Sunday, 27 September 2009

Myth, History and Nationalism: Poetry of the British Isles

… an essay by David Aberbach.

From Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations (edited by Athena S. Leoussi and Steven Grosby: Edinburgh University Press, 2007) pp.84-96.


by David Aberbach

Just as poetic myth as part of nation-building has been neglected in studies of nationalism, so also nationalism has been ignored in studies of myth. The work of Anthony D. Smith is notable, among many reasons, for helping create an intellectual framework bridging studies of poetry and myth in the arts with more traditional studies of nationalism in History and the Social Sciences. This chapter explores uses of myth and history in the poetry of the British isles, particularly works by Scott, Tennyson and Yeats. In doing so, it illustrates the general significance to cultural nationalism of poetry – the royal road to a nation’s identity.

English poetry, rooted in myth and history transformed to myth, largely defined the modern concept of national identity. Medieval England absorbed much foreign influence through invasion and conquest: by Germanic tribes (fifth century), the Danes (ninth century) and the Normans (1066). Its adoption of Christianity by the seventh century and the growth of Old English, which has the oldest Western European literature in the vernacular, ensured Britain’s cultural distinctiveness.

The poetry of the British isles seems to reach artistic peaks in moments of heightened national self-awareness, when independence is threatened or lost, whether because of foreign invasion or internal wars or disasters. The battle of Maldon fought against the Viking invaders in 991 is commemorated in a magnificent Old English poetic fragment culminating in the death of the old warrior Byrhtwold. Raising shield and shaking spear, he emboldens his men with dying breath:

Strength fails, spirit must be firmer,
heart bolder, courage greater.

Britain’s greatest crisis after the Norman invasion, the Black Plague in the mid-fourteenth century, in which an estimated one-third of Europe’s population died, was followed by literary flourishing, including works of Chaucer, Langland’s Piers Ploughman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Reformation and the conflict with Spain are the background to much Elizabethan poetry, notably Spenser and Shakespeare. The deposition and execution of Charles I and the Civil War in the 1640s, Cromwell’s rule and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, were crucial influences on Milton’s poetry, above all Paradise Lost. The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars marked English poetry in the Romantic period as did the two world wars in the twentieth century.

These crises and others appear in the poetry of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland both as separate and shared histories, each country distinct in time of conflict with one another but in peacetime united as parts of Great Britain. There is a significant literature in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, in which relations with England are a common thread. In ‘The True-Born Englishman’ (1701), Defoe savagely mocks what he sees as the violent indecent yokings-together that created ‘the mongrel half-bred race’ of English identity:

In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Briton and a Scot:
Whose gend’ring off spring quickly learnt to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name nor nation, speech or fame
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen … (336–47)

This jaundiced swipe at English national identity, which recalls the prophetic denunciations of Israel as harlot (for example, Hosea 1–2, Ezekiel 23), can paradoxically signify the nation’s strength: Colley describes these lines as a ‘powerful demonstration of English confidence. Far more than the Welsh and Scots felt able to do, the English could – occasionally – ridicule themselves because they had a strong sense of who they were and of their own importance’ (1992: 15–16).

The British isles might have lain down a slut, as Defoe suggests, but rose a woman of valour. After centuries of turmoil and mixing, some of the greatest poets writing in English were Scottish (Byron), Irish (Yeats), and Welsh (Dylan Thomas). Monogamous nationalism exacted a price, though. By the nineteenth century, poetry in Welsh and Gaelic was greatly diminished by English intrusion and emigration. Nevertheless this poetry retains its power to inspire a strong, even militant national identity.


Memories of Welsh and Scottish independence survive in medieval poetry. Scottish poems, such as John Barbour’s The Bruce (c. 1370) and Blind Harry’s epic Wallace (c. 1460), record Scottish courage and defiance. Though Scotland and England have shared a monarch since 1603 and a Parliament (1707–1999), Scotland preserves in poetry the memory of its revolt against England under Robert the Bruce and its triumph over England in 1314 in the battle of Bannockburn, after which (in 1328) England recognised Scottish independence.

Long before the loss of Welsh independence in 1282, there was a remarkable tradition of Welsh poetry, notably the Hengerdd (old song). Welsh history, particularly the medieval struggle against the Normans, stimulated some of its greatest poetry, affirming Welsh national identity in Welsh, such as Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr’s elegy for Madog ap Maredudd, prince of Powys, who died in 1160:

Door of a fort he was, companion shield,
Buckler on battlefield, and in brave deeds:
A tumult like flame blazing through heather,
Router of enemies, his shield stopped their way;
Lord sung by a myriad, hope of minstrels,
Crimson, irresistible, unswerving companion. (Conran 1967: 118)

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Wales was transformed from an autonomous state under Welsh rule into a feudal vassal of England. Gruff udd ab yr Ynad Coch wrote a haunting lament for Llywelyn ap Gruff udd, the last prince of independent Wales, killed by the English in 1282:

Mine now to rage against Saxons who’ve wronged me,
Mine for this death bitterly to mourn.
Mine, with good cause, to cry protest to God
Who has left me without him. (Ibid. 128)

In Wales, the annual Eisteddfod (bardic festival), which dates from 1176, when Wales was still independent, has a strong nationalist character. It preserves memory of past, and hope of future, Welsh independence.


Myth and mythical history dominate much English poetry. English nationalism commonly flares up in crisis. Poetry often results. Shakespeare’s histories, for example, date mostly from the 1590s, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, ‘the years of the Spanish war at its fiercest’ (Hastings 1997: 207). Henry V’s speech at the battle of Harfleur is a classic of nationalist propaganda:

And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’ (III, i, 25–34)

Again, on the night before the battle of Agincourt (1415) Henry V inspires his men with a fighting national spirit:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (IV, iii, 60–7)

There is little proof that Henry V actually said anything like this, but this is what he should have said.

In a later age of crisis, when France threatened to invade, Coleridge in ‘Fears in Solitude’ (1798) declared love for Britain almost as a divine being. The Madonna-like national image in this poem is as far removed from reality as Defoe’s slut, yet such national feelings in crisis are common. In quieter, more stable periods, English poets often seem more vulnerable to doubts. As the British empire reached the height of its power in the nineteenth century, some English poets, such as Tennyson and Kipling, became uneasy. They feared the corruption of power and imperial decline. In some cases, their poetry was a form of spiritual revitalisation, providing moral guidance through British historical figures and events. Tennyson, Poet Laureate from 1850 to 1892, wrote a series of historical dramas, Queen Mary (1875), Harold (1876) and Becket (1884), each illustrating the strengthening effect of crisis. In poems such as ‘Puck’s Song’ (1906), Kipling called up defining historic moments associated with spots in the English landscape:

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke
On the day that Harold died.
See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
O that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred’s ships came by.


The Scottish poets Macpherson, Burns and Scott have had especially strong influence on Scottish nationalism, drawing on Scotland’s rich store of history and myth either to support independence from or union with England. Burns’ use of myth is less apparent than that of Macpherson and Scott. The poetic fragments of the legendary third century CE bard, Ossian, however fraudulently presented by Macpherson in the late eighteenth century (Samuel Johnson derided them as ‘impudent forgeries’), roused Scottish nationalism. Macpherson’s poetry, like that of Burns, is poetry of Scottish defiance after its defeat by England at Culloden in 1746. The controversy over Ossian was not just over scholarly authenticity, but also over national authenticity: did Scotland have a national identity distinct from that of England? The fame of Ossian, amounting to a craze, in eighteenth and nineteenth-century continental Europe, brought the past alive in the nation’s hopes.

Scott is unusual as at different times he hoped for Scottish independence from England and supported union with England. His deep-bred Scottish nationalism was at times neutered by his commitment to Britain and Tory politics. Scott was raised in late eighteenth-century Edinburgh in an atmosphere of resentment at the Treaty of Union of 1707 and the Scottish defeat and humiliation in the uprising of 1745–6, the atrocities of the English army, the consequent English military presence, the proscription of Highland customs and the Highland clearances. As a child, Scott absorbed Scottish culture – the language, stories, songs, the great medieval poems and ballads, and folk culture – from people who, in some cases, had seen or taken part in the Scottish revolt. In the introduction to Canto III of Marmion (1808), Scott called up childhood memories of Scottish lore and heroism:

… ever, by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lovers’ slights, of ladies’ charms,
Of witches’ spells, of warriors’ arms;
Of patriot battles, won of old
By Wallace wight and Bruce the bold;
Of later fields of feud and fight,
When, pouring from their Highland height,
The Scottish clans, in headlong sway,
Had swept the scarlet ranks away.

Scott could easily have become a revolutionary but was born too late. In 1813, after he stopped writing poetry, he confessed:

I am very glad I did not live in 1745 for though as a lawyer I could not have pleaded Charles’s right and as a clergyman I could not have prayed for him yet as a soldier I would I am sure against the convictions of my better reason have fought for him even to the bottom of the gallows. (Scott 1932, III: 302)

In time, the bitterness of the Scottish defeat shrank. Scotland kept its own Church and legal system, which came to symbolise Scottish independence. Scott trained in law, as did many Scottish historians, philosophers, literary artists and essayists. The Scottish Enlightenment was an outburst of new-found confidence of a rational, modern people. Crucial in Scotland’s psychological transformation was that for an entire generation in the Napoleonic wars the English and the Scots had a common enemy – the French – and fought bravely and successfully side by side. The Union on paper was sealed in blood. Scott’s career as a poet was almost entirely confined to the Napoleonic period, when French invasion of Britain was a constant threat. According to Sutherland, Scott’s choice in Marmion of the Scottish defeat by England at Flodden in 1513 – ‘the greatest catastrophe in Scottish history’ – ‘seems to have been in the service of a higher patriotism towards Britain’ (1995: 125). There is an ‘extinction of Scotland’ in Marmion. In the first Epistle, for example, instead of ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’, ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ appear twelve times (and ‘English’ once), and the poem is pure English, with no trace of Scottish dialect (Sutherland 1995: 126). Had Marmion been published in 1758 rather than 1808, the stress would probably have been on Scottish nationalism and English villainy.

The omission of Scotland seems to reflect the unification of the British isles by war with France. Yet, Scott regretted Scotland’s loss of independence. His wavering to and from Scottish nationalism continued after he turned from poetry, poleaxed by Byron’s success in Childe Harold (1812), to the novel: the hero of Waverley (1814) is both Jacobite and Hanoverian and fights on both sides.

Scott’s Romantic Scots nationalism was watered down both by Enlightenment internationalism and by self-interested (but not bogus) loyalty to Great Britain. The strands of Scottish nationalism and commitment to Great Britain are intertwined in Scott’s life and works, which themselves became an act of union. From childhood, Scott was drawn more to coarse and primitive but alive Scottish language than to the genteel, elegant English of the Enlightenment. He admired the work of Fergusson and Burns to revive Scottish poetic language. One of Scott’s earliest publications, before he became a poet and novelist, was his collection of Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), influenced by Bishop Percy’s ballad collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and by the German Romantics, by Herder and Goethe. Poetry as a tool of national survival and regeneration is implicit in Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). The evil dwarf magician is driven away when the minstrels join together to sing songs of the past. Though the poem is set in sixteenth-century Scotland, it reflects Scottish national feeling of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the minstrel was needed as ‘an apostolic link with that period [the sixteenth century]’ when, as Scott (anticipating Heine) put it in his 1824 essay on ‘Romance’, ‘poets were the historians and often the priests of their society’ (Sutherland 1995: 100).

Scott’s narrative poems helped to define Scottish national identity within Great Britain. Scottish customs, speech, dress and landscape first became widely known through Scott’s narrative poems. The Lady of the Lake (1810) set off a wave of Scottish tourism at a time when the Grand Tour of continental Europe was impossible because of the Napoleonic wars. At the same time, as a successful writer, Scott became a leader of the British Establishment. His politics were High Tory and he eventually became a baronet and – his financial coffin – laird of Abbotsford. During the war with France, he joined the Edinburgh Volunteers Light Dragoons (Burns, similarly, after early sympathy with the French Revolution, joined the Dumfries Volunteers), his military zeal at odds with his writings, in which war is cruel and senseless. He supported Henry Dundas, Scotland’s virtual ruler, despised by Scottish nationalists as a traitor. His conservatism was such that, panicked at the thought of popular revolt, he defended the Peterloo massacre in 1819. When George IV visited Scotland in 1822, Scott escorted and introduced him as the monarch of the Highland clansmen. Scott’s complex form of nationalism was not unlike that of the exiled Jews after the loss of territorial sovereignty who, while remaining scrupulously loyal to the countries where they lived, preserved a healing memory of past glory, of noble battles and great men and women – but in culture, not aimed at political action. Daiches sums up the therapeutic ambivalence to Scottish nationalism in Scott’s writings:

Scott’s aim in much of his writing was a healing one: to present the glamour of Scottish history and landscape, with the heroic violence that made part of the glamour modulated quietly into the past tense so that Scotland could be seen now as part of a peaceful and enlightened Britain. (1971: 83)


Tennyson’s revival of the legends of the fifth-century King Arthur coincided with the emergence of Britain as the most powerful empire in history. These legends are taken for granted as part of ‘British national consciousness’. Yet, as in the case of many other mythologies, such as the Kalevala, this literature, much of which derived from oral tradition, was largely forgotten until the Victorian age. The rediscovery of Arthur and the Round Table was mainly the work of Tennyson, in his epic poem and life work, Idylls of the King. The poem was begun in the 1830s and not published in its complete twelve-part form until 1885. Prior to the imperial age, Milton and Wordsworth had rejected Arthur as an inappropriate subject for an English national epic. Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century epic, Morte d’Arthur, Tennyson’s chief source, was never widely popular. Consequently, the stories were unknown to the English-reading public. On publication of the first edition of Tennyson’s Idylls, in 1859 (comprising ‘Enid’, ‘Vivien’, ‘Elaine’ and ‘Guinevere’), the Saturday Review described the material as ‘a forgotten cycle of fables which never attained the dignity or substance of a popular mythology’ (Shaw 1973: 83). The stories of Arthur did not stay forgotten for long: the Idylls sold 10,000 copies in the first week (Shaw 1973: 82).

Tennyson was influenced by nineteenth-century research into ancient texts as part of the recovery and invention of tradition and by the suggestion of Albert, the Prince Consort (himself a German prince), that ‘the Arthurian cycle was the equivalent of Germany’s national epic, the Niebelungenlied’ (Jordan 1988: 157). Occasionally, Tennyson could strike a militant, even chauvinist note, for example in the poems he wrote after the French coup d’état of 1851 (‘RISE, Britons, rise, if manhood be not dead’). Yet, he was chiefly an introspective, spiritual poet (‘the saddest of poets’, as T. S. Eliot described him). Tennyson used the stories of Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Arthur’s sword Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin the magician, and the Holy Grail not to justify imperial conquest but, as in the poetry of the biblical prophets, to highlight spiritual ideals. There are unforgettable mythic images, such as Sir Bedivere’s return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake as Arthur lies dying:

Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush-beds, and clutch’d the sword,
And strongly wheel’d and threw it. The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirl’d in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
So flash’d and fell the brand Excalibur:
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandish’d him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
(‘The Passing of Arthur’, 301–14)

Tennyson defines heroism in biblical, not pagan, terms. Arthur’s wise mentor, Merlin, is a prophet-like bard. Conquest of enemies counts for less than conquest of the self, of the inner defiling monster of ethical frailty (particularly Guinevere’s sexual betrayal of Arthur) which ruins the social order. As in his best-known long poem, In Memoriam, loss and the prospect of loss fill his national epic and call into question Victorian power and confidence. The Idylls, like the Nibelungenlied, is concerned less with the pride and confidence of a new power than with the dark-edged dignity of an order in decline. As national poems, both foreshadow the weakening of the monarchy and in the case of Germany, its fall.


Part of the attraction of Irish legend to those who wanted independence from England was that it preceded the English conquest. England had controlled parts of Ireland for centuries but gained absolute rule only in the seventeenth century. In the Act of Union of 1801, England and Ireland became the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. The consequent decline of Ireland led to the rise of Irish nationalism, the revival of Irish language and an outstanding literature, dominated in poetry by Yeats. Influenced by Irish cultural nationalists such as Standish O’Grady, John O’Leary and Douglas Hyde, Yeats became a connoisseur of Irish legend. He edited several volumes, including Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), Stories from Carelton (1889) and Representative Irish Tales (1890), and used this material in his own poetry. Yeats discovered in this ancient literature, much of which came from oral Gaelic traditions among the western Irish peasantry, a pristine national spirit more powerful than British culture, which could be seen as corrupted by the power of the empire. Yeats wrote of the Irish legends he edited:

All that is greatest in our literature is based upon legend – upon those tales which are made by no one man, but by the nation itself through a slow process of modification and adaptation, to express its loves and its hates, its likes and its dislikes. (Pritchard 1972: 36)

Yeats saw himself not just as a teller of legends but as a legendary figure himself. According to Ellmann, Yeats believed that ‘… the artist was to conceive of himself as a representative figure, to identify himself with all men, or with Ireland, or with some traditional personage. In this way the correspondences of old legends with modern life could be established, and so, as Yeats proposed, a dead mythology might be changed to a living one’ (Ellmann 1968: 18).

In an early poem, To Ireland in the Coming Times (1892), Yeats declares his kinship with Irish national poets of the past. He uses Irish myth to unlock the national unconscious:

Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.

To Yeats, as to Shelley, poetry is meant to educate, to remind its listeners of their heroic past and unite them in hope. Heroes such as Oisin and Cuchulain are archetypes of heroic resistance. In Yeats’ ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’ (1888), the chained woman whom Oisin liberates resembles Ireland in English chains, and Oisin’s ‘battles never done’ recall the never-ending Irish struggle for independence (Ellmann 1968: 18–19). Similarly nationalistic is Yeats’ ‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ (1892), which draws on one of the most famous images in Irish legend:

Cuchulain stirred,
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.

Like Tennyson’s Arthur, Yeats’ creation of Cuchulain was greatly influenced by the Nibelungenlied (both the medieval poetry and Wagner’s music) as a pure expression of national spirit. Yeats in ‘September 1913’ unfairly contrasted what he then regarded as the failure of Irish nationalism, its descent into pettiness, with heroes of Irish history such as Edward Fitzgerald (1763–98), Robert Emmet (1778–1803) and Wolfe Tone (1763–98), all martyrs for Irish independence. After the 1916 revolt, Yeats implicitly admitted in ‘Easter 1916’ that he was wrong about the Irish lack of spirit: ‘a terrible beauty is born’.

By the end of his life, in ‘The Statues’ (1938), Yeats was skilfully using Irish legend for contemporary needs. Echoing Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, he writes in wonder of the Irish martyrs in the 1916 uprising who had a cult of Cuchulain – their fight being equally heroic and, in the short run, futile – remembered by the Irish government with a statue of Cuchulain in the Dublin Post Office where the rebels held out for a few days against far superior British firepower:

When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied?
We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.

The contradictions inherent in Yeats’ poetry made it hard for the Irish to see him in his lifetime as a true national poet. Even as he extolled the virtues of Gaelic and the peasantry, he wrote in English (indeed, in the English Romantic tradition) and lived in cities; and much of his poetry stands out less in its Irish nationalism than in its universalism. Yet, with the passage of time, it has been possible even for the Irish to accept Yeats as a master of Irish legend and representative of national identity and hopes. (Hutchinson and Aberbach 1999).


What can we learn from poets about nation-building? Poets use myth and mythical history as a shifting tapestry of national identity. They explore or invent the unique character of the nation, emphasising what seems most original and distinctive, and most likely to enable the nation to hold together and resist oppression, to endure and prosper. They recreate national heroes, give hope in victory, wisdom in failure, unity in defeat. They instil pride in national accomplishments even when the nation is defeated and powerless. They stress core ideals to give legitimacy and power to a nation, to ‘the great Idea’, as Whitman put it, ‘that is the mission of poets’ (‘By Blue Ontario’s Shore’, 11).


Colley, Linda (1992), Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Conran, Anthony (ed. and tr.) (1967), The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Daiches, David (1971), Sir Walter Scott and his World, London: Thames and Hudson.
Ellmann, Richard (1968 [1954]), The Identity of Yeats, London: Faber.
Hutchinson, John and David Aberbach (1999),‘The artist as nation-builder: William Butler Yeats and Chaim Nachman Bialik’, Nations and Nationalism, 5, 4: 501–21.
Jordan, Elaine (1988), Alfred Tennyson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pritchard, William H. (ed.) (1972), W. B. Yeats: A Critical Anthology, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Scott, Sir Walter (1932–7), The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, H. J. C. Grierson et al. (eds), 8 vols, London: Constable.
Shaw, M. (1973), ‘Tennyson and his public’, in D. J. Palmer (ed.), Tennyson, London: G. Bell and Sons.
Sutherland, John (1995), The Life of Walter Scott: A Critical Biography, Oxford: Blackwell.

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