“The Defiance of War”
“The Defiance of War”
Poem. Rhymed couplets; tetrameter.
MS I (pp. 101–2), a Red Book devoted primarily to “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 1. “The Defiance of War” is the second poem in the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology].
Facsimiles by permission of John Ruskin Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Transcriptions of texts and commentary © David C. Hanson.
September 1826–January 1827, most likely toward the end of that period. There is a possibility of the poem dating from as early as January 1826; see “The Needless Alarm”: Date.
This poem, with its exhortation to guard “our peaceful home” from suffering and death, could allude to the removal of Ruskinʼs dying cousin, James Richardson, from Herne Hill in April 1826. If so, the poem might have been composed, or at least refer to a period, earlier than January 1827 (see Discussion; “On Scotland”; and “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 2).
Composition and Publication
Hand is pencil, print; see Ruskinʼs Hand.
The oddly belligerent pacifist message of this poem, combined with its placement alongside poems celebrating both Scotland and British pride of manufacture, appears to support Linda Colleyʼs argument that British identity, North and South, was forged “not so much [by] consensus or homogeneity or centralisation at home, as [by] a strong sense of dissimilarity from those without.” Fear of the Catholic other dominated over divisions between Anglicanism and Dissent, and Old and New Dissent, so that Britons defended above all a “pluralist yet aggressively Protestant polity”; and recurrent wars with France, along with worries about Jacobite restoration, had kept alive the fear “that the old popish enemy was still at the gates, more threatening than ever before” (Colley, Britons, 17, 19, 25, and see p. 18). The primary function of the fears expressed in Ruskinʼs poem may well have been to help to forge identity in this Scottish‐English and, at this time, Dissenter household.
Ruskin presumably picked up on these alarms in his parents, each of whom is likely to have communicated them, perhaps Margaret even more so than John James. As Colley remarks, during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era, “many women . . . seem to have believed that their own security and the security of the family unit were at stake in this French war as they had not been in earlier conflicts. In part, this was because the risk of a French invasion of Britain was so much greater in this war than ever before. But crucial, too, as an ingredient in female anxiety was the destruction of Marie‐Antoinette and the rest of the French Royal Family”—a regicide that Edmund Burkeʼs Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) taught the elder Ruskinsʼ generation to stigmatize specifically in terms “of a queen who was also a wife and mother being driven by force from her home” (Colley, Britons, 254, 253). Hence, the martial twist given to domestic feeling in this poem is not at all out of keeping with a feminine and domestic emphasis—an emphasis that is strong throughout MS I, in domestic scenes depicted in “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 1, the most realistic of which center on the childrenʼs interaction with the Mama character, and in the stamp that Margaret herself puts on the manuscript with her glosses.
It is far more probable that the poem functions in this way, as a reflector of Britonsʼ self‐defining fears of the Other, than that it records an actual threat at the time of its composition. The latest credible threat of invasion of British shores had ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, which closed the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo captured Ruskinʼs imagination throughout the late 1820s, in works such as “The British Battles”, “Battle of Waterloo: A Play in Two Acts”, “Ballad on Waterloo”, and “Trafalgar”. Just so, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë made Wellington the hero of their sagas, but Ruskinʼs fascination with the Battle of Waterloo was not drawn just from books. A year earlier than compiling the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology], during the Tour of 1825 to the Continent, the Ruskins visited Waterloo Field.
Although composed nine years after Waterloo, “The Defiance of War” was more likely prompted by the 1825 tour along with the national anxieties analyzed by Colley than to have reflected some more recent conflict. Nonetheless, one cannot discount the possibility that a conflict contemporary with composition of the poem caught the Ruskinʼs imagination. In late 1826, a skirmish occurred in the East, in connection with the Greek War for Independence from Turkish domination. While no threat to Britain, the war would have interested the Ruskins for its associations with Lord Byron, who had died in Missolonghi in 1824. In the Greek conflict, Britain was striving to avoid an outbreak between Turkey and Russia, whose new tsar, Nicholas I, was willing to push hostilities. In October 1826, which would accord well with a probable date for Ruskinʼs poem, Britain pressured Turkey to accept Russian conditions in the Convention of Akkerman. This assured Russian influence in the Caucasus and the opening of the Straits of Bosphorus to trade, which might have interested the Ruskinsʼ mercantile household. As it turned out, Russia continued to press hostilities in the name of the Greek cause, and Britain joined France and Russia to declare joint mediation, according to a treaty signed in London in July 1827, but this event would certainly have occurred too late to have occasioned Ruskinʼs poem. (In the subsequent history, the Turks refused mediation but were defeated by allied fleets at Navarino in October 1827. The Treaty of Adrianople, rendering Greece autonomous, was signed two years later, in September 1829.)
For a threat closer to home, one returns to the Catholic Other, even in 1826. The Catholic fear was kept alive in the years running up to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, perhaps all the more so in households like the Ruskinsʼ that had to strain to forge together competing loyalties to form a British identity. In those post‐Waterloo years, Colley points out, anti‐Catholic agitation was sustained by “an abundance of women” (Britons, 333). In February 1829, Margaret Ruskin, observing the advance of Catholic Emancipation, would be moved to put aside her suburban calm and flash out against “the R Catholics and their favourers” as “weak equivocal underhand equally devoid of sincerity or honesty & integrity” and capable of “tak[ing] Satan himself into their cabals to further their purposes to bring every thing under their subjection” (letter of 14 February 1829 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 177]).
Another overdetermining possibility is that the poem also works figuratively to comment on the illness and death of Ruskinʼs cousin, James Richardson (see “On Scotland”: Discussion). If so, the poem shows how the boyʼs grief for his cousin might have mixed with alarm over the threat that disease posed to the peace of the household. As an intriguing clue, Charles W. Borchers, IV has discovered beneath the title an erased word that appears to be woe.