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In transcribing this article I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable, if a bit rough, OCR text. I have linked this text other documents on this site. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. This article written at a time when England had a great empire seems to confuse imperialism with nationalism before it makes its main points. — George P. Landow

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he rapid development of Imperialist sentiment in our time is one of the most notable incidents of recent history, following, as it does, on a period so sterile in Imperial ideas. In 1841 Sir Robert Peel was willing to let Upper and Lower Canada go their own ways. In 1852 Lord Beaconsfield was restive under “those wretched Colonies.” In 1870 Mr. Froude, writing to Mr. John Skelton, alluded to “ G. & Co.” (meaning Mr. Gladstone) as desirous of seeing the Colonies go into separate political life. In 1873 The Times advised the Canadians to take up their freedom, as “ the days of their apprenticeship wore over.” The late Mr. Forster was the first to make head against this policy; it was he who first gave an authoritative voice to the arguments in favour of retaining the Colonies, of uniting them, and of promoting an Imperial Federation. Whatever may be the ultimate fate of the movement for Federation, the name of Mr. Forster must retain the place of honour as the first serious promoter of an ambitious and splendid scheme.

But the Imperialist sentiment is not due wholly to statesmen; the poets also have a claim upon our recognition. At present it is somewhat the fashion to attribute the sudden precipitation of patriotic feeling to Mr. Kipling. No one will grudge him his full measure of credit, or doubt that he has before him a desirable and memorable career as an exponent of British sentiment. But at the same time no one can have read Lord Tennyson’s biography without recognising that he held strong Imperialist views in the days when those views were not popular; and taking the biography and the poems together we may easily find in both a splendid body of patriotic policy expressed in noble verse.

The series of Imperialist poems began in 1852, when the outbreak of French petulance produced an equal outbreak of patriotic fervour on the side of England. Tennyson, with his usual historical impulse, sang strongly :

We were the best of marksmen long ago,
We wron old battles with our strength the bow;
Now practise, yeomen,
Like those bowmen
Till your balls fly as their true shafts have flown.
Yeomen, guard your own.

And curiously enough in his other contemporary patriotic song he struck that note of friendly feeling for America, the echoes of which have never quite ceased to vibrate, and which have so notably awakened in our own present time :

Gigantic daughter of the West,
We drink to thee across the flood,
We know thee most, we love thee best,
For art thou not of British blood *?
Should war’s mad blast again be blown,
Permit not thou the tyrant Powers
To fight thy mother here alone,
But let thy broadsides roar with ours.
Hands all round,
God the tyrant’s cause confound,
To our great kinsmen of the West, my friends,
And the great name of England round and round.

There may, perhaps, be some reasonable doubt about the permanence of any policy of alliance with a nation which has little unity of popular sentiment, and which for political purposes is influenced, if not dominated, by a foreign and varied vote ; but in the main the mass of purely American people is friendly to Great Britain; and the appeal of Tennyson, still read in the homes and ringing in the ears of Americans, will not in the end be forgotten and will not, in due time, have been in vain. Against the Napoleonic régime, at its beginning at least, Tennyson, in common with most of the literary class, was strongly hostile, and his poem entitled The Third op February, 1852, contains vigorous and stately denunciation as well as lofty appeals to the historic passion of England:

As long as we remain, we must speak free,
Tho’ all the storm of Europe on us break;
No little German state are we,
But the one voice of Europe: we must speak;
That if to-night our greatness were struck dead,
There might be left some record of the things we said.

That is a splendid presentation of the consciousness of National greatness and dignity; no poet of our time has presented the same idea with the same strength and charm. When the poet turns in his mood, from self-assertion to challenge and denunciation, his language is equally lofty. The French Emperor is in question:

Shall we fear him? Our own we never feared.
      From our first Charles by force we wrung our claims.
Pricked by the Papal spur, we rear’d,
      We flung the burthen of the second James.
I say, we never feared! And as for these,
We broke them on the land, we drove them on the seas.

The peremptory vigour and natural pride of these two concluding lines have never been equalled in our time, have never been surpassed in any time; and we are not assuming too much when we say that the feelings they express are always very near the lips and hands of English-speaking men in all parts of the world.

It was not alone to the passion and pride of his fellow-countrymen that Tennyson appealed; he never ignored the National conscience. Long before the more recent refrain of Lest we forget had become familiar to our ears, Tennyson had given forth this note of warning and exhortation:

A people’s voice! we are a people yet.
Tho’ all men else their nobler dreams forget,
Confused by brainless mobs and lawless Powers;
Thank Him who isled us here, and roughly set
His Briton in blown seas and storming showers,
We have a voice, with which to pay the debt
Of boundless love and reverence and regret
To those great men who fought and kept it ours.
And keep it ours, oh God, from brute control;
Oh Statesmen, guard us, guard the eye, the soul
Of Europe, keep our noble England whole,
And save the one true seed of freedom sown
Betwixt a people and their ancient throne,
That sober freedom out of which there springs
Our loyal passion for our temperate kings;
For, saving that, ye help to save mankind
Till public wrong be crumbled into dust,
And drill the raw world for the march of mind,
Till crowds at length be sano and crowms be just.

That is at once an appeal to the National conscience and to the National reason. It was written long before the author of Recessional was born. While we may admit the opportunities of the newer voices, we must not forget or neglect the record of what our greater poet, master as he was of the power and music of the English tongue, sang to us not so many years ago.

Tennyson’s eye was ever on any part of the empire where the pulse of National being was beating mast quickly; and he neglected no episode of courage and daring, no act of endurance, no event of peace or war which added to the National honour. In his Defence of Lucknow, while he celebrates the valour and energy of the British soldier, he does not ignore the loyal heroism of the natives who remained true to our cause.

Praise to our Indian brothers, and let the dark face have his due!
Thanks to the kindly dark faces who fought with us, faithful and few,
Fought with the bravest among us, and drove them, and smote them, and slew,
That ever upon the topmost roof our banner in India blew.

When we read more modern tributes to the heroism of our native allies we may recognise the justice of them; but we must not forget that it was Tennyson who set the fashion, and turned tho mind of England gratefully towards those who stood by us, though they knew that all the impulses that had run through their race for a thousand years were on the side and in the bosoms of the mutineers.

When the pulses of certain public men were beating but feebly in response to Colonial protestations of loyalty, the voice of Tennyson was raised in that fine address to tho Queen at the close of The Idylls of the King, which brought forth Lord Dufferin’s warm acknowledgment. He wrote from Rideau Hall, Ottawa, in 1873:

Amongst no people have I ever met more contentment with their general condition, a more legitimate pride in all those characteristics which constitute their nationality, or a firmer faith in the destinies in store for them. Your noble words have struck responsive fire from every heart; they have been published in every newspaper and have been completely effectual to heal the wounds occasioned by the senseless language of The Times.

The senseless language was that to which we referred at the beginning of this paper; and the poet’s lines which evoked so much comment and admiration were as follows:

And that true North, whereof we lately heard
A strain to shame us: “Keep you to yourselves;
So loyal is too costly! Friends, your love
Is but a burthen: loose the bond and go"
Is this the tone of Empire? Here the faith
That made us rulers? This, indeed, her voice
And meaning, whom the roar of Hougoumont
Left mightiest of all peoples under Heaven?

The voice and meaning of England was never perhaps fully and fairly expressed by the Separatist party in England. If it was so expressed, there has been a great and, we may hope, a final change. The process of conversion and conviction has been gradual but certain, and Mr. Forster’s ideas have become a permanent part of political opinion. In 1875 the late Lord Derby said:

When I entered Parliament in 1849, and for years afterwards, a Member who should have laid stress on the importance of keeping up the connection with the Colonies would have been set down by advanced thinkers as holding rospectable, but old-fashioned and obsolete ideas. The doctrine most in favour was that a Colonial Empire added nothing to real strength, involved needless expense, and increased the liability to war. Now everybody is for holding on to the Colonies which we have got; and a good many people seem to be in favour of finding new ones.

He was unable himself to take very hopeful views of the workable character of schemes for Federation; but he recognised the fact that opinion had advanced, in two or three years, upon that subject. Since his time the advance has been more marked, and though we are still far from having before us a workable scheme, wo have at least entertained with favour the idea that such a scheme will at some not distant day be produced; and many intelligent, if yet unsuccessful, attempts have already been made to produce it. And now the poetry of Tennyson has become the policy of statesmen:

      The loyal to their crown
Are loyal to their own far sons, who love
Our Ocean-Empire with her boundless homes
For ever-broadening England, and her throne
In our vast Orient, and our isle, one isle,
That knows not her own greatness; if she knows
And dreads it, we are fall’n.

We may now feel safe in the assurance that she does know it and does not dread it, and is not fallen but stronger than ever for the knowledge. In his verses on the opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in 1886 Tennyson once more gave voice to his Imperialist views. He expressed his regret for the one great separation of the race, and his hope for a federal union of what we had gained and kept since then.

Sharers of our glorious past,
Brothers, must we part at last?
Shall we not thro’ good and ill
Cleave to one another still?
Britain’s myriad voices call:
“Sons, be welded each and all Into one Imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul!
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne!
            Britons, hold your own.”

There has been, we think, some little tendency to overlook this Imperial note in the verse of the greatest poet of our age. Catching phrases and felicitous occasional verses have fastened themselves on the fancy of the multitude; and vigorous, if somewhat vulgar, appeals to common minds and to material forms of thought have had much popularity. There has been a disposition to entertain ideas too favourable to mere national greed, to warlike passion for the sake of war, and some leaning towards admiration for the coarser side of our military life, and the more hectoring spirit of our National politics. In Tennyson’s poetry nothing of the kind will be found. The air he gives his readers to breathe is too rare and pure for any but our best to breathe in; and they are our best who do their duty best and with the purest motives, whether that duty be fighting, or trading, or prospecting, or colonising, or biking part in the vast and varied machinery of government. Such at these prevail and rule in the end. As long as they remain with us, part of our National vitality and part of our Imperial hope, so long will they instinctively find inspiration in the pages of Tennyson. And while this is so we may be sure that the future history of the Empire, though it may be stormy, will not be stained.


Anon. “The True Poet of Imperialism.” Macmillan’s Magazine. 80 (May-October 1899): 192-95. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. Web. 14 September 2020.

Last modified 23 September 2020