Tuesday Poem: Ford Madox Brown, The Last Of England

“THE LAST of England! O’er the sea, my dear,
    Our homes to seek amid Australian fields,
    Us, not our million-acred island yields
The space to dwell in. Thrust out! Forced to hear
Low ribaldry from sots, and share rough cheer
    With rudely-nurtured men. The hope youth builds
    Of fair renown, bartered for that which shields
Only the back, and half-formed lands that rear
The dust-storm blistering up the grasses wild.
    There learning skills not, nor the poet’s dream,
        Nor aught so loved as children shall we see.”
She grips his listless hand and clasps her child,
    Through rainbow tears she sees a sunnier gleam,
        She cannot see a void, where he will be.

Credit note: The name of this poem is actually “For the picture, ‘The Last of England'”. Ford Madox Brown wrote it in 1855 to accompany his famous painting. It exists in a couple of versions; this version hangs in the Birmingham (UK) Museum and Art Gallery.

Tim says: Ford Madox Brown began work on this painting in 1852, when emigration from the UK was at its height – according to Wikipedia, over 350,000 people emigrated that year, from a country whose population is much smaller than it is now.

I have this painting as a black and white illustration in a book, and had always imagined that the couple in the foreground (modelled by Ford Madox Ford and his wife Emma; their children also appear in the picture) were staring back at England. In fact, the white cliffs of Dover are in the top right of the picture, and the couple are looking resolutely away. When my family and I sailed out of the English channel in 1961 on our way to New Zealand with a boatload of assisted immigrants, I imagine the emotions felt by the adults on board may have been somewhat similar.

The Tuesday Poem: Moves between cultures.

7 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Ford Madox Brown, The Last Of England

  1. I've always found this painting really interesting, and the poem. His daughter, Lucy?, married Christina' Rossetti's brother. She was also a painter, but didn't do much after she married. A lot of art critics despise this kind of 'Victorian narrative' art nowadays. But I find it interesting because of the literary links – there was always a poem or a story behind (as well as in) the picture – Dante Gabriel even wrote the poems on the picture frames. Thanks for posting this Tim – something different!

  2. Thanks, Kathleen and Michelle!Kathleen, thanks for the additional info. I like narrative poetry, and am not averse to narrative art (although I like many other types of art as well), so although there are large tracts of Victorian poetry that do not appeal to me, some of my very favourite poems come from that era. For me, the appeal of this particular poem (and painting) lies in the way it prefigures my own family's experience a century-and-a-bit later.

  3. Oh wow, I know the painting, but didn't know there was a poem to go with it. I saw the painting as part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in London last year, and was especially struck by the cabbages hanging off the side of the boat in the foreground. Weird. While I went to the exhibition to see my beloved beautiful tragic or evil women (Ophelia and Rosetti's beautiful women), I was really struck by the social realism paintings and what they were doing politically. Found my only famous non-quite ancestor Thomas Carlyle (great, great etc uncle) in a painting about the value of work. He seemed to be watching rather than working.

  4. Thanks, Helen – that's fascinating! I shall have to take a closer look at the cabbages…Thomas Carlyle clearly didn't want to be distracted from his appreciation of the value of work by the annoying necessity of carrying it out. I can relate to that.

  5. Tim, I just caught up with this post, and my first thought, upon reading the poem, is that it represents The Birth of the Whingeing Pom. Sorry for lowering the tone…

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