United Islands?

Multi-Lingual Radical Poetry and Song in Britain and Ireland, 1770–1820

Aims and Objectives

  • Creation of a four-nation interactive historical narrative, 1770-1820, to supplement and amend current Anglo-centrically integrative narratives.
  • The interrogation of cultural nationalism, notably Anthony D. Smith’s ethno-symbolic interpretation, revising the relationship between state-sponsored nationalisms and the subversive origins of the concept in the fracturing of enlightened universalist republicanism.
  • Examine the central role of radical poetry, emphasising bardism, in order to produce a comparative study of the genesis and evolution of Irish, Scottish, Welsh modernising nationalism as antitodes to the reactionary Hanoverian state.
  • A review of currently available radical poetry combined with a logistical evaluation, as far as presently possible, of what might be archivally retrievable.
  • An analysis of the nature and quality of that poetry as it increasingly became a form of persecuted writing leading to covert literary strategies derived from Roman, Aesopian and post-Swiftian ironic modes.
  • The vital question of the geographical publication histories of that poetry so that its transmission across national boundaries can be tracked. This would also help illuminate a sociological analysis of radical audiences.
  • An account of the effects of governmental legislation and censorship on the publication and distribution of radical poetry. Directly related to this is governmental promotion of anti-radical, often parodical, loyalist poetry.
  • The value of radical poetry as bearing witness to the comparative impact and influence of Republican America and France and the four national groups.
  • An account of how the poetic war resulting from the French Wars led in two contrary directions. British Imperialism and Chartism both synthesise the political and poetical energies of the four national groups.
  • A consideration of the capacity of poetry, arguably not only an autonomous but inherently conservative medium, to supply documentation for historians.
  • To examine the complex relations between canonical and non-canonical poetry.

Summary

Wholly unlike the preceding Glorious Revolution on which the constitutional and integrative integrity of the United Kingdom is allegedly based, the reformist/republican events of the late eighteenth century were subject to immediate suppression quickly followed by rapid deletion from the national memory. MacAulay’s dictum that it had been an aberrant interlude, sinisterly provoked by alien elements, was universally and happily received.

In consequence, the study of canonical Romantic poetry insofar as it sought to perceive the political affiliations of these major writers was profoundly belated. Due to new printing technology and commercialization, the enormous volume of radical poetry provoked by the political aspirations and consequent turbulence of the age was simply abandoned.

In the last three decades, however, major historical and research energies have been directed towards this area. This network seeks to provide an unprecedented opportunity whereby key historical and literary representatives from the four national groups might, in the terms of Pocock’s New British History, become involved in a dialogue “in which the speakers act upon each other, in determining who they are themselves”. This is not necessarily a divisive activity. As Hugh Kearney has suggested: “The concept of ‘nation’ stresses the differences between a particular society and its neighbours.” A Britannic approach in contrast would emphasize how much these cultures have experienced in common.

The initial tendencies of the reform movement, deriving from an mixture of pragmatic need for allies and a genuine mutual sympathy, produced a collaborative effort, albeit English led, to form a patriotic pan-British reform movement. Such extreme, even millennial, optimistic anticipations were brutally terminated by the outbreak of war with France.

This termination also led the more extreme elements in the other three national groups to deny English constitutional primacy and to evolve notions that their particular ancestral, mytho-historical histories and subsequent republican-inclined political theories were the roads to enlightened universal progress. This inherently unstable yoking of nationalism to universalism could only lead to confrontation with an increasingly repressive British state. This led to catastrophe in Ireland and profound, long-term damage to reform in Scotland and Wales. In England, reforming energy was diverted into the nascent labour movement. Irish historians now believe that 1798 was a seminal cause of Ireland’s rejection of Britishness. It would seem that some current Welsh and Scottish scholarship is increasingly tending to perceive this period as having a similar seminal importance. English historians in contrast have focussed on the construction of a British imperial identity, which is complicated by this project.