A subtle and elegant assertion of belief in the traditional order and customs of English society, this poem is more than the grating panegyric that might be suggested by the title. For the main it glosses over class struggles and divisions, imagining a kind of equality enforced by shared faith and patriotism. At the same time there is a hint of a recognition of the plight of the ‘lowly’, and perhaps some responsibility on the part of the ‘stately’. The poem never goes so far as to imply things could be different – indeed this would run counter to its first purpose: to affirm the traditional way of things, and to look to the past for an ideal model of English society.
In the first few stanzas significant word choices suggest much about the poet’s attitude in the piece. Hemans borrows from Biblical and homiletic vocabulary to create her own hymn to the nation. The country estates of stanza 1 are ‘rejoicing’, the books read by the fire are ‘glorious’. The poem’s structure too puts us in mind of a hymn, with a prominent rhyme scheme and a regularity on the page that give it the defined shape of a song. There is even something liturgical about the repeat phrase that starts each stanza. These references are part of a larger appeal to the past in the poem, which is attempting to portray English society as something as solid, worthy and unchanging as scripture or church ceremony. Nostalgia is seen in archaic word choices – although this is something which is difficult to judge as a modern reader – words like ‘greensward’ seem deliberately chosen for their sound of a bygone era. I see the word and, whether legitimate or not, the associations it has for me are Greensleeves, Sidney’s Arcadia and the Celtic Britain of King Lear. Clearly it is a word that embodies something of English tradition and heritage. Some other words that produce similar effects are ‘gladsome’, ‘bowers’ and ‘eaves’.
The ‘tall ancestral trees’ of the first stanza are a potent symbol for feudal England. The trees of the country estate not only define the physical landscape but symbolise the social order as well. The ‘ancestral tree‘ is a figure used often for a great family’s lineage. It serves the poet’s purpose further in being another picture of steadfastness. This dual connotation of ‘trees’ lends a great significance to the preposition that follows in the next line: they hold a place ‘O’er all the pleasant land’. In the physical landscape it is obvious that such tall objects should dominate the horizon, and this sense of natural and inevitable dominance is carried over into the symbolic meaning. The image in essence vindicates the right of the aristocracy to govern by seeing them as an inherent, natural part of the landscape.
The poem is rich with sound effects that bolster the pastoral and domestic scenes portrayed. Stanza 3 explicitly encourages us to be alert to ‘sounds’. The sibilance that begins the stanza is the raw material for a mood, the construction of which is guided by the words themselves: ‘softly’, ‘quietness’. Through the soft ‘s’ sounds of ‘Sabbath-hours / Solemn, yet sweet’ breaks gently the muted consonance of the ‘church-bell’s chime‘. This pattern of mimetic aural effect is found throughout the poem. It strengthens and makes more tangible the poet’s mythologized vision of rural England, and in its beauty inspires just the kind of warm sentiment for country that the poet appeals to in the final lines.
The refrains which open each stanza seem on first reading to unify the different scenes portrayed in the poem. Thus exists a kind of equality between ‘stately Homes’ and ‘Cottage Homes’ even as the poem advocates a strict hierarchy of class difference. The premise of the poem might be said to rest in the English landscape’s ability to unify and gloss over conflicting perspectives. However the poet seems to gesture towards problems of class as well. The ‘ancestral trees’ image of stanza 1 is countered by that of the ‘bird’ in stanza 4. Here the ‘lowly’ labouring classes are likened to birds in a simile that recalls the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. There it is God who provides for the birds and exhorts others to rely on him. This begs the question, who is providing for the poor here? There is a recognition in the simile that the poorest people do lack the most basic necessities. There is also a statement of belief in God – watching over England in the final stanza – and divine generosity. Vehicle and tenor merge in the simile as we find the bird and the labourer sleeping under the same roof, but there is also a striking further convergence with the aristocratic ‘tree’ image. Amongst this rural imagery it is curious that the bird roosts amongst rafters rather than branches – curious that the two images should seem on the brink of unifying but then suddenly diverge. All it would take would be an ‘l’ in front of ‘eaves’ to create an unbroken image to connect the poem. Instead what we have is more subtle and more conflicted. The inability of the trees to provide protection could be read as a muted gesture of reproach to the aristocracy, who for all the beauty of stanza 1 are still pictured there as slightly aloof, slightly distant.
This is a spirited and well constructed exhortation to faith and patriotism. It draws on diverse elements of British tradition – religious, literary and political – to promote a mythologized past as a model for the present. What distinguishes it is its gentle acknowledgment of the complexities of the situation and the real human suffering intrinsic in the class system, meaning we find ourselves warming to a poet who holds, to the modern reader, what may well be a deeply unpalatable view-point.