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Doughty’s The Dawn in Britain and the Modernist Eclipse of the Victorian

  • Herbert F. Tucker

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  • Herbert F. Tucker
    University of Virginia

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During a long early engagement in the twentieth-century culture wars, it was Victorianism that bore the brunt of the attacks Modernism launched under a grimly hoisted standard of tough-mindedness. This helps explain the alertness of Victorianist scholars to the way Modernist scholars uphold that standard during the reenactments they perform now and then. From the standpoint of Vincent Sherry in 2003, as of Paul Fussell and Hugh Kenner a few decades before him, the toughness of the postwar mind stands out in strategic contrast to the cushy imprecision and sentimental bravado that had preceded it.[1] Such were the caricatures that for a traumatized Modernist imagination defined the Victorian sensibility, whose frock-coat arrogance and bustling philanthropy – two sides of one bad coin – had in the soft ecstasy of idealism dreamt up an unspeakably Great War. Those deluded elders had ruined everything, including a literary tradition they had known no better than to squander in imperial display or vulgarize in smug gentility. To piece it together from remnants became the work of Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. These individual talents along with others made the tradition new, purging off the caramelized residue of affect that the nineteenth century had spread like treacle across what descended to posterity as a legacy colossally fumbled. The culture fix the Modernists undertook was predicated on an assumption that the tradition in which they claimed a part had been broken almost beyond rehabilitation.

Effective triage in such a state of emergency entailed, above all else, holding the line against contamination by the recent. At least in this sense “Modernism,” despite its many disadvantages as a tool for literary history, does aptly name that ministry of early twentieth-century propaganda which, in the sanctifying name of now (modo), ruthlessly suppressed all memory of Victorian or Edwardian influence not traveling under heavy ironic guard. High-mindedness within the new dispensation meant tough-mindedness towards the old. While the voice of the nineteenth century could not be stifled, allusive vigilance might baffle its echo into trivial diversion and diffuse any claim on its part to have bespoken modernity in advance. We have yet to tell what grotesque distortions this program of obsessive cultural hygiene imposed not just on Modernist literary historiography but also on Modernist literature itself – and imposed, since aesthetically the grotesque is a neutral mode, for better as well as worse. The leading irony of this untold story pivots on the reverse sentimentality of stock response that inhabits reflexive aversion to sentimentality, and its happy ending arrives with episodes like Eliot’s rapprochement with Tennyson in a great 1936 essay and a few years later in the expanded poetic of Four Quartets. But it is a story that Modernist scholars staunch to their origins cannot be expected to tell straight until we Victorianists give them a little more help with the traumatic flashbacks that the story told straight must induce in them.

The present essay offers such help, taking the form of a case study in a genre whose nineteenth-century history Victorian studies have too readily accepted on distorted Modernist terms: the epic. Epic was the phoenix among traditional genres, and arguably it stood foremost among the heirlooms that the new generation picked out of the wasteland they came into after 1915. Both the genre’s categorical prestige within the literary system and (a major reason for such prestige) its charter to articulate collective values in summative form made it incumbent on the first Modernists to see that works like the Cantos and Ulysses prospered. At the postwar crisis of the West, it mattered supremely that these culture-binding works should succeed in reinstating a venerable antique mode, which the patent Homeric filiation of each duly specified. Moreover, at this special juncture it mattered nearly as much that these works should preserve so archaeologically distant a remove from corrupt latter-day precedent as to seem, in effect, self-born.

But they were not self-born, and it is past time to stop treating them as though they were. A continuous, inventive, and diverse tradition of British epic writing had flourished clear across the nineteenth century. Stern denial of this tradition may have been prerequisite once upon a time to Modernism’s coming into its own, yet some acquaintance with it remains no less prerequisite now to informed appreciation of the innovations in major narrative that did ensue. Calliope’s twentieth-century parthenogenesis was an enabling Modernist myth, which it is less incumbent on us to explode than to explore. Doing so will oblige us to know a body of texts that Modernism pretended not to know. Before us lies a double task: the archival task of excavating the landfull of ‘battered books’ that postwar authors ceremonially repudiated (Pound, “E. P. Ode Pour L’Election de Son Sépulchre”), and then the critical task of reading those books with an open mind. For the only way to know what Modernism programmatically disregarded – what its tough half-crouch was shrinking from as well as pitching into – is to bring it back into focus for ourselves, within a literary history different from the one that still passes current among us. In a forthcoming study I seek to gather up the lost tradition of nineteenth-century epic; what follows is an excerpt from its Edwardian epilogue. It is offered here in the interests of that more fully joined understanding of modernity which Modernism’s survivalist myth of autochthony even now obstructs and which epic, by the very antiquity of its lineage and associations, may be uniquely suited to advance.


Having labored for some decades as a major cultural arm of Britain’s coalescent global imperialism, epic poetry collapsed in exhaustion around the turn of the twentieth century. But refreshment of the genre did not have to wait on the heteroglot engagement with contemporaneity that arose as an anglophone vanguard flaunted its newly cosmopolitan literary culture around 1920. An alternate route, fraught with different risks, led to generic renewal by way of – what was in its own right a mode of protest against the Victorian and Edwardian regency – the deliberately obsolete. Such a protest had been harbored all along within the global import trade that drove much of Britain’s poetry during the later nineteenth century: many of the verse translations and imitations appearing at this time cultivated an archaism that was not just a fad of taste but a stiffening of resistance, via diction and syntax, against the business of modern society as usual. Still, it was epic that offered to such tactics the generic staging place with most reliable cover. Morris’s contrarian Sigurd the Volsung (1876) had blazed the high trail of a willed obsolescence, and Swinburne’s brittle epicizing curio The Tale of Balen (1896) had given it a test run in the Victorian sunset. The greatest generic achievement of the pre-war years, Hardy’s The Dynasts (1904-8), showed with utmost address what authority might be drawn along that road by a lexicon that was antique and antic in equal measure.

The epoch’s premier champion of the forgotten greets us, however, in Charles Montague Doughty, who with The Dawn in Britain (6 volumes, 1906) contrived in the extremity of verse an heroic vehicle that left in the dust even the defiantly retrograde prose of his 1888 classic Travels in Arabia Deserta.[2] Whether Doughty’s poetic in The Dawn in Britain is (like his subject matter) ancient history, or whether its uncompromising integrity earns a place of honor in the avant garde that was soon to be filled less ambiguously by authors a full generation his juniors, is a question that polarizes the slender, impassioned tradition of critical response to the poem. Not many assignments are harder than Doughty’s twenty-four long, dense books, in which scores of mainly unknown persons stalk a now inspired, now just dogged chronicle of the half-millennium between the Gaulish sack of Rome and the twofold extension of Roman hegemony through the conquest of Britain and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Not many assignments are harder; but one of them is the challenge of imagining a reader today who, in a good-faith effort to compass that large tract, is anything but helplessly swung between poles of admiration and despair.

First – inescapably, incessantly – the reader of this full-blown national epic has to grapple with its extraordinary retrofit of the English language. Doughty brooded over the epic style of The Dawn in Britain with a trained philologist’s acumen and a patriot wanderer’s tenderness, declaring in an afterword that

it is the prerogative of every lover of his Country, to use the instrument of his thought, which is the Mother-tongue, with propriety and distinction; to keep that reverently clean and bright, which lies at the root of his mental life, and so, by extension, of the life of the Community.


“Propriety” here meant a radical return to the golden diction of the already antiquarian Spenser, “distinction” a curious but consistently maintained recurrence to the elder sense of surviving words that since 1600 had been shaken and blurred as they shot the modern rapids of a new metaphysics and metaphorics.[4] The strict faith Doughty kept with epic’s old philological mission built, in a sense, on what Morris had done with diction in verse and also prose; but with Doughty we have moved on from a tasting to a fix.[5] While completely unfamiliar terms are rare in The Dawn, it abounds in ancestral ones, often half-estranged by compaction: seld for seldom, bove for above, minish (nice kiss of the clippers) for diminish.

This lexical squeeze would be a comparatively simple matter had Doughty not at the same time flexed such syntactic muscle as greets us on opening, say, to the mid-poem arrival of Claudius’ legionaries in the mouth of the Thames:

At cockcrow, waking, Claudius

Commands, by trumpet, That disbark his soldiers.

 Who first, to land, descend, trench on that shore,

Then naval camp, foursquare. The immense elephants,

Uneasy was, upon that oozy strand,



The deranged parsimony of this syntax is staggering, and it never lets up for long. As if to prove that English is half Latin and half German, Doughty folds pronominal subjects into their verbs, and places the latter anywhere he likes. In the same thrifty spirit he skimps on prepositions (along with their partner in modern degeneracy the infinitive marker to), relative pronouns, subordinate conjunctions, the initial expletives There and It, even the definite and indefinite article. Cashiering these redundancies, Doughty further heightens the verbal density by hiring blunt participial and absolute constructions to do the work of grammatical subordination at cut rate.

The purpose of installing so spartan a philological regimen was to recall English to its pure beginnings as a tongue not analytically excrescent but synthetically inflected, and thus more hospitable than modern English to phrasal inversion and general unorthodoxy in verbal sequence.[6] The overall effect is a sustained shorthand compression such as the laboring reader might expect to find in newspaper headlines, lecture notes, maybe a second-year classics trot – but not an epic poem twice the size of Paradise Lost. The first TLS reviewer unerringly set one pertinent context by observing of The Dawn in Britain that it “might almost be taken for a publication of the Early English Text Society” (140).[7] Nowadays a reader will think ahead to how Pound and his disciples worked the implications of Doughty’s approach to poetic language out into the radical prosody towards which his poem gestures – and to which we shall briefly return in closing. Here, however, it behooves us to recall Victorian antecedents. Born in 1843 into the generation of Swinburne and Hardy, Doughty produced such an epic as might have come from Gerard Manley Hopkins in purgatory, from Alfred Jingle were Mr. Pickwick never to get a word in edgewise, or from Browning’s Caliban, nay Browning himself in the infamous Agamemnon he translated verbatim from Aeschylus (1877) or – to establish in a word the standard of obscurity that Doughty meets – in the chronicular book-length telegram that was Sordello (1840).[8]


All this conceded, nobody can deny that Doughty’s scarification of ordinary English transfuses a strange power into his narrative. It is a power, in the first instance, of immediacy in rendering, such as can also break upon a reader of Spenser or Chaucer who has gotten used to not getting used to the peculiarity of the verbal medium. That Doughty set a premium on clarity and directness emerges in his systematic exploitation of epic’s privilege to zoom from past into present tense, and in his fondness for the attention-bossing “Lo!” and for deictic pronouns showing just where to look at any given moment. The author of Arabia Deserta had not abandoned his concern to make the British reader behold an alien way of life in full ethnographic detail, nor did it now matter very much that the alien way of life in question was that of the British reader’s own cultural forebears. Equally essential to this immediacy in rendering were the prosodic resources of the decasyllabic line. Doughty indeed writes by the line, which he likes to end-stop with an integrity again reminiscent of Spenser’s and, as often as not, scored for the reader’s benefit by a highly idiosyncratic sprinkling of rhetorical punctuation.

His commas, in particular, offer a sort of sublinear scansion guide.[9] Here is a passage, chosen like our first one at random, that convokes the Italic and Gaulish deities to see from facing bleachers how Brennus wins a last battle at Arminium after sacking Rome:

 Descended, on an head of Appenine,

To view this mortal strife, were the land’s gods.

Is sacred hill, which guirlands, like a grove,

Much smelling juniper and sweet eglantine.

Are gods, with them, of Gauls: but sit, with shields,

Gods over against gods, apart, and arms.


Line 1 could be Tennyson’s for word harmony and sophistication of rhythm. But crunchy ellipsis in lines 3 and 5 affixes Doughty’s stamp, as does the olfactory smack of the image in line 4. And the last two lines are essential Doughty in their motion, pacing out foot by foot the division of divine spectators into opposite camps, and doing so neutrally enough to register, within that equivalence, the antagonistic energies that a godly etiquette brings into line (like the prosody) at the close. Later on, when the druid nun Esla – Doughty’s answer to Nausikaa in the Odyssey – has an idyllic moment all to herself, so does the verse: “So skips, from stone, on her white feet, to stone” (9.18). Strongly punctuated iambs on either side let the girl’s feet twinkle with a mind of their own in the balance-finding grace that jumps between one “stone” and the next: rewrite the line “from stone to stone,” and the magic is gone. In the afterword, and with express application to his own toilsome poetic, Doughty cites the Pythagorean cultic warning “No one who is ignorant of the properties of numbers, may enter here” (6.243). If this overstates the case, it is still true that few who enter the versed world of Doughty’s alter-English without relishing the poetic numbers are likely to stay for long.

The plan and reach of The Dawn in Britain have decided limits, which we shall return to consider. But there is not much Doughty tries to say with his pentameters that he can’t say. And there is surprisingly little that he won’t say: maiden Esla and her prince Cloten going naked to bed on a first beach date that blends carnal knowledge with pagan innocence (book 9), the emperor Claudius bepissing himself in drunken fear at a late-night Irish onslaught (book 16), Herfryd’s swampside death in childbirth, under “unhelpful stars,” after war has frozen her hearth and intimidated the clan into abandoning her (21.32). These are matters such as earlier epoists have handled only with indirection if at all – or with an irony like Byron’s or Pope’s, totally alien to Doughty’s earnest sensibility. When in book 1 the mother of two feuding kings, come from afar to effect their reconciliation, slips into a swift river and nearly drowns, the account of her rescue by the royal sons does not flinch at showing how “She vomiting, dismaied, much water, faints” (1.35). Recalling that in Spenser dismay means swoon helps us glimpse, through the grossness of digestive detail and flabbergasting clumsiness of syntax, a clinical discrimination between levels of consciousness that wards sentimentality well away.

In fact, the poem nearly always keeps orderly faith with human acts of perception and cognition in their infinite variety.[10] The early Christians’ passage up the Asia Minor coast en route to Britain brings to the mind of the learned poet how a supernatural visitant appeared once to Alexander the Great, in order to dissuade him from plundering a “certain antique temple” of the Jews. Doughty handles this anecdote with perceptual subtlety:

 Of these things, mused the young king, on his bed,

Till time he weary was: so drew his lamp,

And sate him up, of Homer’s lays, to read.

But lifting Alexander, soon, his eyes,

Beheld, beside him, standing, some old man,

Venerable of aspect.


Who this messenger is matters less than how the text spaces and times the young king’s apprehension of him, scrolling up from Homer into a recognition that before him stands not just any old man but a somebody, the Latinate last line upholding a dignitary train. Or admire the cognitive order of another brief incident concerning a detachment of reconnoitering German “Almains” who have overslept:

 Now those, which passed in hazardry have and feast,

(Casting, for dice, the huckle-bones of sheep,

Which yester they had reaved, and sith did eat,)

Much night; being risen tardy, when the sun

Already soars, whilst in cold-running stream,

Some wash them; lifting night-mist from the plain,

Their watch espy some riding of armed Gauls.


Yesterday’s excellent huckle-bones are not more present to the reader than is today’s cotton-mouthed absence of mind following a little too “Much night.” The passage succeeds because Doughty’s synthetic syntax lets him fit modular units into a tightly packed sequence that vividly realizes, and in something like real time, what is dawning on the groggy Almains themselves.

The stepwise tracking within these passages approximates the narrative relief for which Homer’s similes are famous, yet oddly it does so without swerving a hair from the march of plot events. Indeed, the scarcity of extended similes in this long poem serves to indicate how relentlessly Doughty clove to his literal chronicling. At the massing of Roman power before the climactic battle of Camulodunum, we can practically watch him glimpse in the first line below a fine chance to take off on an epic simile, only to renounce it at once in the second:

Be seen the great towered elephants; that, like some

Swart rocks, do stand in glittering waves of bronze;

Their long snout-hands to sling, and wide lap-ears

To flag, impatient of their immense force.


Those elephants are not, as they might have been, like coastal rocks washed in some Aegean sunlight by brazen ocean waves; they are elephants, they are huge, they are alive, and they really “do stand,” ranked in the verse. Nor are they, as they easily could have been in the mind’s prophetic eye, modern tanks. The aggravation of mind with which Doughty followed the Boer War while composing The Dawn in Britain must have acquainted him with trench tactics that made the development of all-terrain armored vehicles only a matter of time.[11] A Miltonic poet – Alfred Noyes, let us suppose, in his contemporary textbook epic Drake (1908) – would have pursued that hazardously enjambed “like some. . .” into an inventive occasion many lines long and bright with contemporary application. This privilege of clairvoyance Doughty forgoes, characteristically, in favor of the versed spondaic bulk of “Swart rocks,” which in combination with “snout-hands” and “lap-ears” sacrifices the presentist long view of military history to his duty as a reporter on distant things, which is the duty of rendering sheerly present their “immense force.” Saying it with monosyllables lets the poet’s elephants loom big as tanks, precisely by leaving them large as life but no larger.[12] One imagines Homer nodding, and this time with approval.

Also Homeric is the narrative equivalent of generalization that arises when Doughty shifts from the particular to the panoramic:

 Silent, from spray,

The small fowl flits, to covert; and all beasts

Go lean and weary, in the empty frost.


A northern winter’s onset, sharp in its novelty to the immigrant Syrian Christians, opens out from the validating Chaucerian detail of that “small fowl” to acknowledge a larger condition no body can avoid; and to this expansion of vista the limping gait of the verse gives aural support. One final example sums all, in the way it yokes jaw-dropping awkwardness to surprising grace:

All light, to sup, now eve, then, in that place.

Sith Main and Island Gauls sleep round their fires.


Line one, comma-chopped in the poet’s most annoying manner, actually puts that annoyance to work as a rendition of the diverse chores of making camp.[13] Then the next line makes an unrhymed couplet out of these humble distractions, blanketing all the troops’ energy up under a universal human need, and in a single breath.


The variety of Doughty’s peculiar skill in rendition has seemed worth illustrating at some length, both as the happiest of advertisements for his fierce diction, syntax, and blank verse and also as the kindest way of framing his undeniable limits as an epic maker. For The Dawn in Britain is a compulsively episodic poem, whose stunned focus on whatever the chronicle has to offer, right here and just now, his narrative contrivances do lots to abet and very little to resist. The word sith, for example, in the line last quoted, denoting and then. It is a favorite of Doughty’s, who is not above inserting it to top up a decasyllabic line but most often summons it, a bit nervously, for help in impelling that obsessive focusing device of his from one scene to the next. Best known via the obsolete sithence as an archaic form of since, the ubiquitous word cannot but create trouble for the reader who cannot but hunger, eventually, not for more narrative but for a framework of meaning in which to receive it. Scanning the poetic chronicle for consequential logical pattern, the mind pounces, in sith, on what looks so much like since. At last, a cause! But no; or, rather, Lo! Not since but next bespeaks Doughty’s mode of proceeding – a mode that, pursued across thirty thousand lines, is productive of more sheer seriality than a merely human reader can live on.

Not that The Dawn in Britain lacks structural plan.[14] The six volumes in which Doughty published it correspond to phases of a large action divisible into roughly four-book clumps and generally mappable on a diagonal axis running between Britain and Palestine. A double Brenniad builds to the sack of pre-republican Rome and the fateful desecration of Apollo’s shrine at Delphi (books 1-5); this southeasterly thrust is counterbalanced in a second movement, after the lapse of a dozen generations, by the odyssey of Arimathean Joseph and his saints to found a first-century British church in the lake isle of Avalon (books 6-9). Briton Caradoc and Roman Claudius emerge in book 10, strongly contrasted characters whom the war preparations of the next three books show to be representatives of heroic but doomed tribal barbarism on one side, invincible if decadent imperial organization on the other. Caradoc’s fortunes rise until a pivotal defeat at Camulodunum (book 16) turns the tide, and Rome rides thereafter towards decisive victory in book 20. The final four books balance an often brutal aftermath of angry insurgency and ruthless repression against what Doughty presents as the conquest’s silver lining: the commerce that imperial rule facilitates among Joseph’s meek British Christians (symbolic wedlock between a patrician convert and a pious British lass brightens book 23) and other members of the primitive church (cameo roles in book 22 feature the traveling apostle Simon and the family of Lazarus, moved to Gaul from Biblical Bethany).

This large structural design is cross-stapled here and there by incidents that pull the geographic extremities of Doughty’s vast miscellaneous history in towards each other. When we first meet Caradoc he is on a mission to Rome, whither he will eventually return in chains as Britain’s captive king. The future emperor Titus figures as an invading general both skilled in tactics and magnanimous in victory, promising (book 18) to respect the infant British church, which Doughty fosters as gentile heir to the great world-historical event that will occur on this same Titus’ imperial watch, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (book 24). When Joseph’s wayfaring band arrive at a Roman outpost in darkest Gaul, they meet of all people an immigrant freedman who turns out to speak Gaulish as well as he does Syrian and Latin. This fluency comes of his being Galatian and thus descended, in a genealogy that the name of his homeland suggests, from a remnant of the second Brennus’ fourth-century drive into Asia Minor (8.193). At such transactions Doughty’s immense historico-cultural vision suddenly clicks into perspective; the expanding empire seems, for the moment, a smaller and more intelligible place.

For the moment; and there is the trouble. The narrative manner we have analyzed above is of so dense a fabric that under its weight Doughty’s thoughtfully planned structural scaffolding sags out of shape and practically out of mind. We forget the big picture that his devoted apologists would have us believe mattered most to him, because our attention is engrossed by the moving picture of serial episodes instead.[15] So insistent, indeed, is the poem’s textural demand that one may be pardoned for suspecting that, whatever Doughty said he meant to frame up as a thesis in national or cultural history, as an artist he trusted the verbal medium to do all the carriage that really mattered. In ideological terms the inflammable chauvinist in Doughty found it nearly as hard to speak Rome fair as Noyes did Spain when writing Drake. But where Noyes’s conception of clarity obliged him to work a bias against Catholic Spain into not just the plot of Drake, but its narrative and even descriptive voice, Doughty confronts us with something else, something older, colder and lonelier. For The Dawn in Britain is an epic nearly voiceless. The impediments it places in the way of reading aloud also frustrate the silent reader’s effort to attach its language to the tone, and thus the attitude, of an imagined speaker. A pervasive sign of this unspeakable literariness is the homogeneity of all the poem’s technically ascribed speeches: all characters talk the same idiolect; the several incorporated bards’ performances are formally interchangeable (e. g., in books 3, 9, 13); there is no distinguishing a flashback or reported speech, on grounds of style, from the regular tenor of the ongoing narrative.

This objectivity of manner curiously coexists with another habit of presentation, which we touched on above while considering some of Doughty’s local coups in perceptual mimesis. Often he will take a leaf from Sordello or The Ring and the Book and do his narrating from a temporarily assumed dramatic standpoint. At such moments the one-size-fits-all objective style harbors, behind its great stone face, the implanted subjectivity of a character who on one hand is obviously less than omniscient yet on the other hand displays the assurance of an epic naïf, imputing authoritative coherence to all that falls within his horizon of consciousness. At one of those culture-staples just mentioned, for example, the triumphally processing Claudius bumps into a certain Herod Antipas, exiled by Caligula to Gaul: “(Was sometime tetrarch of a Roman province)” (17.52). Doughty will go on, with heavy hand, to make sure we know just which Herod this man is; but first, with admirable lightness of touch, his parenthesis has sent the flicker of world-history across the mind of an emperor who could not possibly grasp its importance even if he were Marcus Aurelius and not dim Claudius. The irony here passes no judgment except what is implied about a universal truth: that we can never know what portion of our experience will prove in the end to have meant most.


This is a truth Doughty demonstrates time and again, and he enlarges it to epic resonance by finding it in the contact zone between colliding peoples. Brennus senior having made his way to Etruria, we receive as through his uninitiated ears the poem’s first mention of an up-and-coming place further south called “Rome, / Great Sabine city, in wide Latin plain” (3.159). Later, and conversely, we see the empty moonlit coast of Britain, and experience the ambushed Britons’ terror tactics at war, through legionaries’ eyes as if for the first time (12.216, 225), and as if we had not already spent several epic books in the British camps.[16] As these reciprocally balanced examples will suggest, the present-centered chronicular style of The Dawn in Britain is very well suited to expose the situatedness of perception. In so doing, it tells a different story from the structurally-reinforced official story of a people’s advance from pagan savagery to Christian civilization.[17] The counter-story built into Doughty’s style strongly suggests, in fact, that the official story was entailed on him as the inheritance of a Victorian progressivism at which substantial portions of his own experience – among, for starters, the admirable Bedouins of Arabia – led him to rebel. In consequence, the “dawn” occurs in The Dawn on two incompatible schedules. By explicit proclamation it is the luminous advent in Britain of the Christian light of the world (1.3, again 6.82); by engrained implication it is the realization that to proclaim a monopoly on light is a privilege that every cultural system claims for itself, and is by the same token an error to which every cultural system lies prone.[18]

These and other moments of relativizing cultural contact remind us that the poem never invokes a calendar of specific dates, or (what fixed calendars imply) a generally explanatory world-historical frame that subordinates events to some authority outside or above those the narrative happens to be taking up. Although Doughty was prevailed on to supply the odd footnote and append to the last volume a pretty tight-fisted glossary of terms and names, there are no notes of an interpretive or explanatory kind.[19] Instead, and page by page, the poem obliges its reader to work through to such understandings from the limited standpoint of one or another in its pageant of historical agents. This perspectival neutrality is as remarkably, unsettlingly the rule for groups as for individuals. Book 5 represents the Gaulish goddess-mother Nertha in her temple with as credent a sympathy as it gives to Zeus at the Delphic shrine (5.8-9, 51-55). Neither deity is amiable in the rough justice it exacts, but the quality of faith expended on each by its worshipers earns the same sober respect from the poet. With like fair-mindedness Doughty, having put his Christian mariners under the protection of the angel Albion (book 6), goes right on to vex them with the machinations of a raucous crew of demons featuring Satan and Abaddon (book 7). Harder to take in stride are this crew’s allegorical associates Faction, Envy, Pride, and so on (7.138), but the very difficulty underscores the austerity of Doughty’s syncretic (and if only in this sense Spenserian) intention throughout the poem: to produce each tribe’s tale in the terms of its own most developed credence, and to poise them all on the common denominator of a neutrally homogenizing style. Even Despair, perhaps Spenser’s best known allegory, is both freshly imagined in Doughty’s version of him (7.142) and – this point seems crucial – imagined with a degree of concreteness equal to that accorded in the preceding pages to such realist collateral as arctic seals or the bones of wrecked sailors (7.131, 135).

However laudable it may be in itself, this impartiality of realization entrains a major liability for the through-line of so sweeping an epic narrative. Doughty’s indifference to, if it is not incompetence with, the clash of rival systems of belief prevents his representing such a clash as in any way generative. He knows that the Druids of Britain regarded their Christian interlopers as a threat, but book 9 never gets far behind this antagonism into its motivation or its possibly abiding consequences. Fervent admirers like D. G. Hogarth and Anne Treneer confessed to being powerfully moved in book 19 by Caradoc’s dark night of the soul. There a vanquished king glimpses existential vacuity on the far side of his tattered pagan metaphysic and takes it out, like a very Orlando or Cuchulain, on a hallucinated grove with old Brennus’ sword. Readers left cold by this snowy vigil, though, and colder by Caradoc’s meek return in the morning to the bosom of family values, are likely to suspect that the episode offers more unpurged Victorian conventionality than it does profundity of insight into a spiritual conflict that might be culturally productive. Doughty seems more himself when, beginning to narrate the fatal emergence of division within the British alliance, he first attributes it like a political scientist to envious rivalry among faction leaders, then in homely mythopoeia blames it on “Bodva, war-fury, like to hoodie crow” (13.5). Both explanations tell part of the truth about why Britain is going to lose to Rome. But Doughty is not about to estimate the relation between these explanations, or to show how such an estimate if offered might measure either Rome’s cultural leverage once upon a time, or its modern shadow in England’s cultural leverage two thousand years later.

What Doughty does offer, in default of explanatory relation, is relation in that other sense we have explored already: the relation of incidents, with the meager but genuine narrative logic that sequential chronicle confers on them; and the lexical relationships that are tacitly, unfailingly enacted by an English language whose tangled root system, hybridized out of Celtic and Latin and Teutonic stocks, reproduces the matter of his history in every passage Doughty writes. On vulgar show at Rome in the triumph of Claudius (new-named “Britannicus”), Caradoc appears for us to advantage as “The Briton king, erect, magnanimous,” while his Queen Embla too “Hath a royal majesty, in her countenance” (20.249). Doughty has just been grousing that under the Caesars “Much insolent concourse is / Descended, in Rome’s ways, of mingled speech” (20.247). Yet without just such mingled speech our poet would be nowhere, at a loss for words. The ostentatiously Latinate modifiers he improbably finds here for both his noble British victims do essential work. They imply, through the language’s embedded history, a cultural history of fertile borrowing and fostering in which this and later conquests signally participate. The chivalric ethos that Doughty was steeped in – and through whose anachronistic persistence even today we sympathize nearly unbidden with Caradoc and Embla as archetypes of a tragic sort made familiar by Edmund Burke and Sir Walter Scott – lay just beyond the distant but still visible medieval turning of the imperial road his awkward poem starkly paced.[20]


The philological care Doughty showed for the provenance and temper of his tools was of a piece with the ethnological and geological curiosity that converged in his making an epic from the chosen matter of Britain.[21] The channels of disciplinary attention thus coursing through this Edwardian opus could hardly be more conspicuously Victorian, yet at the same time the genuine if low-profile zenith of its welcome coincided with the moment of High Modernism. The best criticism my endnotes here have drawn on comes from the 1920s and 1930s, when many other writers of name, mostly tilting left of Modernist center – G. B. Shaw, Herbert Read, W. H. Auden among them – made much of the poet, who was regularly likened during these decades to another Victorian sprung from his proper time, the modern-by-adoption Hopkins. Within avant-garde circles Modernism had valorized, if not oddity as such, then eccentricity of the right kind; and this Doughty unquestionably had. Idiosyncratic to the point of intransigence, the style he wrought evinced at the same time a flinty impersonality congenial to ascendant criteria. Above all, the direct rendering of action in purged language, which I have discussed above as expressing Doughty’s loyalty to epic presentation values, was also highly conformable to the tenets of Imagism: an initially lyric mode but one that might, so Pound thought, become with proper care and spacing an epic manner apt for a new day.

Doughty’s example may have had something to do with Pound’s thinking so. Evidence of a kind emerges in a memory of formative development that got lodged in the Cantos once that poem-including-history found itself forcibly overtaken by history in 1945. “An old man” himself now, and impaled on the cusp of his century’s second postwar era, Pound looked back thirty years from a detention cell near Pisa to the Sussex stone cottage where he had so often read aloud for hours to the ailing-eyed W. B. Yeats:

did we ever get to the end of Doughty:

 The Dawn in Britain?

 perhaps not

 Summons withdrawn, sir.)

(bein’ aliens in prohibited area)

clouds lift their small mountains

 before the elder hills

Canto 83; 536, 534

Juxtaposing this with the first of our inset quotations above from The Dawn can give us new eyes, and ears, for each passage. Something about Pound’s movement and diction in the last two lines suggests that, whether he had ever finished it or not, The Dawn in Britain was not finished with him. Further, the image of lifting clouds – occlusion or clearance? tribute or defense? – reads into the testimonial record that is The Pisan Cantos a brief confession about our framing topic here, the modern embarrassments of literary elder-care. One line further up, a ventriloquized snatch of official soldier-speak folds into Doughty’s patient, unreproving if unforgiving measure Pound’s own checkered complicity with imperium, Fascist and American alike.

Richest of all, though, is the line in the middle, where a parenthesis ends that has had no typographic beginning. Pound’s bluff question about getting on to an epic end precipitates, between the lines, a subtler and deeper doubt about getting back to a forgotten beginning. And this lost beginning too may be epical in its own right, inasmuch as the cryptic “Summons withdrawn” assumes the force of an invocation revoked, misdelivered, or bounced back for further work. It is as if the unconcluded tale of Doughty, which like so many allusions in the Cantos appears to come out of nowhere, actually figures the belated remarking of a hidden order. Call it a standing order, rather – a summons not withdrawn – which has only seemed hidden because, as with the suppressed Victorian order whose inhabitation of Modernism it may for us represent, the site of original intervention has been so carefully papered over.