- "One Universal Declension":Barbauld and the Romantic Preposition
The opening couplet of Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem (1812), establishes the anxious spatiality of war, as the distant "death drum" sounds "from afar" but in the next line seems suddenly close and immersive: "Still the loud death drum, thundering from afar, / O'er the vext nations pours the storm of war" (BP 161: 1–2).1 "Still" and "O'er," both stressed first beats, amplify each other's dual senses of motion and inertness, a tension that pervades the poem and seems to define the condition of Britain's interminable war against France and its allies. The "Colossal Power" of Napoleon, its "overwhelming force," recalls the first "o'er" but eliminates the contraction, as though to overwhelm by swelling the line's syllables:
To the stern call still Britain bends her ear,Feeds the fierce strife, the alternate hope and fear;Bravely, though vainly, dares to strive with Fate,And seeks by turns to prop each sinking state.Colossal Power with overwhelming forceBears down each fort of Freedom in its course;Prostrate she lies beneath the Despot's sway,While the hushed nations curse him—and obey.(BP 161: 3–10) [End Page 1172]
One can imagine that metrical necessity prompted Barbauld to pronounce the "over" in "overwhelming" as two syllables, but I want to point out how unusual it is for her to feature a two-syllable "over." In every other use of "over" in the poem, she prefers the more expedient one-syllable contraction "o'er." Here, however, the meter cannot fully account for the choice to retain "over," particularly since "o'er" could be read as one or two syllables depending on how much liberty is taken in pronouncing the diphthong.2 Instead, Barbauld seems to have insisted that this fricative—the sharp, pointed "v"—be voiced, as though to emphasize how the storms of war "[pouring] o'er" the nations solidify into the threat of Napoleon's "overwhelming force." What had seemed unstoppable as a storm front turns out to be a human menace, for which Britain must recognize some responsibility. This transformation is also marked by the translation of "o'er" from preposition into adverbial prefix ("overwhelming"), which holds out hope that Napoleon's power might yet be de-compounded. Indeed, many of the defining actions in the poem are marked by the preposition "over," which joins verbs such as to bend, shed, roll, spread, or brood. Due to its contraction to "o'er" in all but the instance of "overwhelming," "over" / "o'er" becomes nearly aurally indistinguishable from "or," a conjunction that carries additional significance in a poem speculating on this "or" that future for Britain. "O'er" and its cluster of related words echo across the poem, from the storms of war that "pour o'er" the nations, to the name of Britain dispersing "wide o'er transatlantic realms," to the gentler walking of the Spirit of progress "o'er the peopled earth." By attending to Barbauld's use of certain prepositions, a class of words often maligned or ignored by eighteenth-century English grammarians and rhetoricians, I will argue that a poem so often analyzed by critics for its complex temporalities and historiographic insight can also be read as an allegory for the possibilities for English in and beyond 1811.
The first readers of Eighteen Hundred and Eleven were more focused on politics than prepositions: a considerable portion of the critical commentary from Barbauld's time to our own has stressed the explicitly political theme of the poem, as it critiques Britain's ongoing war against Napoleon's armies and prophesizes the fall of the British empire.3 [End Page 1173] Barbauld makes no secret of her pacifism, describing how this war has wasted human life (the matron is "fruitful in vain" as her children, like fallen blossoms, "strew a foreign strand") and impoverished the nation ("thy Midas dream is o'er / The golden tide of commerce leaves thy shore" [BP 162: 23, 26; 163: 61–62]). A long narrative praising past and present British culture ensues, followed by indications of a possible future...