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Deconstructing the Centrality of Religion in “Old England”

In his poem “Old England,” Claude McKay introduces to us a speaker who longs to visit “de homeland England” (5). There, he expects to see daily sights of street life as well as three famous churches, where English monarchs and writers are buried. Written in Jamaican Creole, the poem seems to take the perspective of the colonized, whose imagined visit to England reveals a romanticized vision of the colonizer. He expresses his admiration for the churches he visits and the deceased English people he respects; to see England is an act of conquest. While the poem abounds with religious motifs, McKay suggests that it is not the pursuit of spirituality, but the stability offered by art that satisfies the speaker’s longing.

To the speaker, visiting England is an act of conquest. He begins not with England itself, but with traversing the ocean. The theme of travel, of moving from one land to another, sets up a relationship between visitor and visited, between invader and invaded. The speaker further uses the language of colonization as he describes the waves surrounding him. Dreaming of “sail[ing] athwart the ocean,” he seeks to hear the billows as they “ride aroun’ de steamer” and “beat on England’s shore” (4). For him, the waves of the ocean travel alongside him in his steamship, and eventually, arriving at England, they beat against—as though attacking—England. The speaker’s invasion as a visitor may serve to reassert himself, to counterbalance a longing “dat [he] can conquer not” (1). This is an emotional and intellectual conquest: his longing is in his “dept’s of heart” and has been present “since [he] could form a t’o’t” (1-2).

The speaker’s extreme longing for England does not make distinctions of value between the different sights he sees. His romanticized view of England encompasses both its mundane and its more aesthetically impressive sights. In the second stanza, we find parallelism among the four lines. Each begins with an infinitive: “to view,” “to see,” “to watch,” and once again “to see” (5-8). These verbs are all followed by different objects of sight: “de homeland England,” “de famous sights,” which the speaker later details, and “de matches-children” (5-8). Parallel sentences constructed with these verbs and their objects suggest equal value. To the speaker, the daily street life is just as much a part of English culture as the renowned architecture. He names “de famous sights dem ‘bouten which dere’s so much talk” and “dat [he] hear ‘bout” (6,8). His understanding of these “sights” seems to be based on hearsay; he has never experienced them. Furthermore, these “sights,” though “famous,” are actually very commonplace and mundane. These are “fact’ry chimneys pourin’ smoke up to de sky” and “matches-children” (7-8). Factory chimneys are evidence of industrialization, and the juvenile match sellers, of economic hardship. While the speaker seems unappalled and undaunted, these sights are very much reminders of the hard reality of life.

With ambivalence the speaker describes the churches he hopes to visit. His awe for them seems excessively dramatized and even feigned. On the one hand, he praises the “great / Learning comin’ from de bishops” (9). On the other, this admiration is undermined by the reality that religion seems no longer so inspirational. His praise seems more performed than naturally experienced. In response to the “massive organ soun’” at St. Paul’s Cathedral, he “would ope [his] mout’ wid wonder” (10, 11). The speaker claims that he must “‘train [his] eyes to see de beauty lyin’ all aroun’,” suggesting that his awe for the church is acquired, not inherent (12). Faith, it seems, must be cultivated, and the speaker further argues that even faith no longer satiates searching souls.

Although the speaker seems eager to visit the churches, he does not seem to find spirituality very awe-inspiring, even compared to the “fact’ry chimneys” and “matches-children” he has longed to see (6,7). Religion has lost its accessibility to the people. The parson at City Temple, “where de old fait’ is a wreck,” preaches “views dat most folks will not tek” (14). While the speaker does not describe England—even with its street sellers and evidence of poverty—as a “wreck,” he describes the faith there as such. Faith, though central to the existence of the church, bears connotations of negativity.

“De homeland England” seems to offer satisfaction not so much through religion, but rather through the advancement of science and art. Science has become the new religion, even offering a new sense of purpose: the speaker would, as he says, meet the scientists, who “give light unto de real truths” and “obey king Reason’s call” (16). It is no longer faith, but science, that enlightens. The preachers’ “views” are contrasted with the scientists’ “real truths” (14, 16). Furthermore, while we see no mention of God, “king Reason,” as a personified abstraction, demands the speaker’s response (16). England no longer worships the God for whom it has first built its churches; instead, it celebrates the lives of past monarchs and authors.

The speaker attributes divine characteristics not to God, but to monarchs and artists of England. He intends to see “immortal Milton,” “de wul’-famous Shakespeare, / Past’ral Wordswort’, gentle Gray, an’ all de great souls buried there” (19-20). He would then see “de body of our Missis Queen, Victoria de Good” (24). On the one hand, the speaker reveres and even worships these individuals. They are immortalized by art, by the marble statues that stand above them and the churches that house their bodies. On the other hand, the speaker recognizes that kingship and monarchical authority are only temporary, and that the monarchs remove their crowns once their term has ended (21-22). These individuals, though commemorated, are actually transient.

The speaker in “Old England” takes the perspective of a hopeful visitor from Jamaica. Place functions as a stable source of identity. Among the sights that the speaker plans to see, only the hard realities of life, metonymically represented by industrialization and poverty, are permanent. Yet, while the speaker visits three different churches, he finds that religion is no longer the center of importance. Instead, science and art offer greater intellectual and emotional satisfaction.

 

Works Cited

McKay, Claude. “Old England.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

 

 


The Little Match Seller is a 1902 silent film produced by British director James Williamson and an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story. As a work contemporary to “Old England,” this short film might inform our understanding of the iconic match seller, particularly from a British lens.

 

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