Benjamin Gough (1805-77), a Wesleyan Methodist, achieved some moderate renown as a poet and hymnodist. His Our National Sins: A Poem of Warning and Exhortation appeared posthumously in 1878, and was dedicated to the evangelical reformer Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Given Gough's call for social action at all levels of English culture, his choice of dedicatee is not surprising. Gough's long poem is a jeremiad in rather unambitious heroic couplets that suffer from some clumsy handling. One suspects that "[w]hile hecatombs are hurried to the tomb"(9) does not achieve quite the effect that Gough desired. The poem's interest lies not in its formal quality, or lack thereof, but its attempt to meld some exceptionally traditional notions about Roman Catholicism (bad), luxury (also bad), and English modernity (necessarily Protestant) with more recent challenges to the national health, including Biblical criticism, vivisection, and Darwinian evolution.
The first five sections take us from "England in the Olden Time" to "England under Queen Victoria," and celebrate England's post-Reformation development into a great imperial power. Gough, like a number of his contemporaries, insists that England is naturally Protestant: the English were "l]ong tied and bound beneath the priestly bane" (1) and "[h]eld back for centuries, to foul rites confined" (2), suggesting that an entirely foreign Roman Catholic power artificially constrained England's native spiritual impulses. Protestantism, by contrast, proves entirely liberatory. Under Protestantism's influence, the nation "[r]e-lit" its loathing for Roman Catholicism (2)--implying, again, that the Reformation merely releases an innate religious tendency--and "sprang with swift rebound/To a new life, with peace and freedom crowned" (2). As is typical in such narratives, Protestant conversion determines; it is not determined by. That is to say, although national and international politics may imprison or conceal the true, invisible church, they do not produce it in the way that they produce Roman Catholicism. Protestantism's essence, contained in the Bible alone, remains universal and unchangeable, whatever its merely local historical fortunes. By the same token, England's culture, economic power and military might emerge from a uniquely Protestant mindset, instead of shaping it. As the last two poems in this section make clear, a Catholic country like Spain rapidly devolves into the "fifth-rate" (3) because it remains Catholic, and thus resists the Protestant winds of change (which include technological advances like the telegraph ). In England, however, the Protestant era of Queen Victoria issues in a new age of international strength and domestic tranquility, apparently turning England into the globe's sole superpower. This is not so much a history of Protestantism as a claim that without Protestantism, England would have no history worth the writing.
As I noted earlier, Gough's historical narrative offers nothing new. Nor does his complaint about the nation's paradoxical collapse under the weight of its own success. The "England's Wealth and Luxury" section signals the poem's transition from celebration to prophecy. Invoking the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Gough warns his readers that those countries "[...] raised to wealth and luxury, soon were weak/And fell, self-slain, who conquered Goth and Greek" (6-7). In this inevitable cycle of triumph and collapse, the nation strong enough to indulge itself in pleasures, untroubled by war, soon ennervates itself; readers familiar with classical republicanism should recognize the point. Thus, the Victorian age, the site of Protestantism's greatest triumph, also marks its moment of decay. (Anti-Catholic propagandists frequently made a similar argument, sans the republican overtones: Protestantism's very success threatened its ability to resist Catholicism, precisely because Protestants felt sure that nothing could uproot their religious dominance.) Modern man, Gough bluntly warns, has been "[e]masculated" (7) by a course of unlawful indulgences, all enabled by the nation's financial prosperity. Hence the need for this poem...
The next several sections, then, crusade against England's dominant "sins," which develop from the utopia that Gough had been celebrating just a few lines earlier. Gough sees the tide of national corruption beginning (and, indeed, engineered) at the aristocratic top, gathering speed as it races to the working-class bottom. Thus, the "statesmen" who profit from taxes on liquor (8) deliberately encourage working-class drunkenness and, ultimately, the sex trade (10), just as upper-class gamblers facilitate the "dread infection" of their sport (18). Although all sin, Gough clearly holds the upper- and professional classes responsible for modeling Christian virtues--indeed, as in the case of drinking, he charges the wealthy with debauching the nation in pursuit of profit. More interestingly, Gough's attacks on hunting and vivisection intersect with contemporary feminist critiques of both activities: he charts a direct line of descent from riding to hounds to "wife-beating," arguing that "murder crowns what cruelty begins" (26). The purportedly refined, elegant pleasures of the genteel hunt, which kills "God's creatures in their innocence of joy" (24), actually inculcates a disrespect for life in general and the weak in particular. Working-class men, who cannot afford to cloak a lust for killing under the equestrian's fashionable garb, reveal the upper-class hunter's true motivations in their ugliest light. Similarly, the scientific vivisector only demonstrates that "[n]othing is heinous or revolting now,/And murder wears no brand upon its brow!" (29) In both cases, cruelty to animals, however dressed-up or explained, is merely the first step on the road towards murdering human beings--especially weaker human beings, like women.1
With "England's Scepticism," one of the poem's longest sections, Gough changes tack: specifically, he indicts the country's clerical leaders for demolishing the Protestant reverence for the Bible they ought to encourage. Here, his parody of liberal Christianity--"The Bible's but half true and uninspired,/The writers only wrote what they desired" (30)--suggests that he's thinking of the previous decade's controversies over Essays and Reviews and Bishop Colenso, as well as the cautious acceptance of Biblical criticism in their wake. Bearing in mind that Gough identifies Englishness itself with Protestantism, any attack on the Bible threatens not only orthodox religion (however defined), but the very fabric of the nation itself. There is no way to separate belief from England's ongoing viability as an imperial power. Darwinian biology, which claims that "Man's great progenitor in Time's forenoon/Sprang from the oyster and the stark baboon" (33), falls into the same error, abandoning "truth's strong rock/the glory of our land" (34) for the stormy waters of heresy. Both Biblical critics and Darwin's followers reject the authentic lessons of the Reformation in favor of mere, self-aggrandizing novelty, leading the nation on to certain ruin.
But this "intellectual" revolt is nothing compared to Roman Catholicism's project: reversing history itself. Looking back on the joined legacies of Catholic Emancipation and the Oxford movement, Gough accuses Anglo-Catholics of believing that "[t]he Reformation was a downright sin,/So a new Reformation they begin!" (36) Returning us to the beginning of the poem, Gough, in a typically anti-Catholic moment, mourns that "[w]ives, mothers, maidens, and young Children come,/And sell their souls to slavery and Rome" (37). Like the hunters earlier on, Anglo- and Roman Catholics prey on the weak, whom they convince to voluntarily relinquish their hard-won liberties, once again, to a foreign power. By tolerating Catholicism, in other words, England has effectively permitted its own betrayal by "faithless traitors" (39). Thus, Gough's poem imagines a politico-theological cycle that moves from Roman Catholic slavery to Protestant liberty to Protestant decadence to Roman Catholic slavery again--but a slavery that the English willingly choose for themselves. Only a new "Champion" (39), in the mode of the first reformers, can restart the cycle. There will be no champion, however, as long as England dwells in its own forgetfulness, refusing to acknowledge, as Gough puts it in the next section, that "from the hour that Popery returns/'Twill not be long before she brands and burns!" (42). What England lacks, in other words, is any self-consciousness of this dangerous historical cycle, in which Antichrist eternally wars with the forces of God; just as England's national prosperity rests on an unchanging rock, so too does Roman Catholicism's inner corruption.
After admitting, however, that there are still signs of goodness within England, Gough concludes with the one solution to rule them all--the "living gospel" (49). In other words, having posited an apparently inevitable cycle of decline, Gough now argues that the cycle can be broken with a few timely reminders. This is not, however, quite so self-contradictory as it might seem, for Gough's point remains that England already has Protestant truth. Unlike the ancient empires, which imploded because there was no corrective to the corruptions of luxury, England can arrest her own fall by simply reverting to "truth's strong rock"; the cycle begins, in effect, from an entirely different historical location. Those who fall from the rock can climb back up. With true atonement, Gough exults, "[w]hy should not earth its Paradise regain?" (50) With Protestant truth at hand, England can become truly self-aware of her participation in that cycle of triumph and decay...and, so, consciously make her own historical (and transcendent) destiny.
1 On the links beween feminism and anti-vivisectionism during the Victorian period, see Lucy Bending, The Representation of Bodily Pain in Late Nineteenth-Century English Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 116-76.