Posted by: Democratic Thinker | March 10, 2010

Britannia

Things Every Literate Person Knows

 
 
Where once there was a Britain Brave and Free—
Oh! Light of Europe! What has become of Thee?


 

Britannia.
A POEM.

—————

—Et tantas audetis tollere molles?
Quos ego—sed motos præstat componere fluctus.
Post mihi non simili pœna commissa luetis.
Maturate fugam, regique hæc dicite vestro:
Non illi jmperium pelagi, sæsvumque tridentem,
Sed mihi sorte datum.—
VIRGIL, Aeneid, i. 134.

AS on the sea-beat shore Britannia sat,
Of her degenerate sons the faded fame
Deep in her anxious heart revolving sad—
Bare was her throbbing bosom to the gale,
That, hoarse and hollow, from the bleak surge blew;
Loose flowed her tresses; rent her azure robe.
Hung o’er the deep from her majestic brow
She tore the laurel, and she tore the bay.
Nor ceased the copious grief to bathe her cheek;
Nor ceased her sobs to murmur to the main.
Peace discontented, nigh departing, stretched
Her dove-like wings; and War, though greatly roused,
Yet mourns his fettered hands; while thus the queen
Of nations spoke; and what she said the muse
Recorded faithful in unbidden verse:—

‘Even not yon sail, that from the sky-mixed wave
Dawns on the sight, and wafts the royal youth,
A freight of future glory, to my shore;
Even not the flattering view of golden days,
And rising periods yet of bright renown,
Beneath the Parents, and their endless line
Through late revolving time, can soothe my rage;
While, unchastised, the insulting Spaniard dares
Infest the trading flood, full of vain war
Despise my navies, and my merchants seize;
As, trusting to false peace, they fearless roam
The world of waters wild; made, by the toil,
And liberal blood of glorious ages, mine:
Nor bursts my sleeping thunder on their head.
Whence this unwonted patience? this weak doubt?
This tame beseeching of rejected peace?
This meek forbearance? this unnative fear,
To generous Britons never known before?
And sailed my fleets for this—on Indian tides
To float, inactive, with the veering winds?
The mockery of war! while hot disease
And sloth distempered swept off burning crowds,
For action ardent; and amid the deep,
Inglorious, sunk them in a watery grave.
There now they lie beneath the rolling flood,
Far from their friends, and country, unavenged;
And back the drooping warship comes again,
Dispirited and thin; her sons ashamed
Thus idly to review their native shore;
With not one glory sparkling in their eye,
One triumph on their tongue. A passenger,
The violated merchant comes along—
That far sought wealth, for which the noxious gale
He drew, and sweat beneath equator suns—
By lawless force detained, a force that soon
Would melt away, and every spoil resign,
Were once the British lion heard to roar.
Whence is it that the proud Iberian thus
In their own well asserted element
Dares rouse to wrath the masters of the main?
Who told him that the big incumbent war
Would not, ere this, have rolled his trembling ports
In smoky ruin? and his guilty stores,
Won by the ravage of a butchered world,
Yet unatoned, sunk in the swallowing deep,
Or led the glittering prize into the Thames?
 
‘There was a time (oh, let my languid sons
Resume their spirit at the rousing thought!)
When all the pride of Spain, in one dread fleet,
Swelled o’er the labouring surge like a whole heaven
Of clouds wide-rolled before the boundless breeze.
Gaily the splendid armament along
Exultant ploughed, reflecting a red gleam,
As sunk the sun, o’er all the flaming vast;
Tall, gorgeous, and elate; drunk with the dream
Of easy conquest; while their bloated war,
Stretched out from sky to sky, the gathered force
Of ages held in its capacious womb.
But soon, regardless of the cumbrous pomp,
My dauntless Britons came, a gloomy few,
With tempests black, the goodly scene deformed,
And laid their glory waste. The bolts of fate
Resistless thundered through their yielding sides;
Fierce o’er their beauty blazed the lurid flame;
And seized in horrid grasp, or shattered wide 80
Amid the mighty waters, deep they sunk.
Then too from every promontory chill,
Rank fen, and cavern where the wild wave works,
I swept confederate winds, and swelled a storm.
Round the glad isle, snatched by the vengeful blast,
The scattered remnants drove; on the blind shelve,
And pointed rock that marks the indented shore,
Relentless dashed, where loud the northern main
Howls through the fractured Caledonian isles.
 
‘Such were the dawnings of my liquid reign;
But since, how vast it grew, how absolute,
Even in those troubled times when dreadful Blake
Awed angry nations with the British name,
Let every humbled state, let Europe say,
Sustained and balanced by my naval arm.
Ah, what must those immortal spirits think
Of your poor shifts? Those, for their country’s good,
Who faced the blackest danger, knew no fear,
No mean submission, but commanded peace—
Ah, how with indignation must they burn!
(If aught but joy can touch ethereal breasts)
With shame! with grief! to see their feeble sons
Shrink from that empire o’er the conquered seas
For which their wisdom planned, their councils
glowed, And their veins bled through many a toiling age.
 
‘Oh, first of human blessings, and supreme!
Fair Peace! how lovely, how delightful thou!
By whose wide tie the kindred sons of men
Like brothers live, in amity combined
And unsuspicious faith; while honest toil no
Gives every joy, and to those joys a right,
Which idle, barbarous rapine but usurps.
Pure is thy reign; when, unaccursed by blood,
Nought, save the sweetness of indulgent showers,
Trickling distils into the vernant glebe;
Instead of mangled carcasses, sad-seen,
When the blithe sheaves lie scattered o’er the field;
When only shining shares, the crooked knife,
And hooks imprint the vegetable wound;
When the land blushes with the rose alone,
The falling fruitage and the bleeding vine.
Oh, Peace! thou source and soul of social life,
Beneath whose calm inspiring influence,
Science his views enlarges, Art refines,
And swelling Commerce opens all her ports,
Blest be the man divine who gives us thee!
Who bids the trumpet hush his horrid clang,
Nor blow the giddy nations into rage;
Who sheathes the murderous blade; the deadly gun
Into the well piled armoury returns;
And every vigour from the work of death
To grateful industry converting, makes
The country flourish, and the city smile.
Unviolated, him the virgin sings;
And him the smiling mother to her train.
Of him the shepherd in the peaceful dale
Chants; and, the treasures of his labour sure,
The husbandman of him, as at the plough
Or team he toils. With him the sailor soothes,
Beneath the trembling moon, the midnight wave;
And the full city, warm from street to street,
And shop to shop responsive, rings of him.
Nor joys one land alone: his praise extends
Far as the sun rolls the diffusive day,
Far as the breeze can bear the gifts of peace,
Till all the happy nations catch the song.
 
‘What would not, Peace! the patriot bear for thee?
What painful patience? what incessant care?
What mixed anxiety? what sleepless toil?
Even from the rash protected what reproach?
For he thy value knows; thy friendship he
To human nature: but the better thou,
The richer of delight, sometimes the more
Inevitable war; when ruffian force
Awakes the fury of an injured state.
Then the good easy man, whom reason rules,
Who, while unhurt, knew nor offence nor harm,
Roused by bold insult, and injurious rage,
With sharp and sudden check the astonished sons
Of violence confounds; firm as his cause,
His bolder heart; in awful justice clad;
His eyes effulging a peculiar fire:
And, as he charges through the prostrate war,
His keen arm teaches faithless men, no more
To dare the sacred vengeance of the just.
 
‘And what, my thoughtless sons, should fire you more
Than when your well-earned empire of the deep
The least beginning injury receives?
What better cause can call your lightning forth?
Your thunder wake? your dearest life demand?
What better cause, than when your country sees
The sly destruction at her vitals aimed?
For oh! it much imports you, ‘tis your all,
To keep your trade entire, entire the force
And honour of your fleets—o’er that to watch,
Even with a hand severe and jealous eye.
In intercourse be gentle, generous, just,
By wisdom polished, and of manners fair;
But on the sea be terrible, untamed,
Unconquerable still: let none escape
Who shall but aim to touch your glory there.
Is there the man into the lion’s den
Who dares intrude, to snatch his young away?
And is a Briton seized? and seized beneath
The slumbering terrors of a British fleet?
Then ardent rise! Oh, great in vengeance, rise!
O’erturn the proud, teach rapine to restore:
And, as you ride sublimely round the world,
Make every vessel stoop, make every state
At once their welfare and their duty know.
This is your glory, this your wisdom; this
The native power for which you were designed
By fate, when fate designed the firmest state
That e’er was seated on the subject sea;
A state, alone, where Liberty should live,
In these late times, this evening of mankind,
When Athens, Rome, and Carthage are no more,
The world almost in slavish sloth dissolved.
For this, these rocks around your coast were thrown;
For this, your oaks, peculiar hardened, shoot
Strong into sturdy growth: for this, your hearts
Swell with a sullen courage, growing still
As danger grows; and strength, and toil for this
Are liberal poured o’er all the fervent land.
Then cherish this, this uuexpensive power,
Undangerous to the public, ever prompt,
By lavish nature thrust into your hand:
And, unencumbered with the bulk immense
Of conquest, whence huge empires rose, and fell
Self-crushed, extend your reign from shore to shore,
Where’er the wind your high behests can blow;
And fix it deep on this eternal base.
For, should the sliding fabric once give way,
Soon slackened quite, and past recovery broke,
It gathers ruin as it rolls along,
Steep rushing down to that devouring gulf
Where many a mighty empire buried lies.
And should the big redundant flood of trade,
In which ten thousand thousand labours join
Their several currents, till the boundless tide
Rolls in a radiant deluge o’er the land;
Should this bright stream, the least inflected, point
Its course another way, o’er other lands
The various treasure would resistless pour.
Ne’er to be won again; its ancient tract
Left a vile channel, desolate, and dead,
With all around a miserable waste.
Not Egypt, were her better heaven, the Nile,
Turned in the pride of flow; when o’er his rocks,
And roaring cataracts, beyond the reach
Of dizzy vision piled, in one wide flash
An Ethiopian deluge foams amain
(Whence wondering fable traced him from the sky);
Even not that prime of earth, where harvests crowd
On untilled harvests, all the teeming year,
If of the fat o’erflowing culture robbed,
Were then a more uncomfortable wild,
Sterile, and void; than of her trade deprived,
Britons, your boasted-isle: her princes sunk;
Her high built honour mouldered to the dust;
Unnerved her force; her spirit vanished quite;
With rapid wing her riches fled away;
Her unfrequented ports alone the sign
Of what she was; her merchants scattered wide;
Her hollow shops shut up; and in her streets,
Her fields, woods, markets, villages, and roads
The cheerful voice of labour heard no more.
 
‘Oh, let not then waste luxury impair
That manly soul of toil which strings your nerves,
And your own proper happiness creates!
Oh, let not the soft penetrating plague
Creep on the freeborn mind! and working there,
With the sharp tooth of many a new-formed want,
Endless, and idle all, eat out the heart
Of liberty; the high conception blast;
The noble sentiment, the impatient scorn
Of base subjection, and the swelling wish
For general good, erasing from the mind:
While nought save narrow selfishness succeeds,
And low design, the sneaking passions all
Let loose, and reigning in the rankled breast.
Induced at last, by scarce perceived degrees,
Sapping the very frame of government
And life, a total dissolution comes;
Sloth, ignorance, dejection, flattery, fear,
Oppression raging o’er the waste he makes;
The human being almost quite extinct;
And the whole state in broad corruption sinks.
Oh, shun that gulf: that gaping rum shun!
And countless ages roll it far away
From you, ye heaven-beloved! May liberty,
The light of life! the sun of humankind!
Whence heroes, bards, and patriots borrow flame,
Even where the keen depressive north descends,
Still spread, exalt, and actuate your powers!
While slavish southern climates beam in vain.
And may a public spirit from the throne,
Where every virtue sits, go copious forth,
Live o’er the land! the finer arts inspire;
Make thoughtful Science raise his pensive head,
Blow the fresh bay, bid Industry rejoice,
And the rough sons of lowest labour smile:
As when, profuse of Spring, the loosened west
Lifts up the pining year, and balmy breathes
Youth, life, and love, and beauty o’er the world.
 
‘But haste we from these melancholy shores,
Nor to deaf winds, and waves, our fruitless plaint
Pour weak; the country claims our active aid;
That let us roam; and where we find a spark
Of public virtue, blow it into flame.
Lo! now, my sons, the sons of freedom! meet
In awful senate; thither let us fly;
Burn in the patriot’s thought, flow from his tongue
In fearless truth; myself transformed preside,
And shed the spirit of Britannia round.’
 
This said, her fleeting form and airy train
Sunk in the gale; and nought but ragged rocks
Rushed on the broken eye, and nought was heard
But the rough cadence of the dashing wave.

—James Thomson.


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