"Alone with his glory": Early myth-making in the poetry of the Peninsular War (1808-1814)1
Agustín Coletes Blanco
Universidad de Oviedo
The powerful mediating force exerted by the substantial body of poetry about the Peninsular War that appeared in Britain was largely responsible for the creation of a patriotic pantheon in which Lord Wellington soon became the dominant figure. In stark contrast with the Romantic anti-hero that poets like Coleridge or Byron were then creating, the supreme commander of the allied forces, a Tory sympathizer, was accorded a godlike dimension by the establishment poets, to be reinforced even further by his final victory over Napoleon in Waterloo. This paper will focus, however, on an immediately earlier episode of myth-making, neglected by the relevant literature. In early February 1809, the sorry remains of what had been a proud army, bound for Corunna in northern Spain only a few months before, arrived in Portsmouth and other southern English seaports. Their general, Sir John Moore, a Whig sympathizer, died in combat and had been left behind "alone with his glory," in Charles Wolf's celebrated words. Poets began turning Moore into a myth at once, and the process acquired peculiarities of its own, since their work was not only about a fallen hero, but also one whose last intriguing words had been "I hope my country will do me justice." Politics, personal rivalry, and rumours of mismanagement and even treason explain the various attitudes of the poets who contributed to the making of this early Peninsular War myth. The sustained popularity of Wolf's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" no doubt obscured other poems examined here that kept Moore's controversial reputation alive throughout the conflict, from short anonymous pieces in periodicals to longer poems edited as separate books, by writers such as Mary Mitford, Matthew Lewis (the author of The Monk), or Anna Porter among others.
Like all conflicts, the Peninsular War, fought between the French Empire and the allied forces of Britain, Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France from 1808 to 1814, created its own myths. By assuming a mediating role between the events and the reading public, contemporary authors crucially contributed to glorifying battles and soldiers as part of the general war effort, thus producing, during that period, a substantial body of writing which is today largely forgotten—hence, only partially incorporated into Romantic studies. An international research team is trying to redress this balance by means of a major project which includes finding, collecting, editing, analysing, and translating a substantial corpus of Peninsular War poetry written in languages other than Spanish (English, French, German and Portuguese).2 Interested researchers are already offered a free-access digital library comprising reliable editions with bibliographical details of all the items in the collection, plus a series of four annotated bilingual anthologies, with introductory studies.3
As shown by the evidence found and analysed so far, Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington and supreme commander of the allied forces, is without a doubt the great personal myth of the war. From his early victories in Portugal to his decisive triumphs in Salamanca, Vitoria or Southern France, dozens of poems ranging from occasional and anonymous pieces to major works by well-known authors were written for the greater glory of the hero. In this paper, however, my focus will be on an immediately earlier episode of myth-making, hitherto neglected in the critical literature.
In early February 1809, the sorry remains of what only a few months before had been a proud army arrived in Portsmouth and other southern English seaports from Corunna, in northern Spain. British involvement in the Spanish conflict had actually started with a fiasco: the tragic retreat and re-embarking of General John Moore's expeditionary force, a disaster for which he himself, mortally wounded in battle, paid with his life, and which soon provoked a specific line of poetic response. Curiously, the only Peninsular War poem which has survived in British popular culture to this day is one which celebrates Moore, the fallen hero. I am referring to Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna," written sometime between 1811 and 1814 though not published until 1817. For many generations, this celebrated elegy, the work of an Irish clergyman who was not a professional writer, was taught at British schools and recited by schoolchildren. It also found a niche in anthologies of English verse, and is the only English poem of the Peninsular War included in the Oxford Book of War Poetry as available today. Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore" is an excellent poem and was once attributed to major authors like Campbell, Moore, or even Byron, who considered it "little inferior to the best which the present prolific age has brought forth" and remarked that some of its lines were "perfect." A heroic elegy written with effectiveness and conviction, its eight quartets rhyme ABAB in ten-syllable lines of three to five metrical feet, with an iambic-anapaestic rhythm. The poem is written in the first person plural, we, thus establishing a pattern of inclusiveness and a sensation of immediacy that succeeds in involving the reader—and the reciter—in the situation evoked. With simple but carefully controlled vocabulary and syntax, stripped of images and metaphors, the poem pays an unpretentious and self-restrained tribute to the fallen hero—and, in a sense, to the English people in general. We have included the poem in our anthology and, as far as possible, tried to preserve its outstanding qualities in our translation.
I have mentioned the fact that the war had created a substantial body of literary writing which is today largely forgotten. Our ongoing research shows that the episode we are dealing with was no exception. So far we have identified six poems entirely devoted to Moore's untimely death, plus four others in which references to the fallen general are significant. These 10 poems were written between 1809 and 1814, and there is little doubt that the quality and popularity of Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore" obscured them in the face of posterity. In their own time, however, they had certainly contributed to keeping Moore's tragic episode alive. I will give some details about these largely forgotten poems and the context in which they were created.
Moore died in Corunna on January 16th, 1809 and the first known poem on the episode was written as early as February 7th by the then very young Mary Russell Mitford, the future author of Our Village. In her poem, "To the Memory of Sir John Moore," she criticised the Spaniards:
Who has not felt exulting rapture's glow For England's triumph o'er her haughty foe? Who has not wept for England's gallant train, The slaughtered victims of degenerate Spain?
These strong words stand in contrast to the attitude of most British authors towards what they called the cause of the "Spanish patriots," which was one of unanimous sympathy. But Moore's retreat had become an early instance of lack of understanding, mistrust and mutual accusations between the allies, with the Spaniards incriminating the British for having abandoned them, and the British reproaching the Spaniards for ineptitude and lack of cooperation. Reacting to Mitford's harsh judgment of the Spaniards, R.A. Davenport, editor of the Political Register, wrote to her:
You speak of the 'slaughtered victims of degenerate Spain.' Against the justice, or rather the injustice of this line, I must . . . enter my strongest protest. It is impossible for me to admit your charge against the Spaniards.
In short, Mitford's words echoed one of two irreconcilable positions—the critical stance—while the reprimand she got from Davenport had echoed the opposite—the sympathetic attitude towards Spain.
Only a few months later, a second Moore poem saw the light of day: Monody on the death of Sir John Moore by M.G. Lewis, a 100 line-long poem preceded by an interesting preface dated May 1809. The author was none other than 'Monk' Lewis, the celebrated writer of the Gothic novel The Monk. Lewis tells an interesting story in the preface: his lines had been recited twice in Drury Lane Theatre "with considerable applause" but, he continues, "on the third night an order from the Lord Chamberlain absolutely prohibited their further repetition." The motives he hints at were "underhand attempts [by the ministers] to tarnish the merits of Sir John Moore." Radical as the measure may appear, it was not entirely surprising. Accounts of Moore's expedition, some exonerating him and blaming the Spaniards and the British cabinet for the disaster, some doing exactly the opposite, had been appearing since February. Simultaneously, in Parliament the Tory government and the Whig opposition had been hotly debating the issue. A motion for a parliamentary enquiry into the conduct of the campaign was defeated by 220 votes to 127, but it is no less true that, as Charles Esdaile contends, had he survived, Moore would have been court-martialed and probably found guilty of disobeying Government orders. It is not surprising then that by May the British cabinet was keen on shunning the spectre of Moore, even though Lewis's poem ended in what became the politically correct position from then on:
That sword, which triumphed in Vimeira's field, His brother-hero soon again shall wield; Wrath, generous wrath shall make his victory sure, And Wellesley's life avenge the death of Moore!
In other words, Arthur Wellesley would take over from Moore and become the dominant myth among the establishment poets.4 Yet that did not put an abrupt end to the poetic tribute paid to the late general. Early in 1810, an author who signs E.C. (Cockle, according to the BL catalogue) published Lines on the lamented death of Sir John Moore, a 10-page poem which he had composed in August, 1809. If Lewis's poem linked Moore with Wellington and the future, Cockle looked to the immediate, glorious past of Nelson for his myth-making:
the thunderbolt of Ocean's tide, The spear of England, and the Gallic dread, Great Nelson mingled with the mighty dead. Years have roll'd on, and yet Trafalgar's name, Weaves Sorrow's cypress with the bay of Fame . . . Thee shall we then forget, unconquer'd chief, Thee, Moore, refuse the tribute of our grief?
Only a few months later, in December 1809, another author, Samuel Blake Frome, put together a volume of "songs, ballads, duets, and glees" meant as the libretto for an opera which he entitled Sketches from life; or, the wandering bard. The duet which ends the first act is actually "The Death of Moore." Adopting a stance not dependent on other myths, references to past or future heroes of the British pantheon are absent from the poem. Moore having died, according to Frome, for such a noble cause as "Freedom" and for "defending Nature's rights," we are simply made to "view his virtues, and forget he died," as the poem ends.
"Death of Moore" by George Townsend, published in 1810 as part of his juvenile Poems, is a curious addition to the Moore line of poems in that it gives the modern reader a deja vu sensation:
' Twas 'night; the wild 'noise of the 'battle was 'ended; The 'trumpet's dread 'clang, the fierce 'thunder of 'war, No 'more with the 'groans of the 'dying were 'blended; But 'sad were the 'sounds that were 'heard from a'far! For Britain's proud chieftain each warrior was mourning, Thus closing too soon his fame-honour'd career, And while each brave bosom for vengeance was burning, Each hero's dark cheek was bedew'd with a tear. 'Mid the mountains of dead, the fires dimly were gleaming, As through the long ranks the lov'd hero was borne; Death's dull, languid gaze from his full eye was beaming, And grief's poison'd arrow his bosom had torn
Indeed, the first stanzas of this poem by Townsend, a Church of England clergyman and Biblical expert, ring a familiar bell in that they sound rather like Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." All in all a worse piece of writing, it nevertheless has an elegiac tone, a choice of words and constructions, a rhyme and, above all, a rhythm and metre which are strongly remindful of Wolfe's famous poem, written one year after (or more) than Townsend's. Did Wolfe get his inspiration, formally at least, from Townsend? The question cannot be answered. In any case, Townsend's poem is the first in the Moore series which is mournful rather than heroic in tone, and is also original in that it includes the poet's reconstruction of Moore's last conversation with his officers. The overall impression that it produces on the reader is more intimate and humane than the one conveyed by the triumphal poems that preceded it.
Anna Maria Porter, a prolific writer of short narrative, was the next author to contribute a Moore poem. Her "Lines to the memory of Sir John Moore," probably written in 1809 or 1810, were published in 1811 as part of the volume Ballad romances and other poems. An enthusiastic partisan of the Spanish patriots, her contribution is a well-written octave which focuses cataphorically on an all-too-familiar theme: "base party's fiercest storm" which, as she contends, the dead hero's "lofty fame" will "defy" and eventually overcome.
All the authors seen so far were partial to the late general. But Moore had been a controversial figure. No doubt a devoted and experienced professional, responsible for important reforms in British military training, office duties and public relations were not his forte. A Whig sympathiser working for a Tory government, he was often accused of being irritable, self-centered, and prone to blaming other people for his own failures. It is thus that his last intriguing words before dying—"I hope my country will do me justice"—perhaps acquire sense. Indeed, there had been accusations of mismanagement and even treason in his handling of the Spanish campaign. The question then is—alongside with his partisans, had there not been poets who had been critical of Moore? Apparently, the answer is no. So far we have not been able to find poems openly criticising him. Maybe establishment authors did not want to be accused of lack of 9 patriotism in war time by rubbishing a soldier who, after all, had died gallantly for king and country. Maybe, more cynically, they did not want to vent accusations against the man which might eventually turn against the government—thus, in a sense, against themselves. The fact is that criticism of Moore acquired a much subtler form—ignoring him. As Susan Valladares has demonstrated, this is what happened in Walter Scott's Vision of Don Roderick, a major poem by an established writer which was published in 1811 to raise funds for the Portuguese and drum up support for Britain's involvement in the Peninsula—which had been losing momentum in 1809 and 1810, two difficult years for the allies. While Wellington's proud masculinity and semi-divine nature are emphasized by the poem referring to him as HE, in capital letters, Moore is conspicuously absent from its lines. The Edinburgh Review was no fool, and they quickly found it "a sin not easily to be expiated" that in the Vision of Don Roderick "there should be no mention of the name of MOORE! . . . the only commander in chief who had fallen in this memorable contest." Scott's correspondence, both before and after the poem, simply shows that he considered Moore and his shameful "flight" a national disgrace best to be forgotten. Let me add that Moore's name is likewise avoided in Southey's emblematic Carmen Triumphale, for the commencement of the year 1814. The New Year's ode by the recently appointed poet laureate was in fact a summary of the Peninsular War events written for the greater glory of Wellington, dubbed "The Conqueror" in stanza XII and mentioned by name several times, while all we get of Moore is this:
Alone the noble Nation stood, When from Coruna, in the main, The star of England set in blood. Ere long on Talavera's plain, That start resplendent rose again
In a way which reminds us of what Lewis had written four years earlier, Wellington, specifically mentioned a few lines after, comes to rescue Britain's reputation, which had sunk in Moore's Corunna, with his own Talavera—which incidentally was, if anything, a Pyrrhic Anglo-Spanish victory.
Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore" seems to have been the last poem entirely devoted to him. As mentioned at the start of this paper, four other poets contributed to the Moore line with poems including references to the fallen general. The first was Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (published in 1812) where, not surprisingly for a Whig sympathiser like her, 'gallant Moore' is coupled with Nelson as in Cockle's 1810 poem, and the two men's famous last words are indirectly quoted:
Here Chathman's eloquence in thunder broke, Here Fox persuaded, or here Garrick spoke; Shall boast how Nelson, fame and death in view, To wonted victory led his ardent crew, In England's name enforced, with loftiest tone, Their duty,—and too well fulfilled his own: How gallant Moore, as ebbing life dissolved, But hoped his country had his fame absolved.
The second was Anne MacVicar Grant's Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen, published early in 1814. An ultra-conservative response to Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, it comes as no surprise that, like Lewis or Southey, she should link Moore with Wellington, who finally "to head the conflict came," thus redeeming the fallen general:
Meanwhile Iberia's lofty spirits woke, And spurned indignant at the Gallian yoke; Her warriors rushed impetuous to the plain, And long maintained the glorious strife in vain; New armies only rose to fight or fall Before the wiles, or whelming power of Gaul. Though Moore at sad Corunna checked their pride, And in the arms of weeping Victory died; In every heart though patriot valour glowed, In every field though blood profusely flowed; Still ineffectual proved the fatal strife, And seemed a hopeless waste of human life; Till Wellington to head the conflict came, With cool experience sprinkling Valour's flame; And British legions lent their tempered fire To rash resolves that blaze but to expire.
The third was William Sotheby's A Song of Triumph, published in 1814. His brief reference to Moore in this poem, basically devoted to Wellington, is different from others in that it focuses on General John Hope, who had succeeded to overall command when Moore was killed:
Hope! whose brave hand clos'd Moore's fame-fixed eye, When Conquest's shout had sooth'd his latest sigh, Then wav'd his banner o'er the Hero dead, And to fresh fields his conquering legions led.
The fourth and last was "A Sketch written in 1814," published five years later in the volume Poems founded on the Events of the War in the Peninsula. By the wife of an officer. The poem was yet another glorification of Wellington, to whom the volume is dedicated. Exceptionally for a Wellington poem, Moore is not patronized or ignored, the 'Moore problem' being solved by putting the blame of the Corunna events on the Spaniards. As she contends, "England had fought in vain, and left the land/ Which bowed to usurpation's lawless hand:"
The sullen echo of the cannon's roar Had died in silence on Corunna's shore; The lessening fleet had mingled with the sky, That bore the freight of grief-clad victory. A generous foe had raised the hero's tomb, Admired his prowess, and deplored his doom: Heaven's gentle dews dispersed the sanguine stain, Spring cast her verdant mantle o'er the slain: They rested in their glory; -and the scene Was still and calm as war had never been; Deserted all the long contested shore, And silence dwelt around the tomb of Moore, Spread o'er the subjugated hills of Spain, And reigned o'er hapless Lusia's lost domain; The gloomy silence of the dead was there,— The deep and awful stillness of despair; England had fought in vain, and left the land Which bowed to usurpation's lawless hand. Where was the hope that could their fears beguile? The waves had borne it back to Britain's Isle.
It is in this curious way that our last Moore poem links with the first one, which also criticised the Spaniards. The reasons however were now not quite the same. While the establishment poets still preferred focusing on Wellington and its glory, the Whig and independent ones were expressing, in bewilderment and surprise, their disappointment over the outcome of the war, with the exile of the liberals, the re-establishment of an absolutist regime, the Inquisition, the slave trade . . . but that is another story. In this one, we may conclude, the mediating force exerted by the poetry about the Peninsular War was largely responsible for the making of the Moore myth. This myth lasted throughout the war and acquired a number of peculiarities which, as I have tried to demonstrate, go beyond Wolfe's famous poem, now to be seen in a much wider perspective.
Professor Agustín Coletes Blanco holds a PhD in English Studies and teaches at the University of Oviedo in Spain. He is also an honorary visiting professor of Hull University in Britain. He has published widely on cultural and literary reception and on British travellers in Northern Spain. He is the editor and Spanish translator of Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (2006), Byron's Mediterranean Letters and Poems (2010) and, in co-authorship, English Poetry of the Peninsular War (2013). Recent work also includes Literary Allusion in Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (2009) and several articles on Byron. Professor Coletes Blanco is the leader of the GIR or certified research group "Other Languages" (OLE-4), which includes 16 researchers from several European and American universities. His most recent experience as an international research team leader was the Project "Other Languages, Other Weapons" (OLE'11 Project), an I+D+i Spanish national project implemented in 2011-2014. With very limited means, the 8-strong international project team launched a webpage which boasts a substantial free access e-library of (mostly forgotten) poems on the Peninsular War (1808-1814) written in English, French, German and Portuguese. The project team has also published four substantial bilingual anthologies of poems on the Peninsular War, with introductory studies and notes, and several articles and parts of books. Project results have been graded as "Very Satisfactory" (MINECO, 16/07/2015).
1. This is an updated and slightly expanded version of the paper read as part of the A-HH panel at Romantic Imports and Exports: 2013 BARS International Biennial Conference, University of Southampton, 25-28 July 2013.
2. Proyecto OLE'11 (2011-) Otras lenguas, otras armas: Poesía proespañola inglesa, portuguesa, francesa y alemana de la Guerra de la Independencia (1808-1814). Edición, traducción y estudio (OLE'11). The project has technically finished in 2014,
but its webpage
3. See bibliography.
4. Lewis's poem on Moore was analyzed and translated by Gema García Crespo (see bibliography).
Primary Sources (in chronological order)
Mitford, Mary Russell. "Ode to the Memory of Sir John Moore." [w. 1809].
Lewis, M.G. Monody on the death of Sir John Moore. London, 1809.
C[ockle]., E. Lines on the lamented death of Sir John Moore [w. 1809]. London: Shury, 1810.
Frome, Samuel Blake. "Duet. The death of Moore." The songs, odes, ballads, duets, and glees, in an opera, entitled Sketches from life; or, the wandering bard. London: Dennett, 1809.
Townsend, George. "Death of Moore." Poems. London: Longman, 1810. 71-2.
Porter, Anna Maria. "Lines to the memory of Sir John Moore." Ballad romances and other poems. London, 1811. 190.
Wolfe,Charles "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" [w. 1811-14].
Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. London, 1812.
Sotheby, William. A Song of Triumph. London: Murray, 1814.
Grant, Anne MacVicar. Eighteen Hundred And Thirteen: A Poem In Two Parts. London, 1814.
"A Sketch written in 1814." Poems founded on the Events of the War in the Peninsula. By the wife of an officer. Hythe: Tiffen, 1819.
Cáceres Würsig, Ingrid y Remedios Solano Rodríguez (ed. & trans.) Valiente Hispania: poesía alemana de la Guerra de la Independencia (1808-1814). Estudio crítico y corpus bilingüe anotado. Oviedo: Universidad, 2014.
Coletes Blanco, Agustín y Alicia Laspra Rodríguez, ed. & trans. Libertad frente a Tiranía: Poesía inglesa de la Guerra de la Independencia (1808-1814). Antología bilingüe. Madrid: España, 2013.
Dufour, Gérard (ed.) and Lola Bermúdez (trans.). El Ogro corso. Poesía francesa antinapoleónica durante la Guerra de la Independencia (1808-1814): Antología bilingüe. Cádiz: Biblioteca de las Cortes, 2014.
Esdaile, Charles. "El general y el gobierno: la intervención británica en España en 1808." Revista de Historia Militar 49 (2005): 79-98.
Gândara Terenas, Gabriela y Beatriz Peralta García. El noble ejemplo de España: Poesía portuguesa de la Guerra de la Independencia (1808-1814). Estudio crítico y corpus bilingüe anotado. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, 2015.
García Crespo, Gema. "A Poem on Sir George Moore at Corunna, by M.G. Lewis (1809): Introduction and Translation." BA Diss. (dir. A. Coletes). Oviedo: University, 2014. <hdl.handle.net/10651/30136>.
Harvey, A.D. "George Townsend and 'The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna.' The Byron Journal 29 (2001): 87-9.
Proyecto OLE'11 (2011-) Otras lenguas, otras armas: Poesía proespañola inglesa, portuguesa, francesa y alemana de la Guerra de la Independencia (1808-1814). Edición, traducción y estudio (OLE'11). <www.unioviedo.es/proyectole11>.
Saglia, Diego. Poetic castles in Spain: British Romanticism and figurations of Iberia. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
Valladares, Susan. "Walter Scott's Vision of Don Roderick (1811): A 'drum and trumpet performance'?" Cuadernos de Ilustración y Romanticismo 18 (2012): 107-26.