Monday, March 23, 2009

Thames: Sacred River

Roni Horn (discussed in my previous post) is one of many sources for Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River. He describes her book Another River (2000) as one of the most interesting published on the Thames in recent years. However, his chapter on Thames art, discussing the likes of Richard Wilson, Canaletto, Turner, Whistler and Stanley Spencer, only covers painting and doesn't extend to Roni Horn's Still Water or other recent work like Mark Dion's Thames Dig. I was also a bit disappointed with Ackroyd's 'The Song of the Thames', a chapter that starts with Handel's Water Music but goes no further in discussing music related to the river, describing instead the work of poets like Spenser, Milton, Pope and Shelley. I suppose this imbalance does reflect the general view of the relative strengths of English culture.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was, according to Ackroyd, a poet 'haunted by the river.' Here are some of the connections described in the book:
  • Shelley growing up by the river at Syon House Academy, Eton and Oxford
  • In the summer of 1815, living on the borders of Windsor Forest, like his predecessor as river poet, Alexander Pope
  • That same year, a journey up the river in a wherry with Thomas Love Peacock (already the author of a poem on The Genius of the Thames); Peacock would write about the experience in his novel Crotchet Castle (1831)
  • The poem 'A Summer Evening Churchyard' inspired by the fifteenth century church Shelley saw at Lechlade (where there is now a path, Shelley's Walk, a fact which, taken with my recent comments on the causeways at Hangzhou named after Chinese poets, makes me reflect on the way writers have impressed themselves onto the landscape...)
  • Still in 1815, Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude in which 'he compares the true pilgrimage of a poet to a journey upriver'
  • In 1818, a house rented at Great Marlow and writing 'much of The Revolt of Islam in Bisham Woods, or while floating under the beech groves of Bisham-on-the-Thames in a boat called Vaga'
  • And finally, Yeats' view of Shelley that 'a single vision would have come to him again and again, a vision of a boat drifting down a broad river...' and the fact that Shelley eventually died 'in the watery element to which he had dedicated his life.'
Overall I think Ackroyd's book on the Thames has been rather underrated, perhaps because it is seen as covering similar ground to his London: The Biography. But Thames: Sacred River is far from just a rehash, looking as it does at the whole river from source to sea and meditating on such subjects as the light of the Thames, the healing properties of the water and the river's connections with birth, death and dreams. The prose is elegantly simple, with none of the repetition that should have been edited out in the earlier book, and it is certainly a work of 'landscape art' (as I broadly define it for this blog) in its own right.

No comments: