a5_runnymeade.jpg The Signing of the Magna Carta

For a Column at Runnymede

Mark Akenside

Thou, who the verdant plain dost traverse here
While Thames among his willows from thy view
Retires; O stranger, stay thee, and the scene
Around contemplate well. This is the place
Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king
(Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure
The charter of thy freedom. Pass not on
Till thou hast blest their memory, and paid
Those thanks which God appointed the reward
Of public virtue. And if chance thy home
Salute thee with a father's honour'd name,
Go, call thy sons: instruct them what a debt
They owe their ancestors; and make them swear
To pay it, by transmitting down entire
Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

Background

Named for a small meadow along side the Thames River, "For a Column at Runnyemede" is one of Akenside's more famous works. This section of England is known for its place in history as it was the sight of the signing of the Magna Carta. Changing views in politics was major aspect of Classical life in Europe. The themes discussed in this poem are great reflection of the era and truly distinguish Mark Akenside as a Classical Poet.

Themes

One of the poems initial and more evident themes is that of nationalism. The Magna Carta is one of the most important documents in English history as it symbolizes the beginning of the end of the King's power. The document withdrew certain rights from the monarchy and increased the power of England's nobles. The poem discusses how the nobles of England, who had provided so much for the King (through war and funding), were finally able to gain legal rights. While the theme of nationalism is symbolic of many time periods, including the Romantic period, this historical reference is a DIRECT link to the issues of 18th Century (NeoClassical) England. During Akenside's time, England's empire was under threat of rebellion by its aquired territories (America), invasion by France, and the outright abolishment of the monarchy due to the rising influence and power of the House of Lords in parliament. Akenside had much interest int he concepts of liberty and the rights of the people, and he was undoubtedly connecting the Magna Carta to his views on the issues he saw. The theme of nationalism does prove that Romanticism is not the direct opposite of NeoClassism, but the specific references in this work make the poem a quintesential piece of the NeoClassical Era.

The other major theme in the poem is that God and his connection man. As discussed on the main page, Romantics had certain views regarding God and religion that differed from most other time periods. God was seen as an entity completely beyond humanity that could be found in the beauty of human interaction and nature. While the Neo Classicists had made deviatons from original religious doctrine which put God's word first (in that science and reason dominated the Enlightenment), they still retain the concept that God was very similar to man, by remained distinctly seperate from Earth. Akenside remains loyal to Classical views on God, as he adresses it in line 10. By stating that God "rewards" people, Akenside indicates that God is very much human based and physically chooses to reward those serve their country. While this differs from direct Romantic views on God, a Romantic might say that this lines symbolizes the concept that Earthly reward (whether it be spiritual or moral success) is God's reward.

The final theme discussed in the concept of ancestry. In the final lines of the poem, Akenside discusses the idea that the modern English people should take up the struggle that their ancestors made and to use the rights their ancestors earned. Ancestry has always been important to almost every culture, but Akenside seems to treat these ancestors as Gods, as proven by his epic style of diction.

Diction

Although the themes in the poem almost portray the Neo Classical era of Europe, his diction (how he presents those themes) is what clearly labels his poem as Neo Classical. His poem takes on the persona of a great epic, remaniscent of the tales tolds by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king
(Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure
The charter of thy freedom

Salute thee with a father's honour'd name

These lines instill in the reader with a sense of glory and and purpose. Words like "ancient barons, clads in arms, conquest, tyrant king," and "the charter of the freedom" create the bombastic style so vital to the poems themes and tone. One can imagine some jester or minstrel passionately taling this sort of poem around a raging camp fire or bountiful banquet table.

Tone

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of this poem is Akenside distinctly firm tone. There is a clear sense of anger or belligerence as if the poem were a speech before a battle. Lines 12-16 emphasize this atagonism by informing the 18th Century English reader that he owes to his ancestors to attack the modern day tyrrannical King so similar to the "oppressive" ruler in the days before the Magna Carta. Akenside's diction creates an aura around the poem with intent to inspire the reader; to evoke a sense of fight or disdain out of the reader. The final lines obviously throw the tone and message of the poem right into the reader's face.

They owe their ancestors; and make them swear
To pay it, by transmitting down entire
Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

By considering the rights of Magna Character sacred, Mark Akenside hopes make the reader feel although the reader as been personally violated by the "evil regime" at hand.

The Message (beyond the rebelling against monarchy)

As previously stated, Akenside hopes to create civil enthusiasm in liberty and freedom by creating intense feelings of spiritual violation and combativeness. Another message would obviously be that themes and presented in this work (as hoped by Akenside) should be passed for generations to come, as Akenside informs the reader that he must "... call thy sons: instruct them what a debt. They owe their ancestors." But this poem provides the modern reader with a different message. The poems symbolizes an overall way of thinking in the mid stages of Europe's time in the modern era. From this piece, one can see that the questioning of authority, the definition of nationhood, the concepts of freedom, were moral topics discussed and even fought over during these times. It is these themes and mindsets that seperate Classicism and Romanticism. Romantics did not feel that success in politics or tangible property was a necessity in life (that's not to say, though, were completely unspirtual or solely secular). They felt that human emotion, nature, and God were all connected and that personal understand was the sole key to living well. The two periods in literature marked an important point
in the development of human philosphy, and these periods remain essential the intrepration of music, books, poetry, and thus the overall state of humanity.

For more Mark Akenside poems click here.