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October 23, 2017

"Rule, Britannia!"

On this day in 1740, James Thomson's masque, Alfred the Great was first performed, an open-air presentation before the Prince and Princess of Wales. The premiere was a birthday present for the Princess, though if others found the history and didactics to require a "great labour of the brain," the occasion must have demanded the four-year-old Princess Augusta's very best manners. The music would have helped: amid the lessons on Alfred's greatness and the prophetic visions of future glory were seven songs, one of which, "Rule, Britannia!" became immediately and enduringly popular. In subsequent revisions and adaptations of Alfred by Thomson's co-writer, David Mallet, and composer Thomas Arne, only this one air was left untouched; it is now Britain's unofficial national anthem, the last two lines of the opening stanza turned into a chorus and into the most enthusiastic moment of every Last Night of the Proms:
    When Britain first at Heaven's command
    Arose from out the azure main,
    This was the charter of her land,
    And guardian angels sung the strain:
    Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!
    Britons never shall be slaves!
The waves in question in Thomson's day were those surrounding Central and South America; the slaves, those which both Spain and England wished to market to the New World. Their chronic battle for naval commerce and power had reached one of its acute phases the year before Alfred. This was the so-called War of Jenkins' Ear, fanned to flame when Captain Jenkins displayed his bottled ear, reputedly severed by a Spanish sword, before Parliament.

Thomson's other writing is not well known, though his play Sophonisba -- she was a Cleopatra figure in ancient Carthage -- gained fame for all the wrong reasons. The ever-ready Henry Fielding took one look at the line, "Oh! Sophonisba, Sophonisba, Oh!" and, with a satiric nod to Alfred the Great, had his pipsqueak hero in Tom Thumb the Great address his beloved Princess, "O Huncamunca, Huncamunca O!" Fielding's tale also pokes fun at King Arthur and any other heroic view of English history. When, in the final scene, Tom has been miraculously revived and seems set to marry the Princess, Arthur celebrates by announcing an amnesty for all prisoners; when Tom is then swallowed by a cow, Arthur rescinds the amnesty, and more:
    Shut up again the Prisons, bid my Teasurer
    Not give three Farthings out -- hang all the Culprits,
    Guilty or not -- no matter -- ravish Virgins,
    Go bid the School-masters whip all their Boys;
    Let Lawyers, Parsons, and Physicians loose,
    To rob, impose on, and to kill the World.
As the scene continues, Fielding also hoists the genre of tragedy:
    [Ghost of Tom Thumb rises.]

    GHOST. Tom Thumb I am -- but am not eke alive.
    My Body's in the Cow, my Ghost is here.
    GRIZZLE. Thanks, O ye Stars, my Vengeance is restor'd,
    Nor shalt thou fly me -- for I'll kill thy Ghost.
    [Kills the Ghost.]
    HUNCAMUNCA. O barbarous Deed! -- I will revenge him so.
    [Kills Grizzle.]
    DOODLE. Ha! Grizzle kill'd -- then Murtheress beware.
    [Kills Huncamunca.]
    QUEEN. O Wretch! -- have at thee.
    [Kills Doodle.]
    NOODLE. And have at thee too.
    [Kills the Queen.]
    CLEORA. Thou'st kill'd the Queen.
    [Kills Noodle.]
    MUSTACHA. And thou hast kill'd my Lover.
    [Kills Cleora.]
    KING. Ha! Murtheress vile, take that.
    [Kills Mustacha.]
    And take thou this.
    [Kills himself, and falls.]
Over a century and a half later, Beatrix Potter brought Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca back as "Two Bad Mice"; this is a long way from James Thomson, though a tale Princess Augusta might have wished.

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