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The Spike or Victoria University College Review October 1915

Poetry and Patriotism

page 17

Poetry and Patriotism.

"Britain's myriad voices call,
Sons, be wedded, one and all
Into one Imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul—
One life, one fleet, one flag, one throne!
Britons, hold your own!"

He who attempts to define poetry is undertaking a task which it is almost impossible to perform. It is true that there are many definitions of poetry, but it is difficult to find one which will include all that is denoted by the word. One cannot help being attracted by that given by Edgar A. Poe—"poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty." But this definition, tending as it does to reduce poetry merely to the expression of emotion, is only a half-truth. It is, of course, a truism that emotion is the creative force and directing power of all poetical expression. But there seems to be something lacking in the definition. Emotion must be chastened and purified ; it must be transformed by the imagination. Even the definition of Mr. Watts-Dunton, that "poetry is the concrete expression of the human mind in emotional and rhythmical language," though it seems to include all the essential elements of poetic composition, does not show their interdependence. There is something in the subject that defies analysis, and definition of necssity implies analysis. One feels, one knows, that certain verses are poetry, but often, if one is asked to explain why, one feels at a loss, and is unable to give an adequate reason. For my own part, in order to escape from attempting to achieve the unachievable, I am more than content to echo the words of Professor Dixon.—"We may freely premise that a definition of poetry is impossible."

But there is one fact that can be established, and that is that poetry, in its best aspect, is an interpretation of life. It is "not a chronicle of things," but "a chronicle of thought about things," and in our humble attempts to form some kind of philosophy of life, we are page 18 most truly guided by the poets. Here let me repeat that emotion is the creative force and directing power of poetry. And let us remember that emotion may rise not merely from the facts of External Existence, but from those of our intimate personal life—the life not only within the brain, but in the depths of one's soul.

Trite and commonplaces as the remarks may appear, one of the best and noblest emotions is love of country. No matter what the peacock-like cynic, conscious and conceitedly proud of his allegedly clever cynicism, may aver, patriotism has always been one of the strongest passions of man. In all nations, in all ages, love of and belief in one's own land has been part of man's creed. Israel, Greece, Rome—each can tell its tales of devotion, of heroism, of self-sacrifice. But my field is not the broad one. I wish to touch on that English poetry which has for its origin devotion to a cause, to an ideal, which, to use a more genuine term, springs from love of country. The early devotion to the lord, the "ring giver of men," was replaced by the semi-business-like feudal system, which, disappearing in the course of the centuries, was replaced by a more catholic devotion to country—a devotion that had remained with Englishmen through the dark period of medievalism, and that now at last was to receive adequate expression. The national idea has been fixed in the hearts of Britons for centuries. It thrives under oppression, and not all the brutality that is often shown to a subjugated people has sufficient power to put out the divine spark. The Welsh when driven from their original territory, the English under the Norman heel, the Irish during years of misgovernment—all retained with an ardour nothing could diminish, love of their nation, and its traditions. And from this love has sprung much of the best poetry we have.

Which of the three forms of poetry—epic, lyric, or dramatic—is the most suitable medium in this respect is not to be discussed here. The vital question of the relation of form and matter is a task beyond the power of the writer, even were he allowed the space. It is, however, worthy of note that there is no great national page 19 epic in English literature. Our earliest epic poem, "Beowulf," is in no sense national. Though the language is English, England is not once mentioned throughout the poem. Shakespeare has given us some superb specimens of dramatic poetry dealing with national events ; and dramatic poetry is considered by many to be the supreme test of a nation's poetic greatness, but perhaps the lyric, coming as it does straight from the heart, and expressing primarily human emotions, has furnished us with the best examples of what we may term the poetry of patriotism. "Religion, love, patriotism ; these are the chief springs of song. . . In these relationships, whence spring the intensest ond most spontaneous of our joys and sorrows, the roots of lyric poetry are deeply struck."

In our earliest literature we have verse dealing with events of national moment. Such are the poetical accounts of the Battle of Brunanburh and the Battle of Maldon. Others chronicle the fidelity of warriors to their lord, devotion to whom was the keynote of the warrior's life. "Better avenge a friend than idly deplore him," Beowulf says to King Hrothgar. And Wiglaf's biting accusation of his less courageous comrades who deserted Beowulf in his last great fight is a good example of the steadfast devotion of a "companion" to his ringgiver.

The "Brut" of Layamon, a lengthy history of England in verse, is a work that is worth noting, though he who to-day attempts to peruse it is indeed a courageous and patient man.

Robert of Gloucester's "Chronicle" is a striking work, and his description of England, though too long to quote, and perhaps partaking overmuch of the nature of a geographical and botanical catalogue, contains several memorable lines.

For some time French influence was predominant in English literature, but the old English racial pride was too strong to be left under restraint ; and a determined attempt was made to oust the French influence. The most aggressive of these attempts was "The Vision of page 20 Piers the Ploughman," a fierce indictment of the leaders of both Church and State. Though there are no passages that may be called patriotic in the modern acceptation of the term, yet the whole poem, with its aggressive return as far as was possible to a vocabulary of purely English origin, is a striking tribute to the dogged tenacity of the English people.

A similar spirit, through lacking the defiant challenge of Langland, may be found in Lawrence Minot, who, however, still acknowledged the French as his masters in the art of versification. The following is a verse from a poem on an English sea-victory:—

"Boy with thi blac berd, I rede thou blin,*
And sone set the to schrive with sorow of thy sin:
If thou were on Ingland nought saltou win.
Come thou more on that coste thi bale sall begin.
Thare kindels thy care, kene men sall the kepe,
And do the dye on a day, and domp in the depe."

The above lines, addressed to the Genoese pirate Barbenoire, with the excellent promise contained in the last line, might well be addressed to the arch-pirate and murderer of Germany, von Tirpitz.

The earliest Scottish poet was John Barbour, and the noble lines on freedom, quoted hereunder, are surely worthy of a place in any patriotic authology.

"A! Fredome is a noble thing!
Fredome mayse man to haif liking;
Fredome all solace to man giffis—
He livis at ese that frely livis!
A noble hart may haif nane ese,
Na ellys nocht that may him please,
Gif fredome fail'th; for fre liking
Is yharnit over all other thing."

It is impossible to turn to Elizabethan literature without mentioning one or two names of importance. One poet whose merits have been the subject of much page 21 controversy is John Skelton, whose "Boke of Philip Sparrow" is a worthy forerunner of Butler's "Hudibras." He was intensely English, and his "Balade of the Scotysh Kinge," in which he exults over the victory of Flodden, though not in the best of taste if judged by modern standards, is typical of the spirit of the time. Of the poems of the Scot Dunbar, I wish to mention only two, "The Thistle and the Rose," and "The Solden Targe," both of which, though of no especial merit, contain passages "of genuine national feeling."

Omitting the ballads, let us pass to what may be termed post-Renaissance literature. Though of necessity at first a literature of experiment, it became, owing to the influence of the Reformation added to that of the Renaissance, the greatest period of English literature, the period that gave us our Shakespeare. It was in this age, when Englishmen began to make the name of England hated and respected, feared and loved, over all Europe, when the great feats of Elizabethan seamen stirred the hearts of their fellow-countrymen, that English poetry began to take on a distinctive patriotic tone. The achievements of England in the fight for religious freedom, and in the realms of literature, discovery, and war, generated a feeling of national pride that has never departed. And that spirit naturally found its truest expression in the verses of the poets. I am compelled only to mention Spencer's allegorical "Faerie Queene," Drayton's "Ballad of Agincourt," and his genuinely patriotic, though at times tedious, "Polyolbion," with its memorable lines invoking the genius of England. Others, too, might be mentioned, but though stars in a brilliant firmament, their light is dimmed by the radiance of one brighter than them all.

With such a wealth of material at one's disposal, one finds it exceedingly difficult to choose a passage for quotation. "King Henry the Fifth," redolent of the Elizabethan spirit with which Shakespeare infused it, is a paean in praise of England's prowess ; but, it is marked by a moderation that becomes a conquering nation. Henry's prayer before battle, his appeal, with its keynote of patriotism, to his soldiers at Harfleur, and page 22 his address before Agincourt—any one of these shows with clear-cut precision the new national spirit. Two others cannot be passed over—Gaunt's words in the second act of "Richard the Second," and Cranmer's apostrophe of the infant princess Elizabeth, in "Henry the Eight." But I have selected for quotation not one of those, but the closing lines of King John—lines which at present are pregnant with meaning for us all.

"This England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conquerer,
But when it first did help to wound itself.

* * * * *

Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them ; nought shall make us rue.
If England to itself do rest but true."

One quotation from Milton will suffice, as illustrating the part that England has so often played of protecting weaker peoples. This grand sonnet might almost be a prayer to God for vengeance on the Germans for their bloody deeds in Belgium.

On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.
Avenge, O Lord! Thy slaughter'd saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept Thy truth so pure of old
When all our fathers worshipt stocks and stones,
Forget not: In Thy book record their groans
Who were Thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese, that roll'd
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant: that from these may grow
A hundred-fold, who, having learnt Thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

In the long list of names that now come it is possible to mention only a few of the most prominent. Cowper's poetry, though little read to-day, contains some splendid passages. The lines beginning, "England! page 23 with all thy faults I love thee still," and the lines of liberty, both from "The Task," are selected at random as examples. Thomas Campbell's splendid sea-song, "Ye Mariners of England," needs no introduction, nor does his "Battle of the Baltic," nor his "Men of England." I make no excuse for feeling compelled to quote two verses of the first-mentioned:

The spirits of your fathers
shall start from every wave—
For the deck it was their field of fame,
And Ocean was their grave:
Where Blake and mighty Nelson fell
Your manly hearts shall glow,
As ye sweep through the deep,
While the stormy winds do blow!
While the battle rages loud and long,
And the stormy winds do blow.

The meteor flag of England
Shall yet terrific burn;
Till danger's troubled night depart
And the star of peace return.
Then, then, ye ocean-warriors!
Our song and feast shall flow
To the fame of your name,
When the storm has ceased to blow!
When the fiery fight is heard no more,
And the storm has ceased to blow.

Scott, Wordsworth, Browning (to some extent), Swinburne, Kipling, and hosts of others have given expression in their poetry to the feeling of pride in and love of their country and what it stands for. Two of Wordworth's sonnets, "Destiny," and "the Motherland" are exquisite of their kind. Here is the latter:

"It is not to be thought of that the Flood
Of British freedom, which, to the open sea
Of the world's praise, from dark antiquity
Hath flowed, 'with pomp of waters, unwithstood,'
Roused though it be full often to a mood
Which spurns the check of salutary bands,
That this most famous Stream in bogs and sands

page 24

Should perish, and to evil and to good
Be lost for ever. In our halls is hung
Armoury of the invincible knights of old:
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakspeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held.—In everything we are sprung
Of Earth's first blood, have titles manifold."

Tennyson is probably the most widely read of nineteenth century poets, and for that reason it is scarcely necessary to quote from him here, though he has written some of the finest patriotic verse in the language.

Swinburne's "England" deserves a special place. To abridge it were to mar it ; rather than do this, I quote the famous lines on England from "The Armada":

"England, queen of the waves, whose green inviolate girdle enrings thee around,
Mother fair as the morning, where is now the place of thy foeman found?
Still the sea that salutes us free proclaims them stricken, acclaims thee crowned.

Times may change, and the skies grow strange with signs of treason and fraud and fear:
Foes in union of strange communion may rise against thee from far and near:
Sloth and greed on thy strength may feed as cankers waxing from year to year.

Yet, though treason and fierce unreason should league and lie and defame and smite,
We that know thee, how far below thee the hatred burns of the sons of night,
We that love thee, behold above thee the witness written of life in light.

Light that shines from thee shows forth signs that none may read not but eyeless foes:
Hate, born blind, in his abject mind grows hopeful now but as madness grows:
Love, born wise, with exultant eyes adores thy glory, beholds and glows.

page 25

Truth is in thee, and none may win thee to lie, forsaking the face of truth:
Freedom lives by the grace she gives thee, born again from thy deathless youth:
Faith should fail, and the world turn pale, wert thou the prey of the serpent's tooth.

Greed and fraud, unabashed, unawed, may strive to sting thee at heel in vain:
Craft and fear in mistrust may leer and mourn and murmur and plead and plain:
Thou art thou: and thy sunbright brow is hers that blasted the strength of Spain.

Mother, mother beloved, none other could claim in place of thee England's place:
Earth bears none that beholds the sun so pure of record, so clothed with grace:
Dear our mother, nor son nor brother is thine, as strong or as fair of face.

How shalt thou be abased? or how shall fear take hold of thy heart? of thine,
England, maiden immortal, laden with charge of life and with hopes divine?
Earth shall wither, when eyes turned hither behold not light in her darkness shine.

England, none that is born thy son, and lives, by grace of thy glory, free,
Lives and yearns not at heart and burns with hope to serve as he worships thee;
None may sing thee: the sea bird's wing beats down our songs as it hails the sea."

Of the others I mention in passing Mrs. Hemans's "England's Dead"—in several verses reminiscent of parts of "The Song of the English"—Sir Francis Doyle's "Red Thread of Honour," Newbolt's stirring verse, and much of Henleys poetry. These are not all, but they will suffice.

This brings us to the last phase of the poetry of patriotism—the phase of which Mr. Rudyard Kipling is the apostle. I refer to Imperialism. With the growth of page 26 the British overseas empire, a new spirit has arisen. The ties that bound the Motherland to her colonies were once of the flimsiest texture; and the attitude of many British politicians served rather to weaken than to strengthen the bonds. Even of late years—yes, even in 1914—the little Englander dared to raise his rasping carping voice. But inevitably the idea of Imperialism has gripped the whole nation, and the present struggle for national existence will, it is our fervent wish, complete the union of the Motherland with her children states. Mr. Kipling has given perfect expression to the spirit of Empire, to the spirit of self-sacrifice which moves men to risk everything for their country's cause. Notwithstanding certain critics in the Quaker press, Mr. Kipling is emphatically not a "Jingo." His call rings true and clear, and he who finds no answering echo in his bosom, is a subject rather for pity than for anger. Just two quotations—I implore forgiveness for omitting the "Recessional" and the "Hymn before Action"—the first from the "Flag of England":

"Never the lotos closes, never the wild fowl wake,
But a soul goes out on the East Wind that died for England's sake—
Man or woman or suckling, mother or bride or maid—
Because on the bones of the English the English Flag is stayed."

The second is part of England's answer to her colonies, from "The Song of the English":

"Draw now the threefold knot firm on the ninefold bands,
And the Law that ye make shall be law after the rule of your lands.
This for the waxen Heath, and that for the Wattlebloom,
This for the Maple-leaf, and that for the southern Broom.
The Law that ye make shall be law, and I do not press my will,
Because ye are the Sons of the Blood and call me Mother still.
Now must ye speak to your kinsmen, and they must speak to you,
After the use of the English, in straight-flung words and few.

page 27

Go to your work and be strong, halting not in your ways,
Baulking the end half-won for an instant dole of praise.
Stand to your work and be wise—certain of sword and pen,
Who are neither children nor gods, but men in a world of men!"

And now let me make my apology. This article has been hurriedly written. The quotations have been selected, not necessarily because the writer thinks them the best, but because he happens personally to prefer some of them, and because they were the most easily accessible. But perhaps they may serve to show that what Mr. W. E. Henley has called "the sacred quality of patriotism" has inspired the greatest of the English poets. That it will continue to be a cherished passion with all Britons is surely axiomatic. No matter what we may lightly say to hide our real feelings, we feel in our hearts that we shall always be, "one with Britain, heart and soul."


* blin—cease.

saltou—shalt thou.

Mayse—makes, causes.

No ellys nocht—nor anything else.