Poly-Olbion and the Union Question

Along with King Lear, Poly-Olbion is the major literary work to emerge from James VI and I’s campaign for full political union between Scotland and England. Neither work is unambiguously supportive of the King and his national aspirations; both, nonetheless, represent a united Britain under a single monarch as a kind of ideal. The contemporary debate over Scottish independence carries plenty of echoes of the early-seventeenth-century debate over Anglo-Scottish union, in which Drayton was a leading literary participant. Although Poly-Olbion is unlikely to sway any voter’s choice in Thursday’s referendum, it casts an interesting light on the historical assumptions and tactics of the Yes and No campaigns.

The question of British union is addressed most directly in Song 5, where Severn is called upon to arbitrate in a dispute between the rivers of Wales and England. She counsels them that their struggle over the island of Lundy is moot, since all of Britain will soon be united under one monarch:

By whom three sever’d realms in one shall firmly stand
As Britain-founding Brute first monarchiz’d the land…
Why strive ye then for that, in little time that shall
(As you are all made one) be one unto you all?

song 4 map

Severn refers here to the historical tradition, associated with Geoffrey of Monmouth, that the realm of Britain had been founded in ancient times by the Trojan Brutus. In the later Middle Ages, English kings had invoked this tradition to claim suzerainty over Scotland. After 1603, supporters of James’s union ambitions hailed him as “a second Brute” who would restore the island to its original, unified state. Britain’s first condition, the argument went, must be its right condition. Severn’s prophecy, though ostensibly addressing Anglo-Welsh relations, has unmistakable implications for Scotland as well.

The contemporary contest between Yes Scotland and Better Together presents a mirror image of the Jacobean union debate – a true mirror image, in that the positions of the prior era are both replicated and reversed. Today it is the advocates of Scottish independence, not of British union, who present themselves as striving to restore the nation to its original condition. King James thought a united Britain came before Scotland; Alex Salmond thinks the reverse: “it had 1,000 years as an independent nation before the union.” Celebrating the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in June 2014, Salmond observed that “Every nation has its iconic touchstones from which it draws its sense of self, and Bannockburn is the wellspring from which modern Scottish nationhood emerged.” By contrast, the Better Together campaign has had little to say about history. That Alastair Darling has refrained from invoking the name of Brutus is understandable; but the paucity of reference to events in the shared British past (at least further back than World War II) is striking. Better Together’s arguments have focused instead on the legal and economic dangers of constitutional change – much like those English and Scottish jurists and MPs who put the brakes on the campaign for closer union four centuries ago.

Better Together has been criticized for its lack of passion, for appealing to Scottish heads rather than Scottish hearts. In short, the unionist campaign has been deemed to lack poetry. If Darling and his allies decide at this late stage that a shot of poetry is needed, they should probably think twice before settling on Poly-Olbion. The poem that sets out to celebrate a united island never quite makes it over the Scottish border. Moreover, Severn’s prophecy aside, Poly-Olbion is remarkably short on images that crystallize the attractions of a united Britain. Rather, as is often remarked, the poem celebrates regional difference and particularity. This, indeed, is part of its timeliness. Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, the coming years will almost certainly see a movement toward more widespread devolution and regional autonomy in England as well as Scotland and Wales. Poly-Olbion was written for times like these.

Of course, if Better Together is looking for a stirring piece of verse that celebrates a united island, there is an Elizabethan text that does the job better than any poem before or since. I refer to John of Gaunt’s well-known speech in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm….

But then he goes and spoils it all by adding, “this England.”


Philip Schwyzer

3 thoughts on “Poly-Olbion and the Union Question

  1. James Loxley

    An interesting post – many thanks, and I hope you’ll forgive a somewhat extempore, and unsolicited, response. As what is now known as an ‘English Scot’ (and it’s a measure of the shift in thinking about nationality here that that is no longer an oxymoron), and someone who has been working on Ben Jonson’s 1618 journey between London and Edinburgh throughout this whole debate, I have been unable to avoid reading the contemporary through the early modern and vice versa. I appreciate your notion of the current debate as a mirror image of the early C17 discussions around union, though I’d like, if I may, to point to some other aspects or elements of those discussions which have resonated with contemporary concerns in perhaps differing ways.

    For one thing – as you’re of course aware, but as some Anglocentric critics and historians have insufficiently stressed – the Scottish response to the union project was not always at ease with Jacobean ambitions. For a lot of Scots, the notion of Britain was indelibly associated with English claims to suzerainty, and they resisted it by insisting on the unbroken continuity of a Scottish monarchy traceable to antiquity and affirmed, rather than obtained, in the wars of independence. Originary Britishness was an acute existential threat. So the strand in thinking about the Scottish nation that you quote Salmond as voicing here has a lengthy pedigree, and while it is articulated in different terms or on a different basis, it is continuous with that resistance to an incorporating or absorptive union. There’s an under-remarked passage in John Taylor’s account of his visit to Edinburgh in the Penniless Pilgrimage where Scotland’s unconquered status, its national continuity maintained against all external (aka English) threats, is really strongly stressed and, effectively, endorsed. That in itself might seem surprising, given its apparent distance from James’s aims and his rhetorical deployment of mythic or originary Britishness, but it tallies with the Jacobean condition that he actually achieved, where a grand metaphysics of union was accompanied by a series of concrete measures that mixed his peoples without ever presuming to dissolve their specifically national differences. English and Scots remained foreign to each other, but never quite foreign enough. So there was then, and there has continued to be, an insistence (from both sides) on a Scottish difference that takes many forms, can be almost entirely formal, but is nonetheless remarkably consistent. To boil it down to a perhaps deceptively logical form: the more there is Britain, the more there is a Scotland that is not Britain. I don’t think it works like that for England, despite the alarmed resistance of those Jacobean jurists – by 1707, at the latest, their concerns about what would happen to England in Britain were largely assuaged. Hence we have one of the many asymmetries that bedevil the political geometry of the UK – we have been British on incompatible terms. The long history of campaigns for home rule or devolution in Scotland have all been attempts, in some way, to reconcile what this kind of invocation of identity renders irreconcilable, and in this they share an aim, if not a sense of the solution, with the rest of unionist thinking. But it hasn’t worked, clearly – 400 hundred years on, a Scottish demand for independence is once more loud enough to vibrate the foundations of a British state.

    A question, then: why is there such a lack of understanding on the part of Westminster politicians and English commentators of what would seem to be a constituent element in the making of Britain itself? What drives their own inability to recognise, let alone reconcile, the competing impulsions that drive our ways of being British? I have a feeling that there are Jacobean causes for that too, but this comment is long enough already.

  2. Pingback: The Scottish Referendum And a 17th-century Braveheart | Hofstra English

    1. Daniel Cattell Post author

      Many thanks for drawing our attention to a very interesting post, and for linking up to the site.

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