Dark Arcadia

I was woken last night by the agonised screams of a bird being torn asunder by some night predator.  For a few seconds in the darkness the desperate sounds of the creature’s final agony echoed across the avenue’s gardens, our little patches of paradise.  Et in Arcadia ego.

Over the past two Sunday evenings on Radio 3, Adam Nicolson has been exploring the idea of Arcadia, the conceit of a paradisiacal wild, from its ancient Greek origins, by way of the poetry of Virgil and Horace and its rediscovery in the Renaissance and developing the idea that there is always a darkness in Arcadia.  I always find Nicolson a trusty guide to complex matters: witty and erudite, without pretension, I imagine he would be the perfect companion out walking or in the pub.

The term Arcadia is derived from the Greek Arcadia, a mountainous district in the Peloponnese, and came to mean an idyllic pastoral landscape in which man and nature co-existed harmoniously.  For Nicolson,  an essential part of being human is to construct arcadias, both mentally and for real (gardens, estates, parkland), that represent escape routes from the stress and ugliness of urban reality. I walk through one such arcadia every morning with our dog – Sefton Park in Liverpool, one of the great examples from the era of Victorian park building.  But, Nicolson argued, arcadias are made on earth, and so cannot be heavenly. Arcadia is always dark, because death lives at its heart.

Nicolson began in the dark – contemplating the oldest trace in the UK of a ‘thinking human’ in a cave at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge honeycombed with caves that were inhabited by humans during the last Ice Age between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago.  Here archaeologists found the first and only example of rock art from the Ice Age. The images were engraved into the rock, not painted, and in the main depict figures of animals. The man who carved a bison at Creswell, starting with a circular depression in the rock that served as an eye, was, Nicolson suggested, making culture and depicting his people’s arcadia (below, click to enlarge).

In in ancient Greece, the people of Arcadia in central Greece were herdsmen of sheep and goats who lived, legend had it, an  unsophisticated yet happy life in the natural fertility of their valleys. The Arcadian shepherds gained a reputation in the Greek world for their pastoral music. Poets celebrated them in verses in which shepherds exchanged songs in a beautiful and  pristine landscape, unsullied by the outside world.

However, as Nicolson points out, the original Arcadia  was no place for easy living but hard mountain country whose inhabitants struggled to survive. In later ages, however, ‘Arcadia’ came to mean an idyllic, pastoral landscape whose inhabitants led lives of ease. In the third century BC, the Sicilian poet, Theocritus, instigated the literary genre of ‘bucolic poetry’ (from the Greek bukolos, a herdsman).  Two centuries later, the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil (70-19 BC), drew on Theocritus’s poetry to create his Eclogues.  Virgil located his poems in an Arcadia whose landscape strikingly resembled that of northern Italy, where Virgil was born. And, as Nicolson explained, it was a terrain of sorrow and hardship, as well as contentment and beauty: the first Eclogue refers to the confiscation of Virgil’s family farm to settle veteran soldiers after the battle of Philippi.  Nicolson pursued this dark thread further: the Eclogues may sing about love and poetry, but they also speak of the turbulent  political situation in Virgil’s time.

Writing in the mid-3os BC for a rich Roman audience, Virgil fused the vision of a perfect life where no work was ever needed and time could be filled with talk of love and a sense of goodness far removed from the slick brutalities of political life in urban Rome with another element.  Arcadia was not part of heaven. It was an earthly place and subject to mortality – even in Arcadia death was there.

From here, Nicolson moved on to the rediscovery of Arcadia during the Renaissance, when pastoral poetry modelled on Virgil came to be much appreciated by intellectual and cultural elites. Parallel to the literary vogue of pastoral there existed a pictorial tradition of paintings and prints representing shepherds and shepherdesses in a bucolic  setting of forests and hills. In the seventeenth century, Nicolas Poussin drew upon this tradition in his painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (1647), which deftly crystallised the problematic nature of Arcadia. One of the group of Arcadian shepherds kneels and reads the inscription on a tomb: Et In Arcadia Ego, which, as Nicolson explained, can be translated as either ‘I used to live in Arcadia’ or, more darkly, as ‘I [death] am in Arcadia, too’. Arcadia now becomes a melancholy contemplation of death itself, of the idea that happiness in this world is transitory. Even when we feel that we have created or discovered a place of peace and perfection, we must understand that, in the end, it will all vanish.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Nicolson’s survey was his exploration of how, in 16th and 17th century England, Arcadianism developed into a political ideology, standing for the country against the city and the court, for conservatism and for hierarchy.  It stood for the preservation of a traditional way of life based on feudalism and against individualism, the growth of mercantile capitalism and a market economy, and against the centralisation, under Elizabeth I, James I and above all Charles I, of power under the Crown. To delve into this idea further, Nicolson went to Wilton House,  the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke for more than 400 years:

These wonderful lands – the chalk downs and the lush watered valleys of the rivers that run between them – spread over eighty square miles, were the core of one of the great aristocratic estates of Renaissance England, the power-base, cash cow and pleasure grounds of the Earls of Pembroke, whose great palace was and is at Wilton, a few miles to the west of Salisbury. The house is the gateway to the world they owned … [a] world of enormous riches, profound culture, extensive political and military control, an ever-present threat of violence, great luxury, constant self-interest and a high idealism…

Nicolson has written a fascinating and incisive book about Wilton and the Pembrokes, and the reality of their lost Arcadia.  At the opening of Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, he writes:

Looked at in a critical light, the world of the Pembrokes was one which none of us could tolerate now: it put the claims of social order far above any individual rights; it considered privacy, except for the highly privileged, a form of subversion; it was profoundly hierarchical and did not consider either people or the sexes equal; it tolerated vast excess and devastating poverty; it distrusted the idea of the market and would have loathed any suggestion, if anyone had made it, that market forces would somehow create social goods; it thought the poor worthy of pity if they remained within bounds and of punishment should they stray outside them; it distrusted the crown, not because the crown would erode individual freedoms but because it was intent on destroying older aristocratic privileges.

Anti-change,   anti-state,   anti-market, anti-equality and anti-individual: this first English Arcadia, in other words, set its face against the forces of modernity. It was driven by a hunger for the past and a fear of the future. If the last four hundred years have been shaped by a growth in government, the elevation of individual rights, the erosion of community, the dominance of the market and the destructive exploitation of nature, Arcadianism, the Pembrokes and the world of their estates said no to all of them.

The virtues this Arcadia cherished were the mirror image of all that: an overriding belief in the power and understanding of local community; a trust in the past and its customs; a love of nature not as a commodity to exploit but as a place in which to find rest and comfort; an independence from the power of central government; and a rejection of commercial values, relying instead on the mutuality of communal relationships. It was an organic ideal, a belief not in mutual exploitation but in the balance of different parts of society. To some extent, ever since, these have been the values of the counter-culture, an underlying thread of idealism which has run throughout the history of the modern world.

The most famous text of this Arcadian ideology was written at Wilton.  Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia was inspired by the Wiltshire downs and valleys.  In his notebook Sidney wrote:

Do you not see how all things conspire together to make this country a heauenly dwelling? Do you not see the grasse[s]  how in colour they excell the Emeralds, euerie one striuing to passe  his fellow, and yet they are all kept of an equall height? And see you not the rest of these beautifull flowers, each of which would require a mans wit to know, and his life to expresse? . . . Doth not the aire breath health, which the Birds (delightfull both to eare and eye) do dayly solemnize with the sweete consent of their voyces? Is not euery Eccho thereof a perfect Musicke?

Wandering the grounds of Wilton and taking pleasure in the arcadian beauty of the landscape , Nicolson pulled no punches when contemplating the harsh and far from idyllic lives of the common people of the villages on the Pembroke estate. Arcadia was not a democracy, and yet, he suggested, in certain respects their lives in Tudor and Stuart times, governed by manorial custom and the mutual obligation, were possibly easier than those of their 18th century descendents, who had the misfortune to live in a period when mutual feudal obligations gave way to a market economy in which money was everything. The result was that the rich grew richer and the poor got poorer; the rural working class were transformed from self-sufficient peasants into landless labourers.

Nicolson quoted William Cobbett who, in his Rural Rides, was sickened and ashamed by scenes of devastating poverty amongst the men and women who lived and worked in these Arcadian valleys.  They were ‘tormented by an accursed system that takes the food from those that raise it, and gives it to those that do nothing that is useful to man’.  These valleys would be the most delicious places on earth,

if those, whose labour makes it all, trees, corn, sheep and everything, had but their fair share of the produce of that labour. What share they really have of it one cannot exactly say; but I should suppose that every labouring man in this valley raises as much food as would suffice for fifty or a hundred persons, fed like himself!  In taking my leave of this beautiful vale, I have to express my deep shame, as an Englishman, at beholding the general extreme poverty of those who cause this vale to produce such quantities of food and raiment. This is, I verily believe it, the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth. Dogs and hogs and horses are treated with more civility; and as to food and lodging, how gladly would the labourers change with them! This state of things never can continue many years! By some means or other there must be an end to it; and my firm belief is that that end will be dreadful. In the meanwhile I see,  and I see it with pleasure, that the common people know that they are ill used; and that they cordially, most cordially, hate those who ill-treat them.

In the words of Amos the prophet, Cobbett excoriated landlords like the Pembrokes who had destroyed the communities of these valleys through enclosure:

Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail . . . that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes . . . Shall not the land tremble for this; and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? . . . saith the Lord God . . . I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.

Nicolson concludes Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England with this passage:

The presence of the free market in labour and land was nothing new. … But the growing sense that the market was king – whether in land or labour – became the crucial transformation in early modern England. … By 1831 there were two hugely rich farmers in Wilton, both tenants of the earl. Neither did any farm work himself- too grand – and they relied for their riches on employed labourers. There was not a single man who worked his own land. That tradition and that connection had gone. Instead, Wilton had a population of 113 adult male agricultural labourers, the men whom  … Cobbett saw as the ‘worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth’. Almost 5oo of such men, rioting in the 183os against the tithes paid to the Church and the introduction of mechanical threshing machines, against the pauperisation of their lives, were transported to Tasmania. Fifteen others were hanged. In those figures, and in that conclusion, one
can see the death of a communal idea.

The theme of ‘Dark Arcadia’ was also taken up in a series of essays broadcast each night through the week.  Still on the theme of Wilton, Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns, told how, in the 1920s, Rex Whistler was inspired by the Georgian arcadia of Wilton when painting the murals for the Tate Gallery restaurant.  Whistler was a close friend of the photographer Cecil Beaton, and Harris told how Beaton’s set sought out the arcadias of 18th century landscape gardens with their avenues and temples, vistas, grottos and shrines.  In 1931, Beaton acquired Ashcombe in Wiltshire, a decaying manor dating from the 1740s, which he set about turning into a Georgian arcadia.

Harris described the weekend parties which Beaton organised in the years before the outbreak of war.  Guests had to come in fancy dress, so that Beaton could photograph friends in costume, posing in period tableaux.  When the war came, Whistler joined up and fought with the Welsh Guards for four years before being killed by a mortar bomb in Normandy in 1944.  In a wartime notebook, there’s a doodle of a Baroque tank, with balustrade and swags, trundling over a bridge overseen by Neptune amidst a pastoral scene with a shepherd piping as his sheep rest.

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2 thoughts on “Dark Arcadia

  1. ‘Englands’s green and pleasant land’: I went for a walk over the downs not far from Wilton this summer. After about 30 minutes I was circled several times by a colossal green army helicopter. I was making my way to Yarnbury prehistoric earthwork. By it runs a public bridleway. Nevertheless on returning by this public right of way I was confronted by a white security van with a yellow lamp on its roof. Two security men in orange reflective waistcoats grimaced at me through the windshield. As I approached closer one got out, took a swig from a plastic water bottle, then stared at me confrontationally across the bonnet. I smiled and waved at the van affecting nonchalance wondering ‘what on earth is going on here?’ I re-crossed the murderous A303 (there is in fact a crossing point here, incongruously, for the bridleway) and began my return walk across the sunning downs. Behind me I heard the van rev its engine then skid its wheels as it sped off in the direction of Stonehenge. After some time the helicopter suddenly reappeared from nowhere and flew low straight over me – whoosh! – I ignored it and continued on my way.

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