Image by duncan1890
Artillery Row

God wake ye, Merry England

The decadence and excess of the city is of a piece with puritanical restraint

William Wordsworth wrote:

They called Thee Merry England, in old time;
A happy people won for thee that name
With envy heard in many a distant clime;
And, spite of change, for me thou keep’st the same
Endearing title, a responsive chime
To the heart’s fond belief; though some there are
Whose sterner judgments deem that word a snare
For inattentive Fancy, like the lime
Which foolish birds are caught with. Can, I ask,
This face of rural beauty be a mask
For discontent, and poverty, and crime;
These spreading towns a cloak for lawless will?
Forbid it, Heaven! and Merry England still
Shall be thy rightful name, in prose and rhyme!

Merry England is an easily mocked concept in today’s society, but in my view it carries a perennial insight: that the decadence and excess of the city is of a piece with puritanical restraint. Both apparently opposite features reflect an urban sophistication and the ruling imperative of commerce. The moneymaking frenzy of cities like London gave rise to excessive consumption and the relaxing of prior moral and social norms. Yet the 17th century Puritans were in large part cityfolk, alienated from rural tradition and well represented amongst bankers, merchants and urban middle class trades and professions.

William Hogarth’s most famous engraving is Gin Lane, which shows a street filled with people immiserated by the gin craze, a child toppling out of its mother’s arms, emaciated figures dying in the open, madmen dancing with corpses, a pawn-shop with the grandeur of a bank eagerly sucking in objects of domestic industry and converting them into gin money. Less well known is the image that accompanied it, the engraving Beer Street. In this latter engraving, plump and prosperous individuals pause from their labour to receive huge foaming mugs of ale, buxom housemaids flirt with cheerful tipplers, bright inn signs are painted, buildings are going up, and the pawn-shop is going out of business.

In the sphere of modernity, work and consumption are rendered limitless

Merry England is an image of a society centred on human life and happiness rather than the demands of commerce. Here labour and rest both have their place: noble objects like a fine building and a bounteous meal are provided by hard work, but once completed, time is devoted to appreciating and relishing the finished product. Decoration and adornment are the outward sign of this; they are by their nature a form of abundance. The finite object of labour and production thus gives rise to an infinite realm of feast, celebration, adornment and signification. This enchanted public sphere, shaped to the human person, is limitless within its limits, and points beyond itself to the truly limitless and eternal world of the transcendent.

In the commercially determined sphere of modernity, it is instead work and consumption that are rendered limitless. The objects have become entirely ones of consumption — there is no limit to the consumption of gin, which stands in for all consumer objects. Hogarth shows us the humane objects of household industry — the good cooking pots, the tongs, the saw and the kettle — replaced with money. Liquidity is everywhere, capital has broken down the social order, removing all distinctions of sex, age and class. Now all persons and all things are joined together by a single seamless system of predation.

The alternative that many advocated to this situation was embodied in the Temperance movement: a Puritan-dominated enterprise which saw drinking as a threat to industry as well as the spiritual and moral health of the nation. This is a deep tendency in the British character: the impulse to look upon poverty and distress as a culpable disease and to preach individual self-restraint as the cure. Puritans were often well-to-do, literate townspeople, whose collective refusal to participate in dancing, drama, drinking, gambling, racing and boxing not only set them apart from the boisterous lower orders, but also from the quaffing, hunting, hawking and whoring nobility.

It’s a situation that’s still all too recognisable in England today, and all too visible in profoundly Puritan and capitalist America: both have become nations of obese binge drinkers and fitness fanatics, of woke scolds and libertarian pot-heads, of self-regarding entrepreneurs and welfare cheats. Appetites are obscenely indulged and obscenely restrained turn by turn. The myth of Pelagian self-perfectibility is chased, and those who despair or fail turn to the consolation of mindless consumption. The Anglo-Saxons are now far from a Latin sense of restrained joy and measured conviviality.

These apparently warring tendencies have always been secretly united in their hostility towards structure and mediation. Both conspire to agree that there is no Aristotelian mean: the temperance crowd ironically don’t actually believe in temperance, but abstinence, while strangely earnest hedonists seek out as a categorical imperative ever new forms of unrestrained self-indulgence.

Lockdown (complete with cancelled, or at least chastened, Christmas) suits both tendencies. The finger-wagging and curtain-twitching brigade get to fully unleash their inner witchfinder general as fearful boomers scurry around in their rewashable masks. Meanwhile the hedonists can sit at home, mute their zoom calls and stuff their faces, or of course sneak off to illegal raves and house parties.

The people who suffer in lockdown are those who want community

The ones who suffer in lockdown are the people who actually want community, who want to see friends and neighbours in the pub, the cafe and the church. No coincidence that even at the very height of the pandemic many still went into work, whilst worship was banned and funerals reduced to tiny desperate huddles of socially distanced mourners. Private consumption, private profit and private piety were prioritised, while conviviality the very stuff and staff of life was deemed superfluous.

Merrie England is more than a generic trope. The phrase emerged in a very specific context: that of Reformation Tudor England. Recusant physician John Caius (founder of the namesake college) lamented the loss of “the old world, when this country was called merry England” following the transformation of public life under Henry, Edward and Elizabeth. Saints days and other holidays were relentlessly reduced under the Tudor monarchs, numbering only 27 (downover 50) by the reign of King Edward VI. Under Elizabeth, church ales, maypoles, local games and other parochial customs joined the scrap heap. This was the age of the secularisation of time, with clock towers going up all over Europe, and the old liturgical and agricultural calendars began to give way to patterns of living determined by employers and governments.

Merrie England was not some lost mythical arcadia. It is rather a term that describes a concrete set of customs, a pattern of life and a spiritual sense that powerful ideologues sought to crush. Far from being a static thing, this lively spirit continually rebelled against its puritan oppressors. The Stuart kings acted firmly to restore these beloved folk customs with James I, who issued his “Book of Sports” reinstating dancing, archery, whitsun-ales, maypoles and other pursuits on Sundays and holidays. The ruling was reissued under Charles I, and it was an issue that helped inflame the Civil War, with Puritans publicly burning the Book in the lead-up to the outbreak of hostilities.

The final usurpation of the Stuarts under po-faced Dutchman William of Orange brings us back to where we began: Hogarth and Gin Lane. The 18th century Gin Craze owes its origins to that most sober of English kings. Dragged into war with France, England saw brandy and wine depart from its shelves to be replaced with Dutch gin. As the music of Royal Chapel fell silent, King Billy’s government was enthusiastically backing the gin trade puritanism never quite seems to get in the way of cashing in on vice.

Merry England is shamelessly backwards looking, but that is a fundamental part of English radicalism. The English have always understood their liberties and sense of social justice as rooted in a feeling of inheritance. Even the most radical notions of equality looked back to primordial examples: “when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?” Modern liberals look at rights as abstract, universal and individual, rather than as concrete, particular and communal.

Folk revival is not only an authentic and necessary move in a world drained of ritual and celebration, but revivalism is itself a great English tradition. James I and Charles II both brought Merry England back from the grave; Christmas was not invented but rediscovered by Dickens and the Victorians. Modern lefties sneer at folk customs, but May Day is celebrated by socialists for a reason.

Behind the halo, Christmas was already in trouble

Christmas is imperilled at the present moment by puritanical technocrats, but behind the halo it was already in trouble. In the modern calendar, Christmas is a festival of consumption that lasts from November to 24 December, pausing for a single day of overindulgence, before resuming shopping and working in the New Year sales. It then hits us with a severe dose of Puritanism as we all embark on a Dry January and make our New Year’s resolutions to be more virtuously tedious in our own future self-interest.

In the past, Advent was a time of fasting and preparation, of rest and prayer, and Christmas a feast of 12 days, with Epiphanytide a further time of more gentle but continued celebration lasting till the end of the month. Songs, foods and saint days particular to different nations and regions peppered the entire period to add endless fascination and consolation. Even the Advent fast (always lighter than the fasting of Lent) was broken by celebrations like St Lucy’s day (especially popular in Scandinavia), and the relief of Gaudete Sunday still survives in the Anglican calendar.

This Christmas, it’s time to close offices, open pubs and churches, dust-down the may-pole and beckon in the spirit of Merry England.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover