You almost feel sorry for the Spanish …
Today marks the day when the undeniably mighty Armada, reeling from a night attack by fireships and blocked from retreating down the Channel, was pummelled by English ships and scattered northwards by storms. Unable to regroup, they tried – and many failed – to get home the hard way, via Scotland and Ireland.
This week’s quotation comes from the wonderfully lyrical Henri Fluchere (as translated by Guy Hamilton):
A radiant cult of life, a firm faith in the possibilities of man’s conquests, an exuberance of mind directly corresponded then with the upward movement of a society enjoying full prosperity. Between Tamburlaine (1587) and Hamlet England laid the foundations of her coming pre-eminence by crushing her great Catholic rival (The Armada, 1588), by assuring for a time the stability of the Throne (execution of Mary Queen of Scots, 1587, and of Essex, 1601), and by paving the way for her colonial expansion, with men like Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins. […] Immense prospects opened up at sea, markets were won, enemies defeated; past glories were studied, and the English felt a new emotion rising within them, which was to fertilize the national conscience – patriotism. [a]
This new emotion lasted well in the 1590s, bolstered by very good harvests in the years 1591-1593. [b] It’s not difficult to see our playwrights not just getting on the bandwagon but feeding a virtuous circle of patriotism with their Histories. It was only later, with people starving as a result of plagues and famines in the mid-late 90s, and increasing worries about the succession, that the mood dimmed a little. Does this coincide with a nation’s sudden appetite for Tragedy? I wonder.
Patriotism. It’s an interesting word.
For the Feminist mindset amongst my students, it’s got that PAT____ opening: patriarchy, patrimony, patron – they crop up everywhere once you start studying classic literature with a particular set of WASP-repellent* lenses in your critical glasses.
But the term has a particular resonance in the here and now, too. This post wasn’t simply inspired by the Armada, but by THIS CALL by 70-year-old ‘Christine’ to James O’Brien‘s radio phone-in, beginning with the assertion, ‘I’m patriotic‘. Brexit has made the zeitgeist curiously 16th century, with other frightening terms like ‘treason’, ‘traitors’, and ‘enemies of the state’ used to monsterise anyone questioning the wisdom of Brexit – and at the moment, the most damaging, no-deal flavour of Brexit. It’s been going on since at least the 2016 referendum, and seems only to be getting worse, not better. We have a new prime minister identifying opponents of Brexit (not of the country) as ‘doubters, doomsters, gloomsters‘ and people ‘who bet against Britain‘. [c] And we have people like 70-year-old Christine, using patriotism as some type of mic-drop, unanswerable, which makes everything else she says right, no matter how ridiculous (listen to her call), and all opposition somehow unpatriotic.
A slight change of direction: I never tire of looking at the OED (and I wish my students would, more often or perhaps at all, not least given they have a subscription). It is the most useful tool for opening up semantic avenues, and what it reveals to us in this case is that ‘patriot‘ has two very different uses. There’s the notion of love of country, of course, but the second definition is far more interesting one:
b. derogatory or ironic. A person who claims to be disinterestedly or self-sacrificingly devoted to his or her country, but whose actions or intentions are considered to be detrimental or hypocritical; a false or feigned patriot. [d]
At this point, like many in 60s USA, I want to disown any claim to patriotism because what we have in the UK is a rampant sense of Decatur’s famous assertion:
My country right or wrong [e]
Patriotism has, as Gordon Brown says, been ‘hijacked’. [f]
The key element of patriotism is LOVE.
Macbeth reminds us that there are as many different types of men as there are dogs. (III.i) Similarly, there are many different types of love. For these Decaturian ‘patriots’, love of country is the unquestioning fawning of Shakespeare’s various spaniels:
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you. [g]
These are the people who will, when the shit hits the fan (as I fundamentally believe it will should we leave the EU, deal or no deal), be unable to reflect, looking instead for anyone but Britain, its voters and politicians, to blame. They will never take ownership where there is a foreign scapegoat (or an inner ‘unpatriotic’ enemy) to be found.
Not owning your failures means, I think, not contributing to your successes. We’re not in the days of the Armada now: success cannot be attributed to some divine will for England’s ‘sceptr’d isle‘. True patriotism is the love of a critical friend, and any sense of patriotism ought to be tempered by Edmund Burke‘s words:
To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovable. [h]
It is not lovable now.
Regular readers will know that I have never made any great claims to loving the country: in fact I’ve been ambivalent about ‘England’ in reading the History plays. I wasn’t born here. And at the moment, I certainly feel more willing to assert that I am European.
But maybe I love the country more than I think: my shame in what we are collectively doing to ourselves; my dismay at how we are treating other nations, and how their perceptions of us are rightly nosediving; my desire to vent about it in blog posts ostensibly about the Spanish Armada: what these things do, I suppose, is betray a desire to make the country lovable.
* WASP being the acronym for the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant males who largely make up the literary canon.
[a] Henri Fluchere, Shakespeare (tranls. Guy Hamilton), (London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1953)
[b] Nigel Heard, Tudor Economy and History (Access to History), (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992)
[c] Boris Johnson, 24 July 2019, at www.bbc.co.uk
[d] Oxford English Dictionary, at www.oed.com
[e] Stephen Decatur, quotation source here. Decatur’s words have been selectively edited and widely misquoted, but the meaning is appropriate here
[f] Gordon Brown, reported in The Guardian, 25 June 2019, here
[g] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II.i) at www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[h] Edmund Burke, at Quodid here