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“Imperfectly Civilized”: Ballads, Nations, and Histories of Form
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“Imperfectly Civilized”:
Ballads, Nations, and Histories of Form

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome—his 1842 collection of poems written as if they were lost Roman ballads—are all but absent in our current understanding of the Victorian era. The Victorian edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature includes Macaulay’s famous 1835 “Minute on Indian Education” but not Lays of Ancient Rome, nor does the magisterial Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory include even an excerpt.1 Macaulay’s Lays have fallen prey to Matthew Arnold’s 1861 dismissive and damning assessment: “[A] man’s power to detect the ring of false metal in those Lays is a good measure of his fitness to give an opinion about poetical matters at all.”2 Arnold’s dismissal appears in his own cultural translation project—his lectures on translating Homer argue against using ballad meters as the vehicle for popularizing Homer’s greatness—and Arnold’s influential views have effectively removed Macaulay’s poems and their paratextual materials from the literary map of the nineteenth century. This essay explores what is at stake in such a critical erasure and shows why and how these erasures have shaped our contemporary understanding of poetic form.

It isn’t the centrality of Macaulay’s poems in the late-Victorian canon and their absence in our curriculum today that interests me as much as the way their form—the ballad—came to be coded as a communally felt phenomenon. This fabric of a connective, political, and national rhythm begins as a story about a primitive drum, is transformed to a family hearth where stories of the community’s history are told, and then becomes the organized rhythm of the march to war. This idea—of a unifying primitive rhythm—began as a universalist claim in the mid-eighteenth century. By the turn of the nineteenth century and especially after the first reform bill in England, “primitive rhythm” became a poetic function. This poetic function grew increasingly nationalistic in its aims toward midcentury, and then ended up as at once universalizing and nationalistic at the turn of the twentieth century, depending on the discipline in which it was discussed. The Lays of Ancient Rome appear in the middle of that story, in 1842, as part of a [End Page 345] larger discourse about rhythm and meter.3 Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, their history and intervention, can teach us a great deal about what rhythm and meter do and mean for a sense of national identification at midcentury. Macaulay’s project is to impose a vision of martial action as an accepted universal urge and to meld that vision with the discourse of both poetics and civilization. How does Macaulay’s project in Lays of Ancient Rome advance an argument about ballads, nations, and histories of form that maps onto a larger story about rhythm and community, history and education, and comparative poetics? That larger story is still not large enough, for it ignores, entirely, the basis of all of those theories in a world much wider than the Western one.

Sixty-three editions of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome were published between 1842 and 1939; the poem became prominent at the same time that the English empire created a new literary history of India, thanks, in large part, to Macaulay. His 1835 “Minute on Indian Education” secured the passage of Bentinck’s Indian Education Act, making English the language of instruction and promoting an English literary tradition as a civilizing ideological force on the subcontinent. This concept of an English literary tradition was consolidated in the 1830s, before there was a state education system in England. As Gauri Viswanathan has argued, the English literary canon was largely invented in order to subdue and civilize the empire’s Indian subjects.4 Just as the literature of Rome civilized primitive England, so too would the literature of England civilize, Macaulay writes, the primitive “Hindoo.” The parallel to Rome in Macaulay’s progress narrative for England was evident in his parliamentary speeches in favor of reform and it was the success of these speeches that landed him the job in...