The Decline of Patriotism

Opposition writing reached the peak of its intensity in 1738 with a flood of poems published that year — notably Samuel Johnson's London, Paul Whitehead's Manners, Akenside's The Voice of Liberty: A British Philippic, and Pope's two dialogues of the Epilogue to the Satires, in which he depicts himself as defending his country single-handedly and heroically against the tide of corruption and indifference: his quirki-ness is "so odd, my Country's Ruin makes me grave." In 1739 Walpole was finally forced to declare war against Spain, a war which afforded a brief moment of triumph with Admiral Vernon's victories in 1740 at Porto Bello (inspiration for Thomson's famous opposition lyric "Rule, Britannia!"), but then saw British losses following Admiral Vernon's disastrous siege of Cartagena in 1741 that finally led to Walpole's resignation in 1742. This long-awaited event, however, did not usher in some glorious Patriot administration drawn impartially from the best men of both parties, but instead offered a less distinguished version of Whig politics as usual. The former Patriots William Pulteney and John, Lord Carteret, were widely castigated for "selling out," one for a peerage and one for the key role in the new Whig administration. As Pope sardonically remarked in his unpublished "One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty," written as rumors circulated about Pulteney's promised reward for renouncing his patriotism, he who "foams a Patriot" will soon "subside a Peer." Patriotism as a public and political idiom became downgraded to the secondary definition of the epithet added by the former Patriot Johnson to his Dictionary: "a factious disturber of the government."

In the shifting political sands of the post-Walpole era, it became increasingly difficult for poets to make assertive public gestures. Although, as Dustin Griffin has shown, none of the mid-eighteenth-century poets — Gray, Collins, Akenside, Goldsmith — could be described as "apolitical," all expressed an ambivalence about conventional expressions of patriotic emotion, epitomized by Goldsmith's definition of himself as "half a patriot" (Griffin 2002: 206). The major political event of the 1740s — the so-called Forty-Five, the Jacobite uprising whose bloody defeat at Culloden effectively ended all hopes for a Stuart restoration — proved, at least for poets, more problematic than any previous military conflict of the first half of the century. Henry Fielding's journal the True Patriot, written at the height of the Highland army's attempted invasion of the north, chronicles the creeping Catholicization of Protestant England and the real threat to national security. Staunch Whig poets such as Mark

Akenside and Edward Young shared Fielding's detestation of the "Pope-bred Princeling" who aspired "To cut his Passage to the British Throne" (The Complaint. . . Night the Eighth, p. 127). Yet poets such as Collins and Johnson, writing in the aftermath of the Jacobite defeat, with its brutal retributions against Bonny Prince Charlie's followers, found it hard to celebrate an untroubled patriotism. William "the Butcher," the Duke of Cumberland, was no Marlborough. Collins's "Ode to Liberty," ostensibly about the War of Austrian Succession but written shortly after the Jacobite defeat, shows a "ravaged" Britain which welcomes Liberty in feminized rather than martial form. Johnson's great philosophical poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) delicately places allusions to recent political events within a larger pattern of flawed human ambition and political aspiration.

The Seven Years War of 1756—63 enhanced Britain's self-perception as an imperial world power. An ignominious early phase — the loss of Minorca to the French — was followed by victories that saw the British taking Canada and India from France and capturing Manila and Havana from Spain. Yet although patriotic georgics such as Dyer's The Fleece (1756) and Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764) captured the national mood of imperialist expectation, it is surprising that not more poets produced ambitious "anthems of empire." Thomas Gray, though a supporter of Pitt, a grandson of a wealthy East India merchant, and born into a Whig elite, remained reticent about "trade." In this he shared the ambivalence, even hostility, of Oliver Goldsmith, for whom "Trade's unfeeling train" was the source of national ruin. The Deserted Village (1770) draws on the civic-humanist tradition familiar to opposition poets of the 1720s and 1730s in linking commercial prosperity with national corruption and the insidious growth of "luxury." Yet unlike Thomson's Liberty (1735—6), Goldsmith's attack on luxury emanates from a sense of personal loss, real or imagined: the loss of his childhood community, a place where he enjoyed an assured social standing and a clearly defined audience. In this The Deserted Village serves to dramatize a recurrent dilemma for post-Walpole era poets: the quest to define both an audience and a meaningful public role. In his letter to James Beattie, author of The Minstrel, the first part of which appeared in 1771, a year after The Deserted Village, Gray suggested that Beattie's aspiring poet-hero should be made to perform "some singular deed for the service of his country (what service I must leave to your invention)." Yet Gray himself, offered the opportunity of becoming Poet Laureate, declined. Although his odes, particularly "The Bard," evoke a heroic age in which poets sought an elevated public role, the anonymously published satires on corrupt and widely discredited public figures which Gray produced in his later years — "The Candidate" (1764) and "On Lord Holland's Seat" (1769) — did not aspire to this model.

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