…in honor of the upcoming July 4 holiday, the Poem of the Week takes a quick, spasmodic step backwards in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.

304. Sonnets. America by Sydney Dobell (1824-1874)


Men say, Columbia, we shall hear thy guns.

But in what tongue shall be thy battle-cry?

Not that our sires did love in years gone by,

When all the Pilgrim Fathers were little sons

In merry homes of England? Back, and see

Thy satchell’d ancestor! Behold, he runs

To mine, and, clasp’d, they tread the equal lea

To the same village school, where side by side

They spell ‘Our Father.’ Hard by, the twin pride

Of that grey hall whose ancient oriel gleams

Thro’ yon baronial pines, with looks of light

Our sister-mothers sit beneath one tree.

Meanwhile our Shakespeare wanders past and dreams

His Helena and Hermia. Shall we fight?


Nor force nor fraud shall sunder us! O ye

Who north or south, on east or western land,

Native to noble sounds, say truth for truth,

Freedom for freedom, love for love, and God

For God; Oh ye who in eternal youth

Speak with a living and creative flood

This universal English, and do stand

Its breathing book; live worthy of that grand

Heroic utterance–parted, yet a whole,

Far, yet unsever’d,–children brave and free

Of the great Mother-tongue, and ye shall be

Lords of an Empire wide as Shakespeare’s soul,

Sublime as Milton’s immemorial theme,

And rich as Chaucer’s speech, and fair as Spenser’s dream.

(c. 1855)

Dobell will be familiar to some of you as one of the major poets and theorists of the Spasmodic school. The entry on Dobell in Cambridge History of English and American Literature in Eighteen Volumes describes him as the “best of this group” and lavishes such praise as the following: “…England in a Time of War contains a good deal of rubbish, with some things as different from rubbish as it is possible to conceive.” Ridiculed in their time and afterwards as practicing a kind of overly materialist, cut-rate version of what the Romantics had been doing, the Spasmodics have more recently been reclaimed by VP scholars–for example, the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry was dedicated to “Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics.” My own attitude has always been that I’ve found the theories of the Spasmodics more palpable than their poetry; in some circles this makes me a snob. On the other hand, some of the poems that I love most dearly, among them Maud and Aurora Leigh, were derided in their time as spasmodic productions. (The other one that always gets named here is Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna.) So I’m a snob but not a particularly discerning one. Or something.

At any rate, a good intro to Spasmodic theory is Dobell’s own “Nature of Poetry.” I read this for my orals last year and remember it as being an interesting mishmash of the material (trying to ground meter and poetic form in the pulsations of the human heart) and the idealist, a sort of interesting though often reductive distillation of Kant and Burke with a strong strain of Shelley. And if my notes from that period of my life are any indication, I saw at the time a couple of ideas that seem to anticipate the Austinian performative as well as reflect more quintessentially Victorian theories of language.

Now, as the poetic works of the Spasmodic school go (or so I have heard), these sonnets are pretty tame. It took a little while for their weirdness to sneak up on me.

But let’s start with a bit of context.

These poems are excerpted from a longer series of sonnets on the subject of the Crimean War. “That’s funny,” you say, “I don’t remember there being significant American involvement in the Crimean War.” However, if this website is to be believed (and, hey, when has the first hit on Google ever been wrong?), America did end up being fairly sympathetic to Russia in the whole thing, and that relationship paved the way for American expansion in Alaska and Hawaii. Which basically means that Barack Obama’s presidency is perhaps the best thing to have come out of what was by all accounts a huge disaster. (Remember “The Charge of the Light Brigade“…)

I digress. But I do think that the historical context, such as it is, is at least a little bit helpful for understanding Dobell’s otherwise sort of perplexing insistence on the English language as this sort of sacred bond between Britain and the United States that reduces the Revolutionary War, for instance, to the outgrowth of a spat between schoolboys, some of whom then took their “satchells” and their Shakespeare and, apparently, crossed the Atlantic in a huff. That first sonnet in particular is pretty insistent on this idyllic childhood in England–note especially the emphasis on parity between these two “ancestors” that tries to appropriate some of the discourses surrounding American democracy–the “equal lea” sounds a lot like “equality,” and we have the “same village-school” (no class disparity here!), the “twin-pride” in an architectural patrimony, and women who are also equally attractive.

Of course, I’m not really doing justice yet to the first question that Dobell’s poems pose: “in what tongue shall be thy battle cry?” It’s an interesting version of a kind of linguistic imperialism, but it also seems to be a version of that truism of high school political science classes about democracies not fighting each other. I assume that Dobell is overstating the case for effect–though it’s interesting to think that in 1855 it could be seen as even a halfway plausible idea that the main language of America was still up for debate.

…but there’s the rub, isn’t it? I’m no Americanist, but I’m going to venture a guess that, by 1855, the majority of people who called themselves Americans were not, in fact, descended from those “Pilgrim Fathers” back in England–or *any* fathers back in England. Indeed, I’d even go out on a limb and say that many of these folk spoke English as a second or third language, if at all. (Americanists and/or people with more of an interest in Googling the above can feel free to correct me on this one.)

The developmemt of thought across the two sonnets suggest that Dobell himself knows that the “common national heritage” argument isn’t really going to carry the day. Something more complicated happens in the second sonnet–almost a kind of imagined community based on a common language–as in, you become American by speaking English (and who hasn’t heard versions of that one even now) but, in Dobell’s rendering, you also get the bonus of carrying on the “living and creative flood / This universal English”–you become the heir of Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser. So in a single fell swoop, American literary production–which, you know, by 1855 was not all that insubstantial–is reduced to something of a symptom, the triumphant productions of wandering children.

(And, let’s face it. “Ye who in eternal youth” is rarely a compliment in these kinds of contexts.)

There is also, of course, the “we use the same words so we obviously mean the same things with those words” canard that’s going on in that second sonnet. However, I am nearing 1200 words on this puppy and will therefore let you imagine what I would say about that.

Just, um, happy upcoming Fourth of July holiday, y’all.