Poetry against Empire: Milton to Shelley


in Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 117

Published by British Academy

Published in print January 2003 | ISBN: 9780197262795
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191753954 | DOI:

Series: Proceedings of the British Academy

Poetry against Empire: Milton to Shelley

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This chapter situates Milton's vehement anti-imperialism at the beginning of a poetic tradition, stretching as far as Shelley and beyond, which was global in sensibility and in which opposition to empire was a central form of imagination. It argues that the major poets of this era not only articulated a powerfully anti-imperial vision of the world, but also contended that artistic culture could not flourish under the political conditions of modern imperialism. This is partly a historical claim, and one which assumes that poetry in this period played an important role in the public contestation of Britain's changing place in the world; but it is also a literary claim about the continuing salience of the classical and early modern traditions which governed poetic forms of imagination right up to the Romantic age. The purpose is not simply to record a series of improvised poetic responses to the growth of the British Empire. Rather, it is to show how a poetry grounded since the Renaissance in universal habits of thought and expansive modes of territorial vision was transposed onto an evolving historical reality, and how this process of imaginative transposition took on a heightened sense of political urgency as the implications of Britain's imperial activities broke upon public consciousness.

Keywords: anti-imperialism; poetic tradition; modern imperialism; British Empire; Renaissance; imagination; Milton; Shelley

Chapter.  12405 words. 

Subjects: Social and Cultural History

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