Category Archives: Poetry

Why you shouldn’t call yourself a True-Born Englishman.

The belief that ancient family lineage enables a person to claim a superior legitimacy of national belonging has been given a shocking airing recently. So it’s worth remembering that Daniel Defoe punctured this poisonous myth over 300 years ago.

coo.31924013179399-14The True-Born Englishman. A Satyr was initially a counter-response to John Tutchin’s The Foreigners: an attack on William III’s rule by focusing on his Dutch origins. Yet it catalysed a much wider-ranging satire on xenophobia and the idea of ethnic purity. Defoe’s poem starts with the idea of ingratitude towards what he views as the nation’s saviour (William III) and accuses the English nation of pride. He aims to prick this ‘bubbled Nation’ (27):

To Englishmen their own beginnings show,

And ask them why they slight their neighbours so.

Go back to elder times, and ages past,

And nations into long oblivion cast;

To old Britannia’s youthful days retire.

And there for true-born Englishman enquire.

Britannia freely will disown the name,

And hardly knows herself from whence they came:

Wonders that they of all men should pretend

To birth and blood, and for a name to contend. (43-52)

National pride based on lineage gets a rough ride. Defoe’s scorching reminder that England’s history is one of continual invasion from Romans, Picts, Scots, and Normans:

From whose mixed relics our compounded breed,

By spurious generation does succeed;

Making a race uncertain and unev’n,

Derived from all the nations under Heav’n.(171-75)

The English, then, are an illegitimate race whose claim to ‘ancient pedigree’ is based on nothing more that,

’Tis that from some French trooper they derive,

Who with the Norman Bastard did arrive:

The trophies of the families appear;

Some show the sword, the bow, and some the spear,

Which their great ancestor, forsooth, did wear. (212-18)

Defoe’s energy is focused on undermining pride in status and lineage: with each repetition of the phrase ‘true-born Englishman,’ the emptier it becomes. To this end, one of the most repeated ideas that drives Defoe’s satire links illegitimacy and mixture:

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,

That het’rogenous thing, an Englishman:

In eager rapes and, a furious lust begot,

Betwixt and painted Briton and a Scot. (334-37)

This, Defoe scornfully cries, is the source of the ‘well-extracted blood of Englishmen’ (347). His incredulity, then, is to hear such people attack the non-English:

The wonder which remains is at our pride,

To value that which all wise men deride,

For Englishmen to boast of generation,

Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.

A True-Born Englishman’s a contradiction,

In speech an irony, in fact a fiction. (368-73)

So, next time you begin to argue about what it is to be English (or indeed what being British means), just think on Defoe’s poem

Tweet as Alexander Pope Day (#tweetaspopeday

Conrad Brunstrom’s adroit commentary on the formal qualities of Pope’s poetry and Twitter!

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Once a year, just once a year I like to relax and stop pretending that I can actually express myself with any degree of verve and finesse using only 140 characters and instead give the whole day over to Alexander Pope.

Now there was someone calling themselves Alexander Pope who was tweeting away – but they were making up their own couplets and trying to be topical.  I can’t be doing with that.  Far preferable was Samuel Pepys, who used to send daily nuggets from the 1660s of the “… and then to Vauxhall where did ogle Lady Castlemaine mightily” variety,  Haven’t heard from Pepys for a while though he did say his eyesight was getting bad.  No, for “tweet as Pope day” (#tweetaspopeday) all I want to do is send actual couplets from actual Pope poems, pretty much at random, at intervals through the day and see if the…

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The Digital Miscellanies Index at BSECS2013

I’ve been following the work by the team on the Digital Miscellanies Index (hereafter DMI for short) for the last year and a half, but at this year’s annual meeting of BSECS I had the chance to attend a panel given by the team on some of their latest findings and also to test an early version of the database.

The roundtable panel ‘Compiling the Canon: what can poetic miscellanies tell us? New findings from the Digital Miscellanies Index’ comprised Jennifer Batt, Rosamund Powell, Adam Bridgen and Mark Burden. Jenny Batt – the project’s coordinator – announced the startling fact that the DMI has indexed approximately 1,400 miscellanies from the period. Her own piece exemplified how one would use the DMI by focusing upon Mary Leapor’s poems in various miscellanies; mapping their chronological spread, the source of the poems, and their destination. For example, the biggest number of her poems in the miscellanies were from her first volume of poetry, Poem on Various Occasions (1748). However, her poems also appeared anonymously in some miscellanies, so the DMI also challenges the traditional authorship-centric notions of poetic dissemination, or what Jenny called ‘authorial branding’. Ros Powell’s piece on the mentions of Horace’s Art of Poetry in miscellanies revealed the flexibility of the DMI: she was able to separate mere mentions of or quotations from Horace, translations of Horace, and imitations – whether attributed or unattributed. She was also able to break these varying uses of Horace down into percentages (some nice pie charts too, which I never thought I’d find myself saying in a literary context!). Adam Bridgen fascinatingly concentrated on a surprising and little-studied genre of poem to be found in the miscellanies – the last will and testament. Adam pointed that that the well-known literary genre of the ‘mock testament’ afforded much satiric potential, especially when wielded by Pope and Swift, but what he found in the miscellanies were frequently real wills and testaments rendered in poetic form. The disjunction between form and function in such poems did not necessarily undermine their moral or functional role. However, Adam could not help pointing out that this could go awry and create unintended comic consequences. The final piece by Mark Burden concerned the reconstruction of the reading of dissenting academies and looked to the DMI to be able to aid such research by asking what poetry was being read in the academies. Since I’m a big Defoe fan, I’m going to watch that for what might be revealed in Defoe’s old academy, run by Charles Morton.

The subsequent discussion really brought home the possibilities of the DMI when it is launched, since from these papers it looks like it can enable both close readings and identify larger literary-cultural patterns. Moreover, the DMI has a striking potential for shifting our notions of what was popular, how authors disseminated their work, and even how we conceive reading practices in the period. With that in mind, I was looking forward to the opportunity to play with the early test version of the DMI search interface. All I can say is that – even in this early and not fully integrated version – it was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the final version when it is launched.

The DMI blog can be followed here.

This review can now also be found on the BSECS online reviews page.