Jameson’s Ride by Alfred Austin (1896)

10 July 2012

When Alfred Lord Tennyson died in 1892 there was no obvious replacement for the post of Poet Laureate. Of the two leading poets, Swinburne was disqualified by the immorality of his earlier poems, William Morris was a trenchant socialist and rejected the post when offered. Kipling, the young star, also refused it, not wanting to shackle his ‘Daemon’ as he referred to his muse, preferring to stay free to speak his mind.

After a hiatus the literary world was surprised when, in 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin was appointed Poet Laureate by the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, at least in part because of Austin’s journalistic record of supporting Tory causes. Austin held the post until his death in 1913.

Austin’s first poem as Laureate was an ode celebrating the Jameson Raid – the failed attempt to raise a British insurrection against the Boer government of the Transvaal, in South Africa. The uprising was to have been triggered by a raid into the territory by 600 or so British soldiers led by Cecil Rhodes’s fixer, Leander Starr Jameson.

Sir Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate 1896-1913

The planned insurrection in Johannesberg never materialised. Jameson and his men were easily surrounded and captured by the Boers. The Jameson Raid was a fiasco, an embarrassment to the British government, and marked the end of Cecil Rhodes’ political career as he was forced to step down as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Britain’s shame, however, was reversed when the Kaiser made the blunder of sending a telegram to the Boers congratulating them on repelling the raid, and hinting that Germany might have come to their aid. Public opinion was outraged and, in a very British manoeuvre, managed to turn an illegal incursion into a foreign country into a heroic rescue mission by plucky heroes. The flagrant untruth that British women and children in the Transvaal were somehow at risk from the beastly Boers was widely disseminated.

Austin’s poem successfully captures the devil-may-care illegality of much Imperial enterprise. It echoes the contempt felt by Kipling and other Imperialists for the lawyers and politicians back in Blighty who prattled on pointlessly while the pressing issues of Empire required urgent action, on the ground, now!

Austin is regularly cited as the being the worst Poet Laureate in our history. The poem’s point of view is certainly shallow and schoolboyish. The rhythm seems to falter regularly, and some rhyme words don’t work. But I don’t think it’s a complete disaster, and anyway it’s an interesting and vivid snapshot of the mindset of the day.

Jameson’s Ride

Wrong! Is it wrong? well, may be;
But I’m going, boys, all the same.
Do they think me a Burgher’s baby,
To be scared by a scolding name?
They may argue, and prate, and order;
Go, tell them to save their breath:
Then, over the Transvaal border,
And gallop for life or death!

Let lawyers and statesmen addle
Their pates over points of law:
If sound be our sword, and saddle,
And gun-gear, who cares one straw?
When men of our own blood pray us
To ride to their kinsfolk’s aid,
Not Heaven itself shall stay us
From the rescue they call a raid.

There are girls in the gold-reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry, “Hurry up! For pity!”
So what can a brave man do?
If even we win they’ll blame us:
If we fail, they will howl and hiss.
But there’s many a man lives famous
For daring a wrong like this!

So we forded and galloped forward
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending nor’ward.
Eight over the rolling veldt;
Till we came to the Burghers lying
In a hollow with hill behind,
And their bullets came hissing, flying,
Like hail on an Arctic wind.

Right sweet is the marksman’s rattle,
And sweeter the cannon’s roar;
But ’tis bitterly bad to battle,
Beleaguered, and one to four.
I can tell you it wasn’t a trifle
To swarm over Krugersdorp Glen,
As they plied us with round and rifle,
And ploughed us again — and again.

Then we made for the gold-reef city,
Retreating, but not in rout.
They had called to us, “Quick! For pity!”
And he said, “They will sally out —
They will hear us come. Who doubts it?”
But how if they don’t — what then?
“Well, worry no more about it,
But fight to the death like men.”

Not a soul had supped or slumbered
Since the Borderland stream was cleft;
But we fought, even more outnumbered,
Till we had not a cartridge left.
We’re not very soft or tender,
Or given to weep for woe,
But it breaks one to have to render
One’s sword to the strongest foe.

I suppose we were wrong, were madmen,
Still I think at the Judgment Day,
When God sifts the good from the bad men,
There’ll be something more to say.
We were wrong, but we aren’t half sorry;
And as one of the baffled band,
I would rather have had that foray
Than the crushing of all the Rand.

Swinford Old Manor, January 9, 1896

P.S. It was, apparently, the same incident, the Jameson Raid, which inspired Kipling’s most enduring poem, If-, regularly voted the nation’s favourite poem. ‘Jameson’s Ride’ is, if you fancy, the Other If-, what If- looks in the hands of a much smaller talent. And highlights the real depth of Kipling’s genius.

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