In our continuing blog series, SSHORE co-founder Julia M. Wright (Department of English, Dalhousie University) untangles the complex relationships between nationalism, transatlantic trade, and the moral positions of poets. Through her close reading of two important transatlantic poets, Wright makes the argument that carefully considering cultural texts, such as 18th and 19th century poetry, offers keen insights into not only shifting political power relations but also into how ocean-based metaphors and images are used to articulate ethical calls for change (such as the abolition of slavery movement).
In her sun, in her soil, in her station, thrice blest,
With back turn’d to Britain, her face to the West,
Erin stands proudly insular, on her steep shore,
And strikes her high harp to the ocean’s deep roar.
–William Drennan, “Erin” (1795)
It would be easy to be distracted by William Drennan’s vivid use of a common personification of Ireland as a woman, Erin. But he is doing much more than that in this nationalist song written in the revolutionary years leading up to the United Irishmen Uprising of 1798. Drennan is also making a geographic argument for Irish independence from Britain. The first line above stresses climate, land, and location, necessary for agricultural production and trade. The next two lines separate Ireland from Britain and tie it to the newly democratic United States instead. And the final line connects Ireland culturally to the sea: it is an Atlantic nation, not a British colony.
Being a large island with deep ports on the edge of the Atlantic during the period of European imperial expansion to other continents, an expansion fueled by trade, made Ireland an especially valuable piece of real estate. Drennan was not alone in pointing this out, as I’ve discussed in a recent book. In the eighteenth century, the advantages were obvious. Transatlantic ships were the only means by which intercontinental trade, communications, and travel could take place, and so the ocean made possible international relations of every stripe. The ocean was regionally significant as well: a horse could only travel about 30 kilometres a day, but an eighteenth-century ship could travel that distance in an hour. Drennan’s ballad puts Ireland right into the thick of rapid economic, cultural, political, and social activity on the Atlantic—Britain is irrelevant in a transatlantic modernity centered on the US.
In my paper for SSHORE’s first workshop, I wanted to think about two Irish nationalist writers who agreed with Drennan on much, but had more complicated views on the US and brought Canada into the transatlantic mix: Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who briefly visited Canada in 1804, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825-1868), who moved to Canada in 1857 and became one of the “Fathers of Confederation.” While Drennan’s Erin stands in Ireland with “her back turn’d to Britain, her face to the West” these poets stand in Canada and face the other way—their backs to the US, and looking to Britain.
If we think of Moore and McGee as Irish, Catholic poets opposed to British, anti-Catholic rule in Ireland, then their praise for Britain is difficult to understand. But this is only part of the story. The Atlantic was also the conduit for the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, and the popular movement to abolish slavery gripped the Anglophone transatlantic for decades. Olaudah Equiano’s first-hand account of conditions in the hold of a slave-ship and a chillingly calculating diagram of how people were fit into the hold to minimize unused space were among the documents that supported public debate about the slave trade. That debate helped end the British slave trade in 1807. Debate over slavery continued until 1833 when slavery was abolished in most British colonies, including the provinces of Canada, where the enslaved were drawn both from the African diaspora and Indigenous peoples.
Literature that examined the ethics of slavery as well as the economic and social ties that made abolition seem difficult were part of this public debate, from Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Epistle to William Wilberforce“ (1791) and Robert Southey’s “Sailor Who Had Served in the Slave-Trade” (1798) to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814; see Said) and Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834)—and Moore’s Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems(1806), based on his time travelling in the US and Canada after working briefly for the British admiralty in Bermuda.
In a number of poems in Epistles, Moore condemns the hypocrisy of a nation that declares “Liberty” an “unalienable Right” (see the Declaration of Independence) while supporting slavery. In “Epistle VI,” he put this starkly: “the plans of virtue, ’midst the deeds of crime” (p. 155). In “To the Boston Frigate,” on leaving Halifax for England, Moore’s speaker addresses the ship, swearing this “Is the last I shall tread of American land” (it was) and “I soon shall be wafted, in thee, / To the flourishing isle of the brave and the free” (p. 291). He then turns to the corruption of the US’s original vision:
may the people, at length,
Know that freedom is bliss, but that honour is strength;
That, though man have the wings of the fetterless wind,
Of the wantonest air that the north can unbind,
Yet, if health do not sweeten the blast with her bloom,
Nor virtue’s aroma its pathway perfume,
Unblest is the freedom . . . (p. 292)
The passage precisely inverts Equiano’s description of confinement on a slave-ship: “the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains (78-79 [ch. 2]). While the kidnapped Africans are in chains, Moore’s Americans are moved by winds that are “fetterless” and “unbind”; while the captives suffer “loathsome smells,” the Americans miss “virtue’s aroma,” “perfume,” and “bloom.” A strong wind can move the ship quickly, but if the air is unhealthy that won’t matter much to the people on the ship—a pointed metaphor at a time when yellow fever was devastating ships and attributed to tainted air (Lee 682). The Atlantic will “waft” the speaker to a Britain “of the brave and the free,” while the ocean air along the American coast remains “loathsome.”
Moore later condemned British slavery through other ocean-travel metaphors, including one poem responding to a parliamentary debate on slavery in March 1826, reported at length in The Times’ “Parliamentary Intelligence.” Amajor speaker was the slave-owning British aristocrat, Lord Dudley and Ward. While acknowledging popular feeling in Britain against slavery and that slavery was “morally wrong,” Dudley and Ward defended slavery as a cultural and economic practice engrained in the colonies—for the British Parliament to abolish slavery would be significantly disruptive, he contended. Concluding, he proposed that the slave-owners be left to devise “some good and wholesome law” softening slavery themselves. Just a week later, The Timespublished an anonymous satire called “Moral Positions—A Dream.”
Moore was the author, and his epigraph mocks Dudley and Ward’s faint performance of regret over slavery and hesitation to interfere in the colonies: “His Lordship said that it took a long time for a moral position to find its way across the Atlantic. He was very sorry that its voyage had been so long.” Moore expands on the metaphor in the poem by imagining the careful shipping of a “moral position” on a ship called “the Truth”: “to guard the frail package from tousing and routing, / There stood my Lord Eld—n, endorsing it ‘Glass,’ / Though—as to whichside should be uppermost—doubting.” Moore’s speaker continues:
The freight was, however, stow’d safe in the hold;
The winds were polite, and the moon look’d romantic,
While off in the good ship “the Truth” we were roll’d,
With our ethical cargo, across the Atlantic.
Long, dolefully long, seem’d the voyage we made;—
For “the Truth,” at all times but a very slow sailer,
By friends, near as much as by foes, is delayed,
And few come aboard her, though so many hail her.
Moore mocks Dudley and Ward and other slavery apologists: abolition is a moral position, that slavery is immoral is truth, and there should be no hesitation “as towhich side should be uppermost.” As in “Epistle VI,” Moore focuses on hypocrisy: “few come aboard [the Truth], though so many hail her.” For decades. Moore consistently condemned slavery and associated it with Atlantic crossings.
Moore was one of the most popular poets of the first half of the nineteenth century, and his work was well-known in Canada, especially his Epistles (see Bentley). not least because it included his popular “Canadian Boat Song,” first published as sheet music in 1805. He was a major influence on McGee, who was in turn key to the development of Anglo-Canadian literature as well as Confederation itself. McGee helped develop a “new northern nationality” (see Wilson), and he refers to Moore in two poems in his popular Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses (1858). A third poem from Canadian Ballads repeats Moore’s position on the US and slavery in Epistles: in the US, Freedom “heard the Negro’s helpless prayer, / And felt her home could not be there” (“Freedom’s Journey” lines 11-12)
McGee also favours Atlantic ties between Canadian provinces and Britain over the US. In a speech on 9 February 1865, in the final months of the US Civil War, McGee writes,
Without the whole power of the mother country by land and sea . . . we will be at the mercy of our neighbours; and victorious or otherwise, they will be eminently a military people, and with all their apparent indifference about annexing this country, and all the friendly feelings that may be talked, they will have the power to strike when they please. (Union 20)
Just as the Atlantic can “waft” Moore’s speaker back to the “isle of the free and the brave,” it can also tie Canada to the core of what McGee framed as civilization in an earlier speech on 22 December 1864: “The Union of the Provinces restores us to the ocean, takes us back to the Atlantic, and launches us once more on the modern Mediterranean, the true central sea of the Western world” (Union 10).
I’m a literary scholar, so what interests me here is the phrasing. McGee paints a nationalist image of Canada as a ship beginning a voyage on a larger, modern Mediterranean. This gives Canada the same kind of national power that Drennan gave to Ireland as an island on the edge of the Atlantic—access to all those routes for communication, trade, and social and political relationships. The alternative, according to McGee, is a loose cluster of small provinces vulnerable to invasion over land by the aggressive United States. McGee’s new Canada is not an invader—it returns to the Atlantic where it belongs (“restores us to the ocean”), to the “true central sea.” It is, in short, in a “moral position,” and hooked into the transatlantic networks that defined international relations in the West—a nation among nations, like Ireland “In the ring of this world” as Drennan put it in “Erin.” This vision of Canada’s ties to Europe reverberates down to the current Prime Minister’s remarks on CETA and “both sides of the Atlantic”: “The Canada-EU partnership is based on shared values, a long history of close cooperation, and strong people-to-people ties.”
For Moore and McGee, the Atlantic offered a powerful image through which to draw important ethical distinctions relevant to political debates at the time—abolition in Moore’s era, and Confederation in McGee’s. From Canada, they turn to Britain because they must turn away from the US, where slavery is evidence of devastating moral and political failure. Moore and McGee provide early examples of a nationalism in which Canada is more inclusive, enlightened, and so on than the US—of a Canada that supported the underground railroad for people escaping US slavery from about 1840-1860 (rather than that of the early 1830s when slavery was legal and residential schools were first established). Their poems remind us that cultural works can be produced to make particular arguments and then read out of context as general assertions of “the Truth”—and that ethical positions may require more fluid politics. Irish nationalists could steadily oppose and critique British rule in Ireland while also viewing Britain as preferable to the US on the question of slavery.
To understand how ideas of Canada emerged, we need not only the corrective lens of political history but also careful analysis of cultural history—particularly given the longer influence of such works over culture and over us. They’re over two centuries old, but Moore’s poems are easy to find on Youtube, including a number of performances of “Canadian Boat Song” and various songs from Irish Melodies, which also found their way onto television via Looney Tunes and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Laws and attitudes change, but cultural works registering other times are never erased—they continue in their original forms, and in their influence on later cultural works. To understand our cultural present, we need to understand the complexities of our cultural past.
Ballstadt, Carl. “Thomas D’Arcy McGee as a Father of Canadian Literature.” Studies in Canadian Literature1 (1976).
Bentley, D. M. R. “Thomas Moore in Canada and Canadian Poetry.” Canadian Poetry 24 (1989).
Drennan, William. “Erin.” Irish Literature, 1750-1900: An Anthology. Ed. Julia M. Wright. Blackwell, 2009. 136-37.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. London, 1789. Online edition
Lee, Debbie. “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” ELH 65.3 (1998): 675-700.
McGee, Thomas D’Arcy. Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses. Montreal, 1858. Online edition
—. Two Speeches on the Union of the Provinces. Quebec, 1865. Digitized copy
Moore, Thomas. Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems. London: James Carpenter, 1806. Digitized copy
—. “Moral Positions: A Dream.” The Times 14 March 1826: 3.
—. “Ode to the Ship, Which Bears Lord C——gh to the Continent.” Morning Chronicle 22 September 1818: 3.
“Parliamentary Intelligence.” The Times 8 March 1826: 1.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Wilson, David A. Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Vol II: The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868.Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2011.
Wright, Julia M. Representing the National Landscape in Irish Romanticism. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2014.