Nationalist Doubt and Poetic Ambivalence

Most poems on such themes — liberty, warfare, trade, empire, state power, naval strength, commercial or even agricultural development — are not uncomplicated exercises in self- and national aggrandizement or uncritical celebrations of "progress." Even when the poems seem assured about the necessity of British expansionism, they are not consistently certain about that (inter)national project, and have to work hard to construct compelling arguments and iconographies that naturalize the assumptions and view of the world that define modern empires. In fact, it is arguable that the characteristic idiom of even panegyrics to national power is that of ambivalence, anxiety, and doubt, and that the dynamic, forward-looking, often utopian movement of such poems results both from the articulation of such anxieties and, crucially, from the performance of a poetic and imaginative recovery from fears about the state of the nation. Thus, many poems begin with a sense of the embattled nation (the "fatal discords" or weakened Liberty of which Centlivre writes), or of particular national constituencies or policies under siege, and then go on to show how such difficulties can be surmounted or transformed into opportunities that will ensure a glorious future. History — the record of prior or competing European nations and empires, or even of the British isles — is mined to show how providential portents and more worldly historical events point to the elevation of Britain to international dominance. However, the recourse to such comparative historical study is double-edged, if only because it inevitably suggests the many material and moral factors that contribute to national decline. To what political, economic or socio-cultural practices, for instance, could the decline of the Roman Empire be attributed, and how could an English culture that genuflected before its literary, historiographical, artistic, architectural, and imperial successes insulate itself from similar degeneration? How could it best avoid following the more recent fate of the Spanish Empire, given that in 1713 Britain wrested from the Spanish sole control of the Atlantic slave trade and thus positioned itself as the direct successor to Spanish power in the Caribbean and the Americas?

Britain might see itself as the contemporary beneficiary of the westward movement of empire, but as early as 1726 George Berkeley could write, in his "On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America," that all of Europe was decaying and that the Muse of empire would now move across the Atlantic:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;

The four first acts already past, A fifth shall close the drama with the day;

Time's noblest offspring is the last.

Very early in the next century, Anna Laetitia Barbauld was to incur critical condemnation when she wrote "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven," a poem weary of the protracted wars that England had fought in Europe and elsewhere, and depressed about the impact of such continual military mobilization on trade and indeed on life at home. The "golden tide of Commerce" flows elsewhere, she wrote, and leaves in its wake "enfeebling Luxury and ghastly Want" (ll. 61-6). British cultural and technological authority declines, and the prospect of national ruin looms:

Night, Gothic night, again may shade the plains Where Power is seated, and where Science reigns; England, the seat of arts, be only known By the grey ruin and the moldering stone; That Time may tear the garland from her brow, And Europe sit in dust, as Asia now.

For Barbauld, as for many other poets in the eighteenth century, the bright dream of empire was constantly threatened by the nightmare of its dissolution. It is also the case, of course, that defeats - significant losses in naval and territorial battles, the loss of control over trading outposts and colonies - were a recurrent feature of British life, and a constant reminder not only that empire extracted its costs, in terms of compromised political ethics and corruption, and the expenditure of men and materials, but that its boundaries were constantly contested, both by European powers and by subject populations.

Not all policy planners or poets reveled in dreams of empire, of course. Several critics, including most recently Brean Hammond and Christine Gerrard, have detailed the political and partisan affiliations that motivated poets to espouse differing positions on public issues (including, of course, those that produced the spate of satires which gave literary culture in the early decades of the eighteenth century its characteristic energy and bite). Some poets argued vociferously against Britain's development of its overseas commerce: the wealth that resulted, they believed, accrued to urban constituencies unmindful of the age-old agricultural and rural basis of the English economy and society. Oliver Goldsmith's Citizen of the World has Lien Chi Altangi, his Chinese observer of European and British mores, note in Letter 25 that extending empire is often diminishing power, that countries are ever strongest which are internally powerful; that colonies by draining away the brave and the enterprising, leave the country in the hands of the timid and the avaricious; ... that too much commerce may injure a nation as much as too little; that there is a wide difference between a conquering and a flourishing empire.

Goldsmith's best-known poem, The Deserted Village (1770), derives from his concern that those who made enormous fortunes overseas, or even while trading and banking in London, were directly responsible for rural dispossession and depopulation, in that they enclosed lands and developed estates that destroyed local subsistence economies and pauperized sharecroppers. While this may not have been the sole cause — the development of farming machinery and agricultural techniques encouraged capital-intensive farming on large farms, which was another incentive to consolidate holdings — Goldsmith made clear his feelings about the state of the nation (and its empire) in The Traveller, or a Prospect of Society (1764):

Laws grind the poor and rich men rule the law; The wealth of climes, where savage nations roam, Pillaged from slaves to purchase slaves at home;

Have we not seen, round Britain's peopled shore, Her useful sons exchanged for useless ore? Seen all her triumphs but destruction haste, Like flaring tapers brightening as they waste; Seen opulence, her grandeur to maintain, Lead stern depopulation in her train, And over fields where scattered hamlets rose, In barren solitary pomp repose? Have we not seen at pleasure's lordly call, The smiling long-frequented village fall?

When Samuel Johnson supplied the last four lines of The Deserted Village, he emphasized Goldsmith's political concern about the deleterious domestic impact of overseas trading and empire:

Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain; Teach him that states of native strength possessed, Though very poor, may still be very blest; That trade's proud empire hastes to swift decay, As ocean sweeps the laboured mole away;

While self-dependent power can time defy, As rocks resist the billows and the sky.

Johnson's closing image, in which the ocean destroys that which has been built up laboriously over time, reverses the poetic convention, exemplified by Edward Young's usage above, in which the oceans are seen to be the natural source of British greatness.

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