Essay: Victorian British Patriotism in Literature

This is a compare/contrast essay written for a literature class.  It is about a song and a poem published in Britain in the Victorian era:  “Far, Far Upon the Sea” by Charles Mackay and “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It was originally turned in on February 4, 2011.

Imperfect Empire
by Edie Montgomery-Pool

british literature essayThe Victorian era was one of British imperialism, colonization, and a strong sense of national identity among the people of Great Britain.  That sense of national identity included a belief in the cultural imperative of the British Empire.  Even Scotland, a country acquired by the empire through marriage and traditionally not known for being a supporter of the English government, produced writers who sang the praises of the British Empire.  Many literary pieces from this time period reflect feelings of national pride and pro-imperialism.  However, a closer look at some of this literature reveals an underlying tone that strongly conflicts with the cheerful, pro-imperialist attitude with which it was written.  This underlying tone subtly reveals the inevitable dark side of imperialism.  Two pieces, one written by Scotsman Charles Mackay and the other by Englishman Alfred, Lord Tennyson, exemplify this conflicting message.  Although both Mackay’s song, “Far, Far Upon the Sea,” and Tennyson’s poem, “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen,” seem to be written with the intent to show the glory and superiority of the British Empire, they both also expose its flaws.

Charles Mackay’s song is about a group of emigrants cheerfully taking passage across the sea to make new lives for themselves in another country, and Alfred Tennyson’s poem was written in praise of colonialism and read at the opening ceremony of a grand colonial exhibition; both reflect a pro-imperialist focus when taken at face value.  Mackay paints a jolly picture of British people from different countries of origin gathering in a circle to sing “with cheerful voices” (Far line 11).  Similarly, Tennyson opens his poem with the line, “Welcome, welcome with one voice! / In your welfare we rejoice” (Opening 1-2), also emphasizing joy and unity.  Other phrases within Mackay’s song that highlight joyfulness include a number of references to people singing, as well as lines like, “gaily goes the ship” (Far 12), and “sunshine on our lee” (14).  Additional phrases within Tennyson’s poem that highlight unity include, “sharers of our glorious past” (Opening 31), and “Britain’s myriad voices” (35).  He also makes a total of eleven separate references to family (sons, brothers, mother, fathers, kin) in this short poem when making comparisons between England and other countries within the empire.

english literature essayMackay’s piece, though joyful, is more sentimental than Tennyson’s; in “Far,” he writes about people on the boat remembering Britain in terms of “pleasant days when we were young” (15), “sweet melodies of home” (17), and “the songs of happy childhood” (18).  Tennyson briefly brings in a hint of sentimentality at the end of his poem when he speaks of the parts of Britain coming together as one “heart and soul” (Opening 38).

Mackay’s piece stresses sentimentality more than Tennyson’s, and Tennyson’s piece stresses strength more than Mackay’s.  Tennyson speaks of “That old strength and constancy / Which has made your fathers great” (Opening 14-15); he mentions strength directly, and Victorians viewed the father figure as one of strength, as well.  He also refers to the flag making “the might of Britain known” (Opening 19) and of welding the parts of the empire together.  Mackay portrays Britain as strong when he alludes to a refrain from the song, “Rule, Britannia,” and uses the lines, “Britons rule the waves / And never shall be slaves” (Far 22-23).

british imperialism essayDespite their depiction of the British Empire as a strong, unified, happy place, both pieces of literature also expose negative aspects of the imperialist system.  “Far, Far Upon the Sea” mentions “Scotland’s sons” (Far 28) and “the men of Erin’s Isle” (31), referring to Scottish and Irish people taking passage on the ship in order to emigrate to a new land.  It is interesting that these nationalities are mentioned directly since it is well known that problems such as poverty, famine, and political unrest prompted many Scottish and Irish people to emigrate.  Tennyson also shows the instability of the empire with the use of anaphora, placing the phrase, “Britons, hold your own!” at the end of each stanza.  Meant to be a rallying cry for unity, this also can come across as a desperate plea for the empire not to fall apart.  Mackay’s emigrants leave Britain “to return to it no more” (Far 20).  This is similar to another group referenced in Tennyson’s poem:

Britain fought her sons of yore—
Britain fail’d; and never more… (Opening 21-22)
Drove from out the mother’s nest
That young eagle from the West (Opening 27-28)

Tennyson speaks here about the United States, a place made up of emigrants who rebelled against the British Empire–an entire country that left the empire, never to return.

Another negative aspect of imperialism presents itself when Mackay references the lyric “And never shall be slaves” (Far 23).  It brings an interesting question to mind:  why were the British concerned enough about ever becoming slaves to put this lyric into a patriotic song?  It was because they themselves had enslaved the people of countries they had taken by force and did not want that to happen to them.  Although slavery in England had been abolished in the 1830s, many people within the conquered areas of the empire were treated no better than slaves long after the official abolishment.  Tennyson’s poem also alludes to the taking of countries by force and a devaluing attitude by the conquerors toward the conquered people.  He writes of Britain that “wherever her flag fly” (Opening 17), it “makes the might of Britain known” (19), alluding to the fact that the flag flew over many places taken by might, or by force.  Additionally, an elitist attitude seeps through in these lines:

May we find, as ages run,
The mother featured in the son;
And may yours for ever be
That old strength and constancy
Which has made your fathers great (Opening 11-15)

The empire seeks not to nurture the “son” or conquered country into its own cultural, moral, political, or spiritual identity, but to remake it in the image of the mother, which in this case is England.  Also, the phrase “your fathers” here seems not to refer to the vast wealth of history many of the territories within the empire possessed, but solely to the great figures of English history.

british literature essayWhile both “Far, Far Upon the Sea” and “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen” appear to portray a favorable picture of the British Empire during the Victorian era, the negative aspects of imperialist Britain are visible just below the surface of these works.  Glimpses of complex social and political issues are inevitably woven into the literary work of each generation, and this is especially apparent in these two pieces.  Although at first glance these texts appear to be about, alternately, a cheerful group of people crossing the sea and the coming together of many nations at an exhibition, closer inspection reveals underlying attitudes, beliefs, and concerns prevalent within the Victorian era and exposes less desirable aspects of imperialism.  Examining literature from throughout history can give the modern reader an insightful glimpse into the past, but taking the time to read between the lines can yield even more information and a deeper understanding of the era in which the text was written.

Have you read either of the pieces mentioned above?  What did you think of them?  Comments welcome.

Works Cited

Mackay, Charles. “Far, Far Upon the Sea.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol 2. Greenblatt, Stephen and M.H. Abrams, eds. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1617-1618. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred. “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol 2. Greenblatt, Stephen and M.H. Abrams, eds. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1626-1627. Print.

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