Nineteenth-century British nationalism and the poetics of exile
Smith, Monica Rae
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This study focuses on the intersections between exile and nationalism in nineteenth-century British verse, arguing that exile, as both historical reality and literary trope, paradoxically serves as a foundation for the ideas and ideologies of nationhood. The primary texts underscore the range of exilic experience and patriotic positions in Romantic and Victorian poetry and include both canonical works and texts by relatively unknown poets: George Gordon, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants; Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows; Ellen Johnston’s Autobiography, Poems and Songs of Ellen Johnston, The Factory Girl; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Maud. Close examination of exile in these works reveals the multitude of ways in which their authors sought to create national identity: Britain as heir to Western artistic ideals, Britain as home of the oppressed, Britain as the next great imperial power. After all, this is the age when Britain becomes the empire on which the sun never sets, an imperial territory unmatched by any before it in the modern world. As Britain grew larger and more powerful, however, it became increasingly more difficult, as William Butler Yeats later would write, for the center to hold. Thus over the course of the century, British poets struggled to make sense of how a tiny island in northern Europe could hope to contain an ever growing segment of the globe, particularly during a time of such conflict over what it meant to become or remain a nation. In order to understand the nation and the empire as each was reformed in a nineteenth-century context, these poets thought it necessary to remove themselves from their homeland. In order to see Britain, to understand and write about it, they had to leave it, whether literally or metaphorically.