Seas' ruler

In Brief

The strains of the British patriotic anthem Rule, Britannia! sound in various parts of Ulysses. As Haines stands gazing over the bay with eyes as "pale as the sea," Stephen thinks of him as "The seas' ruler." The phrase comes back into his mind in Nestor, and more exact echoes of "rule the waves" occur in Eumaeus and Cyclops. The Citizen also alludes contemptuously to the rhyming phrase: "That's your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God's earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That's the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs."

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The foundation of British imperial power was laid with the modernizing and professional organizing of the Royal Navy under Samuel Pepys beginning in the 1660s. The British lost a naval war with the Dutch in 1667, but the changes that were underway ensured that they would suffer no more such defeats. In 1740, the progress was reflected in a stirring air by Thomas Arne, Rule, Britannia!, with lyrics by the Scottish poet James Thomson. Thomson sought to promote the newly “British” sense of identity brought into being by the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. His lyrics jingoistically justify Britain’s power as divinely ordained, and proclaim that “Britons never, never, never will be slaves.” (They do not mention whether Britons may make slaves of other nations, and the Citizen notes the further irony the English aristocracy have managed to subjugate their own people.)

The naval power proclaimed in this 18th century song was solidified in the first years of the 19th century. Having lived with fear of French or Spanish invasion for more than a decade, the British saw the threat vanish with the decisive victory of their fleet (27 ships of the line commanded by Admiral Nelson) over the combined fleets of France and Spain (33 ships of the line under Admiral Villeneuve) at Trafalgar. Not a single British ship was lost in this engagement, which cemented the United Kingdom as the world’s premier naval power and ensured its unimpeded imperial ambitions in the nineteenth century. 

For many years Rule, Brittania! has been performed on the last night of The Proms, the eight weeks of daily orchestral concerts held every summer in London, in the Royal Albert Hall. An entertaining example, sung with arch pomp and circumstance by Sarah Connolly in 2009, is posted here.

JH 2011
Decorated plate made in Liverpool ca. 1793-94, displayed at the Chateau de Vizille. Source: Wikimedia Commons.