There are dark stirrings in Brexiteers’ sudden fixation with poetry | Edward Sugden

By turning to Tennyson and Yeats, Geoffrey Cox et al are casting themselves as epic heroes fighting for a return to a purer past

• Edward Sugden is a cultural historian at King’s College London

This week Brexit took an unexpected poetical turn. On Radio 4, the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, intoned selections from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and reflected on WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium. Meanwhile, archly poised behind a picture of Margaret Thatcher, the now infamous Mark Francois mumbled through Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses to the Eurosceptic thinktank the Bruges Group.

Even in a world where hollow bombast and specious eloquence fuel a growing political farce, these readings stand out for their incongruity. Quite why it is that two Conservative politicians, in the wake of a decade of savage cuts to arts funding, have found themselves suddenly seized by the muse in their hour of need seems bizarre to the point of utter opacity.

But there is something coherent here. For each of these poems is a version of what literary critics call a quest narrative. In the classic form of the quest narrative, an epic hero seeks to restore meaning and belonging to an almost ruined political body through defeating an almost equally matched enemy or discovering a sacred key, such as the holy grail.

Eliot, Tennyson, and Yeats offer a geriatric twist on this classic genre. In their retellings of it, ageing narrators, their best days behind them, lament a debased modern world that is humbled by a substantially more wondrous ancient one. The speakers then commit to an aesthetic journey that will recreate this lost time and unify the present in a way that runs counter to their own gradually descending, but viscerally felt, mortality.

That Cox and Francois performed these poems indicates that they categorise Brexit as a contemporary version of the quest narrative. In an era when the type of story that political movements tell is as important as substantive content, the quest narrative gives one explanation of how it was that leaving the European Union went from an obscure project of the Conservative right to a movement backed by 17 million voters.

The leave campaign created a composite picture of the Brexiteer as a mythic hero fighting off the monstrous hydra of a transnational, all-permeating European bureaucracy. Much like the knights of yore, they positioned themselves as confronting a nebulous and threatening Other that undermined the coherence of the political community.

'April is the cruellest month' - @Geoffrey_Cox recites T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' . The Attorney General explains why he's using poetry to get through Brexit

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Like Eliot, Tennyson, and Yeats they delved into the past to discover and forge their project of renewal. The Brexiteers incanted a mixture of the first and second world wars to generate a mythical Britain in which to be British was to be heroic, ethical, and enlightened. The reactivation of this ancient spirit, they suggested, could unify an increasingly incoherent land torn apart by the same European enemy that it had once defeated.

Just like the aged narrators of the poems contemplating their own fate, the Brexiteers positioned Britain as an ancient, declining force poised on the brink of a glorious eternity. In spite of Britain’s post-imperial belatedness, that sense of already being too late, they contended that this ancient spirit could make the jaded land young again. Placing themselves against the shattering experience that was the loss of Britain’s global sway, they promised a world in which a simpler, more glorious past was to be restored.

Against the already ambivalent content of a quest vision of this sort, even darker resonances emerge. It was precisely this sort of fantastical history, in which to renew was to return to a purer past, that provided the tenacious narrative underpinnings of fascism. Tennyson’s aged sovereign Ulysses is a nationalist strongman before such a term existed, who “mete[s] and dole[s] / Unequal laws unto a savage race”, while Yeats and Eliot’s flirtations with autocracy are infamous. The quest narrative of national renewal is dangerous precisely to the extent that it promises to redeem: Make America Great Again and all that.

Brexit is and always has been a political theology. By keying into this elemental narrative, leavers could lend weight and meaning to their campaign through an intuitive, if often unconscious, historical plot. For those progressives who wish to fight Brexit, the urgent issue becomes whether they too can find a similarly deep story to tell about the UK’s relationship with the world about it.

• Edward Sugden is a cultural historian at King’s College London and author of Emergent Worlds


Edward Sugden

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