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It is quite often used by British politicians to denote a happy future of some sort- in the media, it can also feature as a sarcastic remark (e.g. the 'sunlit uplands of Brexit' are unreachable). It also features in the popular 'Yes, Prime Minister' (S01E01, Grand Design).

I have only found reference to it in Churchill's 'finest hour' speech (text here, p. 61). According to some websites, Churchill was the one who popularized it. Is there some evidence for that? Could the phrase not be older?

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    Ian Irvine, in Prospect {Oct 6 2019} claims that the phrase was introduced (at least into the public conciousness) by Churchill in his 'Finest Hour' (1940) speech << The way we were: sunlit uplands Johnson was far from the first to promise them ... Churchill got there first. 1940 Winston Churchill addresses the nation on the radio: “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or ... ... >>. Apparently, Ronald Reagan echoed the term when Margaret Thatcher visited the US. Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 15:30
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    [Google 2grams] 1854? 1864? 1892? 1936? None of these? 1891 (Across England in a Dog-cart: From London to St. Davids and Back ... John Hissey)? Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 15:54
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    This is a silly "first use" question for such a trivial collocation. I don't know why everyone always wants to think Churchill was the first to use any relatively unusual phrasing, but this one was in regular use by Victorian poets. Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 16:17
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    I’m voting to close this question because "sunlit uplands" is just a couple of ordinary words that would have been paired up may times in the past. And that's not to mention sunny uplands, going back to at least 1800. Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 16:18
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    As I note at the beginning of my answer below, use of "sunlit uplands" in a metaphorical sense occurs in print frequently enough prior to Churchill's speech to give it an arguable claim to have been an established figurative expression in Britain. I think this question should be reopened.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 20:41

1 Answer 1

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In light of how famous Churchill's "finest hour" speech of June 18, 1940 is, the speech undoubtedly bears major responsibility for the wide propagation of "sunlit uplands" as a figure of speech. Nevertheless, "sunlit uplands" appears in a figurative sense in a number of texts published before 1940, and cumulatively these instances may have given the expression some metaphorical standing in English—particularly in Britain, where most of the examples originated—prior to Churchill's appropriation of it.

Here are some early published examples in which "sunlit uplands" functions as a metaphor. From "To the Jew First," in The Friend of Israel (February 1857):

In a word, we find in the nation as a whole, the people chosen of God to preserve his name and worship throughout many generations, moving on the sunlit uplands, while the world sat in shadow beneath; and in the eminent men of that nation, the favoured aristocracy of the race in whose history God wrought out those anticipatory representations of the verities and glories of the kingdom of God, which his plan of redemption embraced. They stand up, amid the race of men in the past, like lofty mountain tops catching the first beams of the sun, and announcing his approach to the plains below.

From M.E. Braddon Charlotte's Inheritance, volume 3 (1868), serialized in Belgravia: A London Magazine (December 1868):

It was only when the all-powerful influence of love was brought to bear upon this plastic nature that Valentine Hawkehurst became fully awakened to the degradation of his position, and possessed with an earnest desire to emerge from the great dismal swamp of bad company. ...

He had almost lost her. All was said in that. She had been almost taken from him—she, who to this man was father, mother, wife, household, past, present, future, glory, ambition, happiness, everything except that God who ruled above and held her life and his peace in the hollow of His hand. He had been face to face with death; and never, in all the years to come—never, in the brightest hour of future happiness, could he forget the peril that had come upon him, and might come again. He had learned to understand that he held her, not as a free gift, but as a loan; a treasure to be reclaimed at any moment by the God who lent her.

The darksome valley was past, and Valentine stood by his darling's side, safe upon the sunlit uplands.

The doctors had declared their patient safe. The hour of danger had been passed in safety, and the mischief worked by the poisoner's slow process had been well-nigh counteracted by medical skill.

From I.D. Van Duzee, "Anastasia," in By the Atlantic: Later Poems (1892):

This child came down to him from out the clouds, / Dropped down, and sphered his boyish steps with a world / Of gold — had he forgotten her then, and did / He need the bridge, the stream, the soft and sweet / Music of that pure stream, to bring her back / To him in childish loveliness, the one / Whose delicate touch first drew the bolts and let / Man's fairest heaven in on his eyes? Not so, / She travelled with him, all his days, and when / The dewy nights came down, and mantled him, / And led him in the land of dreams, she was / With him, a voiceless angel lighting all / His steps, and guiding him all days and nights / Into the sunlit uplands, where men find / Their highest dignities, and sweetest rest.

From Margaret Deland, Philip and His Wife (1894):

He was like a man struggling and drowning in the mire, yet seeing, far off, firm sunlit uplands. He had not attained them, but he was still able to believe in them. There are the lowest deeps, where a man ceases to believe in what he has missed; but Philip Shore believed in love with all his soul.

From Robert Edgar, The Genius of Protestantism: A Book for the Times, second edition (1900):

An effort is being made in Protestant Christendom to formulate and reach what has been called a "higher Christian life." Into the various statements of hat it means we need not enter. It consists largely in insisting on Christ being taken as our sanctification as well as our justification. By doing so it is supposed we may step at once into a sweet release from all anxiety about sanctification, committing it with all other things to the kind consideration of the Saviour. And n effort is made to represent Luther and a few known saints, as well as a number of nameless examples, as having passed through some second experience, like the first conversion, and to have emerged in consequence upon the sunlit uplands where it is always noon. The Secret of a Happy Life is the name of one of the publications on the subject, and a revelation of the end in view. If one can rejoice in an immeasurable happiness through identifying oneself with Christ, the aim has been achieved.

From Ralph Connor, Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks (1901):

"And don't miss the whole meaning of the Life that lies at the foundation of your religion. Yes," he added to himself, "the work is worth doing—worth even her doing."

I could not think so then, but the light of the after years proved him wiser than I. A man, to see far, must climb to some height, and I was too much upon the plain in those days to catch even a glimpse of distant sunlit uplands of triumphant achievement that lie beyond the valley of self-sacrifice.

From "Along the Open Road," in The Domestic Science Monthly (October 1901):

Somewhere I have read of a Road which led from the shore of a vast Sea to a Land beyond a great River. And along this Road journeyed an innumerable Company, ever faring onward, over dizzy heights, across swollen torrents, through trackless forests, beside green pastures and across gray wastes, till the wide, swift River was reached.

No one knew aught of the land beyond the river, for, of the multitude who had breasted its waters, not one had ever returned, but all believed it to be a land of pure delight.

There was no day or hour without its joy to the traveler who opened his heart to receive it as he journeyed. If the mountain was of wearisome height, the outlook was fair; if haste and noise and heat marked a part of the highway, noble trees, and sweet springs, and the shadow of cleft rocks were ahead; if storms raged in the valley, there were still glimpses of sunlit uplands; when night fell, the stars kindled above; if the path grew rough and flinty, it led to flower-spangled meadows; if travelers stumbled, helping hands were outstretched, and succors were brought to those that fell.

From Clara Bayliss, "Evolution of the Boy,"in School and Home Education (May 1905):

For through all aberrations of the religious instinct, persistent little conscience has reproved and guided. In the wilderness his mission was one of repression and he said only; "Thu shalt not kill." In the open plain his voice became one of insistence and he said; "Thou shalt." And as he journeyed with the boy into the sunlit uplands his voice became a voice of inspiration saying; "Thou shalt yet love thy brother better than thou now knowest how to love thyself!"

From James Wells, Stewart of Lovedale: The Life of James Stewart (1908):

Arthur Helps says: 'The mill-streams that turn the clappers of the world arise in solitary places.' The explorer of a great river usually begins at the sea and mounts to the source. Easier and more fascinating is the task of the biographer and the sympathetic reader, for they begin at the fountainhead and move downwards along the growing current. We have located the source of a fruitful stream in the sunlit uplands of a happy boyhood, and in the corner of a field. That field was a memorable a spot to Stewart as was to Paul the hillock near Damascus, where he saw the heavenly vision and heard the heavenly voice.

From William Payne, The Greater English Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1909):

"The Revolt of Islam," which was at first entitled "Laon and Cythna," exhibits a great advance over "Queen Mab" in poetic art, although we are still far from the sunlit uplands of "Prometheus Unbound." Shelley was careful to say that he intended it for a narrative, and not a didactic poem, but h could not prevent it from becoming the vehicle of his hopes and aspiration for the welfare of mankind.

From Thomas Watson, "Socialists and Socialism," in Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine (November 1909):

"I have trod down what was evil in my nature. Prone to vice, I resisted its allurements. I too, could have wallowed in the mire of sensualism, but I wouldn't. It was in me to have been a bad man—a man of violence, a voluptuary, a gambler, a frequenter of the haunts of the scarlet woman. But I saw where that road led; I knew the ruin that lurked behind the siren; I entered Venusburg, but would not live in it. I could not help having the evil spirit—it came to me, as to all men, by inheritance; but the angel that also came with my birth pleaded with me to put the evil spirit down. She unfurled her radiant banner, pointed to the sunlit uplands of noble aim and endeavor, and said to me, "Take this flag and plant it on those heights!'—and I did it, thank God! I am happy, and make others happy, in proportion to my right-living; and to live right, I have always to resist the evil propensities, which grow weaker after each repulse."

From an unidentified piece in The Outlook: In Politics, Life, Letters and the Arts (January 15, 1927) [snippet view]:

There is no border-line in the region of religious experience between the swamps and jungle of paganism and the sunlit uplands of pure faith.

From William Schroeder, The Divine Element in Art and Literature (1930) [combined snippets]:

A.E.'s play seems to catch the temper of the olden days, and to deepen our sense of the pitilessness of destiny, and of the power of the overworld to bend the human will to tragic issues. But all three writers have succeeded in embodying a sense of the loveliness of sorrow, an the sorrowfulness of love. It is love looking out through a mist of tears, and the eyes are full of deathless longing, and in their depths gleam the passions that lead men and women in gladness through the valley of shadows to the sunlit uplands of a more perfect day.

The most striking thing about these thirteen examples is how many of them occur in the context of religious discussions or accounts of tests of personal rectitude. In this regard, the "sunlit uplands" seem to represent a reward both spiritual and temporal—a place of ease, comfort, and well-earned peace after a prolonged struggle won through a combination of virtue and firm resolve.

It seems to me that Churchill's invocation of "sunlit uplands" is very much in the tradition of earlier figurative instances of the same expression.

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    Thank you so much, it's really exasperating to read vote-to-close comments after posting. I hope this question benefits others who wonder the same.
    – marts
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 15:49
  • @marts The way to avoid this is not to invite them. Reasonable research for this must include a search using Google Ngrams. This is considered a basic reference on ELU, and is extremely easy to carry out. If you had added findings from here, you'd have avoided my C-V (just now) at least. And note that 'sunny uplands' was hardly a fixed phrase/idiom before Churchill's using it. Read FumbleFingers' C-V reason. Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 19:42

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