Key Terms Patriotism Liberty Luxury Progress

Bonamy Dobree's survey of eighteenth-century poems featuring the rhetorical links between poetry, politics, and nationalism leads him to conclude that "There seems then to have been a definite need for the expression of the emotion [of patriotism], and we find the theme making its way into poems by a variety of doors, marked indifferently Liberty, Trade, Historic Sense or Vision of the Future, Peace, Public Works, Justice, or Pride in Literary Achievement" (Dobree 1949: 52). He goes on to remark that "None of the other themes, the splendour of liberty, the glory of bygone days, the triumph of arms or arts, nor the enthronement of justice, can compare in volume, in depth, in vigour of expression, in width of imagination, with the full diapason of commerce" (p. 60). However, it is important to note that the celebration of British commerce is always part of a larger poetic project: the projection of English "civilization," particularly as manifested in its poetry and culture, as more benevolent and humane — more advanced — than that of its European competitors or particularly those of non-European peoples. Poets thus began to develop quasi-anthropological, quasi-historical comparative techniques in their poems, where their surveys of the past and present allowed them to claim Britain and Britons as the latest, and most worthy, beneficiaries of the historical rise (and fall) of empires. The medieval model of the movement of culture (translatio studii) was mapped onto the idea that empires followed a westward drift (translatio imperii); thus both the British Muse and the British Empire (however limited, or under threat, this empire might have been in practice) were seen to be the latest and most legitimate inheritors of the achievements of classical and early modern European empires — but with one important difference: the British commitment to Liberty was meant to protect its society and people from the seemingly inevitable decline into the "Luxury," degeneracy, and effeminacy that had destroyed otherwise manly and martial empires like those of Sparta and Rome. It was the job of poets both to join in a massed chorus that sang of the virtues of a nation peaceful at home and powerful abroad, and to act as guardians of the social fabric of the nation by intervening in public debates and by warning against political—economic and moral failures.

Poets thus emphasized their ethical claims to comment on weighty public matters, and sought, in their contribution to public discussion, to assure for themselves a vocational importance. They became denominators of "Progress" — of Poesy, of the Muses, of Scientific and Technological developments, of Commerce, of Empire — and a great many of them contributed to Whiggish notions of the growing political and cultural power of Britain. Few poets were simply propagandists of trade or of empire; they wrote poetry because its vocabulary of inspiration and aspiration, movement and transport, musicality and sublimity allowed them explorations of personal and communal experience and feeling. But it is certain that the subject matter of nation and of state, of commercial glory and imperial power, encouraged an identification between poet and nation and between poetry and cultural nationalism. To take only one example of the kind of formal experimentation that resulted, the Pindaric ode was written once again as the rhapsodic form most capable of enabling the transports of the nationalist imagination. Edward Young, for instance, had no hesitation in stating in a prose treatise, "On Lyric Poetry," that he wrote odes for precisely that reason: "The ancients generally had a particular regard to the choice of their subjects, which were generally national and great. My subject is, in its own nature, noble; most proper for an Englishman; never more proper than on this occasion; and (what is strange) hitherto unsung." (Young's treatise accompanied his Ocean: An Ode [1728], whose subtitle makes clear his sense of the propriety of occasion and subject: Occasioned by His Majesty's Royal Encouragement of the Sea Service. To which is Prefixed an Ode to the King; and a Discourse on Ode.) Young begins his ode by asking: "Who sings the source / Of wealth and force? / Vast field of commerce, and big war!" (ll. 13—15), and, hearing of no other celebrants of Ocean, rushes in himself: "What! none aspire? / I snatch the lyre, / And plunge into the foaming wave" (ll. 22—4). For him, the overlap between poetic theme and achievement is clear and mutually reinforcing:

The main! the main!

Is Britain's reign;

Her strength, her glory, is her fleet:

The main! the main!

Be Britain's strain;

As Tritons strong, as Syrens sweet.

Other poets glorify the Thames as the national river that allows easy access to the global flows of the oceans, and thus to all the commodities and territories that lie within reach, particularly as British shipbuilding technologies and seafaring techniques improve. Over the course of this century, the control of shipping lanes became a crucial priority for British foreign policy, and, equally, British prowess on the oceans became central to the mythology of the nation. Naval warfare in distant waters, as well as the dissemination of travelogs and news reports of ocean voyages to faraway lands, encouraged a new global awareness, even a new internationalism. The oceans were represented as the new medium for the exchanges upon which British prosperity and authority were based, with the goods of the world flowing in, and British civic "enlightenment" flowing out. Poets were glad to invoke the dense, ideologically potent memories of the Homeric highways of the seas in their own tributes to British seafaring; no English epic was written in the eighteenth century, but the most expansive poems are those that contain in themselves accounts of the world enabled by longer and longer voyages, culminating with those of Captain James Cook to the islands of the South Pacific. The oceans could be terrifying in their boundlessness, and in the destructive unpredictability of their storms; but, as James Thomson's anthem "Rule, Britannia!" put it, they were also the "azure main" out of which Britain arose, and over which Britons were granted control:

When Britain first, at Heaven's command,

Arose from out the azure main, This was the charter of the land,

And guardian angels sung this strain -"Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves."

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