Thomas Gray's "Daring Spirit": Forging the Poetics of an Alternative Nationalism

By Odney, Paul | CLIO, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Thomas Gray's "Daring Spirit": Forging the Poetics of an Alternative Nationalism


Odney, Paul, CLIO


Several recent studies, led notably by Gerald Newman, Kathleen Wilson, and Linda Colley, locate the political emergence of the British nation and its consequent cultural nationalism in the eighteenth century. In The Rise of English Nationalism, Newman shows how a group of disaffected artists and writers, frustrated by their exclusion from aristocratic patronage, spurred a form of nationalism aimed at reforming the aristocracy's Francophilic taste, manners, and fashion. Kathleen Wilson demonstrates how "the people," a growing presence of a politically engaged public, both helped to influence, and in part was defined by, the critique of establishment corruption, thus fostering the emergence of a political nation. Taking a wider approach in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, Colley argues British national identity resulted from Great Britain's disparate regional identities--the cultures of England, Wales, and Scotland--redefining themselves as a single British identity in the face of a French Catholic threat, both real and perceived.(1) A common component to each of these studies is its recognition of the role popular media--journals, newspapers, novels, and drama--play in eighteenth-century Britain's nation-building movement.

In a broader study of nationalism, Benedict Anderson also has emphasized the importance of a publishing industry for an emerging national consciousness. The emergence of what Anderson calls "print-capitalism" and a reading public led not only to a populace using a common language but also to language's evolution being arrested, lending to it a new sense of permanence. In particular, new print genres such as the novel and newspaper and new cultural phenomena such as the "public sphere" created in people a "remarkable confidence of community in anonymity."(2) These factors contributed to the ability of a people to imagine themselves contemporaneously across a defined geographical area. Consequently, the rapid increase of popular and periodical literature in eighteenth-century Britain indeed has become fertile ground for the current study of British national identity. Anderson and Newman locate the impetus for nationalistic expressions in popular genres--Newman focuses on drama and the evolving novel--while poetry's contribution to British nationalism has only recently begun to receive exposure.(3) The case of Thomas Gray offers a unique exception to the focus on popular forms of literature by studies of nationalism.

Thomas Gray's abhorrence of both public attention and London's literary marketplace in Grub Street stands in contrast to the models of nationalism offered by Anderson and Newman. By publishing a pair of odes in imitation of the Greek poet Pindar, Gray not only raises the issue of poetry's place in British society, he also attempts to assert poetic authority and to reclaim that license which had been lost in the contemporary print culture. This much scholars have addressed in "The Progress of Poesy" (1757) and "The Bard" (1757).(4) What has been overlooked, however, is the uniquely self-reflexive manner in which Gray searches for a nation that will accept his definition of a national poet-hero. Simultaneously employing and reflecting on techniques later used by modern states to establish a sense of national destiny, Gray self-consciously "forges" his nation out of two invented traditions, classical and native, respectively. And though each of these ties Britain's national authority to established touchstones of antiquity, the effect of publishing them together highlights the degree of choice involved in legitimating a particular version of the national poet-hero.

One notable critic who has addressed eighteenth-century British poetry's relationship to nationalism is Howard Weinbrot. In Britannia's Issue, Weinbrot examines how British poets made a conscious effort to instill British values in classical literary models which previously had ruled over British literary production. …

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