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Polyolbion Post by :blazza Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :1839

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How precisely does the Englishman love England? I remember saying some years ago that he was not patriotic in the ordinary sense, because though he loved the land, he had very little feeling for the political entity called England--whereas both will be loved by the true patriot. On recent consideration of the matter I am beginning to ask whether he does, after all, love the land itself, as the Irishman loves his, the Scot his, the Switzer his, and the Greek his. I must say that I doubt it. There is this, I think, to be noted of fervent patriots, that the object of their devotion will have had a distressful story. That is the case with the four nations just remarked upon. It has been the case with France ever since France was the passion of the French.

Every man loves his home, for reasons not necessarily connected with the country which happens to hold it; every one of our soldiers of late longed to get back, by no means necessarily because he wanted to see England again. Did he really want to see it at all--I mean for its own sake apart from what it held of his? I know that he would have cut his tongue out sooner than have confessed it. That is his nature, and I can't help liking him for it--because it is a part of himself, and I like him better than any man in the world. But allowing for that queer shyness, how are we to test his love of our country? Is there a sure test? Well, I know of one, which to my mind is a certainty. Judged by that I must own that Atkins does not stand as a lover should, or would.

My test is this. The lover of his countryside knows its physical features by heart, and to him they have personality. You will have observed the tendency of Londoners to guide you by the names of public-houses; you will have noticed their blank ignorance of points of the compass. To a great extent these defects characterise the Home Counties, and one might try to excuse them in various ways. In the North of England, and in Scotland throughout, you will be told to "go east," or "keep west" (as the Wordsworths were asked, were they "stepping westward?"), with a conviction that the direction will be sufficient for you as it plainly is for your guide. Now nobody can be said to know his countryside who does not know the airts; and the plain truth is that the Southern Englishman does not know his countryside at all. How, then, can he love it? But there's a stronger point than that.

Nothing is more surprising than the indifference of Southerners to their rivers. Where, for instance, throughout its course do you ever hear the Thames spoken of as "Thames"--as if it was a person, which no doubt it is? In the North you talk of Lune and Leven, Esk and Eden:

Tweed said to Till,
What gars ye run so still?

Scotland shows the same respect. Do you remember when Bailie Nicol Jarvie points out the Forth to Francis? "Yon's Forth," he said with great solemnity. That was well observed by Scott. In Italy--notably in Tuscany--a river is always spoken of without the definite article. It may be the case in Devonshire too; but it is never done here in South Wilts though we have five beautiful streams ministering to our county town. Indeed Wiltshire people are nearly as bad as the Cockneys, who always call their Thames "the river," which is as if a man might say "the railway."

Beautiful how Burns personified his rivers! More, he individualised them. The same verb won't do. You have:

Where Cart rins rowin' to the sea,


Where Doon rins wimplin' clear;

And Dante says, or makes Francesca say,

Siede la terra dove nata fui
Sulla marina dove Po discende
Per aver pace co' seguaci sui.

Per aver pace: a lovely phrase. And that brings me to Michael Drayton.

That was a poet--author also of one lovely lyric--who treated our rivers after the fashion of his day, which ran to length and tedious excess. Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is by pages too long; but that is nothing to Drayton's masterpiece. With the best dispositions in the world I have never been able to get right through the Polyolbion. His anthropomorphism is surprising, and a little of it only, amusing.

Here is an example, wherein he desires to express the fact that an island called Portholme stands in the Ouse at Huntingdon.

Held on with this discourse, she--(that is, Ouse)--not so far hath run,
But that she is arrived at goodly Huntingdon
Where she no sooner views her darling and delight,
Proud Portholme, but becomes so ravished with the sight,
That she her limber arms lascivious doth throw
About the islet's waist, who being embraced so,
Her flowing bosom shows to the enamour'd Brook;

and so on.

That will be enough to show that one really might have too much of the kind of thing. In Drayton you very soon do; every page begins to crawl with demonstrative monsters, and there is soon a good deal more love-making than love. But you may read Drayton for all sorts of reasons and find some much better than others. He describes Britain league by league, and is said to have the accuracy of a roadbook. In thirty books, then, of perhaps 500 lines apiece, he conducts you from Land's End to Berwick-on-Tweed, naming every river and hill, dramatising, as it were, every convolution, contact and contour; and not forgetting history either. That means a mighty piece of work, of such a scope and purport that we may well grudge him the doing of it Charles Lamb, who loved a poet because he was bad, I believe, as a mother will love a crippled child, is more generous to Drayton than I can be. "That panegyrist of my native earth," he calls him, "who has gone over her soil, in his Polyolbion, with the fidelity of a herald, and the painful love of a son; who has not left a rivulet so narrow that it may be stept over, without honourable mention; and has animated hills and streams with life and passion beyond the dreams of old mythology." No more delightful task could be the lifework of a poet who loved his own land; but it could hardly be done again, nor, I dare say, ever be done again so well.

To describe, however, the windings and circumfluences of rivers, the embraces of mountain and rain-cloud in language on the other side of amorousness may easily be inconvenient or ridiculous, and not impossibly both; but I shouldn't at all mind upholding in public disputation, say, at the Poetry Bookshop, that there was no other way than Drayton's of doing the thing at all. It was the mythopoetic way. For purposes of poetry, Britain is an unwieldy subject, and if you are to allow to a river no other characters than those of mud and ooze, swiftness or slowness, why, you will relate of it little but its rise, length and fall. Drayton's weakness is that he can conceive of no other relation than a sex-relation, and in so describing the relations of every river in England, he very naturally becomes tedious. Satiety is the bane of the amorist, and of worse than he. Casanova had that in front of him when he set out to be immoral, on ne peut plus, in seven volumes octavo. There simply were not enough vices to go round. He ended, therefore, by being a dull as well as a dirty dog. "Take back your bonny Mrs. Behn," said Walter Scott's great-aunt to him after a short inspection, "and if you will take my advice, put her in the fire, for I found it impossible to get through the very first novel." The nemesis of the pornographer: he can't avoid boring you to tears.

(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Polyolbion

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