted back through the processional lanes, the beaten bounds, the magical rogations, and the harvest-homings, in pagan loyalty to the religion of the Incarnation.

    After all, this ensured that hay carts could be further bedecked. Every sinking is also a rising, and if we should gather the petals in May, while we can, then that is surely to say that we should live in the passage of the moment, which only eternity will recoup and augment, as the poet-rector of Dean Prior used to preach out of Horace, not always forgetting his Longinus.

    Robert Herrick’s church and rectory still stand on the Exeter-to-Plymouth road, all the more forlornly now that it is a noisy dual carriageway. Scornful of Puritan and Laudian precisionist alike, he turned the Christianity of England, more Roman than that of Rome, into songs about the brevity of daffodils that later Chartists chanted, as they sought to restore the commons and bring our absolutist parliament to annual account.

    A brevity of earthly joy that is more akin to the eternity of Herrick’s heaven than to any planning, recall, or miserly hoarding. The roistering, rollicking heart of England with her twisting roads and pointless signposts, leading always to intrigue and trouble in the sunken “bottoms,” if not to the hangman’s noose upon the lonely ridgeway. For yes, once more, there are also the eerie hauntings: the plethora of ghosts and the obsession with domestic murder like nowhere else.

    But surely all that is not the projection of fashionable anxieties with – implausibly – no other means of utterance, as academics are wont to imagine? Rather, it is the echo of always but half-defeated paganism, the recall of a fertility that required the ritual sacrifice of the strongest young men, of a devotion to a once crueler mother of God. And guilt at the more recent abandonment of the true gentle mother, the spoliation of her chantries and her linhays of stored provision with shelter for the poor.

    Even fear and guilt get diverted here into more bearable channels. But such tempering was always prevalent upon England’s gentler lowland soils. Woden the One-Eyed was rarely envisaged as enthroned in Valhalla, but rather as wandering his own downland dykes with succor for the hanged and sacrificial countertricks to rescue those deceived by rune-cunning. Wayland the Smith was more craftsman than avenger, soaring skywards on his contrived wings in anticipation of the Spitfires. Eventually it seemed natural to welcome the supreme ruler by sacrifice, the king in disguise, the mother of sorrows and the canticle of words, the Pater Noster vaster in compass than all the fiery worlds. Just as the new god was slain upon a cosmic tree that rose higher even than the uniquely huge ancient trees of England, supplier of sacramental material for longer psychic voyages even than their oak-beams had always enabled.

    Today, England remains scored by his God-spell measures and their guarding towers, countertracing the ancient tracks of blood sacrifice and fearful vast geometries. But a coincidence of artifice with nature is still repeated and preserved: the geomancy most shown in the white chalklands whose sedimentation of sea-creatures seems to anticipate the carving out of every hill as a dragon-temple, the reservation of every beech coppice as a sanctuary, the upending of quarries into megalithic blocks of impenetrable grey wisdom.

    old stone wall in the Lake District in the UK

    Photograph by Jonny Gios

    Something sails above the low pastures to fascinate, always uncannily too near the clouds, just as the circling swifts echo the dance of the midsummer stars and both are recalled by the swirl of autumn leaves. The pastoral path lures us with its pipes westward into Cornwall or Wales, but ultimately out to the dangerous seas where fishermen barely cling to their livelihoods, and City greed cares little for their shinglebank protection from the seas’ ravages. The pastoral suddenly collapses here, even though the twining slopes inland seem to welcome the cunning intrusion of estuaries.

    Or eastwards over the tree-lined sandstone perimeters of hills, till we are finally stranded on the saltings and sedges, beguiled by marsh-lights and prey to the guardians of violated treasure. While the third journey northwards is longer and still more seductive, an irresistible lure of the ever wilder: through the calmer hunting shires to the limestone wracks and hollows, over the granite wastes till you reach the borders of the more overtly uncanny northern kingdom, locked into a more admitted inner tussle with rationalizing control.

    Yet the real tension is always east versus west, not north versus south. However mingled, the Scandinavian noir differs from the Celtic twilight. Eastwards we are drawn to the fens and the forests, to the outlaws struggling against the Continental supernatural taken as terror, and the invading French oppressors. In the greenwood sanctuary the banished guild-freedom of joyful combined work can still flourish, supported by the occasional isolated manor within which the home fire keeps burning and the board still groans under the weight of social generosity. Today it is commercialized as the rural pub, ever more threatened with closure, till that fearful hour when we will no longer be able to meet ever again.

    Westward we wander over the meandering swan-filled avons to the source of their lingering Celtic name: to the cider orchards of the Hesperides, those nymphs with limbs as white as apple blossom, hair as golden as the setting sun. In the western woods, the outlaw hero is after all beguiled from his different justice by the spectral palace of enchantresses, from whom he selects one to be his perilous bride. We ascend the craggy citadels of vision and dangerously do not wish to leave. All those seemingly pointless walks throughout England are really undertaken with the intent to track down the external source of the imagination, the place wilder than your dreams, the falling fountains more internal than your own fictionings.

    This, we read, was what first the Britons and then the English (whoever they and their language may be, and none knows for sure) always sought to defend from invaders: the hidden visionary kingdom, the seat of an altogether different sort of rule. Every eccentricity, every inexplicable turn of a track or a lane, witnesses to that winding search, which achieves through its intrications an ever-further guarding of just what it searches for.

    After all, throughout the middle kingdom, whether it’s named Mercia or Logres, there spread always the rumors of these margins: of the eastern dangers and the western ethereal promise. They mingle in the mixed tales and dramas of the Midlands, told in the hostelries where we rest for the night with the disguised highwaymen who may ensnare us the very next day: the boisterous and the raucous confused with the heroic, the lyrical, and the horizontally enigmatic. Occasionally, a mystical synthesis is reached, and all dilates upward as much as outward: the rarefied height of the spires competing with the peculiar longitude of English cathedrals and parish churches.

    Not that this is all a human work: the froth of rivers is already gossip and rumor; the maritime climate ensures that the landscape is water-painted all on its own. The frequent pools in muddy tracks and fields are apparently unintended wounds. Equally unintended seem the vast swathes of shadow over moorlands and mountainside: Was this nothingness, since it could be named, after all, something, like the divine itself? The British and the Irish scholars of Aachen labored to explain. Or else, still being bards, they hymned this mystery, along with the echoes from the dry limestone rifts, the pearling of light through mist, reflections of aspens in water, and the diffraction of sun through rain that renders such frequent rainbows.

    Is all of that really accident, or is the secondariness of echo that makes the first music reality’s whole original point? The commencement of art in nature, which can become a second necessity of craft, like the enfolding of sheep and the reaping of their fleeces. But then the gratuity of design and color supervenes again upon mere usage, to produce the pale gold wonder of the wool-towns and the river-routes to the cloth-towns of East Anglia and Flanders.

    It is this proximity of purpose with the unblushingly decorative which most marks England. It is this which ensures that the naming of places seems to be their own inviolable self-naming. How could Little Cawthorpe, or Wansdyke and so forth, ever have existed without these very designations? The same spirit slumbers even today within English meadows, being slowly restored in their spangled radiance, now that this muted glory is realized to be also a necessity of our survival.

    But always the passage through these fields, into the silvery glades and out again, is haunted by the looming of two unique topographies, unknown anywhere else in the world: the moorland and the downland.

    Moorland, mainly northward, fuses the bestial threat and the faerie lure. The heather, gorse, and broom call always to light-tripping escapade, but the dangerous double meanwhile claws at the misted windows of the isolated farmhouse.

    The Downs, instead, are content to dryly dream. Their swelling is of the pastures themselves and so is more sublime and unlikely than the jagged points of mountains which simply assemble in front of us. Instead, the downs are actually ourselves; their rising is our own willing, unknown to us. Their occasional extended reaching-up to a ringed hill of trees or stones is a further impossibility: it is equally the old giants aspiring and the old gods descending. The English hope and pray that the latter were always really angels and that they themselves might become such, as Pope Gregory once declared them already to be.

    Meanwhile, they are strangely content with ambiguity; they feel they have it tamed, by that total cultivation of nature that always reserved or contrived a certain rewilding and a certain sideways glance towards the hills from which they trust still will come their future hope. The whole landscape appears to be a compromise, but its hidden secret is its aspiration toward metaphysical synthesis. The random orchard that secretes the quincunx amidst its fond old tangle.


    (With apologies to Daniel Anlezark, Brian Branston, Emily Brontë, Thomas Browne, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Empson, Kathleen Herbert, Robert Herrick, Paul Kingsnorth, Rose Macaulay, Walter Map, Robert MacFarlane, Susan Oosthuizen, Henry Williamson, King Solomon, and the god Saturn.)

    old stone wall in the Lake District in the UK
    Contributed By

    John Milbank is an Anglican Theologian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham where he works as President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. He has written several books, most notably Theology and Social Theory.

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