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Britain, Bowie and Barbauld

The Oxford Street shop mannequins are all sporting ginger mullets and facial lightning strikes. We recognise it the way we recognise Elvis'  quiff or Marilyn's blonde curls. Well done Bowie, not just for being an icon but for surviving until you didn't -  no bowels, burgers or barbiturates for you. Fame after death becomes someone else's marketing. Ignominy starts much sooner.

I had forgotten all about Anna Laetitia Barbauld until a chum on FB sent a general shout out re  female poets of the Romantic period. My studies of this poet were never extensive because I grew up during the time of her eclipse, which started after the publication of the poem many now consider her finest, Eighteen hundred and Eleven, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/1811/1811.html and ended sometime in the 1980s. Even now,recognition of her work tends to be limited to courses usually labelled as 'Women's Studies,' or some title equally as marginalising/disparaging/well meant/whatever.She was a genius, politically very aware and more, but she carried the curse of Cassandra, and without meaning to,  gave a too interesting view of Britain's future and mindset.

...And think’st thou, Britain, still to sit at ease,
An island Queen amidst thy subject seas,
While the vext billows, in their distant roar,
But soothe thy slumbers, and but kiss thy shore?
To sport in wars, while danger keeps aloof,
Thy grassy turf unbruised by hostile hoof?
So sing thy flatterers; but, Britain, know,
Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe.
Nor distant is the hour; low murmurs spread,
And whispered fears, creating what they dread...

Barbauld foresaw the end of British influence long before it bloomed into global dominance - hardly a quality to please her waggle-plumed contemporaries - as well as the movement of such strength westward to America, a very minor power  at the time.

Her visions of a ruinous England, visited with the same mindset as we enter when  wandering the ancient sites of Italy or Asia, were more appropriate to post WWII Britain than England after the Napoleonic wars. It resonates even now, this idea that we can  intervene in wars elsewhere, secure in the belief that chickens never come home to roost in the Green and Pleasant Land... We never do Cause and Effect. We don't see the connection between the bullies we fund to destabilise the regimes we choose to get the oil we need, and the multitude of refugees waiting at our gates, the  desperate, the displaced, the drowned.There is an infantilisation of the British public, a quietly mediocre educational background that ignores little facts like Captain Cook not actually being the discoverer of Australia, like the atrocities we perpetrated in the Boeur war. We learn a very skewed history  and  are encouraged to adulate characters like Churchill for what he did in WWII, forgetting how ardent and eager he was for WWI... and how all the injustices and cruelties of that first conflict lead unavoidably to the second. He helped create the disasters that made him a hero. Fame after death becomes someone else's marketing.

Barbauld pointed to the blankness of mind which thinks the whole world can be tinkered with, yet the sceptred isle will remain untouched. She was pilloried for it, the reviews of 1811 vicious and patronising in the extreme, and I don't think she ever published another poem,  but the point holds true.

Not that it was all doom and gloom:

If prayers may not avert, if 'tis thy fate
To rank amongst the names that once were great,
Not like the dim cold Crescent shalt thou fade,
Thy debt to Science and the Muse unpaid;
Thine are the laws surrounding states revere,
Thine the full harvest of the mental year,
Thine the bright stars in Glory's sky that shine,
And arts that make it life to live are thine.
If westward streams the light that leaves thy shores,
Still from thy lamp the streaming radiance pours.
Wide spreads thy race from Ganges to the pole,
O'er half the western world thy accents roll:

That's no mean inheritance to leave the world, for Britain, Bowie or Barbauld.

P.S I have no idea why this post magically indented in the middle. Nor why my writing was so poor and typo-ridden. We all have bad days I guess. Maybe it's a punishment for me thinking bad things about Wordsworth.



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