Around 1136 Geoffrey of Monmouth writes The History of the Kings of Britain, a pseudo historical account of British history beginning with the Trojans founding Britain two thousand years ago. This account is largely taken to be historical fact well into the 16th Century, imbuing Britain with a spurious Arthurian vision of itself which is never truly shaken off.
In 1761 Scottish poet James Macpherson announces the discovery of the Ossian Cycle, a collection of mythological epic poems supposedly written by a 3rd century bard, Ossian, and collected by Macpherson himself from word-of-mouth accounts. Macpherson is immediately accused of forgery and it is latter established that whilst many of the tales featured in the cycle had in fact been collected from Gaelic folk traditions, much of context and history of the cycle was fabricated. Despite this however The Cycle is received to critical acclaim, an indicator that after the age of Enlightenment, once again there is public desire for visions of British antiquity regardless of authenticity.
In 1765 Thomas Percy publishes Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, a collection of ballads and folk songs he claims to have found inside a forgotten manuscript which would become known as the ‘Folio Manuscript’. He claims these ballads were written by the aboriginal bards of Albion and expressed in the common tongue of Ancient Britons. Again however less than a quarter of the tales featured in the published version were taken from the manuscript, with the rest fabricated or sourced elsewhere and apocryphally attributed to the ancient folio. Like Macpherson’s, Reliques becomes hugely popular and begins a process of England ‘rediscovering’ its poetic roots and a lost collective oral tradition, a process which supplants the taste for neoclassicism in favour of a long lost national antiquity.
33 years later in 1798, William Wordsworth claims that English poetry was “absolutely redeemed” by the ‘discovery’ of the Percy’s Reliques, granting the nations poetics with the authenticity and authority of the aboriginal “first poets”. Wordsworth and Colleridge imitate the ballad form and rustic language invented by Percy in Reliques when they write Lyrical Ballads, imbuing themselves and their writing with the same bardic importance; as a voice of the people, chronicler of national histories, teller of tales and hallowed antecedent of the ancient priests and prophets of Albion. The fact that much of this historical lineage is one of fiction does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for a new form of nativist literature, and Wordsworth begins on a project of writing the nation into being around an image of nature derived from his native Cumbria.
After the French Revolution descends into bloodshed and dictatorship, and in flight from the challenges of newly industrialised capitalism, Wordsworth renounces his support for republicanism and radical politics. Instead he turns to the “pure commonwealth” he claims exists within the rustic life of the Lake District; an Edenic model of social cohesion based upon a closeness to nature and the supposedly organic attachment of the folk to the land inhabited by their ancestry.
Under Wordsworth the ambient nature of the Lakes is refigured as transcendental. By incorporating local landmarks, folklore and incidents into the poems, the writing becomes imbued with the truth claims of cultural memory, indelibly inscribing places and objects with this Wordsworthian mythic vision of nature. The lakeland fells are turned into an other worldly landscape outside of time, dehistorisized and so precluded from social critique. The result is that, as James K Chandler points out, when Wordsworth speaks of nature it is really the ‘“second nature” of ingrained custom and habit’, onto which he projects the fiction of ‘solemn fraternity’, but in actually signifies a conservative status quo predicated on a noumenal ‘natural order’ and spurious shared ancestry which reifies suffering and inequality.
It is with this move, the consumption of this image of nature in the Lakeland fells as transcendent and so placing it outside of history, that Wordsworth fictions the Lake District outside of time. By flattening time, Wordsworth installs a wormhole in the centre of the Lake District, towards which all other images and ideas of nature, real and imagined, are pulled back to and seen through, trapped and bound to return eternal.
In 2016 writer Paul Kingsnorth brings this image to the for again, asking in an article in the English paper The Guardian; “what might a benevolent green nationalism look like?”. The answer Kingsnorth was looking for is to be found in the fictional image of national unity in Wordsworth’s ‘untainted’ Lake District, and from what I can gather it was the libidinal energy of this image reignited by Kingsnorth which lead to the Grasmere Rising of 2024.
As many of you will know, the break away conservationist community who now call the Grasmere valley home, of which Kingsnorth is reportedly a leader, is made up of a confluence of supposedly leftwing anti-goverment and anti-globalist ideologies, and more classically far right nativist tendencies, all joined by strong eco-nationalist sentiments. The insular and sectarian nature of this group makes it hard to ascertain specifics but I believe they’ve constructed an ideology which finds its affective and material grounding in the bucolic nature of their surroundings.
More to follow.