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Romantic Frictions

"Of Extension and Durability: Romanticism’s Imperial Re-Memberings"

Daniel O’Quinn
University of Guelph



1.        What difference does a critical awareness of imperial history make for the study of British Romanticism? Material that was formerly the domain of anthropologists, art historians, archaeologists, military historians and historians of empire has become an important archive both for re-thinking canonical texts and for re-imagining the social and cultural dynamics of Georgian society.  [1]  Important critical studies have laid the groundwork for expanding scholars’ sense of the ways in which Romantic discourse was thoroughly permeated by global geopolitical concerns.  [2]  We can read the editorial consensus among recent anthologies of British Romanticism, all of which contain subsections on anti-slavery and orientalism, as a symptomatic recognition of the importance of these materials. That said, there are also few surprises here. Earlier scholars such as David Erdman established beyond question the importance of imperial problematics to Blake’s work, and there are many other similar examples. What remains constant is a recognition that the period conventionally associated with Romantic discourse saw crucial transformations in imperial governance and colonial discourse. And yet there has been a remarkable containment of this recognition by relegating this scholarship into sub-fields. Scholars who work on British India are well aware of this predicament, for in spite of widespread recognition of the importance of developments on the Indian subcontinent to British society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, important work on Romantic interculturalism, on the emergence of proto-anthropological disciplines, on models of racialization, on global economics and other topics remains either the domain of a few scholars bridging the divide between literary studies and history or it remains largely unexplored. A similar problem exists for scholars of trans-Atlantic Romanticism whose work has the potential to undermine the recalcitrant division of literary studies into the study of national literatures.

2.        My concern here is not simply one of disciplinary exclusion—although that is an important issue—or of expanding the field of enquiry yet again. The question with which I opened this essay does not pertain simply to questions of “context” or of “canon”. The issue I want to address here is how increasing awareness of the global flow of people, commodities, and cultural products impinges on how we analyze Romantic culture. Obviously, I cannot provide an exhaustive answer to such a question in an essay. What I will do instead is offer a set of linked examples of the kind of analysis that might begin to give a sense of the potential afforded by allowing knowledge of imperial history to permeate close reading and vice versa. I use the word permeation advisedly, because beyond demonstrating how historical context enables cultural analysis, I also show how close reading itself does historical work, and thus cannot be separated from some world beyond the text.

3.        In the process, I am going to make at least two grand claims, hardly new, but which inform everything which follows. The first concerns the unabated prosecution of war throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As Mary Favret has persuasively argued, Romantic literature is a wartime literature, and from the Seven Years War onward Britain’s wars were global affairs.  [3]  The second follows from the first and has to do with chronology. The more that one reads the imperial archive, the more it becomes clear that consideration of the emergence and practice of what we call Romanticism needs to start with the loss of the American colonies. In my opinion, the preponderance of scholarship on the French Revolution is one of the decisive critical obstacles to a genealogical analysis of the relationship between Romanticism and empire because it so frequently re-inscribes the nation as the primary political entity. This is not to say that this scholarship is invalid or wrong-headed, but rather that it radically limits the historical purview of cultural analysis.

4.        Historians as differently motivated as J.G.A. Pocock and Dror Wahrman have argued that something fundamental happens to British culture and society during the American crisis.  [4]  Pocock’s influential account of the political crisis in the Atlantic traces the problem of imperial governance back to two key problems: the lack of any coherent theory of confederation in British political thought and the troubling duality of the term “imperium”. As he states,

the primary meaning in English of “empire” or imperium had been “national sovereignty”: the “empire” of England over itself, of the crown over England in the church as well as state, the independence of the English church-state from all other modes of sovereignty.(257)
Empire in this sense denoted sovereignty of the British realm over itself. This primary meaning came crashing into another meaning of empire following “the momentous if transitory establishment of an English-speaking universal empire in the North Atlantic and Alleghanian America” following the Seven Years War. Instabilities in the governance of this extensive empire undermined triumphalist rhetoric from an early stage and thus analysis of the colonial challenge to imperial rule looked back to earlier moments of instability in the realm. The recent experience of the historical trauma of civil war and the hard won sense of stability following the Glorious Revolution and the quelling of the Jacobite rebellion inflected all of the responses to the American crisis. “Englishmen could see that the American programme entailed the separation of crown from parliament, threatening the unity of ‘empire’ which was the only guarantee against civil war and dissolution of government, those deep and still bleeding wounds in their historical memory”.  [5]  This history proved to be decisive for Britain, because it meant that “the heart of the American problem for Britain was less the maintenance of imperial control than the preservation of essentially English institutions which the claims of empire were calling into question”.  [6]  As Pocock demonstrates, American secession allowed for the maintenance of “colony” as a constitutive outside for British sovereignty because America acceded to the condition of a state. Thus one of the crucial adjustments in the era following the American war was a redefinition of coloniality itself such that colonial governance was carried out not by legislatures, but rather by governors, “often military men, [who] directly exercised their sovereign’s authority, representing him in his personal, imperial and parliamentary character” (Pocock 301). This new imperial regime stabilized both the notion of King-in-Parliament, and the global economic networks which it governed.

5.        Losses in America in the early 1780s are inextricably bound up with reverses in India during the same period. As Linda Colley has reminded us, news of Haider Ali’s victory over the British at Pollilur in 1780 arrived in London in 1781 and provoked ‘universal consternation’ in part because the news coincided with reports of the fall of Yorktown.(270) To commentators in the American colonies, in Britain and in India at this time, the East India Company’s hold over territory in India empire seemed in equal jeopardy. Like the first war with Mysore in 1767-9, the Second Mysore War ended inconclusively in 1784, and it cost the East India Company a great deal both in resources and confidence. According to a British medical officer stationed in Calcutta at the time,

There appears to be nothing wanting but an European enemy to act in concert with the country powers, to hurl destruction among the company’s possessions in that part of the world. [7] 
The close affiliation between Tipu Sultan and French forces not only raised the question of renewed French intervention in India, but also replicated the trajectory of the American campaign, in which the French played a decisive role from 1778 onward. Metropolitan anxiety about these defeats was at its height throughout the 1780s, and when the Third Mysore War commenced in 1790 both the newspapers and the print satirists predicted further humiliation of the British forces. Cornwallis defeated Tipu in the Third Mysore War and the elaborate settlement which ensued from his victory at Seringapatam played a crucial part in the shift from anxiety to triumphalism in the 1790s.

6.        In contrast to Stephen Conway’s influential argument that the experience of the American conflict did not alter British attitudes to war and empire (315), this essay contends that the transit from the early 1780s to the early 1790s involved extremely complex shifts in British subjectification—i.e. the processes through which subjects make themselves accountable to normative discourses which in turn recognise and make them visible—and that these shifts are perceptible in the cultural field.  [8]  This essay looks at two seemingly unconnected texts—William Hodges’s Travels in India During the Years 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783 (1793) and William Cowper’s "Yardley Oak" (ca. 1791)—to explore not only how changes in imperial governance can be traced in the formal and aesthetic elements being analyzed, but also how close reading of these formal elements can elucidate the historical dynamics of global empire. In both cases, I argue that the works themselves act as conduits from the early 1780s to the early 1790s, from one revolutionary situation to another, and thus need to be considered in light of this transit through historical time. Specifically, I will be looking at the emblematic representation of trees as metaphors for governance in order to show how each reconfigures the relationship between men and things in a way that cancels the memory of past imperial reverses. Lurking in the centre of the essay is brief reading of another notable tree, Burke’s famous oak from the Reflections on the Revolution in France, in order to show how the figural exchange between empire and nation can productively engage with extant scholarship on the 1790s. In my readings of Hodges, Burke and Cowper, these botanical figures become surrogative in Joseph Roach’s sense of the term in that they overwrite a historical wound in order to allow an enabling supplemental fantasy to gain traction in a time of national and imperial crisis (2). As prosthetic devices to overcome the loss of the American colonies, Hodges’s deployment of the Banyan tree, and Cowper’s re-orientation of the oak metaphor allow us to see what kind of cultural work was needed to reconfigure imperial subjectivity at this transitional juncture.

The Banyan Tree, or the Ghostly Face of Company Rule

7.        William Hodges’s Travels in India is a text literally structured by war. Hodges’s journey and his narrative are repeatedly interrupted by armed conflict between the forces of the East India Company and resistant native powers across the subcontinent. The first chapter records the humiliating loss at Pollilur in the Second Mysore War which not only raised questions regarding Warren Hastings’s bellicosity, but also haunted representations of British rule in India until the final defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799. Later chapters are closely intertwined with the East India Company’s response to Chait Singh’s rebellion and many of the most famous images—the picturesque rendering of hill fortresses at Bidjegur and Gwalior—have an integral relation to siege operations carried out while Hodges was traveling with Hastings’s retinue. [9]  In spite of the fact that the Travels appears to be a pro-Hastings document, published in London at the turning point in the impeachment proceedings against the former Governor-General of Bengal, the narrative disjunctions instantiated by these earlier conflicts destabilize Hodges’s explicit argument that British governance in the region is not only benevolent, but also reminiscent of prior examples of enlightened Moslem rule.  [10]  This rhetorical battle within Hodges’s narrative has significant implications for analyses of British governance and of British representation of India at this juncture. The text’s strategies of exemplification, negation and obfuscation intervene not only in the rhetorical assault on Warren Hastings, but also in the attemp to justify British rule during the Cornwallis era. What I wish to demonstrate, through the close reading of compositional adjacency and metonymic contiguity in one image and one fragment of text, is how Hodges’s rendering of the banyan tree coalesces with larger historical and political developments which transformed not only British rule in the Asian subcontinent, but also the very notion of empire itself.

8.        How are we to understand the inaugural gesture of the first chapter, which opens with a detailed account not of the Company’s victory over Chait Singh’s insurgency, but of the Company’s humiliating defeat at Pollilur? It is important to recognize the chain of associations invoked by this material. The loss at Pollilur resulted in the captivity and enslavement of numerous British soldiers. As Kate Teltscher and Linda Colley have demonstrated, accounts of their forced conversion and circumcision were widely circulated throughout the 1780s, and they generated significant anxiety regarding the blurring of lines between Mysorean and British identities.  [11]  These anxieties were exacerbated by reports of British atrocities at Anantpaur, of the overall mismanagement of the second Mysore war and of the indecisive treaty of Mangalore. In short, war with Mysore in the 1780s is traversed by fantasies of castration, loss and failure that are largely responsible for the construction of Tipu Sultan as the arch-enemy of British imperial activity in India.

9.        This entire assemblage of associations establishes a frame of imperial anxiety and, like Giles Tillotson, I believe that the war with Mysore casts a long shadow in the Travels.  [12]  Describing his time in Madras, Hodges presents the conflict with Hyder Ali as an interruption in artistic and commercial production:

I prepared eagerly for a tour through the country; but my route was scarcely fixed, when I was interrupted by the great scourge of human nature, the great enemy of the arts, war, which, with horrors perhaps unknown to the civilized regions of Europe, descended like a torrent over the whole face of the country, driving the peaceful husbandman from his plow, and the manufacturer from his loom. (5)
This image of the manufacturer separated from his loom is extremely important not only because there is an implicit comparison between his inactivity and the inactivity of the artist, but also because this trope becomes a lynch-pin in Hodges’s later account of the banyan tree. At this point in the text, the populace is starving and the reader is starved for images. This passage is followed by an extended and detailed account of the British reversals and by the introduction of the volume’s first plate—a view of the great pagoda at Tanjore, which Hodges emphasizes was worked up from “an accurate drawing from Mr. Topping.” [13]  In other words, the text opens not with an assertion of Hodges’s aesthetic commitment to plein air landscape painting but rather with its repudiation by historical events. Chapter 1 therefore is about military and aesthetic failure. And it is about surrogation: here is something else in lieu of what I could not give you. This is important because Chapter 2 opens with a turning away from this problematic: Hodges removes to Bengal, comes more directly under the patronage of Hastings and undertakes the journey towards Benares and Agra which became the basis of much of his representation of India.

10.        From the period immediately prior to the passing of the Regulating Act to the East India Company Charter Act, the governance of the East India Company generated significant controversy regarding the appropriate form and quality of colonial rule. Michel Foucault, in his essay "Governmentality," defined “Government as the right disposition of things,” and his notion of disposition is useful here, because it draws attention to how power is distributed by the very selection and arrangement of populations, commodities and flows. Hodges’s text engages with this problematic by presenting figures of the right disposition of men and things. The absence of women in this phrase is intended because it lies at the core not only of Hodges image of the banyan tree, but also in key developments in colonial discourse in the early 1790s. Harriet Guest’s recent reading of the deployment of femininity in Hodges’s narrative argues that the “great distinction” between Indian and European society is negotiated by the ascription of femininity to Indian peoples, places and things (2007, 28-32). Within the chain of images engraved for the Travels, the banyan tree image is caught in the tangle of gendered fantasies which inflected much of the European and specifically British account of imperial rule. It is preceded by a Mughal painting of a Zenanah (24) and followed by a highly sentimental image of "Mahommedan Women attending the Tombs of their Parents, Relatives, or Friends at Night" (28). Two of the next three images focus specifically on Hindu women: first, an image of mother and child (30) and then the famous stele-like image of the "Procession of a Hindoo woman to sacrifice on the funeral pile" (84). At the risk of simplifying this chain of images, I would suggest that the banyan tree is ensconced in a series of proto-ethnographic images which focus almost exclusively on the lives of women. The subjects here are not incidental for they are connected to precisely the social and religious practices most frequently remarked upon by European travelers—the sequestration of women, marital constancy and suttee—as signs either of Moslem despotism or Hindu fanaticism/superstition. And each in their own way argues against prior visualizations of these elements of Indian sociability. The Zenanah image hands over representational agency to an unnamed Mughal artist, thereby squelching any imputation of voyeurism. The mourning image figures it as a scene of exemplary sensibility; and the suttee scene is rendered as a scene of horrified yet erotically charged observation.  [14] 

11.        The banyan tree (ficus indica), is the subject of an extensive textual description and also one of the volume’s most accomplished engravings.

Figure 1: B.J. Poaney after William Hodges, "Banyan Tree," engraving from William Hodges, Travels in India, during the years 1780, 1781, 1782, & 1783 (London, 1793). Reproduction courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

The tree occupies the entire middle ground, shading two swain-like figures resting beneath its boughs. The image emphasizes the tree’s remarkable extension and carefully renders the dependent pods which made the tree a natural curiosity. Descriptions of the species were commonplace in travel narratives and botanical monographs throughout the eighteenth-century because
the boughs...bending to the earth, take root and grow up again like the mother-plant, whence one of them will have forty bodies and upwards, and spreading themselves far around afford shelter for a regiment of soldiers under its branches; which bearing leaves that are ever green, afford a noble shade. Under these the gentoos frequently place their devotees reside, and perform those penances which appear extremely surprising to all Europeans.... [15] 
The tree’s reproductive strategies and its physical extension provided figural possibilities which were capitalized on in different ways at different historical moments. [16]  As we will see, the figural connections to maternality, Hindu superstition and militarism which surface in the description are crucial issues in Hodges’s representations of the banyan tree.

12.        Understanding Hodges’s intervention in this figural economy requires that we recognize the most important prior European visual representation of the banyan tree. Bernard Picart’s discussion of Tavernier’s account of “the penitance of the faquirs” in The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the world... was widely circulated throughout Europe from the late 1730's onward. The English translation featured an extraordinary engraving of all manner of religious prostrations, enthusiasms and mortifications conducted under the boughs of a banyan tree. [17] 

Figure 2: Bernard Picart, "Divers Pagods and the Penitence of the Faquirs," engraving from The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the world... vol.4 (London: William Jackson, 1733). Reproduction courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

In this image the viewer is placed beneath the canopy of the tree as a witness to what Picart and Tavernier before him refer to as idolatrous practices. The key issue here is one of metonymic adjacency: the tree takes on monstrous qualities because it is adjacent to the superstitious practices of the fakirs. That metonymic relation is the ground on which a much more complex metaphorical relationship is built. The tree’s excessive extension and the confusion between parent and child trees are equated with the excessive practices of the fakirs. That excess has specifically non-normative sexual connotations because in the groups of figures we have women consorting with naked fakirs.

13.        That monstrous excess is figured forth by the face on the tree’s trunk, which occupies the centre of the composition, and which is framed by the central temple. Picart’s adjoining text identifies that face:

You may see, says he [Tavernier], about the Borders of Surat, under a spacious Tree where the Banians resort, several Pagods, consecrated to their Idols. The Pagod that leans against the Body of the Tree is dedicated to Mamaniva, whose formidable Head may be discerned in the Middle of the hollow Trunk. Hither resort several Votaries, who prostrate themselves before this monstrous Idol, and a Bramin collects at the same time their Free-will offerings, which consist of Rice, Millet, &c. Whoever comes to offer up their Supplications before this Pagod of Mamaniva, are marked on the Forehead with Vermillion, with which they beautify and adorn their Idol. Honoured with this Mark, their Votaries imagine no evil Spirit can have the least prevailing Power over them. (7-8)
Mamaniva is a corruption of Mahadevi the great mother goddess of Hinduism, therefore both the metonymical and metaphorical correlations of the image conspire to represent Hindu religion, and by extension, its practitioners, as a monstrous mother which reproduces either autonomously or with its own children. In this light, the framing function of the central pagod gains a certain eloquence because it effectively envaginates the face. The hyper-maternalization of the scene effectively evacuates the father from this visual and textual assemblage. [18] 

14.        Hodges’s rendering of the banyan tree effectively interrupts the entire network of associations mobilized by Picart and performs a complex series of displacements. Again the key lies in compositional adjacency, in the disposition of the image’s component elements. A metonymic relation is built between the two shaded figures and the tree. In contrast to the Picart image, the two figures are unloading the boat on the extreme left so the tree is adjacent, not to fanaticism, but to idealized labour and prosperity. This specifically contrasts with the Bramin from Picart’s text who ostensibly profits from the “superstition” of the votaries. This substitution of one kind of accumulation for another is crucial to Hodges’s textual description of the banyan tree:

I proceeded from Sultungunge to Bauglepoor, where my pursuits were promoted with a degree of liberality that peculiarly marked the mind of the gentleman [Augustus Cleveland] who then governed this district; and of whom, in common gratitude, I must ever speak with veneration and esteem. At the entrance of the town of Bauglepoor, I made a drawing of a banyan tree, of which a plate is annexed. This is one of those curious productions of nature which cannot fail to excite the attention of the traveller. The branches of this tree having shoots depending from them, and taking root, again produce, and become the parents of others. These trees, in many instances, cover such an extent of ground, that hundreds of people may take shelter under one of them from the scorching rays of the sun. The care that was taken in the government, and the minute attention to the happiness of the people, rendered this district, at this time, (1781) a perfect paradise. It was not uncommon to see the manufacturer at his loom, in the cool shade, attended by his friend softening his labour by the tender strains of music. There are to be met with in India many old pictures representing similar subjects, in the happy times of the Mogul government. (27)
In the text, the tree offers shade and sustenance to all who come under its canopy and it is figuratively linked to Augustus Cleveland’s, and by extension Hastings’s, management of the region. Its vitality and, above all, its naturalness accrue to the governmentality of the East India Company, and thus it ostensibly stands as a figure of prosperity, hope and stability in a time of war and economic uncertainty.

15.        The text achieves this rhetorical sleight of hand through the careful management of adjacent sentences and figures. The first sentence indicates that it is Cleveland who not only governs the district, but also fosters Hodges’s artistic production. This has a kind of inaugural effect because Hodges ostensibly made no art in Madras during the campaign against Mysore. This frames the next four sentences which specifically address the banyan tree. The final three sentences of the paragraph then suddenly cut back to the framing issue by speaking directly about good governance. If we break the paragraph into these three, the gap between the internal description of the tree and the framing remarks on governmentality become immediately conspicuous. It is literally the paratactic adjacency of the frame to the internal description that allows the tree to figure for good government. And each of the sentences of this internal unit is notable for how it re-writes prior descriptions of the banyan tree. By describing the tree as a natural curiosity which “cannot fail to excite the attention of the traveller”, Hodges invokes the long line of travel narratives and quasi-scientific accounts of Asia, which includes Tavernier, Picart and Fenning. However, the subsequent sentence performs a key divagation from these prior discourses when it refuses to refer to the tree as a mother and when it rigorously separates the child-like dependent shoots from the newly rooted “parents of others”. This effectively counters not only the feminization of the tree, and hence its connection to Mamaniva in Picart, but also replaces non-normative sexuality with a carefully managed sphere of reproduction where parents and children are never confused. [19]  So much for the threat of monstrous maternal Hinduism nascent in Picart. The next sentence picks up on the tree’s ability to shade “hundreds of people”, but does not refer to this group as a regiment as in Fenning. This erases the military in favour of a subject people and thus erases both native insurgency and British military activity in one rhetorical stroke.

16.        The final three sentences of the paragraph play out the implications of Hodges’s re-writing of prior discourses on the banyan tree with an uncompromising logic. When we jump the gap from the fifth to the six sentence, Cleveland’s good governance has generated a paradise on earth. In light of the prior evacuation of the tree’s metonymic and metaphorical connections to Mahadevi, this declaration seems to imply that Cleveland, and by extension, the East India Company, operate as a benevolent God who, rather than inculcating fanaticism and non-productivity, fosters both commercial and artistic production. This helps explain why the religious elements of Picart’s image are invoked but visually contained in both the church-like building in the background and the walking figure in the foreground.

17.        The face of Mamaniva is doubly displaced, and I would argue that this doubling poses a series of complex problems. The architectural element in the background still occupies the precise centre of the composition, but it no longer frames the trunk and if anything its tiny church-like spire replaces the envaginated female face in Picart with a certain quiet phallicism. Could we not argue that the monstrous mother of Hinduism has been replaced by a pagod whose undecidable construction suspiciously resonates with the Christian discourse used to legitimate Cleveland’s governance? The compositional displacement and the undecidable architectural element figures forth a form of Hindu culture dissociated from fanaticism at precisely the moment when the question of Chrisitianizing the Asian subcontinent is very much in the air.  [20]  The very undecidability of the architectural figure is resonant because it sits at the juncture of two governmental paths—one aimed at containing Hindu excess and one aimed at converting the population—when arguments for both options were being weighed and counter-weighed.

18.        In this context the tree itself becomes iconically phallic or indeed hyper-phallicized. As a huge penis with myriad dependent penises, this figure for the governmentality of the East India Company not only puts thousands of years of Hindu religious and social practices into abeyance, but also equates the Company with the autonomous production of both food and art. This is bolstered by the final sentence of the paragraph which links this new period of productivity to earlier periods of Mughal stability, presumably under the Akbar’s rule, wherein good governance fostered art and happiness. This linkage between Akbar and Hastings not only legitimates Company rule as a repetition of past models of good government, but also firmly locates any competent form of Moslem rule in the historical past. As Tobin, Eaton and others have argued,  [21]  Hodges’s picturesque aesthetic is particularly well suited to rendering India society and culture as one vast ruin, and this same thematic suffuses Hodges’s description of Akbar’s tomb:

A blazing eastern sun shining full on this building, composed of such varied materials, produces a glare of splendour almost beyond the imagination of an inhabitant of these northern climates to conceive; and the present solitude that reigns over the whole of the neglected garden, excites involuntarily a melancholy pensiveness....The inside of the tomb is a vast hall, occupying the whole space of the interior of the building....In the center the body is deposited in a sarcophagus of plain white marble, on which is written, in black marble inlaid, simply the name of
....This fine country exhibits, in its present state, a melancholy proof of the consequences of a bad government, of wild ambition, and horrors attending civil dissentions; for when the governors of this country were in plenitude of power, exercised their rights with wisdom, from the excellence of its climate, with some degree of industry, it must have been a perfect garden; but now is all desolation and silence. (122-3)

19.        Hodges' sense of “pensive melancholy” has multiple valences in 1793—its year of publication—and it is hard not to hear, in the phrase “civil dissentions”, a certain cautionary admonition regarding not only imperial, but also national affairs. In light of the melancholy prompted by this icon of the mutability of dynastic power is thus entirely appropriate that phallic British governance be figured forth not architecturally but rather as a living organism whose extension constitutes a fantasy of paternal self-replication.

20.        The style of paternal masculinity which Hodges associates with both Akbar and Hastings resonates with the emergence of a crucial trope—both visual and textual—from Britain’s ongoing struggles with Mysore. In his careful management of the famous hostage transaction which ended the third Mysore War in 1793, Cornwallis, and those representing the event, did everything possible to suggest that Tipu Sultan’s sons would receive a form of paternal care previously unknown to them in their father’s household. This declaration of paternal benevolence was explicitly mobilized to contrast with the treatment of British captives by Hyder Ali following Pollilur.  [22]  This gesture coalesced with the emergence of a proto-ethnographic “explanation” for why Indian populations were incapable of governing themselves that linked subject populations to non-normative sexualities. In this rhetoric, the native population of India was divided along religious and ethnic lines and polarized by gendered fantasies of identity.  [23]  Between the poles of always already feminized Hindu subjects and hyper-masculinized present Moslem rulers, such as Tipu Sultan, lies an internal capsule of normative masculinity. Hodges’s complex deployment of gender and sexuality in the description of the banyan tree speaks to the ongoing spectre of loss in Mysore set into motion in the first chapter of the Travels, but it does so in a way that both forecloses and opens the problematic of governmentality. In Hodges’s text, the former rule of Akbar and the present example of the East India Company exist uneasily in this realm of normativity because the distinction between past and present is the only thing preventing the collapse between Moslem and Christian rule.

21.        If we take one last look at the banyan tree image we can discern three layers of displacement. In the background, the ancient pagod which framed Mahadewi in Picart’s picture has given way to an image from the future: a small parsonage superimposed on a now obsolete Hindu temple. In the middle ground, Mahadewi’s envaginated face has been erased and the tree itself emerges as a fantasy of phallic British rule. And the ancient religious practices of the faqirs have been replaced by present commerce. And in the foreground, something new emerges. The aged Hindu man looking out at the viewer is not only detached from the past of Picart’s image, but he seems to hail the viewer, or perhaps even Hodges, into a new temporal relationship beyond the conventional aesthetic objectives of the picturesque. It is as though the old man’s gaze establishes precisely what Hodges and by extension his audience desired all along: a relationship which figures forth the artist/observer as a phallic ruler over the subject of the image. Remember Hodges asserts that during the time of truly successful native insurgency there is no art. Here in 1793 following what was supposed to be victory over Tipu, Hodges text can revel in the power of domination. Isn’t that what is coded into the penitential pose of the figure in the foreground, for this is not an intersubjective glance, but a gaze of subjection. And the viewer accedes to the scene of paternal forgiveness perhaps needed to overcome the psychic, governmental and historical impasse occasioned in 1781. In this re-figuring of the past Hodges has sketched the future for himself and for those to whom he wishes to sell the Travels—a future that brings his art through the picturesque distancing from the political towards the moral exemplifications and re-invigorated Georgic tropes associated with Romanticism.  [24] 

Cowper’s Oak, or the American Ghost

22.        After his return from India, Hodges’s time was divided between preparing his Indian paintings and drawings for publication either in Select Views in India or Travels in India and embarking on a series of exemplary moral landscapes of notable British sites. Arguably the most significant of these, prior to the famous pair of paintings The Effects of Peace and The Consequences of War of 1794, was his South View of Windsor, taken from the Great Park.  [25]  The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787 and quickly transformed into a very high quality engraving “following the same format he was simultaneously adopting for the striking prints of A View of the Emperor Shere Shah at Sasseram in Bahar and A View of the Gate of the Tomb of the Emperor Akbar at Secundrii....In this sense, Hodges implicitly offers Windsor as the centre of the Britain’s empire as well as the nation, through such comparisons with Mughal dynastic sites”. [26]  The picture itself is perhaps not surprising. As Quilley and Bonehill indicate, “the picture gives a panoramic view across the park and countryside with the focal point of the castle in the centre distance, in an evocation of an ordered, harmonious landscape that is to be understood as at once natural and political” (194). The pair of oaks on the right frames both the stags in the foreground and the castle in the background, and thus perform precisely the sheltering function that oaks had performed in numerous contexts from at least the time of Locke. Pope’s "Windsor Forest" comes to mind no less than patriotic evocations of oak trees by William Whitehead throughout the American war.

23.        But something is amiss. In both Pope and Whitehead, British oaks have a global reach either through their transformation into warships in the case of Windsor Forest, or through a certain political extension in Whitehead.  [27]  Here is Whitehead writing as Laureate on the eve of the American War:

Beyond the vast Atlantic tide
Extend your healing influence wide,
Where millions claim your care:
Inspire each just, each filial thought,
And let the nations round be taught
The British oak is there.
Tho’ vaguely wild its branches spread,
And rear almost an alien head
Wide-waving o’er the plain,
Let still, unspoil’d by foreign earth,
And conscious of its nobler birth,
The untainted trunk remain. [28] 

24.        This figure of the spreading branches of the British oak—here extending across the Atlantic itself—is simply not possible in the 1780s. The loss of the American colonies has lead to a certain restraint in this emblematic figure. But this spatial restraint is supplemented by a renewed investment in the oak’s capacity to figure forth historical continuity: spatial extension gives way to temporal reach.

25.        I think we can see something of this in Hodges' picture, for its rendering of power is remarkably contained and in many ways looped in on itself. The oak frames the stags which rest before the seat of the King. All three pictorial elements are the literal possessions of the Crown and each one figures for the Crown. In this sense, they are doubled versions of each other and thus the concentration of power is in a sense overdetermined. That overdetermination suggests that the entire composition is attempting to shore up something that may not be as solid as it first appears. This is only exacerbated by the format of the print itself. Modelled on his iconic pictures of the ruins of former Mughal stability, Hodges’s view of Windsor has the potential to be read not only as the consolidation of dynastic power, but also as a further example of the mutability of empire. In other words, the allegorical relation set up between Windsor and the Tomb of Akbar establishes the British crown as both the substitute for Mughal power and its double. This reaffirms Britain’s claim to governance in the present, but uses the Mughal past to interrogate the future of British rule not only in the colonies, but also at the very centre of the empire. The question posed by the comparison is what will prevent the British state from receding into obsolescence in roughly the same manner as Akbar’s regime?

26.        Hodges’s picture allows us to recognize a similar combination of restraint and overdetermination in what is perhaps the most significant mobilization of the oak figure in the late eighteenth century. I am referring of course to Burke’s use of the oak to figure forth the British constitution in Reflections on the Revolution in France:

Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour. (180)
As a figure for the nation/constitution the important feature of this oak is its capacity of its branches to give shade, but the animalization of British subjects—whether they be revolutionary grasshoppers or loyal cattle—not only privileges the silence of the cows, but also renders the entire political arrangement quite compact. As in Hodges’s picture, the oak’s protection is nativist; there is none of the extensibility which played such a key role in Pope or Whitehead. This marks a significant curtailment of the diffusion of British liberty beyond the shores of the British Isles. And we need to recognize that this constitutes a re-calibration of imperial governance as much as it does a rejection of Whig suggestions at the time that Burke was writing the Reflections that the revolution in France had the potential to diffuse English models of liberty into the heart of Europe. Burke’s supplementation of the oak figure with that of the cattle is aimed at ensuring that the oak does not become confused with a younger liberty tree.

27.        It is for this reason that Burke’s figure sacrifices extensibility to duration by intertwining the life cycle of the tree with the bonds of the family:

Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete....In this choice of inheritance we have given our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic affections.... (120)
This is a confusing passage precisely because the image of “a relation in blood” does not sit well with “the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression”. Burke wants the constitution to be both an “incorporation of the human race” and something which shelters the polity of Britain. This strange hybridization of blood and oak, human and tree, through its very overdetermination, performs a rhetorical intensification which separates him from his predecessors. By collapsing the distinction between humans and plants, Burke has opened the door for a racial interpretation of the constitution: “we have given our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood”. And this racialization of governance lays claim to historical constancy by aligning itself with the durability at the heart of the oak figure. The tension between the symbolics of blood nascent in Burke’s analogy between family and constitution on the one hand, and the more subtle invocation of the tree on the other, not only signals the struggle to re-define the oak figure for a new imperial era, but also opens the door for—and perhaps even demands—a re-evaluation of the relationship between extension and duration in the notion of British liberty. [29]  Could we not argue that Burke’s reactivation of the oak metaphor is the trigger which allows for a series of rememorative utterances which seek to address the imperial wound of 1781? We know that at least one poet responded to the Reflections in precisely this way and that his poetic meditation on the figure had a profound impact on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Clare and others.  [30]  Cowper’s "Yardley Oak" , which was written in response to Burke’s text, explicitly addresses the re-evaluation of extension and durability in the oak metaphor, and in so doing re-calibrates imperial and national relations in quite remarkable ways.

28.        As with my analysis of Hodges, we need to go back to the global war of the early 1780s in order to move forward. In early December of 1781, less than two months after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, William Cowper sent an imaginary “sociable conversation” to his friend Joseph Hill in which Cowper articulated his thoughts on the American War. After stating that he knew of no one up to the task of leading Britain out of the conflict, Cowper offered the following summary of the state of the empire:

If we pursue the war, it is because we are desperate; it is plunging and sinking year after year in still greater depths of calamity. If we relinquish it, the remedy is equally desperate, and would prove, I believe, in the end no remedy at all. Either way we are undone—perseverance will only enfeeble us more, we cannot recover the Colonies by arms. If we discontinue the attempt, in that case we fling away voluntarily, what in the other we strive ineffectually to regain, and whether we adopt the one measure or the other, are equally undone. For I consider the loss of America as the ruin of England; were we less encumbered than we are, at home, we could but ill afford it, but being crushed as we are under an enormous debt that the public credit can at no rate carry much longer, the consequence is sure. Thus it appears to me that we are squeezed to death between the two sides of that sort of alternative, which is commonly called a cleft stick, the most threat’ning and portentous condition in which the interests of any country can possibly be found.  [31] 
Of the myriad statements of imperial doom from this period, Cowper’s remark stands out because the metaphor of the cleft stick captures the predicament of imperial subjectivity at this moment so vividly. To be cleft is to be split or divided to a certain depth, but the expression “a cleft stick” uses the notion of bifurcation to figure the two horns of a dilemma: as the OED states, it indicates “a position in which advance and retreat are alike impossible”. For Cowper, the nation, and by extension the imperial subject, is entangled to the point of being unable to move. Disentangling the imperial subject from this painful, static, almost abject, position involves a phantasmatic re-configuration of the political beyond the limits of specific policies and actions. In short, the predicament seems to call forth a new kind of political and poetic utterance.

29.        For Cowper and others, the reverses of the early 1780s, both in America and in other colonial locales, raised the simultaneous possibility that British culture may die and yet live on in a ghostly form elsewhere. The complex temporality of this ghosting procedure and the figural attempts to keep it under control are the primary focus of the reading which follows. In Hodges, I demonstrated one example of how past losses could be refigured as future domination. Cowper’s "Yardley Oak" enacts a similar phantasmatic displacement of past losses. The crucial difference is that Cowper’s focuses far less on the compensatory fantasy of domination over colonial others, but rather on the renewed fantasy of national consolidation.

30.        The political dilemma presented in Cowper’s letter presupposes a strong sense of the integration of colony and metropole. For Cowper, the loss of America implies the ruin of England; his thoughts on the non-distinction of England and America emerge frequently in his letters, but nowhere more explicitly than in the following missive to John Newton:

I consider England and America as once one country. They were so in respect of interest, intercourse, and affinity. A great earthquake has made a partition, and now the Atlantic Ocean flows between them. He that can drain that Ocean, and shove the two shores together so as to make them aptly coincide and meet each other in every part, can unite them again; but this is the work for Omnipotence, and nothing less than Omnipotence can heal the breach between us. (1:569-70)
What is strange about this account of the American war is that it forgets that the Atlantic Ocean has always separated the colonies from the British Isles. Cowper here imagines a pre-revolutionary state which negates the very material structure of the globe. In this fantasy it is contiguity that matters most: the shores must “aptly coincide”. It is a figure of an organic whole rent asunder, which in some ideal future state could be sutured together again by none other than God himself. God’s role here is important because elsewhere in both the poems and the letters from this period, Cowper emphasizes that this fatal wound—here it is naturalized as an earthquake—is inflicted by Providence because England is a “sinfull Nation” (2:104). Like many other commentators at this juncture, Cowper felt that England had been hollowed out from within and held aristocratic dissipation and political corruption to be the undoing of both the empire and the nation. But as in the cleft-stick passage, agency has been fully wrested from politicians and citizens and is transferred to a divine non-human process. Failed military and state policy not only are subsumed into a narrative of irrevocable decline and fall, but also are corrected in a field where men have little or no active role to play.

31.        Roughly ten years after Cowper’s appraisal of the end of the American war, he found himself again contemplating the destruction of the nation, only this time he deploys a cultural rather than a natural trope for disintegration:

I am entirely of your mind respecting this conflagration by which all Europe suffers at present, and is likely to suffer for a long time to come. The same mistake seems to have prevailed as in the American business. We then flattered ourselves that the colonies would prove an easy conquest, and when all the neighbour nations arm’d themselves against France, we imagined I believe that she too would be presently vanquish’d. But we begin already to be undeceived, and God only knows to what a degree we may find we have erred, at the conclusion. Such however is the state of things all around us, as reminds me continually of the Psalmist’s expression—He shall break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, and I rather wish than hope in some of my melancholy moods that England herself may escape a fracture. (4.426)
As a figure, the broken shards of the nation implied by his allusion to Psalm 2:9 is more coherent than his strange cancellation of the Atlantic in his 1784 letter, but it still argues that God will break that which man has made, because Britain has set itself against God.

32.        This same sense of Providential retribution suffuses “Yardley Oak”, but it is played out not only with more rhetorical force, but also with more historical specificity:

Survivor sole, and hardly such, of all
That once lived here thy brethen, at my birth
(Since which I number threescore winters past)
A shatter’d vet’ran, hollow-trunk’d perhaps
As now, and with excoriate forks deform,
Relicts of Ages!....  [32]  (1-6)
Cowper’s address does two things. First it establishes a relation of intimacy between this last surviving oak and the aged speaker. This is achieved by constructing the effect of physical proximity between speaker and oak: the poem’s descriptive specificity is one of the poem’s most prominent rhetorical strategies. And this effect of intimacy is intensified almost immediately by the syntactical ambiguity introduced by the parenthetical phrase in line three. Cowper’s sudden specification of the speaker’s age suspends the syntax at the end of line four and thus allows “A shatter’d vet’ran” in line 4 to figure not only for the oak, but also for the speaker. This figural ambiguity sets up the possibility for complex identifications between the speaker and the tree which will have important political ramifications as the poem unfolds. At this point it is enough to recognize that this establishes the potential for precisely the same collapse between the body of the subject and the arborial figure for governance that animated Burke’s overdetermined deployment of the oak in the Reflections. As we will see, Cowper does not allow that collapse to occur.

33.        But this isn’t all that is achieved here. The metaphorical comparison between the oak tree and “the shatter’d vet’ran” also activates the memory of past war—and not the triumphalism following the Seven Year’s War, but rather the sense of loss characteristic of Cowper’s remarks on the American war. I believe that this phrase evokes the wounded veteran of the American war and this oak is shattered like the potter’s vessel alluded to in Cowper’s 1793 letter. The full connotations of this metaphor are not activated until seventy lines later, but it is the central enigma of the poem. In what sense is the tree shattered and in what way is it a veteran?

34.        These questions are temporarily supplanted by an explicit statement of the desire to venerate the tree, which concludes the first verse paragraph:

.....Could a mind imbued
With truth from heav’n created thing adore,
I might with rev’rence kneel and worship Thee.
It seems Idolatry with some excuse
When our forefather Druids in their oaks
Imagin’d sanctity. The Conscience yet
Unpurified by an authentic act
Of amnesty, the meed of blood divine,
Loved not the light, but gloomy into gloom
Of thickest shades, like Adam after taste
Of fruit proscribed, as to a refuge, fled. (6-16)
This is a rather startling turn because it suggests that veneration of the oak is not only a form of pagan idolatry, but also akin to Adam’s attempt to hide from God’s view after consciously breaking God’s explicit proscription. The allusion to Book 9 of Paradise Lost is deeply significant because the “thickest shades” referred to here are not offered by oak trees. Adam expresses the desire to be “Obscured where highest woods impenetrable/To star or sunlight spread their umbrage broad” (1086-7) and ultimately chooses the banyan tree:
So counselled he and both together went
Into the thickest wood, there soon they chose
The fig-tree: not that kind for fruit renowned
But such as at this day to Indians known
In Malabar or Deccan spreads her arms
Branching so broad and long that in the ground
the bended twigs take root and daughters grow
About the mother tree, a pillared shade
High overarched and echoing walks between.
There oft the Indian herdsman shunning heat
Shelters in cool and tends his pasturing herds
At loopholes cut through thickest shade.... (9.1099-1110)
As Balachandra Rajan has argued, the evocation of the banyan tree from Milton speaks directly to the question of shelter (60-1). Adam chooses the tree because it provides shade, or in Cowper’s phrase “gloom”. To venerate the oak for its shelter is to misrecognize it as the banyan and the spiritual cost is, in Cowper’s eyes, catastrophic: it is further evidence of the nation’s alienation from God. In this context, the verb “might” in line 8 of "Yardley Oak" becomes crucial, for it signifies temptation and the speaker’s resistance to it. The speaker might have worshiped the tree, except for his belief that to do so would be to be attempting to hide from one’s responsibility before God.

35.        When we recognize that the capacity to provide shade is precisely the feature of the figure that is so appealing to Burke, then I think the full import of Cowper’s intervention becomes clear. For Cowper, the loss of the American colonies and the predicted failure of the war with France amount to symptomatic signs of God’s displeasure with the corruption of British liberty, both at a national and imperial level. What is remarkable here is that Cowper’s opening verse paragraph activates the entire historical predicament with such iconic specificity: the shattered oak, the banyan tree, the sense of a nation deformed and hollowed out from the inside. But most importantly their collocation suggests that all of these connotations are comparable to one another and to the speaker himself. This collocation lies beneath my decision to consider the banyan and the oak in the same essay, because it implies that these figures, like India and Britain, are bound up in a global historical dynamic.

36.        As the poem unfolds, the two primary elements of the oak figure—extension and duration—are scrutinized historically; and by this I mean that their figural potential is tested against the historical moment of 1791. Cowper’s evaluation of this moment in Britain’s history is dire and the poem is suffused with a sense of past or passing glory. As one might expect, Cowper plays out the “mutability in all/That we account most durable below” (70-1), and traces “thy growth/From almost nullity into a state/Of matchless grandeur, and declension thence/Slow into such magnificent decay.” (87-90) The pun on “state” bolsters the direct assertion that Britain is in a condition of irrevocable, but nonetheless majesterial, decline. It is almost the same language used by Hodges to describe the obsolescence of the Mughal dynasty.

37.        But Cowper’s description of the tree focuses our attention on the tree’s boughs and on the hollowing out of its trunk:

Time made thee what thou wast, King of the woods.
And Time hath made thee what thou art, a cave
For owls to roost in. Once thy spreading boughs
O’erhung the champain, and the num’rous flock
That grazed it stood beneath that ample cope
Uncrowded, yet safe-shelter’d from the storm.
No flock frequents thee now; thou has outlived
Thy popularity, and art become
(Unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing
Forgotten as the foliage of thy youth. (50-59)
I want to look at the fate of the boughs and trunk in turn, because the loss of the former has an extraordinary effect on the latter, and because it is in the destruction of these elements that the reader gets a sense of precisely how and why this tree is a “shatter’d vet’ran”. After declaring the tree’s “magnificent decay”, the speaker brings the tree within the orbit of human affairs:
....At thy firmest age
Thou hadst within thy bole solid contents
That might have ribb’d the sides or plank’d the deck
Of some flagg’d Admiral, and tortuous arms,
The shipwright’s darling treasure, didst present
To the four quarter’d winds, robust and bold,
Warp’d into tough knee-timber, many a load.
But the axe spared thee; in those thriftier days
Oaks fell not, hewn by thousands, to supply
The bottomless demands of contest waged
For senatorial honours.....(93-103)
It is hard not to think of Pope’s "Windsor Forest" here, especially since Cowper’s presentation of the oak’s potential use in the construction of warships and merchant vessels tallies so well with Pope’s double understanding—both military and commercial—of the rush of oaken timber around the globe. The oak addressed in this poem’s opening line is a “sole survivor” not because it has been the object of symbolic veneration, but rather because its “brethren” have become the material basis for imperial wars that Cowper clearly signals have more to do with the hubris of politicians than the benefit of the state. Again Cowper is reiterating his frequently stated reservations about the failure of corrupt politicians to recognize the true interests of the nation. As the passage unfolds, it becomes clear that man destroyed the forest for ill-advised war, and now it is only a matter for Time to finish the task by “disjoining” atom by atom this “shatter’d vet’ran” (103-8) .

38.        But nestled within this fairly explicit critique is a very subtle gesture. Imperial war is evoked by the pun on “tortuous arms”, but by focussing the reader’s attention on a fairly arcane element of ship-building—knee timber—Cowper consigns the “arms” figure to the notes, only to activate it in a surprisingly brutal fashion in the next verse paragraph. At the most explicit comparison between the oak and the state, the speaker suddenly discloses that the tree affords no shelter because it has no limbs:

So stands a Kingdom whose foundations yet
Fail not, in virtue and wisdom lay’d,
Though all the superstructure by the tooth
Pulverized of venality, a shell
Stands now, and semblance only of itself.
Thine arms have left thee. Winds have rent them off
Long since, and rovers of the forest wild
With bow and shaft, have burnt them. Some have left
A splinter’d stump bleach’d to a snowy white,
And some memorial none where once they grew. (120-9)
The suspension of the tree’s lack of limbs until this point is extremely shocking because it disjoins this particular tree from the usual political connotations of the emblematic oak figure. And yet the figure of the tree’s arms reveals itself to be exceedingly complex. If we understand arms to signify the martial capacity of Georgian England, particularly its naval strength, then the poem recognizes that the diffusion of liberty which was so integral to early theories of empire relies on the felling of oaks such as the one being addressed by the speaker. But the corruption of ministers, and the implicit sinfulness of the nation, have generated a situation where “Thine arms have left thee” in both senses of the word. After the loss of the American war, one can no longer simply assume that Britain can successfully protect its imperial holdings through force of arms, nor can one assume that the symbolic shelter afforded by the boughs of the constitution will protect the citizenry. The implication is that both the military, and what Burke described as the frame of the polity, have been “pulverized by venality”. So the reader is presented with a particularly dangerous situation where the diffusion of liberty through empire—here figured by the propagation of ships from oaks—has undercut one of its fundamental principles—the notion that the state through its laws will, like the oak, shelter the people. It is the same organic loop that allowed Cowper to understand the loss of America as equivalent to the loss of England.

39.        With the loss of its arms, the tree’s capacity to figure forth shelter has been permanently compromised. From this figural dismemberment comes a different possibility for metaphor. This tree becomes notable not for its arms, but for its screaming mouth:

Embowell’d now, and of thy ancient self
Possessing nought but the scoop’d rind that seems
An huge throat calling to the clouds for drink
Which it would give in rivulets to thy root,
Thou temptest none, but rather much forbidd’st
The feller’s toil, which thou could’st ill requite.
Yet is thy root sincere, sound as the rock,
A quarry of stout spurs and knotted fangs
Which crook’d into a thousand whimsies, clasp
The stubborn soil, and hold thee still erect. (110-19)
This oak tree tempts no one because it offers no shade and provides no suitable timber for arms. With the capacity to subdue enemies and to provide shelter for the polity shorn away, the tree becomes a remarkable figure for the poet. It becomes a mouth calling for sustenance from the sky so that it can sustain the only thing worth sustaining—its roots.  [33]  It is in this sense that the tree is a “shatter’d vet’ran” and why the syntactical ambiguity which allows the phrase to also refer to the speaker in the opening verse paragraph is so important. Cowper is laying the groundwork for a different kind of relationship between patriotic poet and national figure. There is an analogy between tree and speaker here, but it does not conform to Burke’s “philosophical analogy” between constitution and blood. The analogy does not rest on the capacity for auto-generation nascent in Burke’s naturalization of the constitution or in Hodges’s fantasy of the banyan tree as an auto-reproductive structure, but rather on the capacity for mediating between sky and soil that Cowper aligns not only with expressivity, but also with patriotic Christian humility. This mediating function in the face of physical, spiritual and national decline is the ultimate task of the poet in the time of national and imperial crisis, when the oak can no longer protect anyone due to ill usage.

40.        It is in this light that the poem’s truncated ending—the poem remained incomplete—gains its resonance. At the very moment that the speaker declares that the tree is bereft of arms and un-memorialized, he also insists that the tree endures:

Yet life still lingers in thee, and puts forth
Proof not contemptible of what she can
Even where Death predominates. The Spring
Thee finds not less alive to her sweet force
Than yonder upstarts of the neighbour wood
So much thy juniors, who their birth received
Half a millenium since the date of thine. (130-6)
The question which remains is what is to be done with this “sweet force” in the face of decrepitude. What is the dismembered tree/nation/poet to do? The “yonder upstarts of the neighbour wood” are presented as signs of the future. The fact that the poem does not specify their species is, I think, important because “upstarts” may be referring to the revolutionaries of a neighbouring nation—especially at the time when this poem was composed.

41.        But whether Cowper is referring to France or to new patriots in Britain is not crucial. What follows in both the cancelled and the retained versions of the poem is an explicit adoption of a pedagogical stance. Since the “shatter’d vet’ran” can no longer speak, its double, the oracular poet, must perform:

But since, although well-qualified by age
To teach, no spirit dwells in thee, seated here
On thy distorted root, with hearers none
Or prompter save the scene, I will perform
Myself, the oracle, and will discourse
In my own ear such matter as I may. (137-142)
The way “Myself” is stranded at the beginning of line 141 is for me one of the differential marks through which we could define Romanticism, for it is here that an entire political narrative, an entire political symbolics, is suddenly transformed into an example of what not to do. History’s dismemberment of the oak has allowed the poet to suddenly and boldly speak to and for the figure in what is described as a theatrical space. But he does so while “seated here/On thy distorted root”. He does not become the tree, but rather contends with disfiguration. It is in this light that the poem’s obsession with the contorted structures of the ruined tree, its distorted roots and tortuous arms, is so important. The figure has been disfigured and that spectacle demands a performance where private desire and public discourse intersect in a profound engagement with the past. In retrospect, could we not simply state that Cowper’s sense of dismemberment, traceable to the global crisis which would reconfigure the Atlantic imperium and re-orient the entire project of empire, has called forth the performance of Romanticism? That the poem leaves off at this point is apt, not only because the September massacres would so radically call into question the hope expressed for the “Spring”, but also because Cowper had cleared the ground, or allowed future readers such as Wordsworth and Clare to see how the ground was cleared for their future utterances.

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Richardson, Alan, and Sonia Hofkosh. Romanticism, Race and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.

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[1] See for example Teltscher. BACK

[2] See Baucom, Makdisi, Franklin, Coleman, Leask, Barrell, and Richardson and Hofkosh, for a sense of the range of work in this area. BACK

[3] See Favret War at a Distance (2010) and "War in the Air" (2004). BACK

[4] See Wahrman, 218-264 and Gould. BACK

[5] Pocock, 284 and 275. BACK

[6] Pocock, 278. BACK

[7] Cited in Conway, 339. BACK

[8] The notion of subjectification hearkens to Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume 1. BACK

[9] Tobin, 119-23. BACK

[10] Eaton, 35-42. See de Almeida and Gilpin, 121-22 for a reading of how the Banyan tree is deployed in the celebration of Hastings’s rule in Hodges’s "Natives drawing Water from a Pond With Warren Hastings House at Alipur in the Distance" (1781). This painting bears obvious comparison to the engraving of the banyan tree in Travels in India. BACK

[11] Teltscher 233-5 and Colley 285-90. BACK

[12] G.H.R. Tillotson, 62-3 and 89-91. BACK

[13] See Tillotson, 52-3 for an analysis of the inaccuracy of this image. BACK

[14] For an illuminating analysis of Hodges’s representation of suttee see Nussbaum, 182-8. BACK

[15] Fenning, 180. Col. Ironside’s, Account of a Banian tree, in the Province of Bahar offers a less rhetorically inflected description of the tree:

has the quality of extending its branches, in a horizontal direction, to a considerable distance from its stem; and of then dropping leafless fibres, or scions, to the ground, which there catch hold of the earth, take root, embody, grow thick, and serve either to support the protracted branches, or, by a farther vegetation to compose a second trunk. From these branches, other arms again spring out, fall down, enter the ground, grow up again, and constitute a third stem, and so on. (81-2)
James Forbes’s famous descriptions of banyan trees in Oriental Memoirs were not published until 1813, but some of his own paintings and paintings based on his images were exhibited in the late 1780s. See de Almeida and Gilpin, 40-7 for a discussion of Forbes’s images. BACK

[16] For a discussion of the banyan tree's figural function during the height of the Raj see Pinney. BACK

[17] Bernard Picart, The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the world... vol.4 (London: William Jackson, 1733). BACK

[18] This envagination is also discernable in James Phillip’s engraving View of Cubbeer Burr, the Celebrated Banyan Tree of 1789. This engraving is based on a painting by James Wales which is in turn based on James Forbes’s drawings from the 1770s. BACK

[19] This also diverges from Milton’s feminization of the banyan in tree in Book IX of Paradise Lost. Rajan’s reading of the multivalent possibilities of the Milton’s passage in Under Western Eyes: India from Milton to Macaulay, 59-62 gives some sense of the closure effected in Hodges’s representation of the banyan tree. As we will see later in this essay, Milton’s deployment of the banyan tree is important to Cowper’s rendering of the oak tree. BACK

[20] Charles Grant’s Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, particularly with respect to Morals; and on the means of improving it.—Written chiefly in the Year 1792, which argued vociferously for the propagation of Christian religion in the subcontinent was disseminated at the same time as Hodges’s Travels. BACK

[21] Tobin, 12-43; Eaton, 39. BACK

[22] Teltscher, 240-43. BACK

[23] See Sen, 100-4. BACK

[24] See Goodman for an important recent argument regarding the significance of Georgic discourse to the emergence of British Romanticism. BACK

[25] See Harriet Guest’s analysis of these now missing paintings in "The Consequences of War’ in the winter of 1794-95" in Quilley and Bonehill, 61-70. BACK

[26] Quilley and Bonehill,195. BACK

[27] See Laura Brown’s reading of "Windsor Forest" in her Alexander Pope. BACK

[28] ”Ode XXIX For his Majesty’s Birth-Day, June 4, 1775", 7-18. BACK

[29] I am using Foucault’s notion of the “symbolics of blood” advisedly because as both Foucault and Ann Laura Stoler have argued the transformation of this symbolics plays a crucial role in the emergence of biological state racism in the nineteenth century. I am arguing that Burke’s text can be folded into the pre-history of biopower. See Stoler, 19-54 and 60-1. BACK

[30] For a pair of stimulating essays addressing the afterlife of Cowper’s poem in Wordsworth and Clare, see Tim Fulford’s "Wordsworth’s The Haunted Tree and the Sexual Politics of Landscape" (2001) in Romanticism and Ecology and "Cowper, Wordsworth, Clare: The Politics of Trees" (1995) The John Clare Society Journal 14. BACK

[31] William Cowper, The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Volume IV. Ed. James King and Charles Rykamp (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984). All subsequent references will be presented in the text by volume and page number. BACK

[32] William Cowper, “Yardley Oak” in The Poems of William Cowper ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp, 3 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980-), 77-82. All subsequent references will be given by line number in the text. BACK

[33] There are certain resonances between this passage and the opening of Book 3 of Virgil’s Aeneid. In Dryden’s translation, the speaker refers to the cutting of sacred trees:

Near old Antandros, and at Ida's foot,
The timber of the sacred groves we cut,
And build our fleet; uncertain yet to find
What place the gods for our repose assign'd. (3.7-10)
The speaker goes on to narrate a remarkable scene in which the uprooting of a myrtle tree yields “Black bloody drops distill'd upon the ground” (3.29). The tree eventually speaks and reveals that in death Polydore has been transformed into a myrtle tree. If we allow this allusion to play out then the speaker’s encounter with the Yardley Oak presages a restoration of empire. I would like to thank Theresa Kelley for directing me to these lines. BACK

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September 2011