Commentary: A Loyal Song for the Tars of Old England

Songs have two parts: the air (tune) and the lyric. The tune to which words were set could be a political gesture, often counterpointing the sentiments of the words themselves. Here the tune is ‘Derry Down’, with at least 21 distinct iterations recorded as appearing between 1750-1800. ‘Derry Down’ later became inextricably tied to the plight of America during the Revolutionary Wars after it was employed in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1766) to criticise the British government’s mistreatment of American colonists. When British forces surrendered at the battle of Yorktown in 1781 they did so to this tune, arranged then in its most common late eighteenth-century formulation: ‘The World Turned Upside Down.’ After 1781 ‘Derry Down’ retained an association with resistance to the British government more generally.

These connotations persist in ‘A Loyal Song’, printed in The Sheffield Register No. 303 on 23 March 1793 in response to Britain’s involvement in the ongoing French Revolutionary Wars. The poem’s address to the ‘Old Tars of Old England’ is an ironic one, deliberately inverting the poem’s titular identification as a ‘Loyal Song’ and aligning itself more closely with the sentiments typically associated with its chosen tune.

The poem’s pose is deceptively complex; playfully appropriating the pro-war rhetoric of the social superiors it is addressing in order to render their enthusiasm absurd through bathos and hyperbole. Whilst the opening lines implore readers to ‘cheer up’, the reasons given for this encourage precisely the opposite response. In each of the quatrains to follow the song delivers a further caution against adventures in foreign war, packaging every criticism as a satirical endorsement. It is alleged that the war will be paid for by unaffordable taxation on struggling British citizens with no stock in this conflict, the French have no inclination to fight Britain, and European commentators consider further conflict unnecessary. Nevertheless, Britain is going to war and as a ‘Loyal Song’ this poem must praise the fact, no matter how absurd its justifications.

The final stanza renders the poem’s subtext overt as it identifies commercial gain as parliament’s true reason for waging an unnecessary war. It is in the final couplet that this song hits its target, capturing a cry of moral outrage that would come to characterise most of the poems printed in the Register throughout 1793. For the author of these lines the war itself is less offensive than the assumption that British citizens will accept their government’s decisions without debate and discussion, encouraged instead to support the traditional powers that be, come what may:

Our Rulers don’t wish us to think of such things,
Tis enough if we fight for CHURCH, LORDS and KINGS,

Further links

You can listen to later a version of ‘Derry Down’ via Union Songs.

Click here to listen to a performance of this poem on Soundcloud.

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