Charting Culture: Cartography and National Identity in Matthew Arnold’s “Ordnance Maps”
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Charting Culture:
Cartography and National Identity in Matthew Arnold’s “Ordnance Maps”

In 1862, amid news of the American Civil War, Westminster Bridge’s opening, and political sparks that would flare into the “turbulent sixties,” a more mundane story made its way onto the pages of The Times. Sir Henry James had, in 1854, taken control of the Ordnance Survey (OS), the British Empire’s official map-making department. James had inherited and solved a dispute concerning the scale upon which to base the maps, settling, with a few concessions, on his favourite, 1:2500 (Hewitt 301); however, on 17 September 1862, an anonymous letter to The Times, signed “Surveyor,” raised another concern. Having requested an OS map and expecting a faithful representation of the area, Surveyor was astonished to find

in many sheets railways that have been in existence for years not laid down; towns and cities that have grown to double the size they were half a century ago still appearing on the map as they were then; and that most of these maps (I speak principally of the south of England) were engraved in the early part of the century 1809–27, and remain as then, with the exception of now and then a railway having been added after the lapse of years, but more frequently left out altogether.

(qtd. in Hewitt 301)

Surveyor’s letter threatened an already strained relationship between the OS and Parliament—concerning delayed deadlines and increasing expenses—so James responded the same day to The Times, calmly asserting that “Surveyor” had mistakenly received an older map copy, that the old map plates had been patched and updated since, and that, after all, “half a loaf is better than no bread” (qtd. in Hewitt 301, 302). Mostly, however, James extolled the new process of photozincography (“zinco”) that would allow, henceforth, the swift production of accurate but disposable map plates to keep up with printing demand and decrease the time expended by traditional engraving methods, thus solving the economic and logistical concerns of Parliament and the public.1

For cultural and literary critic Matthew Arnold, though, every contributor to this debate missed the mark. “In what they have hitherto heard about their errors,” he writes of the OS in an essay titled “Ordnance Maps,” “they have [End Page 87] by no means heard the worst of themselves” (Complete Prose Works 2: 252).2 Arnold concerns himself rather with the “worn out condition of their plates” (cpw 2: 253). Because of the plates’ poor condition, Arnold argues that any “lover of maps” is unable to see, in the mind’s eye, the English landscape as it truly is (cpw 2: 253). He provides a lush description of a map’s ability to evoke landscape in the imagination:

By its shading a good map becomes … almost a picture; it shows [a reader] all the relief and configuration of a country. He can trace, in those finely graduated lines, mountain and valley, slope and plain, open ground and woodland, in all their endless variety.… [B]ut where, he sorrowfully asks, is the Cumnor hill country on the right bank of the Thames, as the original map gave it? Where is Bredon Hill, with all its beautiful staging from the plain to the summit?… [A]bsent.

(cpw 2: 253)

This description would be mere evocative language if it did not echo Arnold’s preface to the 1853 volume of Poems in which Arnold explains several features of inadequate poetry, all of which lead up to his justification for excluding “Empedocles on Etna” from the volume. He writes, “What is not interesting, is that which does not add to our knowledge of any kind; that which is vaguely conceived and loosely drawn; a representation which is general, indeterminate, and faint instead of being particular, precise, and firm” (cpw 1: 1–2).3 Just as contemporary poetry was, according to Arnold’s poetics, wrongly seeking to represent only vague impressions or satisfy the public’s sensationalist tastes, so too were James’s OS maps improperly representing England, and the empire, both cartographically and culturally because of James’s desire to satisfy financial and public demands. James and...