The Superior Britain as Depicted in James Thomson’s Rule, Britannia!

Posted on January 2, 2012


Rule, Britannia!

By James Thomson

  When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,

Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sung 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:
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke:
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”

Thee haughty tyrants never shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”

To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
“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.”

The Superior Britain as Depicted in
James Thomson’s Rule, Britannia!

             James Thomson wrote Rule, Britannia! on around 1700-1748. It was firstly published on 1940 for Alfred to honour the Prince of Wales. This poem was very popular among Royal Army that it was adapted to a patriotic song. The poem contains numerous icons and symbols that can be analysed using Roland Barthes’ semiotics to explain the meaning of the poem and the intention of the writer upon writing it.

The icons used in the poem are Britons and tyrants. The icons are juxtaposed to highlight the Briton’s superiority over tyrants. Britons, by Heaven’s command, could make the tyrants surrendered and acknowledged Briton’s power. Thus, Heaven signifies powerful spiritual entity. British people could win against the tyrants because they worked under Heaven’s instruction. Britons believed that Heaven is associated with good things so that their conquest was something rightful.

The phrases “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never be slaves.” are repeated on the last part of each stanza thus suggest the importance of these expressions. The Great Britain was famous of its territory around the world. There is a proverb “The sun never sets in Britain.” to describe its vast territory. On the colonization era, The Great Britain had the largest colonies. It was so large that at least there was always one territory which received sun heat. The waves represents the territory that mostly covered by water (ocean). The expression “never be slaves” signifies Britain superiority towards other nation because Britain was the owner of most lands.

Upon conquering the lands, Britain was not alone. The nation itself got competitors. The poet described these competitors as the wild tyrants. The tyrants were against the Britons. However, the poet praised the Britain’s “majestic” movements. The majestic characteristic was able to beat them down. All of their oppositions were muffled elegantly as depicted in “All attempts to bend thee down, Will but arouse thy generous flame;”. On the later stanzas it is revealed many compliments to Britain; rurals and cities are Britain’s dukedom and the cities had successful trading. It is also contain a wish so that the beautiful isle would always be guarded by British men.

The conclusion of the first order of interpretation suggests the intention of the poem as a means to glorify British’s greatness. The exaggerate expressions— mostly found in Stanza 1,3, and 5— are used by the poet to express his pride of nationalism.

The second order of interpretation will examine closely the relation between the poem’s narrative and historical background around text production. Britannia was the original name given by Romans to the region that is now England and Wales. The poem was put into music by Thomas Augustine Arne and is sung as an unofficial national anthem, more specifically, an imperialist anthem.

Thomson was well-known as a writer who got inspirations from historical events. This poem tells about Britannia’s efforts to declare independence and strengthen the power against European countries. “European countries” is signified by “foreign tyrants”. The poem also marks Bill of Rights, which was signed on 1689 by the expression “This was the charter of the land,”. The charter was believed to be the representation of God’s command— symbolized with Heaven­— and it was approved by holy people and Heaven’s entity as represented by the singing guardian angels. The purposes of the act are to ensure certain freedoms and ensure a Protestant political supremacy. No wonder the poem uses heavenly diction to portray the strength of the bill.

Meanwhile, the phrase “Thee haughty tyrants never shall tame:” suggests that Britannia had a special opponent. According to the poem, Britannia was portrayed as having generous quality. Britannia’s quality is contrasted with the haughty tyrants’ quality thus lead to the use of binary opposition: humble versus haughty. Again, the poet wanted to magnify Britannia’s good works. If it is drawn further to the political history on around 1700, Britannia was involved in Second Hundred Year’s War with France. Britons were having a rough time with French bourbons’. So, the meaning of “haughty tyrans” is France and Britons should never be French’s”slave”.

After examining the historical background of the poem, it is  concluded that the poem intends to “show-off” Britannia’s superiority towards other European countries, especially France. It was also acted as a courtesy to Prince of Wales.



Abrams, M. H., ed. (1993). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W.          Norton & Company.

Armitage, D. (2000). The Ideological Origins of The British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge            University Press. Pp. 173.

Chandler, D. (2009). Semiotics for Beginners.  

National Archieves and Records Administration. Bill of Rights.   


Posted in: essay, poem