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leteering and political corruption, poets promoted their work as a
medium in which the underlying principles and concepts of politics À
freedom, the common good, justice, legitimate sovereignty À retained a
degree of pristine abstraction. Alexander Pope ended his ˜Epilogue to the
Satires™ (1738) with the defiant lines, ˜Yes, the last Pen for Freedom, let me
draw, / When Truth stands trembling on the edge of Law™.2 Political
concepts gained further clarity from the poets™ intense imaginative
engagement with the historical contexts in which they had emerged
(Ancient Greece, the Roman Republic, Anglo-Saxon England and so on),
and the ways in which the generic resources of mock-epic, Juvenalian
satire and Horatian epistolary verse permitted stark juxtapositions of
past and present epochs. Whatever we think of their claims, many poets

2
Dialogue II of the ˜Epilogue to the Satires™, Pope 1938À1968, iv, ii. 248À9.
170 karen o™brien
of this period did consider themselves to be the unacknowledged
legislators, if not of mankind, then certainly of Great Britain. They
asserted and enjoyed a special relationship to the idea of liberty, nurtured
and refined by the poetic pen, and some of the period™s most extensive
discussions of the social dimensions of liberty are to be found in the
works of poets such as Dryden, Pope and James Thomson.3 A major
theme of eighteenth-century poetry is how liberty À as a stimulus and
agent, rather than as an end in itself À is related to artistic achievement,
social cohesion and commerce. Another is the need for liberty to
be tempered by a proper regard for social harmony in both the domestic
and colonial political contexts. It was in relation to questions of liberty
and social harmony that poets aspired to the rank of philosophers, and
explored the foundations of the social order in man™s inner impulses
to selfishness, sympathy and altruism.
In relation to empire, poetry played an important role in bringing
together a nexus of concepts, including commerce, liberty and
international community, as part of a coherent national idiom, and in
helping the British metropolis to imagine itself as an imperial polity.
This was a poetry orientated and addressed to a home audience. Poets
did frequently incorporate the disruptive voices of indigenous peoples
and enslaved Africans; but, to the extent that they were based on an
uninformed ventriloquizing of an external point of view, they never
enabled genuine non-European participation in the debate about empire.
I have written elsewhere of the involvement of poets in the creation of
an elastic, morally accommodating idea À one might even call it a
˜White Legend™ À of peaceful empire.4 From the poet-diplomat Matthew
Prior, in the late seventeenth century, to Robert Southey at the end of
this period, poets collaborated in the formulation of what David
Armitage has characterized as the ˜classic™ conception of the British
Empire as Protestant, commercial, maritime and free. Armitage, Richard
Koebner and other historians of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
imperial ideology have rightly made extensive use of literary source
material, and have recognized the role of imaginative writing in
conceiving of disparate geographical locations and peoples as part of
a single entity.5 Georgic poetry, in particular, supplied many of the
metaphors of organic community used to embellish this theoretical

3 4
See Mehan 1986 and Griffin 2002. O™Brien 1997.
5
Armitage 2000; Koebner 1961.
Benevolence in the Case of the British Empire 1680À1800 171
enterprise, along with an idea of cultivation as the basis of national virtue
and imperial entitlement. It was a classical reflex for poets to measure
instances of territorial expansion against the Virgilian ideal of peaceful,
universal imperium. Where many political theorists saw only an assort-
ment of trading posts, planted provinces and fortresses, poets presaged,
very early in its history, the coming of a new global empire to rival or
surpass that of Rome. Where many saw profitable networks of staple
production, manufacture and re-export, poets sought to characterize the
economic interdependence of the empire in terms of mutual ethical
obligations. The fact that poetry was seen and practised in this period as a
self-reflexively ethical activity also led many to publicize the fact that
these obligations had been breached by the practice of slavery, illegal
territorial seizure and other derogations from the baroque ideal of an
empire for liberty.
In general, poets adopted a rhetorical stance of humane Horatian
civility, rarely endorsing either slavery or the forced displacement of
native peoples. They were often at the forefront of what one might call
˜anti-conquest™ thinking in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
that is a principled opposition to all forms of military vainglory and
violence. It was in origin, a form of Jacobite or Tory opposition to the
campaigns of William III, and a product of Tory unease at the extent of
Marlborough™s campaigns, but was given enduring embodiment in
Johnson™s Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), after which opposition to
aggressive warfare was often worn as a badge of poetic professional ethics.
In many cases (though not that of Johnson), a principled anti-conquest
poetic stance went hand-in-hand with an alternative ideal of peaceful,
maritime empire. Poets revived and modernized the Ciceronian idea of
empire as a protectorate maintained through acts of kind service, and
were often harshly critical of the imperial activities of Caesar, Trajan and
other Roman generals and emperors.6 Others, notably Oliver Goldsmith
and Charles Churchill, were more fundamentally opposed to the very
idea of territorial empire, and its diminution of the human to the
economic. Milton™s anti-imperial vision in Paradise Lost and, especially, in
Paradise Regained was at the fountainhead of a poetic tradition,
submerged at first but surfacing in the works of poets from Blake to
Shelley, which sought to imagine a world liberated from all forms of
imperial power.7

6 7
Quint 1993; also Weinbrot 1993, esp. part 2, ch. 7. O™Brien 2002.
172 karen o™brien
Poets entered the national conversation about the nature and meaning
of empire at many points during its long history, and were from the
outset deeply exercised by the idea of the colony, in the sense of a discrete
community, set up at a location already populated by native peoples, and
retaining legal and other ties to the mother country. From The Tempest
onwards, the colony, especially of the island variety, occupied a special
place in literature, providing an experimental space for the imaginative
unsettling of social, gender and racial hierarchies. Colonization was very
much to the fore, both as a literary topos and a pressing political question,
in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries, a period during
which royal charters were granted for American plantations in
Pennsylvania, New York, the Carolinas and Georgia. The questions
raised by the advent of these new proprietary colonies were not new, but
they were reformulated by political theorists, particularly in the light
of William Penn™s efforts to set a new standard for the treatment of native
peoples, and then throughout the eighteenth century as the American
crisis slowly came to its head. By what right, it was frequently asked
(conquest, occupation, cession) does a country gain colonies? What were
colonies for (strategic reasons, economic)? There was some debate about
the relationship of the plantations to the state. Most characterized them as
possessions, rather than as territorial extensions of Britain, but this left the
status of the colonists somewhat uncertain. They were subjects of
the Crown, certainly, yet not fully a part of a British community since few
thought that their interests were anything other than subordinate to those
of the British at home. Many were anxious about colonies depopulating
and depleting their mother country, though others, notably Charles
Davenant, argued that, within bounds, colonial emigration and
the colonial trade would add significantly to the national wealth.8
A new element entered the colonial debate with the chartering of
Pennsylvania, and later, Georgia, as specifically philanthropic provinces,
set up to provide a refuge for the persecuted and indigent. The
possession, by English proprietors, of philanthropic colonies also raised
wider questions about both private and state involvement in matters
of welfare. In this part of the debate poets played a particularly important
role, seizing upon the notion of the welfare colony as an expression of
a national aspiration for a more just society. As often as they engaged
imaginatively with the plight of displaced or conquered indigenous
peoples, they looked back to home, considering the colony as a rehearsal
8
See Multamaki 1999; Knorr 1968.
Benevolence in the Case of the British Empire 1680À1800 173
for a more benevolent or paternal domestic state À one which might
provide a broader outlet for the self-realization of elites and artists
through the practice of public virtue. The imaginative space of the colony
in this period was, then, not so much a remote locus amoenus, or
a Renaissance-style lubber-land teeming with sensory indulgences, but an
outlet for poetic fantasies of a fair or redeemed social order. To the
perennial questions as to whether territorial expansion is detrimental to
liberty at home, and whether this erodes the very public virtue which
gave rise to it in the first place, most answered no: colonization ought
to and could be, instead, an opportunity to consolidate national virtue.
The virtue promoted by poets from Pope and Thomson to William
Cowper was on the classical model of selfless devotion to the public weal
(Pope insisting all the while that ˜Self-love and social are the same™), but
with a Christian and sentimental emphasis upon care for the needy as its
highest manifestation. They dwelt upon the socially integrative potential
of the exercise of this virtue by all, and its role in the preservation of
the form of liberty secured by a mixed constitution. Moreover, in an era
when little could be expected of the state in the welfare arena, the
idea of colonization provided an imaginative outlet for a new vision of
politics. It was in this context that virtue metamorphosed most readily
into benevolence, and in which benevolent government was most easily
imagined.

the colonization of ancient britain
Through a series of examples, I am going to try to give substance to my
contention that poets were instrumental in the fashioning of ideas of
imperial trusteeship far in advance of their flowering in the nineteenth
century, and that this was achieved by inserting the notion of benevolence
into the language of political theory and by characterizing benevolence as
an outgrowth of liberty. The first is the attempt to imagine colonization
from the point of view, not of indigenous peoples, but of the pioneering
colonizers trying to establish a new and fair political order in unfamiliar
lands. This often proceeded through an act of inversion whereby it was
Britain that was imagined as a province colonized by Normans, Saxons,
Romans, and, before that, in the mists of time, by the grandson of Aeneas
and his Trojan followers. Central to this literary enlargement of the
ethical debate about colonialism was Dryden™s translation of the Aeneid
(1697), a work permeated with the translator™s ambivalent attitudes to
conquest, empire and the potential complicity of art with both of these.
174 karen o™brien
Steven Zwicker has revealed the extent to which Dryden™s Aeneid
dramatizes Aeneas™ conquest of Latium in terms that invite comparison
with William III™s usurpation of James II™s crown.9 Dryden™s troubled
exploration of the issue of illegal seizure resonated not only with
contemporary British domestic politics, but also in the context of the
colonization ventures undertaken in the recent past by James and his
clients.10 Dryden had long taken a sceptical interest in such questions.
In his version of Shakespeare™s Tempest (adapted with some input from
William Davenant, the father of Charles), the drunken sailors Stephano,
Mustacho and Ventoso appoint themselves ˜Vice-Roys™ over the island,
establishing fundamental laws, boasting about their prerogatives and
staggering around in search of native subjects.11 In his translation of
the Aeneid, Dryden describes Aeneas and his comrades as comprising
a ˜navy™ of imperial adventurers and would-be colonizers.12 Dryden
converts Virgil™s Mediterranean scenery of cultivated landscapes and
sophisticated peoples into a harsh geography of frontier settlements,
desolate seas and hostile, uncivilized natives. Aeneas visits Dido™s rival
˜Tyrian colony™ on the ˜wild uncultivated shoar™ of Carthage, before
proceeding to the ˜inhospitable coast™ of Latium where Palinurus the
helmsman is butchered by a ˜cruel Nation™ of savages.13 In the end when
Jupiter decrees:
The Natives shall command, the Foreigners subside.
All shall be Latium; Troy without a Name:
And her lost Sons forget from whence they came.14
Aeneas will ultimately be obliged to adopt a strategy of peaceful
settlement and ethnic coexistence, and will become more of a William
Penn than a William of Orange.
Aeneas and the Trojans™ eventual settlement in Latium is at once a
conquest, an exile, a homecoming, and a restoration of lost empire on
terms of peace and co-operation.15 Just as Dryden finds contemporary

9
Zwicker 1984, ch. 6. Also see Thomas 2001, ch. 2.
10
See O™Brien 1999, pp. 164À5.
11
Dryden with William Davenant, The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island. A Comedy (1670,
first performed 1667) in Dryden 1956À2002, x, pp. 32À4.
12
The Aeneid is in Dryden 1956À2002, vÀvi. The translation will be cited by book and line
number.
13
Aeneid, i, i. 425; vi, ii. 490À92.
14
Aeneid, xii, ii. 1213À15.Virgil, xii, i. 836 has ˜subsident Teucri™ but nothing to support Dryden™s
phrase ˜The Natives shall command™.
15
On this idea of restoration and homecoming in Dryden™s translation of Virgil, see Hammond
1999, pp. 233À40.
Benevolence in the Case of the British Empire 1680À1800 175
British echoes in the tension between illegal seizure and legitimate
settlement, he also hints at parallels between the Aeneid and legends of the
founding of Britain, including the myth of the Arthurian re-conquest of
ancient Britain. Dryden had made plans for Arthurian epic in which
Arthur has to beat back the Saxons.16 One of his younger contempo-
raries, Richard Blackmore delivered just such an Arthuriad, depicting in
Prince Arthur (1695) the young Arthur™s re-appropriation of Britain from
the Saxons in overtly Whig, bellicose terms that found little favour with
contemporary readers.17 Blackmore may have put the next generation of
poets off the Arthurian idea. Instead, they seem to have found a more
propitious legend of national founding in Geoffrey of Monmouth™s
account of the colonization of pre-historic Britain by Aeneas™ grandson
Brutus. This had been considered as possible epic material by Milton, and
in turn, would provide poets with a potent analogue for colonial activities
in their own time.18 In the Galfridian source, Albion (as it was before
Brutus renamed it) is uninhabited except by a few wicked giants,
destroyed by the Trojan invaders who then partition and settle the
country. This is the version of events adopted by Spenser, and (with
reservations) by Milton in his History of Britain (1670À1671).19 Pope had
long been interested in this story, having supplied the English version of
Brutus™s prayer to Diana for Aaron Thompson™s 1718 translation of
Geoffrey of Monmouth.20 He planned his own epic version of the Brutus
legend, significantly adding a new dimension to the story in the form of
native inhabitants needing protection from the marauding giants. The
poem was never written, of course, but eighteenth-century readers could
have learned about it in some detail from the account given in Owen
Ruffhead™s biography of 1769.21 Pope™s Brutus is not so much an exile as
a colonial adventurer, though strictly of the disinterested, benign variety.
His defining virtue and motivation is ˜benevolence™, and he travels

16
Dryden, ˜Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire™ (1692) in Dryden
1956À2002, iv, p. 22. Milton also made similar plans. See ˜Mansus™, ii. 80À84 in Milton 1997.
Spenser™s Faerie Queene (1590À1596) set out to promote the Elizabethan restoration of
Arthurian empire in Ireland.
17
Blackmore (1695). On the Whig martial idiom of this time, see Womersley 1997 and Williams
2005.
18
˜Epitaphium Damonis™, ii. 163À5 in Milton 1997. On Geoffrey of Monmouth and the ˜matter

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