This poem, which imagines a future Britain in a state of ruin following the Napoleonic Wars, was received so viciously upon its publication as to effectively end prematurely the career of its creator Anna Laetitia Barbauld, one of the day's foremost female literary figures. Following her death in 1825, the subsequent damage done to her reputation contributed to her being largely forgotten by literary history, only to be "rediscovered" in the 1970s and 80s with the advent of feminist literary criticism. Her controversial poem somewhat presciently paints the picture of a Britain in decline, eclipsed by the rising might of America. She aligns this decline not only with an unhealthy obsession with commercial wealth but also directly with participation in the Napoleonic Wars, which at the time of writing Britain was on the verge of losing.
And think'st thou, Britain, still to sit at ease,
An island Queen amidst thy subject seas,
While the vext billows, in their distant roar,
But soothe thy slumbers, and but kiss thy shore?
To sport in wars, while danger keeps aloof,
Thy grassy turf unbruised by hostile hoof?
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 (lines 39–49)
Though Barbauld titles her poem after the year in which it was written, it is her evocative and darkly satirical descriptions of Britain's imagined future, fallen and in ruin, which stand out most. In a way it can be seen as a larger meditation upon the passing of time and the inevitable fall of empires. She writes how England's "baseless wealth dissolves in air away,/ Like mists that melt before the morning ray", how "Reynolds [will] be what Raphael was before", and how "Time may tear the garland from her brow,/ And Europe sit in dust, as Asia now".
Jun 13, 2017