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Literature and the UK's National Identity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4199 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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To what extent do any TWO of the set works studied on A334 contribute to, or challenge, a developing sense of national identity?

The United Kingdom’s national identity has been a changing and fluid concept throughout the years; it has been shaped by respect for tradition, past experience and mythology. Furthermore, this national identity has been shaped by the movement of people from continent to continent and with them, cultures, religions and tales of those who came before. For the purpose of this essay, the period discussed will be from the time of the deposition of the FitzGerald dynasty as Lord Deputies of Ireland in 1536 up to the 21st century. The term ‘national identity’ shall be used in this essay to explore the history of the United Kingdom in relation to selected novels and poetry from the 18th and early 19th centuries and how our reliance on mythology and historical accounts has shaped the United Kingdom’s national identity. The nation for the purpose of this essay is explored in relation to Benedict Anderson’s definition of nation; “imagined community, a community that exists in the minds of its members” (Open University, n.d). Furthermore this essay shall attempt to evidence how James MacPherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760), Iolo Morganwg’s Ode on the Mythology of the Ancient British Bards (1794), Charlotte Brooke’s War Ode to Osgur (1816) and lastly Jane Austen’s Peruasion (1816) all both contribute to and challenge a developing sense of national identity individually.

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James Macpherson is recognized in modern times as being the creator of his narrator in Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) named Ossian, whose plausibility came about due to his character being based upon Oisín the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill (who was a supposed legendary bard in Irish mythology). MacPherson initially published what he purported to be the translations of poetry by Ossian, whom he invented as an ancient Gaelic poet. After the initial celebratory reception of his works, individuals within the literary community such as Dr Samuel Johnson (whose own distrust of those who deliberately averted the truth) began to critique and discredit the authenticity of the works as genuine translations of ancient texts. Johnson wrote on the matter,

There is no crime more infamous than the violation of truth. It is apparent that men can be social beings no longer than they believe each other. When speech is employed as the vehicle of falsehood, every man must disunite himself from others, inhabit his own cave, and seek prey only for himself. (Curley, T M, 2009).

Furthermore, with such a large audience and rife speculation, debates began to be waged regarding MacPherson’s sources with both Irish and Scottish heritage being debated. Ireland argued that MacPherson had taken its literary heritage and dispelled it with a fictitious spin in order to design an exciting new literary history for Scotland. Despite these arguments over appropriation and historical theft, the tradition which MacPherson’s work was based upon was Gaelic, known both to Ireland and Scotland which MacPherson’s preface recognised.

For the purpose of this essay, the fragment in particular that shall be referred to is Fragment VII. This Fragment utilizes many grammatical and literary devices, techniques and conventions in order to create as authentic a work as possible. MacPherson’s style of verse drew upon the traditional rhythms of ballads and created something original which managed to still reflect its origins. In relation to Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760), Noor Shawaf commented, “the whole composition follows many characteristic plot points of the Iliad; the work is not in verse but in an unorthodox ‘measured prose’ intended to suggest the sound of the Gaelic.” (Shawad, 2015). MacPherson’s new poetry hybrid utilized the classical elements of grammatical parallelism which used repetition and completion in order to formulate an epic poem that had the rhythm and flow of a ballad. The opening lines of Fragment VII proffer the question,

Why openest thou afresh the spring of my grief,

O son of Alpin,

inquiring how Oscur fell? (MacPherson, 1760)

These opening lines use completion in order to add structure to MacPherson’s epic poem, as the Augustan Reprint Society explain, “completion: in which the second line picks up part of the sense of the first line and adds to it” (Augustan Reprint Society, 2008). This use of completion along with repetition which the Augustan Reprint Society explained is “a pattern in which the second line nearly restates the sense of the first” (Augustan Reprint Society, 2008) carefully shapes the poem into an almost conversational piece, it is presented on the page like an elongated ballad written with both “iambic and anapaestic feet” (Augustan Reprint Society, 2008) the rhythm of the poem remains flowing and lyrical, true to its supposed origins of the ballad. The line “He fell as the moon in a storm” (MacPherson, 1760) utilizes anapaestic meter as the unstressed syllables “as the” and “in a” support the stressed syllables “moon” and “storm”. This fragment uses elements of classical and romantic writing to formulate its style which Dr Samuel Johnson came to criticize as Martin Kallich explored,

But the knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet; he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life, or, as we should say, with society. As we shall see, this definition of nature will permit Johnson to emphasize the conventional classical doctrine that literature has as its prime function the instruction of men and the reformation of their manners. It is crucial in the distinction made between the classical and the romantic approach to literature. (Kallich, 1966).

Therefore it can be argued that Johnson is not only critiquing MacPherson’s literary works, but also his choice to forge a translation of a literary piece of history. MacPherson’s work is arguably an attempt to contribute to the United Kingdom’s developing sense of national identity. Despite creating a hoax that has both dazzled and disturbed audiences over the past two and a half centuries, in modern times, audiences can reflect upon these literary forgeries as depictive of the period from when they were written (18th century) and the period’s natural fascination for understanding and appreciating the literature that resulted in the literary era that they lived within.

The next literary work to follow on from MacPherson was Edward Williams (referred to by his Bardic name Iolo Morganwg for the purpose of this essay) who wrote Ode on the Mythology of the Ancient British Bards (1794). Morganwg’s piece written in iambic tetrameter is blended with elements of tradition as well as his own forgery to create a hybrid poem that utilizes fourteen line stanzas that are very similar to what became known as “Onegin stanzas” (Newman, 2006) in 1825, the only difference between Morganwg’s stanza and the Onegin stanza is the fourteenth line ending which rhymes with the ninth line ending “ran” and “man” for stanza one as well as “possess’d” and “breast” (Morganwg, 1794) for stanza two and so on. Therfore, this unique rhyme schame for Morganwg’s piece has an aBaBccDDeFFGGe rhyme scheme as opposed to the aBaBccDDeGGeGG rhyme scheme of Onegin stanzas. The piece takes on the traditional structure of an irregular ode for the purpose of authenticating his work. The concluding line of each stanza rhymes with every other line ending, “Early morn! Vernal day! Pinion borne and devious way” (Morganwg, 1794). The only lines that do not follow this rule are the ninth line endings which as discussed above rhyme with the fourteenth lines of the respective stanzas. Furthermore, by adhering to such a rigorous rhyme scheme, the irregular ode is formulated so that it flows with the lyricism of a song. Throughout his piece, Morganwg represents the national identity of the British Isles with frequent references to them such as “Britons, Saxons, Britain’s Isle and British muse” (Morganwg, 1794) as well as the repetition of “Britain” in capitals in stanzas six, seven, eight and twelve. This use of repetition emphasises the significance of the geography of the piece, Morganwg is hailing the British Isles as worthy of pride and the home of the “bardic song” which tells the tales of British history, heritage and bardic lore. The language of the piece is both Welsh and English, the purpose of which was to unify the two divided regions which made up half of the British Isles, and also Morganwg’s identity as a writer, who was born in Wales in an English speaking home and went onto learn Welsh. Morganwg arguably contributed to the developing sense of the United Kingdom’s national identity as he attempted to revive the ancient Welsh culture before it was lost, and this revival has ensured Wales has become a strongly represented region of the United Kingdom in modern times. Subsequently by ensuring that his work utilized the traditional methods and conventions of an irregular ode, Morganwg contributed to the developing sense of the United Kingdom’s national identity, and with his contribution Morganwg ensured that Wales became a fundamental contributor to this national identity. Morganwg’s opening stanza written in Welsh allowed a very exclusive readership of Welsh individuals to feel a part of (and proud of) their heritage which contributed to the United Kingdom as it existed in the 18th century. Written in iambic tetrameter, Morganwg’s piece resembled the traditional lyricism of ballads from where he drew inspiration from.

The third and final poem that this essay shall explore is Charlotte Brooke’s War Ode, to Osgur, the son of Oisin, in the front of the Battle of Gabhra (1816). Brooke’s War Ode (1816) like Organwg’s Ode on the Mythology of the Ancient British Bards (1794) is written in the form of an irregular ode, with each stanza adhering to an ABACBC rhyme scheme, whilst also using iambic tetrameter for some (but not all) lines, “Let they proud ensigns wave dismay” (Brooke, 1816) uses iambic tetrameter as there are four stressed syllables (iambs) in place. Brooke’s choice of the form of irregular ode is suitably fitting for a poem that opposes national rivalry. Having translated the Irish language poetry into English, Brooke’s work came to be appreciated as a major contribution toward the development of the United Kingdom’s national identity as she brought the Irish heritage and culture into the limelight. War Ode (Brooke, 1816) demonstrates Brooke’s disapproval of the conflict ensuing within Ireland as her character Osgur leads the army to war without the chief Finn. As a result of the Battle of Gabhra, Osgur and the army are defeated. By choosing to write of an army against a Monarch and their ultimate defeat, Brooke emphasises the overarching idea of the hopelessness of the masses against the powerful monarchy. Furthermore, by adding a note after her poem,

 led them on to the attack;

 fired with the hope of increasing glory, and

 wrought up to a frenzy of valour, by the ani-

 mated exhortations of his Bard, he performed pro-

 digies, he slew numbers, and Cairbre himself at

 laigth fell by his hand (Brooke, 1816)

Brooke suggests that Osgur’s battle was waged in the desire for justice and liberty. Brooke is arguably drawing comparison between the Fenni warriors and the Irish Catholics who were being oppressed by the monarchy during this time. By formulating her work to represent the struggle of the era in which she lived, Brooke was able to showcase the necessity for change in Ireland, and the desire of Irish society to move away from the injustices brought by the Monarchy. It can therefore by argued that Brooke’s contribution to the developing sense of national identity came in the form of her Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789) which questioned the current state of Ireland in relation to Britain, with her works allowing future generations to understand the suffering that was endured for the United Kingdom to become unified.

Finally, Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1816) whilst written in the same year as Charlotte Brooke’s literary works, offer a very different approach to the model of nationalism. Austen enforces a sense of nation in her text through her depiction of the role of the navy, and its significance upon the formulation of a nation,

Burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved. (Austen, 1816).

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In writing so fondly of the navy, Austen is representing the officers as heroes worthy of respect and this favourable outlook reflected the period in which she lived, Napoleon had been defeated by the British and as a result, the people of the country were celebrating their victory. This victory had shaped both the country and altered the European opinion of Britain, further aiding Britain’s development and establishment of a nation identity that would become recognisable for centuries to come. More countries wished to establish trade connections with Britain than before and these were vital due to the war debts amassed from the Napoleonic war. As J H Clapham writes, ‘things were at their worst in 1816-17, both for England and for her continental neighbours.’ (Clapham, 1920). Austen suggests that nationalism is neither defined by money nor status, but by the power exerted by the monarchy, in the instance of the need to defend the mother country; men are inspired to fight for it in a territorial war that is regulated by the monarchy and fought by the navy (or army). Austen’s union of her protagonist aristocrat to a naval officer (as opposed to marrying Anne Elliott to an aristocrat that would be considered the social norm of the period) can be interpreted as Austen’s refusal of the ideals posed by the aristocrats of the nation. Anne Frey comments on this refusal,

The British nation interpolates individuals through the very same administrative apparatuses that the Scots and Welsh would resist as agents of an imperial Britain… Austen offers an unfelt but nevertheless acknowledged Britishness to resist the Englishness she associates with aristocracy (Frey, 2005).

Furthermore, Austen’s desire is to showcase Britain as flawed; the role of the aristocrat has fallen short in comparison to the naval officer since Sir Walter Elliott fails to keep the home Kellynch Hall running at the forefront of the community, and only Admiral Croft is able to reassign it to its former glory within the community. Moreover, this power shift dictated by Austen is a call to action, Austen recognises that national identity is not a result of the upper class wealth and inheritance, but it is instead a result of the binding together of communities and regions to protect what they have worked so hard to achieve.

Gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but . . . must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance. (Austen, 1816)

Austen’s argument is that the navy is respected for what can be seen by the naked eye but not yet respected enough for its greater national significance, Austen’s case is that whilst the navy is respected for the virtues that men and women can see before them (and the admirable heroism) they are not yet treated with enough respect in the sense of these men making Britain a recognised nation for both its way of ruling and its individuals that make it unique, (Sir Walter Elliot’s outright dismissal and disdain at the thought of having a naval officer living at Kellynch Hall near the beginning of Persuasion (1816) highlights this ignorance). Without the navy and the men to fight the war against Napoleon, Britain would have been significantly different, under rule by the French, Britain without the English monarchy would result in a very different nation identity, since a fundamental element of being British that is recognised in the 21st century is our love of our monarchy, arguably more so than most countries (which is what sets Britain apart). Therefore, it can be argued that without the appointment of the monarchy, and its subsequent army, Britain would not have developed its sense of national identity that has come to be known in the 21st century. Furthermore, Austen’s novel attempts to remind readers that without the navy protecting Britain, the country would be subject to more frequent threats by regions looking to rule over Britain. A nation requires rallying; something that the navy and the monarchy can organize by bringing together men from various backgrounds and lifestyles to fight for one common cause. As Frey writes,

Administrative agencies such as the British navy define individuals’ obligations to the nation as a whole and the people within it. Such a model is surprising because it removes content from the nation: nationality does not designate a shared history or culture, and does not arise from among the people, but is imposed on them through government agencies. (Frey, 2005).

Therefore, it can be argued that Austen’s Persuasion (1816) challenged the developing sense of national identity by drawing attention to the need for understanding the national significance of the monarchy and its power within the United Kingdom, whilst also contributing to the developing national identity by creating a work that is still recognised in the 21st century as historically depictive of a nation in need of unity. Through Austen’s enlightening her readers to stop viewing the navy as disconnected from themselves, Austen allows the unfamiliar reader to become better acquainted with the significance of the role of the nation as Sarah K Green explores,

The English navy … played a key role in the expansion of the British Empire; not only does the navy serve as an example of Englishness, it helped create that very notion of national identity… This domestication of the navy as a group renders it an alternative family to the aristocratic class; on the one hand, there is the meritocratic, sea-faring navy, and on the other, the indolent, land-holding gentry (Green, 2003).

Austen’s attempt to enlighten her readers is a method of rallying supporters; this spirit and unity are part of what has come to symbolize Britain as it is today, its national identity shaped by its people. The success after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars resulted in the growth of Britain which Colley (like Benedict Anderson) views,

The nation as a modern development, and suggests that the press, as well as popular political movements, played an important role in spreading the idea of Britishness throughout the island of Great Britain (Colley, 2003).

This ideal of Britain and its rapid dispersion across Europe resulted in Great Britain’s recognition and helped to make the country what it has come to be viewed as in the 21st century.

In conclusion, it can be argued that the three poems Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760), Ode on the Mythology of the Ancient British Bards (1794), and War Ode to Osgur (1816) all contribute to the developing sense of national identity through their exploration of ancient history, culture and heritage in the form of bardic tales and ballads. Moreover, Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1816) both challenges and contributes to a developing sense of national identity through its appreciation of rallied spirits under a unified government and its call to action for more respect to be paid to those governing roles as opposed to the celebration of aristocratic families whose reputation is endowed by birth. Austen’s novel praises hard work and unity, whilst acknowledging yet disapproving of aristocratic values. Each text has individually come to represent the 21st century’s understanding of what constitutes Great Britain’s national identity.


          Clapham, J. H. ‘The Economic Condition of Europe after the Napoleonic War.’ The Scientific Monthly, vol. 11, no. 4, 1920, pp. 320–325. [Online]. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/6495.(Accessed: 10th May 2019).

         Constantine, M A and Johnston, D R. (2013) Footsteps of ‘Liberty and Revolt’: Essays on Wales and the French Revolution, Wales, University of Wales Press.

         Curley, T M. (2009) ‘The Great Samuel Johnson and His Opposition to Literary Liars’, Bridgewater Review, vol. 28, no.2, pp. 7-9 [Online]. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/48831764.pdf (Accessed: 13th May 2019).

         Frey, A. (2005) ‘A Nation without Nationalism: The Reorganization of Feeling in Austen’s Persuasion’ Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 28, no.2/3. pp. 214-234 [Online] Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/40267625.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fdefault-2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A57980dbbd2e5a72a3a75db0be8ed94d2 (Accessed: 12th May 2019).

         Frey, A. (2009) British State Romanticism: Authorship, Agency, and Bureaucratic Nationalism, California, Stanford University Press.

         Smout, T C. (2005) Anglo-Scottish Relations from 1603 to 1900, Oxford, British Academy. Available at: https://britishacademy.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.5871/bacad/9780197263303.001.0001/upso-9780197263303

         The Open University (n.d.) Britons and Britishness [Online]. Available at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/national-identity-britain-and-ireland-1780-1840/content-section-2 (Accessed: 19th May 2019).


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