I have a mild obsession with human attempts to create heaven on earth. Of course, their idealism is infectious: who doesn’t want heaven on earth? But such visions always come with a cost – in whatever society, in whatever generation. But if modernist visions of utopia have been about projecting the dream of the future through rejection of the past, others have been more concerned with recreating the long-gone, supposedly golden past. The English Arcadian vision is one such: it gripped several generations before the English Civil War and is the subject of Adam Nicolson’s fascinating book Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England.

The dream was meant to freeze a moment in time from the classical ideal, the world of Virgil’s rustics and Homer’s heroes. But as Poussin’s famous painting (below), coincidentally but poignantly created in France just before the English Civil War began, Arcadia cannot last: the shepherds in the painting chance upon a tomb amidst this rural beauty, hence the painting’s title. Et in arcadia ego means “Even in Arcadia I [death] Exist“.

Nicolson’s book focuses on one family and their estate: the Earls of Pembroke and their Arcadian masterpiece and obsession, Wilton House in Wiltshire. What makes the book so good is that it manages effortlessly to combine grand-scale national events and figures, cultural and philosophical insight, and grass-roots social history. There is far too much here to pick up on in just one post. So I just want to focus on Nicolson’s description of the glories and costs of this paradise recreated and then lost. And the important thing is that it wasn’t all negative, despite what we in our more enlightened and democratic times might think:

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. (p2)

But here is the problem:

Arcadia has always been an act of luxury, an expensive and comfortable view of wildness, wildness somehow kept wild but made lovely. And because of its expense – the park is a place in which no useful crop is grown – it was also and act of authority and power. The village of Washern which had been within the park was removed and its common fields taken over. The essence of Arcadia is that it belongs to the winners. It is beyond all conflict, but it is only beyond conflict because all others have been defeated. The underlying meaning of parkland is as a reward for victory.

That is its central paradox: its peace is achieved through a form of violence and imposition. It relies, at its heart, on acts of exclusion. Its belief in the beauties of ancient community also relies on that community accepting the imposition of authority. Anarchy and Arcadia, even democracy and Arcadia, cannot co-exist. It is, in a sense, a dream of authoritarian freedom which carries its own contradiction in its heart. Arcadia is the dream of power. (p17)


The park where Sir Philip Sidney would within thirty-five years wander with the dreams of Arcadia in his head was now restored to wholeness and if you stand on the lawns outside Wilton House today staring across the elegance of the park and its gentlemanly accoutrements, you are looking at one of the heartlands of Arcadia: a stretch of landscape in which the people who claimed some rights over it were murdered so that an aesthetic vision of otherworldly calm could be imposed in their place. It is an early, English, miniature version of the clearances of the great Highland estates in Scotland or even of the National Parks in the wilder parts of America: calm, beautiful and empty landscapes, not because God made them like that but because the people who belonged there were driven off, killed or otherwise dispensed with. (p68)

And we are rightly shocked by this. But Nicolson won’t allow us to dismiss it without ambivalence: for despite what revolutionaries always tell us, progress doesn’t always bring the liberation of the masses. As Danny Boyle’s spectacular Olympic Opening ceremony showed us, England lost much with the industrial revolution:

Arcadianism didn’t always feel Arcadian if you were a member of the cast. Nor, importantly, were the people of these valleys unreconstructed rustics, as Herbert and others were tempted to describe them. The streets of Salisbury, until controlled and cleared by the city authorities, were as chaotic and frightening and as full of importuning and sometimes quite aggressive beggars as the streets of Calcutta. Much of the valley of the Nadder to the west of the city was busy with traffic and distinctly suburban in character by the early part of the seventeenth century.

… It was certainly an exploitative world: how else, except by exploitation, could the earls have paid for their luxuries from the rents and fines of their copyhold tenants? But it was also a world which in its ideals and practice was alive with a sense of jointness, of joint enterprise between the different connected pars of the social organism. It lived above all in its gathering: at the village courts, at the masques and tournaments, at the hay harvest and the wheat harvest, at the plays in candlelit halls, at the great funerals and eventually at the desperate hilltop meetings during the civil war. It is a world that has entirely disappeared, but one whose virtues disappeared with its faults. (p256-7)

For the collapse of the English Arcadia was caused by the rise of the nation state over and above local and regional centres of semi-autonomous power, whether in the monarchy (one reason the 4th Earl of Pembroke (in van Dyck’s stunning 1634 portrait, above) sided with the Parliamentarians against his old friend Charles I), or in the power of the state and economy.

The idea of a balanced community, of mutuality in rights and obligations, in a control of the government of the manor through the custom of the manor: all that had been collapsed into a simple cash deal. (p259)

So, as I frequently find myself saying these days, things are never quite as simple as we might like. And that seems to be precisely one of the points of Tom Stoppard’s own sublime take on the Arcadian theme.

Nicolas Poussin: Et in Arcadia ego(1638-40) The Louvre
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