Saturday, 26 March 2011

Foreign intervention - or not?

The recent decision to bomb targets in Libya has once again provoked debate as to when, if at all, Britain out to intervene militarily in other countries. I shall endeavour to put this into some kind of historical context.

The first and most obvious point to make is that Britain is an island nation, and that, crucially, between the late seventeenth century and the start of the twentieth, the British navy was much the strongest in the world, so that we were seldom seriously threatened with invasion. One result of this was that Britain, unlike France or Prussia, needed only a small land army. This army was, for most of this period, poorly paid and given little respect, being regarded ever since Cromwell, as a potential menace to free constitutional government (see footnotes). Thus, although it would be difficult for any nation to invade Britain, it would be equally difficult for Britain to intervene effectively on continental Europe. As Bismarck once remarked; if the British army attempted to land in Germany, he would send a policeman to arrest them! Napoleon compared war between Britain and France with a battle between an elephant and a whale: always likely to result in a standoff.

An important result of this was that Britain, uniquely, had several foreign policy options, which can generally be classified as "Tory" or "Whig" policies. To deal with the "Tory" options first: Britain could, for a start, simply remain neutral in any European wars. Britain had no ambitions to annex territories on the mainland of continental Europe, so there was no need to get involved in wars there. If we did not antagonise any other country, then probably no ther country would go to the trouble of attacking us. Tories considered it potentially disastrous that a Dutchman, William III, became King in 1689, and a German, George I, in 1714, since these monarchs would always want to use British strength to defend their homelands. Tories were also suspicious of getting involved in alliances that might drag us into a continental conflict. There was always a flavour of national superiority in this attitude: if all those wretched frogs, krauts, dagoes and other assorted nig-nogs (fill in any rude epithet as appropriate!) choose to cut each others' throats, what has it got to do with us? why should we risk British blood and British money joining in their stupid quarrels? Far better to sit tight behind our impregnable navy and leave them to it! Thus when the War of the Polish Succession raged in the 1730s, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (a Whig, but following a very Tory line, and refusing to get involved) boasted "There were 40,000 men killed this year in Europe, and not one of them was an Englishman!" If we take this forward two hundred years, we find Neville Chamberlain saying in 1938 (I paraphrase), "Czechoslovakia is a faraway little country, of which we know nothing". It is essentially the same attitude.

A more interesting Tory policy was that, if we did fight wars, we should concentrate our efforts on where we were strongest; that is, at sea. Instead of committting ourselves to large land battles, we should use our naval strength to drive our enemy's fleets from the sea, blockade his harbours, destroy his trade and seize his overseas colonies and bases. Such a strategy had more chance of success, and might even make a profit! This was known as a "Blue-water" strategy, and was employed in several wars. It brought vast gains for the British Empire, but it was never clear how it was supposed to defeat the French, or later the Germans, on mainland Europe.

When it came to the crunch, Britain almost always followed the "Whig" policy, which was based upon the concept of the "Balance of Power". Although Britain does not desire to acquire territory on mainland Europe, it is not in our interests that any rival power should dominate Europe; especially not those regions dangerously close to our shores: Belgium and Holland. In the 18th century, this meant France; in the first half of the 20th, it meant Germany. So we would form alliances to try to prevent this happening, and if necessary, go to war. This is the essence of most of the great conflicts: the War of the Spanish Succession, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars. In every case, there was a chance that Britain could have stayed on the sidelines, but ultimately we did not consider it would be in our interest to do so. For much of the 19th century, Britain followed a policy of "splendid isolation", avoiding alliances which might suck us into continental conflicts, but at the start of the 20th the growing strength of Germany, especially the building of the German High Seas Fleet, led to Britain allying with France, and ultimately to involvement in the First World War.

But how was Britain to intervene effectively on the continent without creating a large army? As it happened, the solution was quickly found: we would pay others to do the fighting for us! Thanks to the creation of the twin institutions of the Bank of England and the National Debt in the 1690s, Britain had the most advanced and sophisticated financial structure in the world, and was always able to find the necessary funds to hire mercenary troops (usually from the small German states) or to subsidise allied powers to put their armies onto the field on our behalf. We began the process of fighting wars with our financial muscle, which actually meant fighting them with borrowed money; and this has continued successfully ever since.

One important consequence of Britain's favourable geographical position was that, from late in the 19th century, there was an increasing demand from the Liberal Left that we should follow a MORAL foreign policy. Unlike countries like France or Germany, which had long and vulnerable land frontiers and were therefore obliged to have a policy of naked and cynical self-interest, it was thought that we should use our international strength to do good in the world: to spread democracy and freedom, to advance human rights and protect persecuted minorities, and not to support unpleasant tyrants merely because they wanted to be on our side. This attitude continues to this day; so when critics say that the invasion of Iraq, or the intervention in Libya is really "all about the oil", the implication is that it is somehow disgraceful and contemptible to be guided primarily by your country's eceneomic interests.

The position of the U.S.A. in the 20th century is similar to that of Britain in earlier times. Since the country is defended primarily by two enormous oceans, it was extremely difficult for any foe to do serious damage to the American heartland before the invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile (attacks on the American overseas empire, as in Hawaii, or on various client-states, being a different matter!). America thus had the same options as Britain once had: maintaining the balance of power on the one hand, as against isolationism, a small army, and demands for a moral policy. All these latter played a part in delaying America's entry into the two World Wars, and America's self-appointed role as a heavily-armed world policeman was not taken up until after 1945. The old debates have resurfaced with recent events, in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. If there is fighting in a distant country, or between countries, when are we justified in intervening? When, if ever, is it worth spending our money and risking the lives of our soldiers in what appears to be someone else's quarrel?

1. Britain and France. It is always worth remembering that in the 18th century the population of France was approximately five times that of Britain, and her army ten times as big. Britain was thus a small country confronting a very large one, with only a narrow strip of water, patrolled by our superior fleet, preventing us from being crushed. The situation was not dissimilar at the start of the 20th century, when the building of the German High Seas Fleet was a direct challenge to British naval dominance. Churchill famously excused Admiral Jellicoe's extreme caution at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 by pointing out that "Jellicoe was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon": if by some dreadful tactical error the British fleet had been sunk, Britain would have been wide open to invasion by the vastly larger German army.

2. The army. The military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell made people deeply suspicious of a professional army (and also, for that matter, of a professional police force); and perhaps with good reason: it is clear even today that in a great many countries the role of the army is not fighting off foreign invaders but crushing dissent at home. Even modest proposals for increasing the army's size were met with cries of "This could lead to anotherCromwell!" The Act of Settlement of 1702 enacted that it was illegal for the Crown to maintain a standing army in peacetime, though this was soon modified by the system of passing an annual Mutiny Act, which said, in effect, that the army was permitted to continue in existence for another 12 months. After the Gordon Riots had devastated London in 1780, Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig opposition, announced that he would rather see England ruled by the mob than ruled by the army! Not even victory in the Napoleonic Wars served to make the army popular. Throughout the 19th century the pay of the rank and file was too low to attract anyone other than farm labourers and unskilled workers, and officers were generally drawn from the stupider younger sons of the landowning classes. The future Duke of Wellington was withdrawn early from Eton and sent to a military academy, following his aunt's estimate that "He is too stupid for anything save gunpowder". Most of the great independent boarding schools had an "Army Class", where boys who were deemed not bright enough for Oxford or Cambridge Universities were directed towards the army. Winston Churchill was in the Army Class at Harrow. (Of course, these early estimates of both Wellington and Churchill proved to be completely wrong!) Rudyard Kipling, the poet of empire, was well aware of the low prestige of the army, and it is reflected in many of his early poems, such as "Tommy". Many people in Britain thought that, rather than run the risk of having a large professional army, the country should be defended by the people themselves, as a citizens' militia. This idea was inherited by the American Founding Fathers, and is the thinking behind the famous Amendment 2 to the American constitution: the right to bear arms is enacted because "a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state". But, as has frequently been shown, not least in Libya recently a lightly-armed citizens' militia stands no chance against professional soldiers.

3. Paying for wars. From the 1690s, Britain always financed wars with borrowed money, through the National Debt. At the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, Britain had a National Debt of some £52 million, which greatly worried contemporaries, since it was approximately ten times the government's revenue from taxation. The debt rose to £130 million after the Seven Years' War in mid-century, and to £844 million after the Napoleonic Wars, but somehow the nation never went bankrupt. As a result of keeping out of Continental wars, the Victorian financiers reduced the debt considerably, but the First World War caused it to soar to the dizzy level of over £7.5 billion! The annual interest payable on this debt was double the total of ALL government expenditure before the war! But somehow the country never ran out of money. This puts today's fiscal problems in context!

4. Hitler's views. He was a keen amateur student of history, not least of the British approach to foreign policy. In "Mein Kampf" he thought Germany before 1914 could have made more effort to win British friendship. In his early years in power, he was careful to stress that he had no deire to threaten Britain or the British Empire. From late 1937 he seemed to accept he would have to fight britain eventually, but he certainly did not expect Britain to declare war in September 1939, when he invaded Poland. It appeared to make no sense at all: it was obvious Britain could do nothing to defend Poland, and had no plans to attack him on the western front, so what was the point?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hitch-hiking in France

Between leaving school and going on to Cambridge, I spent a few weeks hitch-hiking across northern France with David, a schoolfriend. This was the sort of thing that students in the 1960s might do, not having cars or very much money. Each morning we would split up and arrange to meet that evening outside the Hotel de Ville of some not-too-distant town. By these means we travelled by easy stages from Calais through Normandy and down to the Loire, then northwards the coast before returning home via Caen. We stopped at youth hostels and tiny hotels which charged ten francs for a bed, occasionally camped in barns and fields, and ate very cheaply. Inevitably we missed a lot, though we did see the cathedrals in Rouen and Tours. The highlight of the trip was at Avranches, from where we could look at Le Mont-Saint-Michel, rising like a fairy castle out of the shallow sea (shown in the photograph above: Avranches is off the picture over to the left). A local guide conducted us there at low tide, across the sands through a maze of watercourses.
One of the advantages of hitch-hiking was the opportunity to meet some very strange people. Most of the lifts I got were from a perfectly ordinary selection of lorry-drivers and passing motorists, but once I was given a lift by a doctor out on a call, who told me that De Gaulle was a dirty Communist sympathiser who ought to be guillotined. He took both hands off the wheel and made savage chopping motions to illustrate his point. At one youth hostel we came across a strange little man called Joseph, who worked at a nearby garage, and after a brief conversation asked us if we wanted to see "his collection". Soon afterwards he returned with a brown paper package concealed under his coat, and furtively passed it to us before disappearing. It contained a mass of photographs of Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazi leaders, with handwritten labels like "Mon fuhrer". He must have been a wartime collaborator. I could understand why he was so furtive: many times in Normandy elderly men in cafes, finding that we were English, would get out their maps and talk about the D-Day campaign, complaining that the Americans had been slow to liberate their village, and other memories which seemed like ancient history to us.
The only time we felt under a bit of pressure was when we stopped at a youth hostel full of German students. One of them, hearing that I was from the Lake District, insisted on reciting Wordsworth's "Daffodils" at me: "All at vonce I saw a cloud, a host of golden daffodils. Ach, he vas a great boet!"; which was understandably very irritating. One night a swarm of mosquitoes invaded the dormitory, and we went around swatting them with rolled-up copies of "Der Spiegel" until the Patron of the hostel came to find what all the noise was about. He produced a gigantic aerosol and squirted the mosquitoes with it. David rashly exclaimed, in French, "Poor mosquitoes! They've been sent to the gas chamber!" and then suddenly remembered that all the other people in the room were Germans!

I don't expect today's students do this kind of thing.

Monday, 14 March 2011


The story from St Luke's gospel of the appearance of the Angel Gabriel before the Virgin Mary, to announce to her the forthcoming birth of Christ, was always a favourite subject for painters. Let's examine a few examples and see how common approaches to portraying this subject persisted over the years.

First, here is a mediaeval altarpiece, now in the Uffizi in Florence, by Simone Martini (c.1284-1344)

Next, a picture from the early Renaissance, by Fra Angelico (c.1400-1455), another Florentine,

Next, two works from the High Renaissance; the first by Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510),

and the second by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Now a later work: an Annunciation in the Baroque style by Philippe de Champagne (1602-74)

Obviously these paintings become steadily more lifelike, and less formal and stylised, but at the same time they have a number of features in common.
The scene is usually set neither indoors nor outdoors, but in a kind of loggia or cloister. There is often garden visible somewhere. The setting appears rather opulent for a girl who is about to marry a carpenter! The visitation catches Mary by surprise: in many paintings she is seated and has just been reading a book. But what would she have been reading? It would be the prophecy in Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive..."

Mary's colours are always the same: whatever the circumstances, she wears a red dress with a blue gown or cloak over it. Her head-covering is always white. (Sometimes in Flemish paintings her hair hangs loose, to show she is unmarried, but this is less common in Italian art). The reason for this uniformity of dress is exactly the same as why characters in modern cartoons always wear the same clothes: it is so people will recognise her!

The Archangel Gabriel usually enters from the left of the picture. He is fair-skinned, long-haired and beardless (Byzantine theologians considered angels were the equivalent of eunuchs!) and sprouts enormous bird-wings from his shoulder-blades. He wears an ankle-length gown. He is usually making a gesture of blessing towards Mary.

A few other features may also appear on the painting. Sometimes there is a single ray of light, almost like a laser, shining down from heaven onto Mary's head. There may be a white dove in flight above, symbolising the coming of the Holy Spirit. Often there is a white lily somewhere in the picture, to symbolise Mary's purity.

Here is the scene as a relief carving, from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire

The earliest surviving pictures of the Annunciation are many centuries older than those shown here. Artistic styles may change, but the essential approach of artists to this subject has changed very little over the ages.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Voting Reform

We in Britain will soon be asked to vote in a referendum on whether to replace our "first past the post" method of electing M.P.s with a system of Alternative Vote (AV). The purpose of this artcle is not to argue for or against AV, but to correct the widely-held perception that a single vote is the ancient and traditional method of election: it is not.

From the very earliest days of electing English Members of Parliament, through to the 19th century, almost every constituency returned not one, but two, M.P.s, being the two candidates who attracted the most votes. Each voter similarly had not one vote, but two: he could not give both of them to the same candidate, though if he wished he could give just one vote, which was known as a "plumper". When elections became dominated by political parties, a party could, if wanted, put up two different candidates for a single constituency. The advantage of such a system from the voter's point of view was that an undecided voter could split his votes between two different parties. It would also increase the chances of popular independent candidates being elected. Although single-member constituencies became more common as the 19th century progressed, the last double-member constituencies were not abolished until 1948. (Incidentally, the English double-member system is the reason why the United States constitution decided to have two, and only two, senators for each state, regardless of size and population)

The campaign against voting reform has recently quoted Winston Churchill's hostile views on the subject. It is worth pointing out that Churchill, when first elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1900, was only the second member for the two-member seat of Oldham, behind the first-placed Liberal candidate and fewer than 300 votes ahead of the second Liberal. Had Oldham been a single-member constituency, he would not have been elected.(Churchill switched to the Liberal Party three years later, and abandoned Oldham) Similarly, Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, was from 1900 until his death only the second-placed M.P. for the two-member seat of Merthyr.

Women did not receive voting rights on the same terms as men until the 1920s, but even then there was no absolute system of "one person, one vote". Until 1948, if you owned property in more than one constituency you could, under certain circumstances,vote in more than one place. Furthermore, since the earliest days of Parliament, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge had elected their own M.P.s (two each, naturally), with everyone holding the degree of Master of Arts being entitled to vote in University elections, in addition to any other voting rights they might have. Some very distinguised men represented the Universities in Parliament, notably William Pitt the younger, one of our greatest Prime Ministers, who was M.P. for Cambridge University from 1784 until his death in 1806. As other universities were created, they were also granted Parliamentary seats: Trinity College Dublin, Combined English Universities, and Scottish Universities; this last even having a system of transferable votes. The university seats were finally abolished in 1948.

The uniform system of "one person, one vote" may or may not be the best one for Britain, but it is quite wrong to think that it is ancient and traditional. The first general election in which "one person, one vote" was uniformly applied was in 1950. In fact it is younger than I am! So I say; let's get back to the old traditional English system of election: double-member constituencies, with each voter having two votes. If it was good enough to get Winston Churchill and Keir Hardie into Parliament, it should be good enough for us here today!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Meyer Lansky

Meyer Lansky, doyen of the New York mobsters and last survivor of the Prohibition era, was born in Grodno in 1902 in what was then the Russian Empire, and was brought to the USA in 1911 as part of the great influx of Russian Jews fleeing Tsarist antisemitic pogroms. He once told a reporter that one his earliest memories was hearing an elder addressing a meeting at his grandfather's house after yet another outrage. "Jews!" he shouted, "Why do you just stand around like stupid sheep and let them come and kill you, steal your money, kill your sons and rape your daughters? Aren't you ashamed? You are men like other men. A Jew can fight. Fight back! If you're going to die, then die fighting!" Lansky said these words were "burned in his memory". He would always live his life on these principles.

He was, as far as I know, the only Jew ever to be refused permission to settle in Israel. Despite the fact that he had never been convicted of any major crime, he was still "Meyer Lansky, the notorious gangster". He died peacefully in 1983.

(Sources: Hank Messick, "Lansky"; Rich Cohen, "Tough Jews")
There is more information on Lansky and his colleagues in my blog entries on "American gangsters". I have also posted a summary of Cohen's excellent book, filed under "Non-fiction"

Sunday, 6 March 2011


My first-ever visit to Africa was extremely short, but with such a surrealist element to it that it has remained in my memory ever since. I had signed up for a tour of southern Spain, to Granada, Cordova and Seville (all richly deserving of a visit, but that’s another story), but included in the tour was a boat journey across to Tangier for an overnight stay.
We were under the guidance of Pedro, a middle-aged dyspeptic Spaniard with a very cynical and sarcastic attitude to Moroccans. He told us how essential it was to follow his instructions precisely. The first surprise came when he told us to collect our bags and prepare to disembark: the unexpected aspect of this being that the boat was clearly still some distance out from the harbour. But we obediently followed him to the exit doors, which were down in the belly of the ship, where all the luggage was stored.
But he was quite right, because a seething mass soon built up behind us, pushing and shoving to get to the front. In these situations, the British tradition is to form an orderly queue and wait patiently, which mean we lose out to nations who don’t observe these niceties, but fortunately our party contained a number of strong-minded American matrons who fought off any interlopers. Then finally we docked and the doors opened. The crowd surged forwards and found – nothing but a yawning gulf! There was no gangplank! After we had teetered on the brink for what seemed like ages, a gangplank was finally put in place, only for a mob of hairy stevedores to charge up it and fight their way in amongst the passengers in order to get at the luggage. Eventually just ONE passport official appeared, and insisted on looking at every page of each person’s passport before he would let them off, presumably to check that no-one had been visiting Israel. Thanks to Pedro’s experience, we weren’t held up too long, but other less fortunate people were still disembarking four hours later. There was more trouble a little while later, when a policeman asked to inspect the passports of one couple and promptly disappeared with them. Pedro was furious. “The next time a Moroccan policeman asks to see your passport”, he raged, “Tell him to push off! Tell him it is none of his business!” (Personally I wouldn’t like to try this tactic)
It was Ramadan, which meant no Moroccans were allowed to eat or drink during the hours of daylight, though this did not apply to tourists. Drinking no water during August must be a serious trial. Shortly before the official nightfall, when it was actually still daylight, the streets emptied and all the shops closed in preparation for the evening meal. We were warned not to go outside, since only criminals would be out on the streets at this time. So I went back to my hotel room, which overlooked a number of flat-roofed homes. I watched them all lay out the food on tables on the roof, and then I suppose there was a broadcast over the radio to say that it was now officially night-time, because all the families suddenly started to eat at precisely the same moment.
We were taken to Tetuan, a squalid little town where we saw people living in what appeared to be windowless cupboards opening onto the street. In the evening we were treated to a display of belly-dancing by a fat and unattractive woman, We had a local guide who took us round a tourist shop that dealt in sterling, and helped us bargain for goods. I found the bargaining custom very irritating. I watched one man in the party buy a leather purse, for which the asking price was £5, but was eventually beaten down to £2. Another tourist who was watching this transaction said, “I’d like one of those too”. The salesman promptly started at £5 again. I showed a passing interest in a rug, and was told the price was £80. I explained that since I only had £10 left, and he wasn’t going to let me have it for that, we should abandon the negotiations. He clearly thought I was a tough bargainer, and even when I left the shop he ran after me shouting, “Okay, £55!” I longed for British supermarkets and set prices.
There was a bar on the boat which took us back to Spain. As soon as we pulled out of port, many of the Moroccans at once went to the bar and started boozing, thus not only breaking the Ramadan fast but also the laws against drinking alcohol. Pedro snorted with contempt. “They think they’re safe on a Spanish ship! It’ll be full of secret police! They’ll all be locked up when they go home!”
All this was thirty years ago. No doubt things are different nowadays.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Writing Poetry

A friend quoted to me a remark of Emerson's on the difficulties of writing rhymed poetry. Emerson spoke of a poet who had thought up a "beautiful line" about stars, only to find he couldn't think of any good rhyme for "stars", with the result that his poem had to be abandoned.
I do not accept Emerson's difficulty in finding a rhyme for "stars" (see end), though his point is a fair one.Of course, the problem can always be avoided by writing "vers libre", with neither rhymes nor scansion (what one literary critic described to me as "prose that doesn't reach the right-hand margin"), but it is obvious that any clumsy, contrived or unsuitable rhyme kills a serious poem stone-dead: bathos is fatal. Even great poets are guilty of dreadful lapses at times. Consider the following from the first verse of Wordworth's "Simon Lee", about an aged man:-

"Of years he has upon his back
No doubt a burden weighty
He says he is three score and ten
But others say he's eighty"

This can hardly fail to raise a smile, and as a result the serious message of the poem, which is intended to evoke sympathy for the old man's difficulties, is irretrievably lost.

In writing comic verse, by contrast, the more improbable or contrived the rhymes, the better, since ridiculous rhymes can add greatly to the humorous effect. For Exhibit 2, here is the opening of "Lord Roehampton", by Hilaire Belloc:-

"During the late election, Lord
Roehampton strained a vocal chord
By shouting very loud and high
To lots and lots of people, why
The Budget, in his own opin-
-ion should not be allowed to win"

You can't get much more contrived than this, but as comic writing it is highly effective. Furthermore, the scansion is perfect and the poet is clearly in total command of his material: he has composed it al lquite deliberately.

One doesn't need to be a great poet to know the answer to Emerson's problem, which is simply this: if a line is going to end in a weak or contrived rhyme, then the weak line must be placed first, not second. We don't have to investigate major literary works to find that natural poets know this by instinct. Take the example of this anonymous Border Ballad from the 15th century, which tells of how Henry Percy of Northumberland (Shakespeare's Harry Hotspur) rides forth from his stronghold at Newcastle to challenge the Scots raiders under Earl Douglas:-

"But oh, how pale his lady looked
Frae off the castle wall
When down before the Scottish spears
She saw proud Percy fall"

The second line is actually rather weak, but you don't notice, because the verse builds up to a climax with the word "fall". If you recite it out, as would originally have been the case, then you can anticipate the final word coming, with sinister effect.

Take an example from pop music. There are few really striking rhymes for "bridge", but Chuck Berry had no problem coping with this in "Memphis Tennessee":-

"Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge,
Round a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge"

Nobody would pretend that this is great poetry, but think how feeble and contrived it would be if "ridge" had been used in the second line of the couplet rather than the first!

The use of proper nouns can be effective if they fit naturally and provide a suitable climax at the end of a line. As an example, here is the chorus of an old Scottish song about the whaling ships of the 19th century, operating out of ports like Peterhead and Dundee:-

"The wind is in the quarter, the engine's burning free,
There's not another whaler that saild out from Dundee
Can beat the old "Balaena"; she needs no trial runs,
And will challenge all, both great and small,
From Dundee to St. John's."

Here we have two rather weak rhymes, concealed by each being placed first, with two place-names used to provide a climax. ("St. John's" comes as a surprise: it was the port in Newfoundland where the whalers called in on their way up to the icy waters west of Greenland)

To finally illustrate the point, and refute Emerson's case of the lack of any really good rhyme for "stars", I offer the following two and a half line of impromptu, meaning nothing in particular:-

"..... and still she hears
In distant echo through her prison bars
Ancient eternal music of the stars"

"Bars" remains a weak rhyme for "stars", but its weakness has been concealed.