Literary daybook, Aug. 2

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published August 2, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Aug. 2, 2019, Emilio, Sofia, and Jimmy have dinner at the home of George and Anna Edwards.
-- "The Sparrow" (1996)
by Mary Doria Russell

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1740, James Thomson's masque, "Alfred the Great," was first produced, in an open-air performance before the Prince and Princess of Wales. The premiere was a birthday present for the princess, though if others found the history and didactics to require a "great labour of the brain," the occasion must have demanded the 4-year-old Augusta's very best manners. The music would have helped: Amid the lessons on Alfred's greatness and the prophetic visions of future glory were seven songs, one of which, "Rule, Britannia!" became immediately and enduringly popular. Through subsequent revisions and adaptations of "Alfred" by Thomson's co-writer David Mallet and composer Thomas Arne, only this one air was left untouched; it is now the unofficial national anthem, the last two lines of the opening stanza turned into a chorus, and into the most enthusiastic moment of every Last Night of the Proms:

"When Britain first at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of her land,
And guardian angels sung the strain:
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!
Britons never shall be slaves!"

The waves in question in Thomson's day were those surrounding Central and South America, the slaves those whom both Spain and England wished to market to the New World. Their chronic battle for naval commerce and power had reached one of its acute phases the year before Alfred. This was the so-called War of Jenkins' Ear, fanned to flame when Capt. Jenkins displayed his bottled ear, reputedly severed by a Spanish sword, before Parliament. The captain would not be amused that the overall theme of this year's Proms is Spanish music, the two operas performed at tonight's Royal Albert Hall concert being by Granados and Ravel.

Thomson's epic poem "The Seasons" is reputed to be the first major poem to have Nature, or landscape, as its focus. His play "Sophonisba" -- she was a Cleopatra figure in ancient Carthage -- contained a line that, for all the wrong reasons, became almost as well-known as "Rule, Britannia!": "Oh! Sophonisba, Sophonisba, Oh!" wails one importunate to the heroine. This prompted the ever-ready Henry Fielding, in his Tom Thumb satire a year later, to have little Tom address his beloved, "O Huncamunca, Huncamunca O!"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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