Maynooth University, Ireland | Published: 18 December, 2023 | Views:
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Ireland’s paradoxical status within the British empire has been thoroughly researched and theorised. Ireland can now be imagined as both a subject nation and a recruiting ground for imperial profiteers. The thin red line emerges as disproportionately green while research into the slave trade reveals heavy Irish investment. Meanwhile eighteenth-century European imperialism flourishes alongside the earliest theorisations of “World Peace”, whether figured spatially as “universally peace” or temporally as “perpetual peace”. The Abbé Saint-Pierre’s influential work Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1713) attracted the appreciative attention of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Scholars debate the credibility of such projects, but their influence was considerable. Saint-Pierre’s notion of a European union which can arbitrate to prevent war fascinates, but it ignores conflicts arising from competitive global colonisation and by freezing pre-existing frontiers it may crush nationalist aspirations. What is Ireland’s place in the imagining of a world without war in the eighteenth century? To what extent is Ireland complicit in the entrenched injustices of a Pax Britannica and to what extent does a projected demilitarised world offer prospects for genuine self-determination? Looking at verse which celebrates the conclusion of various eighteenth-century conflicts, this article considers celebrations of the idea of “Peace” from Irish literary (and sub-literary) sources and attempts to consider the mixture of hopes and fears that animate understandings of how particular conflicts are concluded. The ways and means whereby “peaces” are extended in the literary imagination give a clue to versions of “enlightened” Irish futurity.

La paradójica situación de Irlanda dentro del Imperio británico ha sido objeto de exhaustivas investigaciones y teorías. Irlanda puede considerarse a la vez una nación sometida y un campo de reclutamiento para especuladores imperiales. La delgada línea roja se torna desproporcionadamente verde, al tiempo que la investigación sobre el comercio de esclavos revela fuertes inversiones irlandesas. Mientras tanto, el imperialismo europeo del siglo XVIII florece junto a las primeras teorías sobre la “paz mundial”, entendida espacialmente como “paz universal” o temporalmente como “paz perpetua”. La influyente obra del abate Saint-Pierre, Projet pour rendre la paix perpétualle en Europe (1713), atrajo la atención de Jean-Jacques Rousseau e Immanuel Kant. La crítica continúa debatiendo la credibilidad de tales proyectos, pero su influencia fue considerable. La idea de Saint-Pierre de una unión europea que arbitrara para evitar la guerra semeja fascinante, pero ignora conflictos derivados de la competencia por la colonización global y, al bloquear fronteras preexistentes, puede llegar a someter aspiraciones nacionalistas. ¿Cuál es el lugar de Irlanda en la visión de un mundo sin guerras en el siglo XVIII? ¿Hasta qué punto es Irlanda cómplice de las injusticias de una Pax Britannica y hasta qué punto la proyección de un mundo desmilitarizado permite la posibilidad de una verdadera autodeterminación? Prestando atención a una serie de versos que celebran el fin de varios conflictos del siglo XVIII, este artículo analiza ejemplos en los que se celebra la idea de “paz” en fuentes literarias (y subliterarias) irlandesas, al tiempo que pretende desentrañar el entramado de esperanzas y temores que subyacen a la manera en la que es entendida la conclusión de determinados conflictos. Los modos y medios a través de los cuales la imaginación literaria propaga las “paces” nos proporcionan la clave para versiones de un porvenir irlandés “ilustrado”.

Abate Saint-Pierre; Henry Murphy; Joel Barlow; poesía irlandesa; paz mundial; Kant; Burke

The concept of “world peace” is a remarkably contentious and contested one. Panoramas of peace and tranquillity invariably provoke urgent, sceptical, and necessary questions regarding exactly whose peace is being guaranteed and at whose expense. Innumerable caveats notwithstanding, the prospect of world peace was a significant topic of discussion in the eighteenth century, plotted philosophically and invoked vaguely.

Poetically, there are two related but distinct expressions of pacific yearning that form part of eighteenth-century discourse: “Universal Peace” and “Perpetual Peace”, the one spatial and the other temporal. Of course, ideally one wants both but invariably the emphasis differs from writer to writer (or peacemonger to peacemonger). How far can peace either extend or endure? This article seeks to consider some imaginings of extended and/or enduring peace, imaginings of varying degrees of sophistication and ambition, in the hope that larger arguments about the viability of “the Enlightenment” as a coherent or even desirable phenomenon can be informed by understandings of what would have been any such phenomenon’s most precious legacy.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century (1713), the Abbé Saint-Pierre in his Projet pour rendre la Paix perpétuelle en Europe addresses his proposal for perpetual peace exclusively to absolute monarchs. Central to his scheme is European union, headed by a supra-national parliament based in Utrecht that settles international disputes with binding authority. Without such supra-national authority, every nation has the power to unilaterally interpret the terms of any given peace treaty and unilaterally decide when the other party to the treaty has violated those terms. As a consequence, treaties are no better than truces – temporary re-armament sabbaticals from what has become Europe’s natural state, war, or what he calls “the system of war” (Saint-Pierre 1713: 70). Saint-Pierre also suggests that the essence of his scheme had already been outlined by Henri IV more than a century earlier and that it had met with the approbation of Elizabeth I. Although this scheme has been associated with Henri’s famous minister, the Duc de Sully, Saint Pierre is anxious to beef up its credentials by presenting it as the brainchild of the most well-beloved of Bourbons.

The problems with Saint-Pierre’s scheme are many and varied. He makes little or no reference to overseas colonies and regards them as comparatively unimportant in the great scheme of things. He even goes so far as to assert that Britain’s American colonies cost more than they are worth and that Britain (or perhaps England) would thrive as a more condensed and concentrated population (Saint-Pierre 1713: 143). Secondly, this sort of peace settlement has the effect of freezing the frontiers and enshrining a status quo, a status quo that might be acceptable perhaps if one is English or Austrian, but less palatable if one is Hungarian or Irish. Incipient insurgent nationalisms are to be collectively crushed by the combined votes of powerful member states, eager to prevent analogous insurgencies within their own borders. This is not a scenario that Saint-Pierre anticipates but it logically follows. Tomaž Mastnak goes further in a hostile reading of Saint-Pierre, pointing out that subsequent revisions to the original proposals suggest not just a defensive league of Christendom but an imperialist exercise, a consolidation of collective power preparatory to overwhelming and Europeanising the Islamic world (1998: 589). Fortress Europe becomes the basis for offensive as well as defensive military operations.

Despite all these obvious difficulties and controversies, both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant were impressed by Saint-Pierre, seeing past these troubling implications and declaring themselves impressed by the scale and the scope of the project’s ambition. In the preface to his commentary on Saint-Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace (Rousseau 1761), Rousseau remarks that the literary imagination appears to be more generally stimulated by destructive ambition than constructive governance and that Alexander the Great looms larger in the historical imagination than countless contributors to the permanent improvement of the human condition. Rousseau argues that the problem with Saint-Pierre’s book is that it appeals too much to the high-mindedness of hereditary princes. With some tweaking, Rousseau argues, a similar scheme can play to their sense of naked self-interest.

It is arguable that the ambition as well as the evident problems with Saint-Pierre’s project can do much to illustrate and organise the central issue that continues to define international eighteenth-century studies. Did there ever exist a thing worth calling “The European Enlightenment” and if so, was it “a good thing”? As the introduction to the most relevant edited volume on this topic, Carey and Festa’s Enlightenment and Postcolonialism (2009), deftly summarises:

The accusations levelled against Enlightenment within post-colonial theory might go something like this: irremediably Eurocentric, the ideas grouped under the rubric of Enlightenment are explicitly or implicitly bound up with imperialism. In its quest for the universal, Enlightenment occludes cultural difference and refuses moral and social relativity. Inasmuch as its values are identified as coextensive with modernity, the Enlightenment naturalizes a teleology in which all roads lead inexorably to an episteme associated with the West. (Festa and Carey 2009: 8)

If the Enlightenment cannot save the world from war, what is Enlightenment good for? Moreover, if the quest for something “universal” fuels the teleological episteme of western imperialism, then eighteenth-century ideas of world peace may have caused far more wars than they professed to want to end. “Progress” is, of course, a thoroughly eighteenth-century term, and the essential problem of political philosophy that any consideration of world peace has to confront concerns the dark side of “progressivism”. Any attempt to claim that tomorrow can be better than today might be said to construct a developmental curve for humanity that places certain societies ahead of the curve and therefore somehow justified in dictating terms to those left behind. If conservatives oppress you in the name of their own ancestors, so-called progressives will oppress you in the name of your own posterity. Essays such as Kant’s famous “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” (1991 [1784]) may suggest an irreversibility associated with a very European concept of free-thinking that can be co-opted for coercive purposes.

The study of pacific aspiration is obviously not just a study of political logic. However, attempts to examine more literary celebrations of “peace” in terms of big data sets encounter problems immediately. Most poems celebrating peace celebrate particular “peaces”. They might be termed “scoreboard” poems, poems taunting a supposedly defeated foe, not uncommonly playing with variants of the still familiar “you only sing when you’re winning” and “it’s all gone quiet over there”. These “peace” poems no more suggest the permanent cessation of conflict than winning the World Cup suggests the permanent cessation of football.

Even less pacific are ironic commentaries on particular peace treaties suggestive of diplomatic betrayal. Such texts ring the changes on the subsequent Whig commentary on the Tory Peace that it resembled the Peace of God insofar as it “passeth all understanding” (a quotation variously attributed to William Pitt and John Wilkes referring to the Bute administration’s peace treaty with France of 1763). There is another very limited but slightly more idealistic celebration of peace implied by poetry within the so-called Tory “Blue Water” tradition. This tradition imagines Britain and therefore Ireland effectively withdrawing from large scale involvement in European land conflict and instead investing heavily in a powerful navy, powerful enough to protect Britain from invasion and guarantee trade routes. Ideally this navy would be powerful enough to deter any conflict, but if push comes to shove, naval warfare involves far fewer military casualties and no civilian casualties.

By far the most famous Blue Water Tory poem is Alexander Pope’s “Windsor Forest” (1713):


The time shall come, when free as seas or wind

Unbounded Thames shall flow for all mankind,

Whole nations enter with each swelling tyde,

And seas but join the regions they divide;

Earth’s distant ends our glory shall behold,

And the new world launch forth to seek the old.

Then ships of uncouth form shall stem the tyde,

And feather’d people croud my wealthy side,

And naked youths and painted chiefs admire

Our speech, our colour, and our strange attire!

Oh stretch thy reign, fair Peace! from shore to shore,

’Till Conquest cease, and slav’ry be no more;

(Pope 1961: 190-92; original emphasis)


Blue Water Toryism can offer, hypothetically, perpetual peace but not universal peace. It suggests a more extreme version of the Fortress Europe envisaged by Saint-Pierre, but positing Britain a tight little island that flourishes smugly while the rest of the world burns. A disconcertingly “Brexity” reading of Jonathan Swift’s Conduct of the Allies (1711) might reinforce his friend Pope’s vision of a “Britannia Unchained” from continental entanglements – the notion of a restless entrepreneurial Britain that begs to be “unleashed” is central to the 2012 polemic Britannia Unchained by right wing conservative MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, and Liz Truss. There is even a case to be made that Blue Water Toryism is the great grandfather of American Isolationism. The ink was barely dry on the 1783 Peace of Versailles, when early American patriot Joel Barlow started to compose his great American epic, The Vision of Columbus (1787).

Joel Barlow, writing at the end of the century, takes Pope’s Blue Water commercial vision and extrapolates from it something rather more ambitious, if less elegantly expressed:


For Heaven impartial spread the watery way,

Liberal as air and unconfined as day;

That every distant land the wealth may share,

Exchange their fruits, and fill their treasures there;

Their speech assimilate, their empires blend,

And mutual interest fix the mutual friend. (Barlow 1787: 230)


Unfortunately, the parts of Barlow’s American epic that are not violent are remarkably dull. The use of the word “assimilate” is especially troubling, since Barlow elsewhere suggests a monolingual future for a better world, undoing the curse of Babel while overwhelming traditional languages and cultures. As Danielle Conger notes, the images of barbarity that Barlow reproduces and amplifies are suggestive of the idea that the native peoples of the Americas are incorrigibly violent and are incapable (unassisted) of plotting a trajectory towards a peaceable future (1999: 561).

The Vision of Columbus attracts far less critical commentary than “Windsor Forest”, for obvious reasons. Generally regarded as tedious. many readers are also understandably alienated by a vision of a triumphalist Pax Americana vouchsafed to a mass-murdering conquistador. The entire poem consists of the sort of futuristic vision that usually occurs towards the end of an epic (or attempted epic). Tellingly, Columbus, a prisoner in Spain, is treated very much as an exile from his “real” country – America. This is a Columbus who has a vested interest in the outcome of the American War of Independence, because “his” country is struggling to survive.

Barlow himself treats the Inca and Aztec empires with considerable respect, although he makes it clear that these civilisations are rare exceptions to the barbaric tribes that have dominated both North and South America. Columbus is treated as a “good” conquistador, unlike those bad conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro. The Incan Manco Capac is venerated by Barlow as the world’s greatest legislator, whose achievements deserve to be studied alongside the world’s greatest legislators – Numa, Solon, and Moses. What Capac is able to offer Barlow is an ancient American precedent for a pattern of assimilation and civilisation. Capac never initiates an offensive war, but when incorrigibly violent tribes to the east of Peru invade his kingdom, he conquers them as much with benevolence as with military power. What Barlow is attempting to do, partially and unconvincingly, is to re-erect a progressivist vision of world peace on something other than a Eurocentric framework of expectations. However, although Capac is not European, he flatters every European stereotype associated with supposedly enlightened and pacific governance. Barlow is interesting because he exhibits both the need for and the difficulty of a Pax Humana that is not a Pax Europa.

It is a paradox, but a predictable paradox, that the most poignant expressions of peace occur in poems devoted to military glory. Joel Barlow’s hymn to peace opens Book VII:


Give me to trace, with pure unclouded ray,

The arts and virtues that attend thy sway;

To see thy blissful charms, that here descend,

Through distant realms, and endless years extend. (1787: 186)


In Book IX, it is observed that “[o]ne wide interest sways the peaceful race” (227). Barlow combines assertions of high-minded idealism with appeals to raw material self-interest. The possibility that war might be good for business does not occur to him. Barlow’s (ecumenical) piety cannot imagine that God would fail to materially reward humanity having turned its back on warfare, in much the same way that a deal of anti-slavery literature argued that the economic rewards of free labour would surpass the profits to be made from human flesh, offering examples of what theologians term “comfortable doctrine”. The appendix to An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro slaves in the West Indies by William Wilberforce (1823) offers an extended example of this reasoning.

According to Joseph Tusiani, the good reception afforded The Vision of Columbus had the fatal effect of turning a philosophical poem into that more self-consciously epic disaster retitled The Columbriad (1976: 36). If Saint Pierre anticipates the European Union, Barlow, decades later, prophesies Esperanto and the United Nations, albeit a United Nations that meets in Iraq rather than in New York.

A revolutionary age understandably connects the project of world peace with the triumph of republican constitutionalism. Accordingly, Paineite radicalism constructs warfare as the plaything of princes. Republics are definitionally devoted to the common good and should therefore be averse to war – precisely how a generation well versed in the literature of classical antiquity reached this conclusion is a very necessary but separate topic. Famously, Paine imagined a Europe of sister republics engaged in multilateral arms reductions talks leading to lower taxation all round with enough savings to pay for education and old age pensions.

Proud if pseudonymous Welsh Paineite poet “Joseph Jones”, while claiming the republican title of “Citizen of the World”, reminds readers in his Mirror of Monarchy (1794) that when the children of Israel decided they wanted kings, they were given fair divine warning via the prophet Samuel that Kings would tax them to the hilt to fund their wars of personal vainglory. Monarchy and militarism have been yoked together since the dawn of history and the abolition of one entails the abolition of the other:


No more shall martial pomp and fierce Campaigns,

With-hold the Rustic from his native plains;

Where life, nor limb, is lost in quest of fame,

The phantom Glory, is an empty name.

The plough resume, forego the spear and shield.

For useful labours, ample honours yield:

Suffice it now, no more grim havock rage,

Nor kindred dust a dreadful warfare wage!

In social bands be join’d the human race,

And close the scene with UNIVERSAL PEACE. (1794: 10; original emphasis)


The great advantage of Republicanism is, apparently, its Peace Dividend. Pomp and glory are the very stuff of monarchy and are inseparable from military ambition. Republicanism, insofar as it exorcises the phantom “Glory”, establishes the most significant precondition for Universal Peace. Saint-Pierre’s appeals to the self-interest of absolute monarchs were clearly misplaced.

Authors such as Jones and Barlow may not be great poets, but they do seem to realise that the only way to secure world peace is to render warfare disreputable, to depict it as an unworthy expression of national machismo, and to redirect the energies that once promoted warfare in more constructive channels. Here is an anticipation of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that warfare will vanish only when it is regarded as vulgar rather than just wicked.

A suggestion which ongoing research may either confirm or refute is that the poetic imagining of expansive and enduring peace in the eighteenth century has a decidedly maritime feel to it. The peace dividend involves not merely the safe and reciprocal exchange of goods across the world but, from a descriptive point of view, there is also a sort of salt-water tang to the rhetorical preferences of optimistic peacemongers. The peaceful trade that it is habitually imagined will replace global conflict tends to focus on oceans rather than roads.

What might be the distinctively Irish contribution to eighteenth-century Peace Studies? There is the possibility of constructing a discussion around the two greatest Anglophone Irish writers from the beginning and end of the century. Such a discussion might be book-ended by Swift’s Conduct of the Allies (1711) and Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on the Regicide Peace (1796). Needless to say, neither Swift nor Burke are utopian thinkers, and these works are about particular peaces rather than universal or perpetual peaces. At the same time there is no work, no matter how particular, by Swift or Burke, that does not engage certain universals.

It is notable that the anti-utopian Burke nonetheless assumes a concept that he might have derived from Saint-Pierre: the idea of a commonwealth of European nations. However, he adapts this concept to the service of war rather than peace. From Burke’s point of view, it is right and necessary to carry on the war with the regicidal regime indefinitely because the very existence of such a regime threatens a common European identity and purpose. The compact between the monarchies of Europe which Saint-Pierre, Rousseau and Kant felt had to be given legal and constitutional architecture exists for Burke as a vague but potent “given”. A European union pre-exists, for Burke, insofar as it can recognise and react to an existential threat to all hitherto assumed versions of Europe.

If Burke uses the idea of European union to agitate for war rather than peace, then Swift uses the absence of European union to argue for peace rather than war. From opposite ends of the century, these two celebrated Irish writers are determined to turn Saint-Pierre on his head. For Swift, it is the grand alliance itself that is responsible for prolonged warfare. If Britain were to retreat to a narrower version of rational self-interest, then a reasonable separate peace would be more readily accomplished. Given Swift’s obsession with national debt, it appears that the more nation states turn inward, and attempt to nurture both domestic industry and domestic consumption, the greater the chances of international peace. The co-dependency of nations is what drags those nations into pointless conflict.

The contradictions of pacific yearnings in an eighteenth-century Irish literary context are perhaps better charted by referencing less sophisticated and perhaps more representative writers, and by examining literature that treats war and peace in a far more emotional, excitable, and frequently downright confused way. And there are few works of literature more confused than the bizarre 1790 epic The Conquest of Quebec by Henry Murphy.

Henry Murphy “flourished” in the early 1790s, lived in Dublin, and had been completely blind since infancy. His blindness is something he repeatedly references, both in his prefaces and in the main body of his poems. He is not shy of reminding his readers that certain other poets are known to have been blind and he goes so far as to suggest that blindness can help a truly great poet to reach a point of transcendence. Unfortunately, Murphy’s resemblance to John Milton begins and ends with the coincidence of blindness.

The Conquest of Quebec is a full-blown epic poem, in eight books, composed (significantly) in heroic couplets, a very “unMiltonic” decision to make. There are points where this humourless epic veers tantalisingly close to mock epic:


His rising hands, the yielding rapper, seize:

It mounts, descends, in quick vibrations plays,

Swift from the door in rapid flights abounds,

Attacks, recoils, the hollow brass resounds;

Thro’ all the dome the rattling thunder flies,

And rends, with gath’ring force, the trempling skies. (1790: 33-34)


This ponderous description illustrates how Murphy feels he ought to describe James Wolfe knocking on someone’s door and is representative of the pompous register that governs the entire poem. Meanwhile, the reader is continually irritated by the repetition (ad nauseam) of the Homeric epithet “God-Like”. After a while, the reader begins to wonder whether anyone resembling a mortal human is fighting under Wolfe’s command at all. Meanwhile, nothing about the general tenor of the poem suggests deliberate “mock heroic”, especially as later in the poem we are offered the clumsy misgendering of “Hibernia, who, with kind fraternal hand, / Still guards the honour of her sister land” (1790: 56). Hibernia’s pronouns appear, intriguingly, to be “He/Her”. The overall quality of the poem does not invite the reader to imagine that such confusion might be creatively transgressive or subversively anti-heteronormative. It is notable, however, that this fraternisation between Britannia and Hibernia appears to be retroactively justified because of the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1782, acts which were passed decades after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. There is some strange temporal slippage demonstrated as the subsequent measures passed in favour of religious toleration are vindicated by and vindicate Irish participation in Wolfe’s conquest of Lower Canada, a war that was being fought, paradoxically, against Catholics.

Murphy, meanwhile, writing in 1790, celebrates the 1782 establishment of a version of Irish Parliamentary sovereignty in glowing terms:


By Albion long, with iron sceptre, sway’d,

Saw all her rights contemn’d her laws betray’d;

Her commerce stifled, and her arts opprest,

Her friends neglected, and her foes carest.

At length, oh! Heav’n, at the all mild command,

The joyful time rolls o’er this smiling land,

When these great souls should burst their galling chain,

And bravely free her sacred rights again.

Now do we see these guardians of the laws,

Step nobly forward in their country’s cause;

Now do we see them, firm in glory, all,

Unlur’d by gold, by aught but Freedom’s call,

Sternly serene contemn Oppression’s frown,

And awe, by threats, their haughty tyrants down;

While the vast world, in wonder mix’d with fears;

Sounds forth the praise of ’Erna’s volunteers! (1790: 57)


Notably, the 1782 volunteers did not have to fire a shot in anger. They “awe” their way to limited legislative autonomy. The 1780s Irish war of independence that never was has, according to Murphy, earned the admiration of the entire world and yet Erna’s volunteers are somehow shoehorned into an epic devoted to British imperial expansion.

Murphy’s poem opens in Heaven with God the Father conversing with God the Son about the apparently self-evident need for Britain to win the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the Son even offering to go back down to Earth again if it will help. From the perspective of 1790, the conquest of Quebec is a decisive factor in the slow unravelling of the Penal Laws, since it involves the very necessary accommodation of Catholicism. William Pitt is angelically inspired to go to George II to suggest that James Wolfe be made commanding officer in Canada. This suggestion echoes a much earlier (1713) poem by the Jacobite poet Bevill Higgons, in which an angel suggests the idea of the Peace of Utrecht to Queen Anne disguised as Lord Bolingbroke (Higgons 1713: 5).

The remainder of this long poem employs a variety of very clichéd epic devices including a pair of Noble Savages (Satagus and Tamina) who eventually re-enact the parting of Hector from Andromache. Satagus dies in battle and Tamina commits suicide, ascending immediately and unproblematically to Heaven in a scene which further develops Murphy’s heterodoxy and which is probably inspired by Pope’s “Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady”: “Is there no bright reversion in the sky / For those who greatly think, or bravely die?” (Pope 1963: 362).

Murphy’s distinctive ecumenism, indeed, universalism is showcased throughout. Wolfe’s French counterpart, Montcalm is certainly demonised, but never on sectarian grounds. Indeed, Murphy offers a statement of extreme inclusivity when it comes to religious salvation:


Nor think, as erring zeal would teach thy race,

Heav’n to some favourite sects confines her grace,

Virtue ’tis only thy all-righteous lot,

And when or where thou grow’st it matters not,

Whether in Mecca, or blest Sion’s wall,

For heavn’s unbounded love still hangs o’er all. (1790: 286)


There also is a lengthy digression where the main Native American character (Satagus) is quizzed about the entire history of European involvement in the America. It is predictably assumed that as an “Indian” he is as qualified to talk about the Aztecs and the Incas as he is about the Iroquois and the Shawnee. His judgement is, understandably, rather harsh:


For since that day, when Europe’s pit’less hand

First hurl’d sad ruin o’er own growning land,

Still from religion’s awful name they’ve brought

Cloaks, for to warrant all the crimes they wrought,

While the dark horrors of their actions tell,

That they’re the servants of the Lord of Hell; (1790: 139)


It is notable that Murphy does not tolerate intolerance, indeed he is better at denouncing bigotry than he is celebrating inclusivity, with the surprising consequence that ecumenical Murphy’s Hell is actually very well-populated.

This strange damnatory zeal is evident in perhaps the most extraordinary section of The Conquest of Quebec: the final book, Book VIII, which deals with the posthumous adventures of James Wolfe. After his death, Wolfe’s spirit experiences a very direct flight to heaven and after the most cursory of examinations, he is admitted. He is granted a glowing vision of Britain’s futurity, albeit a vision in which it becomes necessary to mention the American Revolution. Wolfe (and the reader) is reassured that this resumed conflict involving France will be remembered by remote posterity for the naval victories of Admiral Romney with embarrassing sideshows like Saratoga and Yorktown consigned to the dustbin of historical memory:


For tho’ the wars, that late her sons had borne,

Some distant members from her realms had torn,

Ne’er shall this loss o’er cloud her radiant name,

But aid the progress of her rising fame;

No more her weakn’ning pow’rs with wid’ning course,

Shall by too vast expansion lose their force,

She, in herself collected, shall unite

To one huge focus all her gath’ring might,

Thence pouring dreadful on proud Gallia’s shore,

Take a vast vengeance for the wrongs she bore; (1790: 275-76)


Murphy’s belief that the maritime victories of Rodney more than compensate for the failure of British land forces to retain the thirteen colonies recalls the Blue Water Tory tradition already mentioned. Oddly enough, Murphy also recalls Jean-Jacques Rousseau at this point, whose own commentary on Saint-Pierre makes the following observation:

[…] kings have at last learned the secret of doubling or trebling their power not only without enlarging their territory but even, it may be by contracting it, after the wise example of Hadrian. The secret is that the strength of kings lies only in that of their subjects: and it follows from what I have just said that, given two States supporting an equal number of inhabitants, that which covers the smaller extent of territory is in reality the more powerful. (Rousseau 2005 [1761]: 73)

It is just possible that Murphy may have been thinking of this Hadrianic model of strategic imperial retrenchment when brushing off the loss of the thirteen colonies, but by the same argument it becomes hard to demonstrate that the acquisition of vast swathes of largely uninhabited Canadian territory should count as any kind of strategic advantage. Canada cannot “focus” Britishness.

Having been granted his futurity, Wolfe then has the opportunity to meet a variety of poets. Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare and Matthew Prior are all happy to meet Wolfe but the poet who really outshines them all is the poet demonstrably the greatest in any language who ever lived – Alexander Pope, not co-incidentally, the supreme articulator of Blue Water Toryism. The awkwardness of Pope’s mortal body has been replaced by a dazzling angelic form.[1] As far as Murphy is concerned, God himself, is not more “god-like” than Alexander Pope in Heaven. Catholic Pope’s pre-eminence in Murphy-Heaven is also a defiantly ecumenical gesture from someone who heartily approves of the dismantling of the Penal Laws. Incidentally, Murphy’s Protestant background is suggested by a subscription list which includes a number of Murphys with “TCD” after their names.[2]

However, again, the ecumenism is remarkably judgemental. In addition to a vision of the apotheosis of Alexander Pope, we are given a diptych vision of all of Pope’s former critics and cavillers writhing about in Hell, a view that constitutes his chief heavenly reward (Murphy 1790: 283). It appears God can welcome all decent people from every religious tradition whatsoever, but Heaven cannot accommodate anybody unable to appreciate Pope’s Essay on Man. Two years after the Conquest of Quebec, Murphy publishes his own version of Pope’s Essay on Man with the modest title of A Complete System of Poetical Ethicks (1792). In his lengthy preface, Murphy again meditates on his own blindness, which he regards as a positive advantage as a moral preceptor. To be unable to see is to be inoculated against certain temptations and corruptions: “[…] a Man, who has spent much of his time, in what is call’d the World, may indeed, be well qualified to describe that World as it is, but to describe it as it should be, his prudence, if he have any, will surrender to less infected hands” (Murphy 1792: 4). A position of exclusion can offer privileged “perspective” – if such a word is allowable.

Meanwhile, Henry Murphy, dismal as he often is, nonetheless exhibits many influentially paradoxical ways of imagining War and Peace in the eighteenth century. The advantageous thing about reading terrible poets is they make poetry look difficult. Exoskeletal, they foreground carelessly overused imagery. Accordingly, Murphy evidences the continual persistence of bellicosity as an epic imperative. The decision to write a Homeric epic about the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) is especially paradoxical since the mid-eighteenth century marked the pre-eminence of the musket as a weapon of war. It is common knowledge that you can barely hope to hit a barn door using a Brown Bess smoothbore musket. Yet Murphy exclaims: “Just at that instant a foul vengeful Gaul / Aim’d at the hero’s breast a pond’rous ball” (Murphy 1790: 243). Whatever musketball killed James Wolfe was not “aimed” by any Gaul in a spirit of vengeance, because this is not how a musket battle works. Musketeers, properly trained, are capable of sending a great deal of destructive lead in roughly the right direction. In order for muskets to have their optimal impact, it is necessary that those wielding them are so thoroughly drilled that in the heat of battle a kind of muscle memory takes over. Every human impulse encourages people to fire at the enemy while they are still a long way off. But if a musketeer fires too soon, they are wasting their shot. It therefore takes real discipline to avoid shooting until shot can have its maximum impact. The result is that musket battles such as the famous Battle of Minden (1759) test the very concept of individual heroism because they require a collective courage – a courage that does not lend itself to the kind of poetic treatment that traditionally celebrates individual prowess. The more robotic the musketeer, the more effective the military unit, rendering a military epic on Homeric lines somewhat redundant. Can you have heroism worthy of a Homeric epic without individual agency? If not, then eighteenth-century warfare is an inherently unheroic activity. Or rather, successful eighteenth-century warfare is inherently unheroic. Arguably, the eighteenth century marks the high (or low) water mark of unheroic warfare since once rifles become standard issue, the opportunity for individual initiative on the battlefield may increase. Efficient musketeers might be collectively brave, but it is hard to single out individuals for special praise.

John Richardson has described the problems of writing military epics in the eighteenth century, making particular reference to Joseph Addison’s Campaign (1704). Decades later it remains impossible to imagine Wolfe and Montcalm engaged in Homeric sledging when nobody is going to be audible above the sound of artillery (Richardson 2005: 563). Yet if modern battlefields cannot accommodate Hector and Achilles, the military epic retains a zombie existence for many decades. The less feasible the descriptions, the more remarkable the residual need to place combat at the heart of how heroism is to be poetically communicated. As Immanuel Kant observes:

War itself requires no special motive but appears to be engrafted on human nature; it passes even for something noble, to which the love of glory impels men quite apart from any selfish urges. Often war is waged only in order to show valour; thus an inner dignity is ascribed to war itself, and even some philosophers have praised it as an ennoblement of humanity. (Kant 1957: 28-29)

Murphy, oddly enough, refuses to join the dots or celebrate any connection between the conquest of Canada and the slow demise of the Penal Laws in Ireland, although the relationship is clear enough. It was deemed logistically impossible for the tiny anglophone Protestant population of Quebec to deny religious freedoms to the much larger French Catholic population. However, if there was a practical case for abolishing Penal Laws in Canada while preserving them much closer to home, there was no moral case and this discrepancy proved politically potent. Enlightened governance deals with transparent universals rather than murky pragmatic exceptions. Murphy is aware, at least, that the Peace of 1763 has massive implications for Ireland insofar as it represents a breach in the British confessional state. A conquest has been obtained that cannot help but transform the conqueror as well as the conquered. To absorb a large Catholic population is to be transformed by it. Murphy cannot help but know this, but he cannot organise this knowledge into coherent verse.

Murphy might have made it his legitimate aim to point this out but, as is obvious, “aiming” was not really his forte. Murphy is a poet (or a sort of poet) whose tendency is towards a kind of clarifying obscurity, a deprivileging of visual metaphors as a means of organising disparate material. The conquest of Canada and the Apotheosis of Alexander Pope are celebrated by a sightless poet for whom rhythmic rather than spatial perceptions are all important.

Perhaps all versification, both good and bad, is ultimately a peace-making endeavour. It involves balance and negotiation and must avoid premature resolution in order to recognise the basis for potential conflict. Its symmetries need to acknowledge asymmetry and it constantly needs to reposition the caesura so as to correct acknowledged and oscillating imbalances. A successful heroic couplet is an exhibition of balance of power. I am therefore positing the early and tentative conclusion that the quest for world peace may, like so many other serious challenges, be constructed as a metrical problem.


[1] There is a separate essay to be written under the aegis of disability studies that might reflect on the fact that one poet who is physically challenged glorifies another poet who is physically challenged in a different way, illustrating a version of intersectionality.

[2] Although Murphy is a very common name, it seems reasonable to assume that only close family would subscribe for multiple copies of The Conquest of Quebec.

Works Cited

Barlow, Joel (1787). The Vision of Columbus: A Poem in Nine Books. London: Printed for C. Dilly and J. Stockdale.

Burke, Edmund (1796). Thoughts on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace, in a series of Letters London: Printed for J. Owen.

Conger, Danielle E. (1999). “Towards a Native American Nationalism: Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus.” New England Quarterly 72: 558-76.

Festa, Lynne and Daniel Carey (2009). “Introduction: Some Answers to the Question: ‘What is Postcolonial Enlightenment?’” The Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory, edited by Daniel Carey and Lynne Festa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1-23.

Higgons, Bevill (1713). A Poem on the Peace. London: Printed for John Morphew.

Jones, Joseph (1794). The Mirror of Monarchy, a poem. Canterbury: n.p.

Kant, Immanuel (1957). Perpetual Peace, edited and translated by L. W.  Beck.  Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill.

______ (1991 [1784]) “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” Kant: Political Writings, translated by H. B. Nisbet and edited by Hans Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 54-60.

Mastnak, Tomaž (1998). “Abbé de Saint-Pierre: European Union and the Turk.” History of Political Thought 19: 570-98.

Murphy, Henry (1790). The Conquest of Quebec. An Epic Poem. Dublin: Printed for W. Porter.

______ (1792). A Complete System of Poetical Ethicks, comprehending a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God.  Dublin: Printed for G, Drape.

Pope, Alexander (1961). The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, general editor John Butt, 3rd edition, 11 vols. (1939-1969); vol. 1 (1961) edited by E. Audra and Aubrey Williams. New Haven: Yale University Press.

______ (1963). The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, general editor John Butt, 3rd edition, 11 vols. (1939-1969); vol. 2 (1963) edited by Geoffrey Tillotson. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Richardson, John (2005). “Modern Warfare in Early-Eighteenth-Century Poetry.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 45: 557-77.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (2005 [1761]). “A Lasting Peace through the Federation of Europe: Exposition and Critique of St. Pierre’s Project.” Theories of Federalism: A Reader, edited by Dimitrios Karmis and Wayne Norman. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 59-86.

Saint-Pierre, Charles Irénée Castel, Abbé de (1713). A Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe. London: Printed for Ferd. Burleigh.

Swift, Jonathan (1711). The Conduct of the Allies, and of the late Ministry, in beginning and carrying on the present War. London: Printed for John Morphew.

Tusiani, Joseph (1976). “Christopher Columbus and Joel Barlow.” Italian Americana 3: 30-44.

| Received: 05-06-2023 | Last Version: 15-09-2023 | Articles, Issue 18.2