Rule, Britannia!

This study guide will help you analyze the poem “Rule, Britannia!” (1740) by James Thomson. You can also find a summary of the poem, as well as ideas for interpreting it and putting it into perspective

James Thomson (1700-1748) was a British poet and playwright. He was born in Scotland and later moved to London where he knew many of the most famous poets of the time. Today, he is known primarily for writing the poem “Rule, Britannia!”. Thomson’s words were set to music by Thomas Arne for a musical play. Although the play has mostly been forgotten, the song quickly became very popular. When it was first written, the phrase “Britannia, rule the waves” was intended as an encouragement to Britain to expand its empire; however, in the Victorian era the words were changed to “Britannia rules the waves”, to show that the British had achieved their goal of having a huge empire. The song is now a famous (and controversial) patriotic anthem


“Rule, Britannia!” by James Thomson is written in praise of Britain, predicting the glorious future of the nation. It argues that since the beginning, Britain has been ruled by the idea that it will have power over the seas and that British citizens will never be slaves. Britain will be envied and feared by other nations, and it will come out of any wars even stronger than before. Britain’s cities will shine with business and industry, and the nation will be home to the creative muses. 


Here, you can read an extract from our study guide: 


The speaker frequently uses hyperbole to create an exaggerated view of Britain’s power and greatness. For example, in the opening verse the speaker claims that the island of Britain first came into existence “at Heaven’s command” (l. 1), meaning because God ordered it...

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Rule, Britannia!

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