The Neo Romantic Revival: The Anti-Modernity Movement

by SC

“What brought about the re-enchantment of the British landscape during the interwar period?” 

“To me England is the country, and the country is England”
                                                                          – Stanley Baldwin, 1924

Paradoxically at the start of the 20th century, Britain which had become so economically and militarily powerful due to the industrial revolution, was beginning to view capitalism as antithetical to the British national character. Instead, the rural British landscape became re-imagined as a source of magic and healing during the interwar period, serving as the juxtaposition to the corrosive city (Wiener, 2004). Slowly the British pastorals became more than just symbols of tranquillity and (re)engagement with the land became seen as a necessity to maintain a healthy national community (Hutton, 1999). Though nature worship and pantheism as a movement had happened previously in Europe, it is important to note that this reincarnation of romanticism was uniquely situated in a context where Britain’s dominance was starting to fade (Hayward, 2017). The interwar period was a time where the nation began to question the essence of ‘Britishness’ and its answer was found by embracing a mythic past which was distinctively rooted in the landscape.

As with every movement and counter movement, the context plays an influential role in shaping the public discourse and this was the situation for the neo-romantic surge in the early 20th century. The two decades which existed between the Great Wars were a time where the British public conscious became to radically change as the country’s global supremacy faded away. Horrified at the consequences of war in a technological age of machine guns, artillery and tanks; part of the shift towards pantheism can be understood as extensions of the anti-war sentiment (Hayward, 2017). The enormous casualty rates combined with the extended duration of World War I (WWI) served as ammunition against modernisation. The lasting images of which included artillery-ridden landscapes and trenches; both unsightly examples of humanity’s arrogance and disregard for the environment.

Likewise this cultural desire to return to an agrarian society was also stimulated by a mistrust of capitalism. The United Kingdom general strike of 1926 and the Wall Street crash of 1929, reflected a turbulent economic atmosphere (Hayward, 2017), and the once stellar British economy which had served as the backbone of the Empire was crumbling. This reaction against capitalism sparked the rise of leftist and socialist political communities in Britain. And very soon the ‘corrupt’ bourgeois became associated with the urban landscape, whilst the humble and traditional farmer stood as their ideological opposite.

The capitalistic systems of the great cities were portrayed as impersonal and its inhabitants were seen as victims of this detached passivity, characteristics which were believed to be corrosive to a united sense of nationhood (Trentmann, 1994). In comparison, the return towards the land and the re-establishment of the insular farming community offered a chance for people to rekindle more connected relationships (Hutton, 1999). Since the rural served as the contrast to the city, it was believed that only by ‘re-embracing’ husbandry and other similar egalitarian pursuits rooted in nature, could one overcome their ‘brainwashing’.

This view originated from the belief that modernisation was not a continuation of human history, but rather a disruption, something wholly foreign or ‘unnatural’ (Finlay, 1970). Thus cities became to be associated with a sense of impermanence, as if the core foundation of Britain underlying all the ever-changing aspects, was its connection to the land. In comparison to the frantic movement of urban centres, the stability of rural communities seemed timeless (Wiener, 2004).

By the turn of the 20th century, modernity had spread and been adopted by many western nations so that industrialisation was no longer synonymous with Britain’s name. Thus Britain attempted to uniquely define itself through other methods and saw its landscape as a safe haven of an unbroken British tradition. Underpinning this transformation was a complete re-imagination of the natural landscape and what society perceived as antiquity. Alfred Watkin’s ‘discovery’ of ley lines across the British landscape was a finding which stirred up a lot of public interest in lands untouched by modernisation (Newnhawn, 2000). Whilst, Watkin’s theory was proven false in the decades later (Williamson & Bellamy, 1983), his true influence stemmed from allowing the British audience to invest in the rural as a new source of their identity: One which gave them an opportunity to associate themselves with the ancient Anglo-Saxons who had roamed the land before (Sterenberg, 2013).

Inspired by Watkin’s findings many different groups and organisations arose in the 20th century, all with the purpose of reconnecting their audiences with a ‘great lost British tradition.’ The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift and the Order of the Woodcraft Chivalry were such organisations. Both tried to reintroduced pantheism into the public discourse, linking the worship of British nature with British patriotism. A lot of these organisations with pagan undertones believed that Christianity; the dominant religious force (albeit slowly fading) could co-exist within the same paradigm with pantheistic beliefs; and both could be used for good.

The Kibbo Kift’s grand chant included “I believe in the nameless God who is Space-Time-Matter: And in myself… as actual organic part of that one Great Nameless God,” heavily alluding towards a pagan interpretation of the creation story (Hargrave, 1925). Likewise Ernest Westlake, founder of The Order of the Woodcraft Chivalry attempted to revive the ‘Lammas’, an ancient Pagan festival, on the edge of his property at Sandy Balls. During a ceremony in 1921, after a sacred fire was lit within the middle of the event, Westlake declared “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place,” (Edgell, 1993).  For both of these groups, the return to paganism was not perceived as the abandonment of society, but instead as a deeper embrace of what it meant to be British and more importantly human. Fundamental to both the Kibbo Kift and Woodcraft Chivalry was a fear that modernisation had severed humanity’s relationship with nature: And for the first time Britain existed outside the realm of the natural world; a position which would inevitably lead to its demise (Trentmann, 1994).

This integration of British paganism and pantheism into the wider fabric of society was seen once again in the actions of vicar W.H. Seddon, who in 1885 installed a statute of Pan outside his church tower. Seddon was also key in establishing a local pagan festival which involved townsfolk dancing from the edge of the Church to the forest (Hutton, 1999). Whilst Seddon’s actions predated the British interwar period, it is important to note that Seddon’s actions were never criticised by the public and this procession lasted until 1950. This action and its support are reflective of the public mood at the time, pantheist activities were almost seen as cultural attempts to reconnect with the past, instead of a sacrilegious act.

Despite the clear associations with paganism and the worship of the British countryside, both the Kibbo Kift and the Woodcraft Chivalry denied being pantheistic in nature (Hutton, 1999). Westlake himself believed that such ‘differences’ were reconcilable with a Christian cultural framework stating that “One must be a good pagan before one could be a good Christian,” (Edgell, 1993). Core to his argument was that after the resurrection, Jesus had dissolved into nature and thus making the natural world divine through its merging (Hutton, 1999). Whilst Westlake’s beliefs greatly deviated from the Christian norms, the fact that it held gravity meant that he was tapping into a shifting cultural consensus on nature and how society should relate to it.

Another common complaint was that the industrial economy had sapped the creativity and agency of humans, who were simply cogs into the wider machine. Education was also seen as a contributing factor to the degeneration of the 20th-century individual, as over-specialisation lead to a narrowing of experiences and skills (Trentmann, 1994). A core principle of many organisations which protested against the rationalisation of life was that society had become too slanted towards an Apollo-esque view of reality (Hayward, 2017). As counterculture organisations, nature orientated groups attempted to re-balance society by embracing a Dionysian mindset; one which discarded scientific empiricism (Hayward, 2017).

The Ramblers expressed this adoption of irrationality through their walking exercises, where members would walk in the open rural environment until completely exhausted (Trentmann, 1994). This was a symbolic act of a person regaining their autonomy which they believed their insular and impersonal working conditions had eroded (Trentmann, 1994). Key to these ‘return to nature’ movement was the undoing of psychological damages caused by modernisation. Returning an individual to a ‘pure state of wholesomeness’ was another reoccurring theme to the anti-modernity movement. And whilst what constituted ‘purity’ was never explicitly stated, engaging with the land was a good step in the right direction (Wiener, 2004).

When it came to re-imagining the significance of the British landscape, there are two approaches; politicians and public figures could ride the growing wave of anti-modernist thinking and pay homage to the legacy of the country town (Trentmann, 1994). The other stream of thought was to actively promote an agrarian lifestyle, by abandoning the cities and rejecting capitalistic forms of work (Wiener, 2004). Important neo-romantic figures such as Rolf Gardiner and Lord Lymington were the vanguard of the second movement and both approached the magical powers of the land in a new manner (Trentmann, 1994).

It was widely accepted that individuals and communities who were disconnected from the countryside would suffer emotional problems (Hutton, 1999). However, Lord Lymington popularised the idea that the infusion of technology and machinery into agriculture, through fertiliser and tractors, would have physical ramifications for the nation (Trentmann, 1994). The soil was reinterpreted in a paganistic way and the Earth itself was seen as the source of all natural sources of power, something which humankind discarded under the intoxicating influences of modernisation. Husbandry was actively promoted as an antidote to what Lymington called the “poisoning of British blood” as physically touching the soil allowed one to transfer the organic natural energy from the soil to themselves (Trentmann, 1994). This pseudo-scientific argument did not generate any strong support from the scientific community. Yet its power rested in that there was already a strong apprehension towards modernisation and Lymington’s words were simply a manifestation of such feelings.

Whilst husbandry and traditional agriculture were acknowledged to be less efficient, this was applauded by many neo-romantics. As advocates against the over-rationalisation of society, they would have seen the prioritising of quality over quantity in food production as a step away from consumerism and towards the Elizabethan farming model of old (Trentmann, 1994).

The re-enchantment of the British countryside extended beyond just the physical aspect. William Morris, a famous leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, also wanted to counter the utilitarian nature of modernisation through embracing the irrational. As mentioned above, one extension of this involved the return to husbandry; another method was found in the ‘Morris dance’ (Trentmann. 1994). Echoing sentiments core to The Ramblers, Morris believed that physical movement was one way to cast off this oppressive rationality which had spread as a consequence of rationalisation (Finlay, 1970).

The Morris Dance which was heavily inspired by the British rural folk dances was seen as a method for one to get in contact with a culture rooted in antiquity and the land. Likewise, the Morris dance required a lot of participation for it to be properly executed; this was seen as another antidote to the individualism. Morris and the other neo-romantics argued that dancing allowed one to tap into the Dionysian spirit of life and such culturally symbolic movements could ‘transcend the artificial separation between the mind and body’ (Trentmann, 1994). Whilst the exact definition of what ‘artificial separation’ these thinkers had in mind is clouded in a mist of pseudo-scientific explanations. It harkens back to the desire to become ‘whole’ again, and a belief that modernity had stripped the individual of this.

Folklorist saw the reacceptance of folk dance as fulfilling the basic elements of living a good life; one which was built upon good food, traditional forms of dance and rhythmic breathing (Trentmann, 1994). In fact, the influence of the Morris dance was so widespread that in the 1930s, it was elevated to the status of therapeutic Weltanschauung; and recognised as a cure for the sickness of modernity (Trentman, 1994).

As with a lot of other supernatural movements and beliefs, underlying the love of nature and the romanticisation of the past were real social and political agendas. In a time where globalisation blurred the lines between the once rigid definitions of culture, this retreat back into the rural landscapes as something which was unquestionably ‘British’ is an understandable one. The neo-romantic movement attempted to provide their own answers to the question of what constituted the ‘British identity’ in such a turbulent time for the nation. The Boy Scouts and the Kibbo Kift believed that the enduring symbol of Britain rested in the values and cultures which existed pre-modernity; thus their emphasis on nature can also be interpreted as a right-wing revival of British national identity (Hayward, 2017).

Similarly, the re-imagining of ‘Mother Earth’ and the significance of nature can also be seen through a feminist lens. Whilst figures like Gardiner and Williams used neo-romanticism as a vehicle to express their disillusionment with modernity, female thinkers like Dion Fortune and Margaret Alice Murray also appropriated the movement. As precursors to the feminist movement which would gain widespread cultural acceptance in the 1960s, both women criticised the overwhelming influence of Christianity and the patriarchy within their context (Hayward, 2017).

Fortune’s major criticism of Christianity was that it lacked a female deity; she famously stated that “A religion without a goddess is halfway to atheism,” (Graf, 2007). Fortune believed that the return to pantheism would lead to the Aquarian age, where Isis would stand as an equal to Jehovah (Graf, 2007). Similarly, Murray believed that before Christianity spread to pagan Britain, the ancient societies were built upon matriarchy and mothers would pass secretive knowledge about the Earth to their daughters (Hayward, 2017). Like modernity, she saw the patriarchal values of the late 18th century and early 19th century Britain as a corruption of what the ancients valued. For both thinkers, the return to the rural British landscape symbolised more than just a rejection of industry, it offered a chance to subvert a Christian male-dominated society (Hayward, 2017).

As the future of Britain became more heavily dependent upon their modern industry, ironically the symbol of the countryside simultaneously grew in importance; serving as the nation’s last remaining ‘link’ to their mythic past (Sterenberg, 2013). The interwar period fostered the necessary conditions for a neo-romantic movement to thrive. The falling economy, crumbling Empire and the fresh memories regarding WWI were all persuasive reasons to reject modernity. Arguably the nostalgia for the old traditions and values only emerged because industrialisation had made it fundamentally impossible for Britain to ever return to such a state. The British countryside became a symbol of purity, the ideological opposite of the urban city landscape, and the land became re-imagined as a source of magical powers.

This desire to reconnect with the land was expressed culturally, economically and religiously at one stage or another during the interwar period. Whether this was through propagating the healing powers of the soil, advocating communal dance as a therapy to individualism or the fusion of pantheistic gods and rituals into the public discourse: Organisations such as the Woodcraft Chivalry and the Kibbo Kift tapped into this desire to re-engage with the land in a supernatural way, whilst providing their interpretations regarding which direction British identity should take in the 20th century.