Ode: Rule, Britannia (1740)

When Britain first, at heaven’s command,

Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,

And guardian Angels sung this strain:
“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”

The nations, not so blest as thee,

Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall:

While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule,” etc.

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke:
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule,” etc.

Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:

All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
“Rule,” etc.

To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
“Rule,” etc.

The Muses, still with freedom found,

Shall to thy happy coast repair:
Blest isle! with matchless beauty crowned,

And manly hearts to guard the fair.
“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”



“Ode: Rule Britannia” was composed for Alfred, an operatic masqueas a dramatic form, the masque had reached its highest levels of sophistication during the Renaissance, and it involved music, dance and “disguisings”. The libretto of Alfred was by Thomson and David Mallet, and the music by Thomas Arne. Alfred, premiered in 1740, had the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, seen as an upright figure by the opponents of the Prime Minister, Robert Walpoleamong whom were Pope or Thomson himself. As an alternative to Walpole’s corruption and weak international position, political honesty and the consolidation of British imperial power were thought to be guaranteed by Frederick. The masque was inspired by the rule of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred and, in dedicating it to the Prince of Wales, a comparison was implicitly established. The singing of “Ode: Rule Britannia” was a highlight of the masque, “originally sung by an actor dressed as an ancient bard, accompanied by a British harp” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, p. 2840). The song is still very popular today: it is invariably included in the programme of “The Last Night of The Proms” concert (The Proms are a classical music festival organised by the BBC every summer, see <http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/archive/>).
Title. An ode is “a lyric poem in rhymed stanzas, generally in the form of an address and exalted in feeling and expression”. In Ancient Greece, Pindar’s odes, composed to praise the Olympic victors, were characterised by their formal complexity, paralleled by accompanying music and dance. Odes were introduced into English poetry and adapted to its versification patterns in the 17th century. (The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, ed. Ian Ousby, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, p. 693). Britannia was the name given by the Romans to Great Britain, when they made it a province of the Empire in the 1st century BC. The Latin name was used, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, as an affirmation of British nationalistic pride. Britannia has also been represented as a goddess that bears some resemblance to Minerva and Victoria: she is usually depicted beside a lion, wearing a tunic and a centurion’s helmet, armed with a trident and a shield with the British flag painted on it.


The goddess Britannia


Versification: The stanzas consist of four iambic tetrameters, rhyming abab, and a refrain. The two rhyming lines of the refrain have a length of seven syllables, and the rhythm is predominantly trochaic.
ll. 1-3. At heaven’s command [...] charter of the land. The British are presented as the Chosen People from the very first stanza. They have been privileged by God, which is the basis of “the charter of the land”. The geographical formation of the British Illes is attributed to Divine Will.

l. 2. The azure main. A metonymical way to refer to the ocean. Azure means “bright blue”.

l. 4. Strain. Music, song, verse.

l. 5. Rule the waves. The British military potential resided largely on its Navy, and the poem proudly stresses the nation’s maritime powerrepresented by the trident that Britannia, like Neptune, sports. During the 17th and 18th centuries, notable naval victories against the French and the Spanish had been achieved (see <http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/history/historical-periods/1660-1815/index.htm>).

l. 6. Britons. The name loosely designates the Celtic peoples living in Britain before the Roman invasions. In the context of this patriotic poem, it resonates with an ideal of native heroism.

l. 6. Slaves. The most immediate meaning of the line is, of course, that the British will never be subdued by a foreign power. We may also think of the slave trade, which had become a major economic activity in Britaina naval and colonial power. Although the abolitionist movement would emerge in the 1770s, “by 1740, slavery had become enough of an issue, even if only as a figure of speech”. Lee Morrisey adds: “the question is whether that [Thomson’s line] means Britain is opposed to slavery, or whether the British will always be free, and therefore whether there are others whose enslavement remains acceptable” (English Literature in Context, ed. Paul Poplawski, Cambridge: CUP, 2008, p. 275).

ll. 7-10. The nations [...] envy of them all. The stanza is reminiscent of the history of Israel, as told in the Old Testament. The “heathen” nations contemporary with Israel would inevitably meetthrough divine interventiona future of degradation, ending in the eventual vanishing of the power and success that they enjoyed.

l. 15. Thy native oak. For an account of the relevance of the oak as a symbol of British history and culture, see <http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/oak-tree>.

ll. 17-20. Thee haughty tyrants [...] thy renown. The image of the people rebelling against an unjust ruler, the idea of their moral superiority, brings to mind episodes of British history, such as the execution of Charles I (1649) or the Glorious Revolution (1688). The stanza also brings to mind the British victory at the Battle of Blenheim (1704), in which the allied forces, commanded by John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, defeated the army of Louis XIV and his expansionist ambitions.

ll. 22-23. The rural reign; thy cities. In Thomson’s time, many feared that urban development would end up destroying rural life, idealised as essential to the British spiritthis idea underlies Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, for example. The modern city is seen here as equally important: a centre of commercial activity and sophisticated life.

l. 24. The subject main. The high sea, the open ocean.

l. 27. The Muses will choose to inspire British artists. Naval supremacy, political freedom and flourishing arts are among the nation’s assets.

l. 27. Still here means “always”.