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  • Assume the Globe:Tennyson's Jubilee Ode and the Institutions of Imperialism
  • Cornelia Pearsall (bio)

[L]eft to itself all power tends ultimately to construct a chimeric coherence for itself—with its fixations, its archaic landscapes, its arbitrary importance, and its pathological forms.

Achille Mbembe, "Thinking, in Lightning and Thunder"

The world has not yet seen an 'Imperial Institute' and no one appears yet to know precisely what it is for," observed a reviewer in The British Architect, assessing the six finalists in a design competition for a building to commemorate the 1887 Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Lacking clarity about the intentions of the Imperial Institute of the United Kingdom, the Colonies, and India (its full title), "[e]ach architect seems to have had to fancy for himself the sort of thing an Imperial Institute should be." This impression of confusion, or indeed absence, of purpose leads the author to suggest a startling analogy: "it seems very much like asking six Palaeontologists to furnish plans and elevations for a dodo, without supplying them with bones to evolve it from."1 The dodo, a flightless bird native to Mauritius that had gone extinct by the late seventeenth century, less than a century after its first recorded sighting by Dutch sailors, was for Victorian Britain a figure for failure of a potentially comical sort.2 Even had the imagined paleontologists possessed sufficient fossil evidence, to reverse engineer a dodo is to construct an organism marked from inception for extinction, to design for disappearance.

Form could not follow function in the "plans and elevations" for the Imperial Institute, which had been proposed by the Prince of Wales; thus, dysfunction was built into the structure from its foundation. "Already a failure" was the prescient verdict of Thomas H. Huxley, a major proponent of Darwinian evolutionary theory who was an avid early supporter but soon an embittered detractor of the Imperial Institute. Before the building had begun to take material shape, he declared it destined "to become eventually a ghost [End Page 177] like the Albert Hall or revive as a tea garden" (Sheppard, p. 222). It became the latter before it became the former—one of various bathetic trajectories this essay traces—but this prediction had already found correlative voicing in a poem that, paradoxically, helped bring this doomed institution into being. Alfred Tennyson's "Carmen Sæculare. An Ode in Honour of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria," commonly called the Jubilee Ode, also suggests the Imperial Institute's proleptic collapse before the building took actual form. The poem's own form itself became, like the building, an object of amused dismissal. Both the institute and the ode found correlates in a grandiose and short-lived organization that became similarly subject to charges of internal incoherence and irrelevance, the Imperial Federation League, which had disbanded by 1893, less than a decade after its founding in 1884. The organization boasted a prominent membership, including the Poet Laureate, as well as J. R. Seeley, the historian and author of the highly influential 1883 imperialist treatise, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures. This is a crucial affiliation in Tennyson's final decade; as a footnote in Hallam Tennyson's two-volume memoir of his father states, "[o]ne of the deepest desires of his life was to help the realization of the ideal of an Empire by the most intimate union of every part of our British Empire."3 A specific aim of the Imperial Federation League was to promote the permanent union of the British Empire into a single federal entity, with a London-based imperial parliament responsible for common trade and defense policy.4 This desire for the "most intimate" and permanent union of all parts of the empire was expressed by both the organization and the ode. When in 1893 the Imperial Institute formally opened its doors, George Baden-Powell, in an article titled "The Empire and Its Institute," called it not only "a necessity" but also "the consummation of what is meant by the popular phrase 'Imperial Federation.'"5

The first part of this essay addresses some aims and influences of the Imperial Federation League, especially in its multimodal ideological intersections...