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Reading the Landscape

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READING THE LANDSCAPE

 

To make a concrete definition regarding the effect of Neo Romanticism on literature is impossible. However, certain traits are detectable. Various writers on Neo-Romanticism have suggested literature which falls into the category. Malcolm York in The Spirit of Place - Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times (1988) suggests that strange fantasy by Herbert Read, The Green Child. Both critics William Feaver and Peter Cannon-Brooke (who curated the exhibition at Cardiff Museum of Neo-Romantic Art in 1983) give the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household as a classic example.

What distinguishes Neo-Romanticism from traditional romanticism is the feeling of danger, the juxtaposition of the urban with the countryside, the element of darkness, dissolution, an almost pagan reverie breaking through the ruins of post-industrialism.

One of the greatest writers whose descriptions of landscape evoke the spirit of place, is John Cowper Powys. His novels, huge in size as well as in content, explore those mysterious nether regions which appear at the edge of consciousness. He can evoke a sense of the mythic within everyday life, as in A Glastonbury Romance.

The genius loci merged with gothic undercurrents (vampirism, possession by evil spirits) is evoked in the writings of Arthur Machen. His descriptions of an unknown country, which lies invisible yet within reach of those who dare to enter it, can be chilling. In his short story The Great God Pan he describes the pagan god not as a back to nature, merry romp in the woods, but as something devastatingly terrifying.

An obvious choice of a Neo-Romantic writer is Denton Welch who tragically died in 1948. His writings reflect the qualities found in his art a strong sense of place, an obsessive edginess and acerbic sense of humour.

In the short stories by Elizabeth Bowen – The Demon Lover and Mysterious Kor – the descriptions of the bombed houses and moonlit streets of wartime London evoke an eerie presence.

The past and present merge in Peter Ackroyd's novels such as Hawksmoor, Chatterton, The House of Doctor Dee and First Light. Ackroyd, with his ear for the language of past times, conjures up the atmosphere and spirit of place. He can cut through the multi-layered strata of an historical and fictional London and with a Blakean eye conjure up angelic and demonic forces.

Iain Sinclair investigates the realm of Psychogeography, those focal points where psychic flak, historical relevance and urban myths collide. Here we find Neo-Romanticism merging gothic sensibility with the accoutrements of urban squalor – the English flotsam and jetsam of suburbia, sometimes to be found discarded not only in places of historical importance, but in some back street obscure junk shop or village fete.

The flavour of Neo-Romanticism surfaces in Christopher Petit's Robinson. In his short story Newman Passage, Petit evokes the spirit of place which was to be found post-war with such Bohemian characters as Julian Maclaren-Ross, sometime writer and journalist, poet Dylan Thomas, artists John Minton and Francis Bacon, Soho-ite Nina Hamnett and other luminaries.

"At its best", the novelist Michael Moorcock has observed, "London fiction has, in the past twenty years, become characteristically a visionary medium."