Robert Southey's Madoc in America

By Shields, Juliet | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Robert Southey's Madoc in America


Shields, Juliet, Wordsworth Circle


The Madoc myth shows up in a range of late 18th century and early 19th century works on both sides of the Atlantic, from John Filson's Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentuckey (1784) in the United States to a 1791 series of essays in the British Gentleman's Magazine. Two of the best known British re-workings of myth were by the Welsh poet Edward Williams--known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg--and by Robert Sou they. During the mid-1790s, both Sou they and Iolo made plans to emigrate to western Pennsylvania, then the gateway to the American West, in order to escape the stilling politics of counter-revolutionary Britain. Both were deterred by financial difficulties, and their poetic adaptations of the Madoc myth perhaps allowed them to indulge imaginatively in risk-free vicarious migration. However, their adaptations of the myth were also politically charged commentaries on Anglo-Welsh relations and on British ongoing colonial projects in North America. Both poets employed the Madoc myth to represent the western frontier as a place where the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality might yet flourish. Yet their poems say more about the previous six centuries of English colonial government of Wales than about the possibility of British settlement of the Ohio Valley. In his "Address to the Inhabitants of Wales" Iolo used the Madoc myth to imagine for the Welsh an American homeland that would free them from the economic and political discontents they experienced under British rule. Southey, as Caroline Franklin has shown, drew heavily on Iolo's knowledge of the myth for his epic poem Madoc (1795-1805). However, Madoc asserts the British right to the Ohio Valley by first affirming the justice of British colonial government of Wales. In employing the myth to claim the British continuing stake in the settlement of the Ohio Valley, Southey establishes a geographic and ideological equivalence between Wales and the western frontier as primitive regions offering an escape from political oppression, but, somewhat paradoxically, only if they could first he brought under civilized colonial rule.

In comparison to Ireland, Scotland, and England, Wales contributed relatively few people and resources to the settlement of British North America. Some historians have questioned the existence of a distinctive Welsh diaspora, arguing that for all intents and purposes 18th and early 19th century "Welsh migration can be accounted part of the broader English movement" (Horn 38). (1) Yet, the Welsh contribution to the Romantic-era lore of migration and settlement was disproportionately large. Wales offered British migrants the legend of Prince Madoc, who, in the 12th century, left his home in war-torn Wales and sailed to the Gulf of Mexico, where his people subdued, and in some tellings, mixed with, native tribes. The figure of Madoc has been traced to medieval Welsh poetry and he also shows up in late 16th century works describing Elizabethan explorations of the New World like Richard Hakluyt's Principall Navigations (1589). (2) The resurgence of the Madoc myth during the 1790s coincided with the increased emigration of artisans and farmers from Wales into upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Valley, as the export of copper, brass, tinplate, and iron to British colonies disrupted traditional Welsh agricultural communities. The resurgence of the Madoc myth also coincided with the first major wave of westward migration from the eastern seaboard of the United States into the Ohio Valley. Accordingly, late 18th century versions of the myth located Madoc's descendants in what came to be called the mid-west, between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, where "all the rival imperialisms of the continent--American, British, Spanish, and the ghost of the French--were inexorably coming to a focus" (Williams, Welsh 67). Frontiersmen claimed to have seen Madoc's descendants, often referred to as Welsh Indians because of their supposed mixture with native American tribes, in the regions that would become Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. …

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