Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire
English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century
In Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire, Suvir Kaul argues that the aggressive nationalism of James Thomson's ode "Rule, Britannia!" (1740) is the condition to which much English poetry of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries aspires. Poets as varied as Marvell, Waller and Dryden, Defoe, Addison, John Dyer and Edward Young, or Goldsmith, Cowper, Hannah More and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, all wrote poems deeply engaged with the British-nation-in-the-making. These poets, and many others like them, recognized that the nation and its values and institutions were being defined by the expansion of overseas trade, naval and military control, plantations and colonies. Their poems both embodied, and were concerned about, the culture and ideology of "Great Britain" (itself an idea of the nation that developed alongside the formation of a British Empire).
Poems in this period thus flaunt various images of poetic inspiration that show poetry and culture following triumphantly where mercantile and military ships sail. Or sometimes, more self-aggrandizingly for the poet, they enact the process by which the Muses use their powers to inspire and show the way. Even at their most hesitant, these poems were written as interventions into public discussion; their creativity is tied up with that desire to convince and persuade. Finally, as Kaul writes, it is their encyclopedic desire to incorporate new experiences, visions, and values that makes these poems such fine guides to the world of poetry in the long years in which "Great Britain" was consolidated as an empire, at home and abroad.
"While many excellent studies of eighteenth-century culture have emphasized nationalist discourse, and other studies have offered outstanding scholarship on colonial discourse, few have insisted on their deep mutual dependence. Still fewer have grounded their reading of that dependence as thoroughly in the literature of the period, and none have done so as eleantly as Kaul’s significant work."
One of the signal virtues of Suvir Kaul's study is its clarity in showing that poetry, not the novel, not drama, was the primary literary register of English/British imperial vision. We are provided the entire span of such poetic speculation, from Waller and Marvell to Cowper, approximately 150 years of imperial/national fantasy. In sum, this is a book for which there has long been a need. Accomplished with great learning, grace, and thoroughness, it should become an indispensable tool in eighteenth-century literary and historical study."
Suvir Kaul, Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also the author of Thomas Gray and Literary Authority: A Study in Ideology and Poetics.