Alfred, A Masque "Britannia Rules The Waves"
by James Thomson

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"Britannia Rules The Waves"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

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Context: James Thomson's reputation as a poet rests solidly on his long poem The Seasons, the first poetic work of such length (well over 5000 lines) devoted primarily to the description of nature and scenery. His best-known work, however, is a song. In 1740 Thomson, in collaboration with David Mallet, wrote the words for a patriotic masque entitled Alfred. The music for this production was composed by Dr. Thomas Augustine Arne (1710–1778), contemporary of Handel and one of England's finest native composers. The masque, an art form long popular in England, was a type of pageant combining spectacle, drama, and music; it was frequently allegorical or symbolic, and often very elaborately staged. The shorter masques were frequently inserted into plays as diversions or interludes. The more spectacular forms, however, were produced as separate works. Alfred is one of the latter. Replete with splendor, it culminated in a triumphant anthem for full orchestra and chorus which was instantly popular and has remained so to this day: the song now universally known as "Rule, Britannia." The anthem has, of course, undergone a certain amount of evolution over the years; the more difficult passages have been modified to accommodate untrained voices, and in its most frequently-quoted line the word rule was changed in use to rules. Thus, what was originally a sacred command soon became a statement of fact. In any case, "Rule, Britannia" has those vital ingredients which any great national anthem must have–a happy combination of spirited, soaring melody and words of rousing patriotic inspiration. Three of the six stanzas are given below as they first appeared.

When Britain first, at Heaven's command,Arose from out the azure main,This was the charter of the land,And guardian angels sang this strain:Rule, Britannia, rule the waves!Britons never will be slaves!The nations not so blest as thee,Must in their turns to tyrants fall,Whilst thou shalt flourish great and free,The dread and envy of them all.Rule, Britannia, rule the waves!Britons never will be slaves!. . .The Muses, still with freedom found,Shall to thy happy coast repair;Blest isle, with matchless beauty crowned,And manly hearts to guard the fair!Rule, Britannia, rule the waves!Britons never will be slaves!