When In England, Do as Romans Do

Alexander Pope’s "Windsor-Forest" uses neoclassical poetic form to describe a particularly English topography and history. He describes the island as a place of order and balance in both politics and nature and makes it "at once the monarch’s and the Muse’s seat" (3) by conflating distinctly classical with distinctly English elements and transplanting some classical elements to English soil altogether. In doing so, he likens the burgeoning British Empire to the greatness of the Roman Empire.

Pope’s use of the heroic couplet and mastery of counterpoise root his poem firmly in the classical tradition. Oft-quoted lines 23-24 capture the counterpoise of natural elements: "Here in full light the russet plains extend; / There wrapped in clouds the blueish hills ascend". In twenty syllables, Pope captures five points of contrast and balance. "Here" balances "there", "full light" contrasts with "wrapped in clouds" , "russet" is juxtaposed with "blueish", flat "plains" with raised "hills" and the horizontal action "extend" with the vertical "ascend". This couplet could well be from a classical pastoral and encapsulates the ideal of the counterbalanced couplet, which is, in Pope’s words, to be "not chaos-like together crushed and bruised, but as the world, harmoniously confused: where order in variety we see, and where, though all things differ, all agree" (13-16).

However, his counterpoise extends beyond the level of line and beyond the subject of nature to encompass the political sphere on the level of whole poem. The "Peace and Plenty" of "a STUART reign" (42) is contrasted with the "dreary desert" and "gloomy waste" (44) of "ages past" (43) in harmonious confusion. In the "ages past", beginning with William the Conqueror, Windsor Forest was set aside as a royal hunting reserve. This resulted in the destruction of the forest’s residents: the animals were killed in royal hunt, the woodsman, no longer allowed to hunt the animals or reap the fertile ground, "famished die[d] amidst his ripened fields" (56). Pope suggests that William’s tyranny waged war on animal and subject alike and made each the "wanton victims" (78) of a perverted hunt. The second half of the poem, lines 291-434, shifts the hunt and war back to their proper contexts: the hunt is once again the "sylvan chase" (372) in which "arms [are] employed on birds and beasts alone" (374) and no longer in the "dreadful series of intestine wars" in which citizens hunt each other(325) and war itself moves from civil war to war against foreign enemies and finally gives way to "the blessings of a peaceful reign" (366).

The topography that Pope describes in these neoclassical terms is distinctly English while peppered with classical elements in three ways: conflation and relocation of classical elements and description of English elements on classical terms. In conflation, Pope takes a classical element and merges it with an English entity or idea, such as the conflation of classical swains of pastoral poetry with English shepherds, so that the landscape is inhabited by a populace that contains the best of both worlds. The nine muses of classical antiquity merge with the modern poet/muses Denham, Cowley, Surrey, and Granville in that the poetry of these previous writers inspires Pope, as the muses inspired, to write a poem "like them in beauty, should be like in fame" (10). An impressive triple-merge conflates the goddess Diana with Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Anne: Anne shares modesty with both virgin huntress Diana and virgin queen Elizabeth and, like Diana, is a sort of moon goddess in that she, ruling Britannia’s naval power, rules the seas.

Pope also relocates some classical entities to England and in some cases, suggests that England is preferable to their previous homes. Windsor Forest is home to not only hare, hart and hind, as one might expect, but also to "nymphs" (19), Pan, Pomona, Flora, and, by implication, Ceres (37-39), classical beings and gods and goddesses that now apparently have taken up residence in the English countryside. Diana, previously mentioned, left her birthplace, "Cynthus’ top . . . for Windsor shade" (166), and it its suggested that even Jove "might change Olympus for a nobler hill" (234).

The device that Pope uses more widely than these previous two is the description of England’s particular topography, especially the river Thames, in classical terms, often using classical points of comparison. In the description of churches leveled by William I to make room for the royal hunting ground, the phrases "naked temples" (68), "broken columns with clasping ivy twined" (69), and "heaps of ruin" (70) remind the reader of the classical ruins of temples and other architecture, not of a country church. In more explicit terms, Pope personifies the Thames as a river god from whose tributaries, also personified as offspring, "not Neptune’s self from all his streams receives a wealthier tribute" (223). The Thames is also compared to the Po of "the fabling poets’ lays" (227) and its tributaries to "urns" (338).

In a larger passage, Pope tells the tale of Lodona, a tributary of the Thames, in an Ovidian style borrowed from the Metamorphoses, another example of his use of the classical to describe the English. Like many of the plants or animals whose origins are described in the Metamorphoses, Lodona begins as a nymph in Diana’s virgin company but is spotted and desired by Pan. Pan chases the hapless beauty in a mad hunt until she calls on the gods, here, "Father Thames" (197), Zeuslike, and Diana as she is raped. She weeps at having lost her virginity and,

melt[ed] as in tears she lay,

In a soft silver stream dissolved away.

The silver stream her virgin coldness keeps,

Forever murmurs and forever weeps;

Still bears the name the hapless virgin bore,

And bathes the forest where she ranged before.

203-208

Ovid’s conventions are thus used to describe the formation of a piece of the English landscape as a transplanted nymph undergoes a metamorphosis to become a part of the topography of Windsor Forest.

Pope uses the neoclassical style of his poetry along with frequent references to England’s maritime strengths in commerce and in war to paint a picture of Windsor Forest as home to a new golden age akin to the glory of the empires of ancient Rome and Greece. The golden time is twofold: it is Peace after the end of internal and external conflicts, especially the Civil War and War of Spanish Succession, and it is also Plenty, the wealth brought to the whole country through the return of the fecund forest land to the hands of the people and through commerce and trade with all parts of the world.

As stated before, the tyranny of William the Conqueror and followers is balanced in the poem by peace under Anne. Not only have the series of civil wars ended, but the War of Spanish Succession was closed with the Treaty of Utrecht—an event which gave rise to the second half of the poem, which gives an account of the war’s end. "At length great ANNA said—‘Let discord cease!’ She said, the world obeyed, and all was peace!" (327-328). England has regained power over its own citizens and also military power over the world’s powers which "obey" when Anne, speaking for England, speaks:

. . . kings shall sue, and suppliant states be seen

Once more to bend before a British Queen.

Thy trees, fair Windsor! Now shall leave their woods,

And half thy forests rush into [the Thames’] floods,

Bear Britain’s thunder, and her cross display,

To the bright regions of the rising day"

(383-388).

England’s increasing colonial holdings as well as the powers of Europe are beholden to England’s great navies which begin life as trees in Windsor Forest. Hence it is seen that Windsor Forest is the birthplace of England’s military power.

The naval power has commercial benefits as well as political and increases the prosperity of the blossoming empire. The same ships which bring colonies and nations under political control are establishing highly profitable trade with those areas they subjugate: "by our oaks the precious loads are born" (31). Now that the royal and the wealthy are preoccupied with hunting goods on foreign shores, Windsor Forest is no longer a royal hunting ground and its residents once again enjoy the fruits of the ground freely and hunt freely. Both the wealthy commercial classes and the country folk profit by Britain’s commercial expansion.

Britain’s connection to the glory of Empire which "Earth’s distant ends . . . shall behold" (401) ties it to the Greek and Roman empires of the classical age, a connection which is forged through classical style and classical content in a distinctly English setting: the counterpoised couplets and counterbalance throughout the poem and classical entities alluded to, conflated with, and compared with English entities. The total effect of this is that Pope equates the glory of England’s golden age to the golden glister of the classical world displaying a pride in Britain’s natural, political and military splendor unrivaled by other nations.