Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Tennyson and 'The Fleet'

This poem appeared in The Times on April 23, 1885, and was concurrently  printed in the Pall Mall Gazette. Written by the Poet Laureate, it appears to have been largely forgotten (if a Google search can be taken as evidence). The poem was a response to Stead’s The Truth About the Navy (which I discussed  here). In it, he espouses the views of the Blue Water School, arguing that Britain’s Navy was woefully underfunded by a government who did not recognise its importance of the navy to Britain and its Empire’s security.

The poem was the last of a series of Tennyson’s poems published in periodicals in which he tackles political issues. Using his position as Poet Laureate and as the hugely popular ‘poet of the people’, Tennyson was able to command great influence. This was precisely why Stead had sent him a copy of the article he intended to publish, in the hope the sentiments might be echoed by the poet, and that he would add his substantial weight to the campaign. As if to emphasise this, when the poem was published in the Pall Mall Gazette it was preceded by the title ‘A Warning by Lord Tennyson’ and included an introduction by Stead which highlighted the patriotic nature of the cause.[1]  

The use of Tennyson’s poem was a stroke of genius by Stead, whose campaign gathered momentum throughout 1885. Gradually it attracted other parts of the press, as well as politicians to its cause. The resulting pressure precipitated the Naval Defence Act in 1889. This put into law the ‘two power standard’, which began a building programme, and consequently a naval arms race which lasted into the twentieth century.

[1] K. Ledbetter, Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context (Ashgate, 2007)

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