An Elegy for the Living

‘The Rising Moon, or an English Pastoral’; etching by Samuel Palmer, 1855
British Museum, London
‘The Rising Moon, or an English Pastoral’; etching by Samuel Palmer, 1855

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village gained “modern classic” status very soon after its first publication in 1969, for several good reasons. First, and most obvious: the writer Ronald Blythe conducted the fifty-odd oral histories that make up his portrait of a (renamed) village in rural Suffolk with an exceptionally sharp eye for poignant situations and an equally fine ear for telling phrases. Every one of his interviews is a compact drama of identity—often riveting in itself, and always contributing to an idea of community that is at once coherent and varied.

Farm workers, a doctor, a retired military man, a teacher, a thatcher, a blacksmith, a saddler—they are all allowed to give their valuable witness, and almost all of them speak at least intermittently in ways that Wordsworth would have admired. The two-time widow who exclaims, “Nobody could have wished for two better husbands. My horsemen—both gone!”; the farmer who warms up by presenting himself as “a man without machinery, as you might say,” then remembers some mowers in the old harvest days who “mowed so quick they just fled through the corn all the day long”; the forge worker who philosophizes, “You don’t have to go far to see a long way”; the farrier who insists that he has his grandfather’s hands: “Hands last a long time, you know. A village sees the same hands century after century. It is a marvellous thing but it’s true.”

The command of these passages depends (as Wordsworth’s poetry often depends) on plain speech being heated into new and exciting sound-shapes by the pressure of strong feeling. And a similar flood of strong feeling—which is the second main reason for the book’s success—pulses from Blythe’s own writing in the book. The linking passages that he provides, sometimes to introduce a new interviewee, might easily have been restrained to perform the same sort of part that recitative has in relation to an aria in an opera.

In fact they have their own unobtrusive poetry, and create a sense of momentum and coherence throughout the book. In the opening pages, for instance, when Blythe writes that “the East Anglian wind does far more than move the barley; it is doctrinal”; or when he glances over the surrounding landscape to remind us of Akenfield’s setting, and we see the “wind-chilled sunshine” highlight a faintly archaic but wholly sympathetic texture in his language as he describes

an oceanic climate maintained by the North Sea, which is a dozen or so miles away on the other side of a great tract of heath full of rare steppe flora, fossils and the bones of ancient men, and in which lies the royal burial ground of Sutton Hoo.

This is fine…

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