Nostalgic imperialist Boris Johnson should read Tennyson
Johnson should revisit the Poet Laureate's Locksley Hall to recalibrate his views on the march of human history
Britain’s top diplomat Boris Johnson has clearly outdone himself during a recent visit to one of Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist temples.
The sceptered isle’s damage-control experts are still coping with the fallout from an incident in which the British foreign secretary inexplicably muttered some words over a hot mic from Rudyard Kipling’s racist poem, “The Road To Mandalay” while attending a ceremony at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.
“Come you back, you English soldier,” a disheveled and perhaps tipsy Johnson quoted from Kipling’s verses about the blessings of past colonial rule.
Fortunately, the UK’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick, stopped gaffe-prone Johnson from reciting further words from a poem which, among other things, talks about British Tommies enjoyably bonking Burmese women.
Asia Times writer Christopher Scott perceptively notes that Johnson has previously proved to be a shameless aficionado of Britain’s imperial past. The conservative Johnson, not surprisingly, is also a China basher. He pronounced in a 2005 editorial in The Telegraph:
“It has become a cliché of geopolitical analysis to say that China is the next world superpower, that the 21st century will belong to Beijing, and that we had better get in tutors to teach our nippers Mandarin if they are to make it in the new world order.”
“Let me assert this as powerfully as I can: we do not need to fear the Chinese. China will not dominate the globe,” Johnson added, arguing that China’s impact on the world order will be nil when compared to the British and American imperiums.
If Johnson wants to belittle China and wax sentimental about the bygone days of the British Empire, I strongly urge him to revisit “Locksley Hall,” an equally ethnocentric poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the long-dead poet laureate of Great Britain. I’m sure Johnson read it when he was a privileged schoolboy at Eaton. But he should read it again.
The poem has various interpretations. At the same time, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to its ethnic allusions in lines like: “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay,” and “I will take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.”
But unlike “Mandalay,” Tennyson’s 1835 poem contains some grains of prophetic truth missing in Kipling’s scribble.
Despite its pith-helmet arrogance, the poem is celebrated for Nostradamus-like lines like:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
Did Tennyson foresee the future? Who knows …
In a more unnerving stanza towards the end, the bard of the West lets loose a line that serves as an echo chamber for German philosopher Oswald Spengler’s predictions about the decline of the West:
Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher,
Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire.
In the 19th century, that “lion” for many Britons, was the United States. In today’s far wider clash of civilizations, that lion is China; for others — Islam.
Such thoughts were in President Donald Trump’s head when he declared in a July speech in Warsaw that, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”
Trump may be many things. But philosopher and historian are not among them. And a current yearning in the US and Europe for a return to Western ascendancy misses a more universal point.
Empires may rise and they may fall. Some peoples may gain ascendancy, as others are eclipsed. The 21st century may indeed be China’s time. It’s called the march of human history.
But whether it’s China’s star turn or another’s, even Tennyson knew the truth when he wrote in Locksley Hall:
Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widen’d with the process of the suns.