Turni Chakrabarti is a PhD candidate in the English Department at The George Washington University. Her dissertation is on disruptive widowhood in Bengali and British novels written during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research interests include postcolonial literature, world literatures in English, the modern Bengali novel, gender and feminist theory, and comparative literature.
This paper argues that Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” show two distinct ways in which anxieties about British empire-building were articulated in the long eighteenth century. British poetry had always been invested in the political, but most literary historians agree that it was in the seventeenth century when poets began actively participating in political discourse. The rise of two-party politics in the seventeenth century had a tremendous impact on the lives and careers of British poets. Party affiliations could shape or destroy literary careers. It was not surprising, therefore, to see poets beginning to increasingly participate in contemporary political debates. The intensity of political commentary and engagement only increased in the eighteenth century, when the poets began to grapple with ideas of national identity and empire. Gray used the image of the vain, narcissistic, and luxury-obsessed woman in order to domesticate the imperial ideal and deflect the responsibility of the growth of mercantile capitalism. This also allowed for the articulation of the possibility of the prevention of moral, national, imperial, and civilizational decline. Barbauld, on the other hand, also used gendered formulations to show how the eventual fall and ruinous end of all nations, empires, and civilizations cannot be averted.
The Poetics of Nationhood and Empire: An Analysis of Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”
This paper argues that Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” show two distinct ways in which anxieties about British empire-building were articulated in the long eighteenth century (often seen as beginning from the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and ending with the Battle of Waterloo in1815, and sometimes extending to the 1830s). While British poetry had always been invested in the political the seventeenth century saw poets actively participating in contemporary political debates. The rise of two-party politics had a tremendous impact on the lives and careers of British poets. Christine Gerrard notes that party politics, along with a sense of “dynastic uncertainty, shaped the lives of writers born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Wars” (7). Party affiliations could shape or destroy literary careers, and the various conflicts between the royalist Tories and the parliamentary Whigs featured prominently in contemporary poetry. The lapse of the Licensing Act of 1679 was followed by the proliferation of poetry of various kinds, including odes, satires, ballads, and panegyrics because, while e” (Gerrard 7). Poetry of the time was characterized by its satirical tone and its “immersion in the topical present” (Sitter 1). The intensity of political commentary and engagement only increased in the eighteenth century, when the poets began to grapple with ideas of national identity and empire. Gray and Barbauld both participate in this coalescing of the poetic and the political in “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” in two distinct ways that reveal their own positions.
Historians have pointed toward the 1707 Act of Union as a watershed moment for the creation and consolidation of the idea of Britishness. Linda Colley, in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707 – 1837, argues that it was during this particular moment in history when there was a development of both the “language of Britishness and widespread through never uncontested or exclusive belief that the unit called Britain constituted…an umbrella, a shelter under which various groupings and identities could plausibly and advantageously congregate (xi-xii). She further claims that Great Britain, therefore, “became a workmanlike nation of sorts, albeit one that encompassed other, smaller nations” (xii). Colley further claims that Britain was “an invention forged above all by war,” and that Britain was only able to define itself in opposition to three specific identities:
They defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power. They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent, and unfree. And increasingly as the wars went on, they defined themselves in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered, people who were manifestly alien in terms of culture, religion, and colour. (Colley 5)
The 1707 Act of Union, consequently, was able to create a fertile ground for the establishment of Britain as a Protestant nation, containing within itself “distinctive Scottish, Welsh, and Irish allegiances,” and stand in opposition to Catholic France (Gerrard 8). Even as there were these attempts for the consolidation of national identity, the Whig/Tory divide under Queen Anne’s reign sharpened over issues of war, religion, and dynastic politics. Poetry written by eighteenth century poets was greatly impacted by these contradictions, and examining these fault lines has been generative, especially in the context of postcolonial studies. For example, Suvir Kaul, in Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century claims that “the formulaic or innovative ways in which poets were able to mobilize a rhetoric of (national) collectivity in their poetry only by repressing vital cultural, social, and economic contradictions” (9). Excavating some of these fascinating internal conflicts and debates allows us to get a sense of how British Empire imagined itself, and how the construction of the idea of Great Britain was influenced by poetry. Both Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825), through their poetry, participated in and commented upon this national and imperial mythmaking process. It is interesting to see how both poets make use of gendered language, albeit in two very distinct ways, in “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” (1748) and “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1812) in order to make their shed light upon their concerns about Great Britain and its imperial power.
This use of gendered language to comment upon political issues in poetry was not limited to Gray and Barbauld, but was a significant feature of eighteen century British poetry. The political and the poetic often powerfully coalesced, and poems about national identity and empire proliferated in the literary landscape. Poetry of this period was accepted as not just “…a viable and even vital way of intervening in, and molding, public discourse” (Kaul Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire 8). The literary sphere had to develop innovative ways to describe the “the coming to global power of a puissant Britain, divinely ordained inheritor of the imperial and civilizational traditions of classical Europe” (Kaul 1-2). The poetry being written in the long eighteenth century, therefore, was the poetry of contemporary globalization, and the poets used language that was both triumphant and as well marked by a sense of anxiety. In fact, Kaul argues that the history of “English poetry in the long eighteenth century is best written as a history of poets’ attempts to endow the nation with literary, cultural, and iconic capital adequate to its burgeoning status as a global power (Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire 18). One significant way in which poets in that era attempted to make sense of the rapidly increasing power of the British Empire was by comparing it to the empires of the past, and looking at the lessons that may be learnt from their eventual decay and downfall. As Francesco Crocco notes in his book Literature and the Growth of British Nationalism, this kind of imperial anxiety had “classical roots” and centered on the argument that “the sumptuary rewards of empire are corrosive luxuries that come at the high cost of impaired virtue and curtailed liberties” (The Influence of Romantic Poetry and Bardic Criticism 126). He notes that this rhetoric of anxiety may be traced back to the writings of Sallust, a Roman historian who argued that “the Roman Republic’s thirst for riches and glory led to the dictatorship of Sulla and eventually to the loss of republican freedoms under the dictatorship of the Caesars” (126). The declining empire was an extremely significant motif in the British cultural imagination in the long eighteenth century, and images of the ruins of previous empires continued to appear in poetry as well as prose. Numerous prose writings such as An Essay Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain (1721) by Bishop George Berkeley and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776) focused on this trope of luxury and its role in national and imperial ruin. The idea of the eventual decay and degeneration of imperial powers was, as usual, linked with images of moral decline, usually resulting from greed, corruption, and an excessive desire for luxury. The excessive desire for luxurious goods was often portrayed as being gendered. Commodities such as rich silks and other textiles, porcelain, hand-painted wallpaper, perfumes, (which were procured through international trade and from the colonies) were linked not to colonial expansion and the rise mercantile capitalism, but to feminine vanity and moral dissipation.
Poets in the eighteenth century were preoccupied with the ideas of moral and imperial decline resulting from greed and moral, political, and economic corruption. Christine Gerrard notes that Thomas Gray, “though a supporter of Pitt, a grandson of a wealthy East India merchant, and born into a Whig elite, remained reticent about “trade.” In this he shared the ambivalence, even hostility, of Oliver Goldsmith, for whom “Trade’s unfeeling train” was the source of national ruin” (19). Goldsmith’s 1770 poem, “The Deserted Village,” is invested in showing how the unchecked obsession with economic growth leads to the eventual decline of rural prosperity. A sense of profound loss pervades “The Deserted Village,” and the poem links “commercial prosperity with national corruption and the insidious growth of “luxury” (Gerrard 19). “The Deserted Village” was written precisely to comment on the negative consequences of the enclosure system, and its critique of the obsession with luxury is explicit. However, poems that were ostensibly about other topics were also often saturated with critical images and allusions to this sense of decay and degeneration. Concerns with the growing power of the British Empire and its effect on the moral character of the citizens of Great Britain pervaded the poetic imagination, and these themes appeared even in poems which were seemingly about different issues. Kaul notes that even certain these “continuities of images, themes, and worldviews” often extended into and structured private, occasional poems, turning these poems into “palimpsestic records of in the influence of empire on the poetic imagination” (Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire 223). A major impulse amongst poets writing in this time period was to link these ideas about luxury and its role in the eventual moral decay of national character with the image of the vain luxury-obsessed woman, and “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” by Thomas Gray is one such poem.
Composed in the year 1747 at Horace Walpole’s request, “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,” while formulated as a mock-heroic animal fable, perpetuates a gendered narrative about the imperial impulse. Laura Brown, in her book Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth Century Literature, examines how authors such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe, among others, connected female luxury and capitalism in various ways. The targets of such formulations were rich women with access to luxury goods sourced from the colonies. She writes that mercantile capitalism itself, “with all its attractions as well as its ambiguous consequences, is attributed to women, whose marginality allows them to serve, in the writings of celebrants and satirists alike, as a perfect proxy or scapegoat” (119). She further asserts that “female adornment becomes the main cultural emblem of commodity fetishism” (119). In his essay, “Why Selima Drowns: Thomas Gray and the Domestication of the Imperial Ideal,” Suvir Kaul builds upon Brown’s argument and to show how such a gendered depiction of greed was used to justify and legitimize the need for British overseas trade (225). This was done by implying that the reason for colonial mercantile expansion was the unending greed of luxury-obsessed British women. In fact, he notes that the “negative representations of “femaleness” and the female desires function as ideological surrogates for the playing out of the more anxious scenarios of imperial desire” (224). Gray’s poem, too, reinforces the idea that women were reckless, amoral, unthinking, and vain consumers of luxury goods. Such a portrayal enables this process of ideological surrogacy.
By structuring “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” as a mock-heroic animal fable, Gray is able to use humor to disguise his perpetuation of the negative and gendered discourse about women’s role in the imperial impulse. Kaul notes that while Thomas Gray “was no jingoist… he was certainly part of the burgeoning, occasionally anxious, more usually bullish public scenario of British Empire that was materializing throughout the eighteenth century” (229). For Thomas Gray’s literary contemporaries, history had provided proof that moral laxity ultimately became the cause of imperial and civilizational decline, especially as shown by the fall of the Roman Empire. There was also a sense of hope that emerged from his engagement with history – many believed that the eventual fall of the nation and the empire could be avoided if lessons were learnt. Kaul asserts that it was this “predictive capacity that gave such theories of history a particular and partisan urgency in the eighteenth century” (228). The moral criticism in the “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” emerges from this very impulse of wanting to learn from the mistakes made by historical empires. However, the poem is also invested in displacing the blame for decay and degeneration onto the figure of the woman by reformulating the message in the form of an allegorical satire.
From the very beginning of the poem, Selima the cat is styled as a vain and narcissistic woman who is on the brink of destruction but does not know it: “Demurest of the tabby kind, / The pensive Selima reclined, / Gazed on the lake below” (Gray 4-6). The poem introduces a number of easily recognizable tropes about female vanity by using words like “demurest” and “pensive.” Selima is clearly gazing at her own reflection, and that establishes her as a narcissistic figure. Gray goes on to describe Selima in humorous detail:
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause. (7-12)
She is again likened to a beautiful woman who is aware of her beauty – “Her conscious tail her joy declared… She saw, and purred applause.” Images of decadent luxury are also introduced through her description. Like a well-adorned eighteenth century woman, Selima owes her beauty to the riches brought in via commercial enterprise. The colonial and imperial undertones are clear, and they only become stronger as the poem continues.
As Selima continues to gaze at her own reflection, she is distracted by something shiny in the tub. The images of luxury continue to appear – Selima is attracted by a hidden “golden gleam” amidst the “richest purple.” This sets the stage for her eventual downfall and demise. The stylistic choices made by Gray allow his poem to become part of the tradition of the systematic rewriting of masculine anxieties about the growth of mercantile capitalism into tales of the depravity of women. Kaul notes that even though the “potential awkwardness of such a rewriting is dissolved into heavily stylized textual play,” ideologically, the poem succeeds in doing what it aims to do” (“Why Selima Drowns” 229). This rewriting happens skillfully, as seen in the lines quoted below:
The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish? (19-24)
The last two lines of the stanza make the act of displacement clear. This act of displacement serves a two-fold purpose. Not only does it reinforce patriarchal normative codes about the behavior for women, it also creates a reductive and misleading narrative about the need for imperial expansion. Women are chided for being vain, greedy, and materialistic, and their desires are linked directly to the growth of mercantile capitalism. All this, being masked in humor and narrated as an animal fable, makes it all the more powerful.
The next stanza describes Selima’s fall into the goldfish bowl, and Gray effectively makes use of the conventions of the mock-epic to make an important and normative ideological point. Selima is referred to as a “presumptuous maid” who is unable to gauge her own limits and makes a fatal mistake: “(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled) / The slippery verge her feet beguiled, / She tumbled headlong in” (28-30). Kaul argues that “the mock-heroic deploys an easily recognizable ethically normative discourse (Selima is a “Presumptuous maid” who tempts “Malignant fate”) even as the genre subverts, through an incongruous misapplication, the ponderous weight of such discourse” (“Why Selima Drowns” 228). The last stanza, quoted below, reinforces this moral formulation:
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold. (37-42).
The poem ends with this morally prescriptive message that again establishes the greed for luxury as a feminine failing. Thomas Gray was working within a tradition of anti-feminist formulations about mercantile capitalism, and earlier poems such as “The Rape of the Lock” (1714) by Alexander Pope helped in the establishment of this tradition. Belinda in “The Rape of the Lock” is a beautiful and narcissistic woman whose dressing table is filled with symbols of the feminine obsession with luxurious goods:
Unnumber’d treasures ope at once, and here
The various off’rings of the world appear;
From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil.
This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
The tortoise here and elephant unite,
Transform’d to combs, the speckled and the white. (Pope 129-136)
In the first canto, Pope paints a picture of Belinda’s failings by describing in detail the “unnumber’d treasures” and the “glittering spoil” that she needs to adorn herself with in order to satisfy her vanity. Gems from India, ivory and tortoise-shell combs, letters from admirers, and the Bible all lie together on her dressing table: “Here files of pins extend their shining rows, / Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux” (137-138). By describing these objects as haphazardly lying together, Pope is able to create an image of moral dissipation. The colonies are reduced to the luxury goods that provide women like Belinda. Images of imperial excess and female vanity come together in a satirical tone, and the shifting of the burden and blame is complete (though indirect). Belinda becomes a symbol for the dangers that can arise from moral dissipation and an excessive focus upon the collection and enjoyment of luxurious goods. This is significant because this not just a comment on female vanity, but is a reflection of the anxieties surrounding imperial expansion.
Poems such as “The Rape of the Lock” and “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes,” perform an important function – they serve as texts of warning. Suvir Kaul writes that poems like these are able to “deflect, or reinflect, general arguments against “luxury” and moral corruption by retelling these arguments as tales of errant female figures [where]…social anxieties are focused-displaced onto, and contained by, a thematically appropriate negative construction of the female; (“Why Selima Drowns” 225) The anxiety surrounding the moral decline of the British people leading to the eventual political and historical decline of the British Empire, therefore, appears both implicitly and explicitly in the different forms of poetry being written in the long eighteenth century. The anxiety arising from the internal contradictions, conflicts, and fault lines pervades the poetic imagination. The iconography of moral, national, and imperial decline persisted in the British cultural imagination all through the long eighteenth century. While the iconography remained compelling and continued to reappear in various poetical works, the way in which it was formulated underwent many major changes. Examining the way in which the narrative of imperial and civilizational collapse appears in Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem” allows for tracing of these changes.
Written during the peak of the Napoleonic campaigns, Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” uses the image of imperial and civilizational decline to participate in the contemporary public debates about the war. Anne K. Mellor, in her book, Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830, makes a number of interesting claims about the gendered divisions in the literary landscape. She writes that the long eighteenth century saw the establishment of the figure of the poetess who possessed feminine “music of her own” (69). The figure of the poetess was guided by certain conventions, including
The insistence on the primacy of love and the domestic affections to a woman’s happiness, the rejection or condemnation of poetic fame, the embracing of Edmund Burke’s aesthetic of “the beautiful” as the goal for female literary desire, and the acceptance of the doctrine of the separate spheres. (Mellor 70)
Barbauld, like Charlotte Smith and Hannah More, belonged to a group of female poets who rejected the conventions of the “poetess” in order to write about socio-cultural, political, and economic issues of the day. Female poets wrote extensively about war, but were expected to limit their poetic explorations to a lamentation of war-time losses, while also reinforcing the need to fight for the honor and glory of the nation (Behrendt 6-7). Behrendt goes on to note that this sentimental pro-war approach, teeming with nationalist pride, when taken by many female poets such as Maria de Fleury, Barbara Hoole, and Isabella Lickbarrow, was praised by contemporary critics. On the other hand, “women’s more overtly oppositional voices and poems often incurred the conservative moral and political establishment’s wrath” (9). Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” being a clearly anti-war poem, met with wrath and was deemed “treacherous” and “unfilial” (Behrendt 9).
Numerous literary historians have looked into what may have influenced Barbauld’s prophetic visions about the fate of the British Empire, and many of them now agree that Barbauld critiques the idea of imperial power itself. While Goldsmith and Gray had a sense of optimism about the possibility of learning from past mistakes and suitably modifying national character to prevent civilizational decline, Barbauld seems to imply that both national and civilizational decline is always inevitable. In “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” she begins by invoking the image of death and national failure: “To the stern call still Britain bends her ear, / Feeds the fierce strife, the alternate hope and fear; / Bravely, though vainly, dares to strive with Fate…” (3-5). Barbauld’s skeptical view of the success of nations may be gauged by her opinion about other emerging nation-states. William McCarthy finds that this skepticism about nationalism and empire made her take an inevitably “more accurate” view of the United States of America: “Will they be wise by our experience, peaceable, moderate, virtuous? No: they will be learned by our learning, but not wise by our experience. Each country, as each man, must buy his own experience”” (54).
The skepticism briefly referenced by McCarthy becomes the focus of Jessie Reeder’s article “A World Without “Dependent Kings”: “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” and the Forms of Informal Empire.” She notes that at the time Anna Barbauld was composing “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” “Latin America was beginning to revolt against Spain, creating a flurry of transatlantic activity” (561-562). The Latin American revolution, according to Reeder, participated in the reorganization of the Atlantic network in two major ways: “it shifted control of the Americas from Spain to Britain, and it made way for informal empire to step out of the shadow of territorial colonialism as a unique and perhaps even more effective means of overseas dominance” (562). Reeder argues that “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” is interested in using current geopolitical occurrences as conduits for envisioning the future (and the end of) the British Empire:
The poem’s infamous final line precisely encapsulates the paradoxical tension between freedom and subjugation that was circulating within new discussions of informal empire: “Thy world, Columbus, shall be free.” This line ascribes ownership of Latin America to the peninsular empire – “Thy world, Columbus” – while simultaneously asserting liberty from it – “shall be free.” The words “thy” and “free,” bookending the phrase, figure the duality of Latin America as both a possession of, and a rejection of, Europe. (581)
By moving between the present and the future, Barbauld is able to situate herself as a prophetic voice and a visionary. Barbauld’s poetic project in “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” is three-fold. She aims “to describe the dismal state of affairs in 1811, to identify what went wrong, and finally to explore what will happen after Britain loses its status as a seat of civilization” (Favretti 99). The poem uses the present to bring into the focus the “very nature of history and its inevitable structures…[and Barbauld] becomes both historian and historiographer” (Reeder 569).
“Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” uses national history to critique short-sighted nationalism, and warns that pride comes before a fall:
So sing thy flatterers; but, Britain, know,
Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe.
Nor distant is the hour; low murmurs spread,
And whispered fears, creating what they dread;
Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here (45-49)
Barbauld’s warning about ruin resulting from excessive pride and greed is also gendered, but in a very different way. Favretti argues that she “uses the tone of the morally responsible woman of the house to further the classical notion of virtue in a constant battle with corruption” (103). The poem questions the need for Britain’s war with France, and Barbauld makes a gendered distinction about war when she uses the images of famine and disease to talk about military activity. The masculinist need for military violence and cruelty is portrayed as leading to the withering away of feminine Nature:
Bounteous in vain, with frantic man at strife,
Glad Nature pours the means–the joys of life;
In vain with orange blossoms scents the gale,
The hills with olives clothes, with corn the vale; (11-14)
Even as feminine Nature works hard to create a fruitful and fecund country, masculine War makes all this effort pointless. While the poem is specifically about the Napoleonic campaigns, it presents a prophecy that is both ahistorical and rooted in history. It is about the impending apocalypse that no nation-state, empire, or civilization can escape. Her nuanced understanding of the horrors of war becomes clear in the following lines:
The sword, not sickle, reaps the harvest now,
And where the Soldier gleans the scant supply,
The helpless Peasant but retires to die;
No laws his hut from licensed outrage shield,
And war’s least horror is the ensanguined field. (18-22)
Barbauld announces the end of British imperial progress – “thy Midas dream is o’er; / The golden tide of commerce leaves thy shore” (Barbauld 61-62). Even as Barbauld lists all the noteworthy poetical and philosophical achievements of the British nation-state (she mentions Shakespeare and Newton, among others), she envisions a moment in history where the ruins of the British Empire will be looked at by tourists from other countries, and “England, the seat of arts, be only known / By the gray ruin and the mouldering stone” (123-124). She describes how transatlantic tourists will one day walk the streets of London, “Where through each vein spontaneous plenty flowed, / Where Wealth enjoyed, and Charity bestowed,” and look at its faded glory (167-168).
Mellor asserts that for Barbauld, it is the failure to preserve “Liberty” that leads to the fall of the British Empire:
Wherever the “Spirit” of liberty walks, “the human brute awakes … thinks … reasons … feels finer wants” and cultivates with Nature’s blessings “the flowers of Genius and of Art”… But when freedom is sacrificed to the demands of war or commerce, then the “Genius” of liberty “forsakes the favoured shore,” “empires fall to dust … and wasted realms enfeebled despots sway. (Mellor 79)
Mellor, in her analysis of “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” seeks to excavate Barbauld’s political opinions and show how Barbauld’s radicalism influenced her understanding of imperial decline. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, Protest and Economic Crisis by E. J. Clery also seeks to recuperate the legacy of Barbauld’s political thought and bring attention to the important role she played in contemporary economic, social, and political conversations. This book sets out to dismantle the myth that Barbauld’s career was destroyed by John Wilson Croker’s negative review. Clery notes that Croker’s review did not end Barbauld’s career; in fact, she continued to write and publish till her death. Furthermore, he suggests that the poem was a calculated and specific attack on pro-war conservatives, and the fact that it served its immediate purpose is proven by the negative reaction to it. He argues that the poem was “…not a lone cry of despair, but was part of a collective anti-war movement…[led by a] large, informal but well-organized body of protesters” (231). He notes that since the poem was “written in protest against an economic crisis worsened by the government war policy and was opposed specifically to the system of trade blockades known as the ‘Orders in Council’” and that the review was written by one of the most prominent government defenders of the policy, the review itself may be seen as “the best evidence we have that Anna Letitia Barbauld’s tactic of satirical subversion hit its mark” (228). Clery establishes Barbauld as a prominent and influential public intellectual and Eighteen Hundred and Eleven as a specific political attack on pro-war conservatives such as Croker. By moving away from a sentimental and domestic approach to war (as was expected of female poets), and by reversing the gendered formulation of the imperial impulse through the framing mercantile greed as masculine, Barbauld is able to make a pointed political statement about not only the futility of war but also its socio-economic and cultural ramifications.
As we have seen, British poets writing in the long eighteenth century found various ways of incorporating their anxieties about their national identity and their role as a global power into their work, and they often made use of gendered language to comment upon these issues. Gray (and Pope) used the image of the vain, narcissistic, and luxury-obsessed woman in order to domesticate the imperial ideal and deflect the responsibility of the growth of mercantile capitalism. Barbauld, on the other hand, also used gendered formulations, but in order to highlight how the eventual fall and ruinous end of all nations, empires, and civilizations cannot be averted. This gendered reversal in “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” allowed Barbauld to restore the idea of the feminine as being bountiful, fecund, and life-affirming (as opposed to being the source of moral decay and degeneration). Moreover, by moving away from a limited formulation that scapegoated individual women as unthinking consumers of colonial goods, she was able to establish a more politically and historically astute understanding of the growth and the dangers of mercantile capitalism and aggressive imperialism. Reading these poems together allows us to interrogate the ways in which the feminine has been portrayed in British poetry, and how these gendered notions affected the rhetoric around nation and empire-building.
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