Suvir Kaul

In 1715 Susannah Centlivre wrote a panegyric to the new monarch, George I, whose title indicates its occasional and public status: A Poem. Humbly Presented to His most Sacred Majesty George, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland. Upon His Accession to the Throne. At the end of the poem, Centlivre signs herself: "I am with the profoundest Respect / Your Majesty's / Most Dutiful and / Most Devoted Subject," a salutation that makes clear the connection between poetic practice and political persuasion. However, it is not only party affiliation that explains this panegyric; in writing such a poem Centlivre joined a great many of her fellow poets — Whigs, Tories, those without particular party identification — in a chorus of ritual celebration. Centlivre's poem is thus representative of the vast corpus of nationalist poetry written in this period, and allows us to note a great many of the formal, thematic, and rhetorical elements that are crucial to any enquiry into the links between poetry, politics, and empire in the long eighteenth century in England (and, post-1707, in Britain). To work through her poem is to list several of the commonplaces of English nationalism as they were debated and developed; the poem also allows us to assess the characteristically aggressive tone of divine certainty and worldly hope that becomes a staple of poems on "Great Britain" as that entity is forged at home and overseas.

Centlivre's poem begins by expressing the religious and political relief offered by a Protestant succession. The enthronement of George puts at rest any fears of Roman Catholic and Jacobite claims to the throne (fears that were to materialize into conflict the same year):

Hail! Hero born to rule, and reconcile The fatal Discords of our English Isle! Our pure Religion, long the Mark of Rome, Repriev'd by You Escapes her final Doom.

Second, Centlivre invokes that central token of "Britishness," the goddess Liberty, and, as is often the case in this period, represents her as under threat. (We should note that Liberty is an icon whose attributes are rarely defined, except as some generalized amalgam of the constitutional balance between Court and Parliament, the rule of law, "no-Popery," and the sturdy patriotic spirit that supposedly separated the Briton from Europeans and from peoples elsewhere in the world.)

Unnumber'd Joys You to Britannia bring,

And lo Pœans thro' the Nation ring.

Delightful Liberty, with Fears half dead,

Hears the glad Noise, and rears her pleasing Head;

Her slacken'd Nerves their former Strength regain,

And she her Life redates from George's Reign.

Next, as part of an effort to smooth over any controversy about a non-English-speaking Hanoverian prince becoming the head of state, Centlivre lists a historical precedent particularly appropriate to the accession of George I, who had recently distinguished himself as an ally of the English against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13):

So Cruel Faction tore Rome's ancient State,

And all her Glories seem'd the Sport of Fate;

When by Adoption Trajan took the Reins,

And check'd his People's Heats, and quench'd the Flames;

Enlarg'd her Bounds to distant India's Shoar,

And taught her Drooping Eagles how to soar.

You Sir, like him, the British Throne ascend; May equal Victories your Reign attend.

Centlivre's invocation of Trajan, an "outsider" (he was not born in Italy) who became a Roman emperor (reigned 98-117), and whose imperial conquests expanded the boundaries of the Roman Empire "to distant India's shore," is part of the pattern of neoclassical, particularly Roman, cultural and political reference that gave structure to the cultural and ideological work of poets who wrote in English in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only was English poetry defined vis-à-vis the achievements of Latin poets, but crucial debates about the nature of the English polity - forms of governance and civic order at home, the commercial and agricultural priorities of the state and the nation both at home and overseas, territorial expansion abroad - were brought into focus by meditating on similar issues in the making (and the decline) of the Roman Empire. The "equal Victories" to which George I is invited to look forward extend beyond the borders of Europe and involve, as all intra-

European conflicts in the eighteenth century did, the acquisition or control of territories across the globe. Trajan's expansion of the Empire legitimized his claims to Rome, and Centlivre offers a similar imperial prospect to George I.

But the matter of Europe is not left out of this panegyric either. We are told of the mounting fears of European "tyrants" — in this period, usually the epithet of choice for enemy Roman Catholic monarchs, or, in a parallel context, for Muslim emperors:

When round the Continent the Trump of Fame Did Britain's Glory in your Right proclaim, Tyrannick Monarchs, as with Thunder scar'd, Sent up their Prayers impending Fates to ward;

George's power offers Belgium and Spain reassurance, and the prime European competitor France must learn its place:

By your fam'd Justice, and your prudent Sway, France shall be taught to Love, or to Obey; Whilst You the Right of Liberty assert, And all the Ills of broken Faith avert;

The rest of the poem contains a series of biblical, Christological, and genealogical allusions (to William of Orange and to Anne, as embodiments of the Protestant succession) all designed to suggest the importance of, and divine sanction for, the new monarch. The poem closes, as so many such poems do, in a halo of triumphalist prophecy:

Hail great Deliverer, much lov'd Monarch Hail! No more shall France, no more shall Rome prevail: By Heav'ns Decree, You and your Issue stand Sure Signs of future Safety to this Land. So when th' Almighty caus'd the Flouds to cease, He fix'd his Bow in Token of the Peace.

0 0

Post a comment