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Romanticism and Colonialism

edited by Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson

Chapter 3: Romanticism and colonialism: races, places, peoples, 1800-1830
by Tim Fulford

  Higher up the chain were the inhabitants of the ancient civilizations of the East, high enough for Orientalism to become an established fashion in architecture, decoration, costume and poetry, as Byron's 'Eastern Tales' and his Don Juan indicate. Caroline Franklin's contribution to this volume situates Byron's The Siege of Corinth (1816) and Hebrew Melodies (1815) in the context of their author's sceptical critique of Orientalism and his discourse of sentimental nationalism. Franklin considers the poems as symbolic meditations on the poetry of imperialism as well as discourses oppositional to the Evangelical movement at home. In Byron's work, colonialism was interrogated through a survey of the Europe of Napoleonic conquest and Bourbon reaction, and through an examination of the historical space in which Western and Eastern empires met, fought and melded - the unstable space of Venice, considered here by Malcolm Kelsall. Kelsall seeks to undermine the assumptions on which Said's Orientalism was founded, by returning Byron's and Wordsworth's geo-political imaginations to the liminal space of a republic, in which the construction of the West as its opposite by an imperialist East (and South) was as legible as the West's colonialism of the 'Orient'. Byron, Kelsall shows, destabilizes the ideologies of empire by reversing the gender and sexual hierarchies implicit in the cultural representations, by which Venetians had imaged their colonial dominance, celebrating a feminized and Orientalized culture of sexual fecundity and social melding, rather than one of masculine authority.[24] Pointing to the persistence of Sir William Jones's translations of sexually explicit Hindu poetry, in Shelley as well as Byron, Kelsall develops in the context of 1820s Europe the arguments of Michael Franklin's essay later in this volume.

  Shelley also exploited the East in a series of visionary poems and dramas, including The Revolt of Islam (1818), 'The Witch of Atlas' (1824), and Prometheus Unbound (composed 1818-19; published 1820), which stressed the redemptive aspects of Prometheus' soul mate Asia. Like Sir William Jones, Shelley in such poems genders the East as female and represents it as a source of renewal, if not redemption. Significantly, it is towards the East that Mary Shelley's Henry Clerval directed his talents in Frankenstein (1818). Like Sir William Jones, Clerval wished to master the languages of India with the aim of materially assisting in the progress of colonization and trade.[25]

  The East is not always so redemptive a force. Shelley's 'Ozymandias' may follow Volney's Ruins in deriving comfort from the end of empires, but, for others in the period, the East was the source of anxiety and infection. With extraordinary prescience, Thomas Paine had pre-empted this fear back in 1775 in his remarkable tract 'Reflections on the Life and Death of Lord Clive' where he imagined a guilt-ridden and tormented Clive' haunted by memories of his colonial rapacity in India.[26] The topos of the confident imperialist, stricken with colonial guilt and subject to a mysterious, even occult, punishment in later life is analysed in D. L. Macdonald's discussion in this volume of Matthew Lewis's Gothic depictions of his slave plantations in Jamaica.[27] The topos was to reappear later in the nineteenth century, finding its most popular manifestations in the thrillers of Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle and in J. Milton Hayes's melodramatic, music-hall monologue, 'The Green Eye of the Yellow God'. But in the Romantic period, the Bedouin Arab, who features in Wordsworth's account of Coleridge's dream in Book Five of The Prelude, fleeing from 'the fleet of waters of the drowning world' is a prophet of apocalypse. For Anna Letitia Barbauld back in 1791, the East was the source of divine punishment for Britain's involvement in the slave-trade. In her verse Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq., she combines themes from the discourses of colonialism, fashion and medicine with politics, by representing the modish Orientalism of the time, and the mercantile and commercial success which underlaid it, as an infectious and sybaritic luxury which corrupted and feminized civilization and encouraged despotism.

  Nor less from the gay East, on essenc'd wings,
Breathing unnam'd perfumes, Contagion springs;
The soft luxurious plague alike pervades
The marble palaces and rural shades;
Hence, throng'd Augusta builds her rosy bowers,
And decks in summer wreaths her smoky towers;
And hence, in summer bow'rs, Arts costly hand
Pours courtly splendours o'er the dazzled land:
The manners melt - One undistinguish'd blaze
O'erwhelms the sober pomp of elder days;
Corruption follows with gigantic stride,
And scarce vouchsafes his shameless front to hide:
The spreading leprosy taints ev'ry part,
Infects each limb, and sickens at the heart.
Simplicity! most dear of rural maids,
Weeping resigns her violated shades:
Stern Independence from his glebe retires,
And anxious Freedom eyes her drooping fires;
By foreign wealth are British morals chang'd,
And Afric's sons, and India's, smile aveng'd.[28]

Similarly, De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) presents the alternative, negative aspect of Eastern influence, one which threatens and infects, albeit this time through the psychic agency of dreams. The East as a nexus of fears of despotism, corruption, effeminacy and infection is discussed by Joseph W. Lew in his analysis of Mary Shelley's apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826). The novel deals with the total annihilation of the human race resulting from a plague emanating from the East. Such subject matter brings the theories of Montesquieu's L'Esprit de Lois (1748) into the context of the imperial doubt, the inevitable result of colonial encounters. Arguably Shelley's novel prefigures, in a more sophisticated way, the mode of imperial Gothic, practised by writers such as H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker in the fin de siècle years of the nineteenth century.[29] Shelley's Eastern plague and De Quincey's opium nightmares oddly pre-empt the threats of invasion posed by Stoker's Dracula and Haggard's Ayesha, with their ambitions to colonize the West in an unholy parody of contemporary Western imperialism.

  In the more classically Hellenistic poetry of John Keats, whose work is the least marked by Orientalist and colonialist influences, we can, perhaps, see how the anxieties occasioned by the contemplation of other worlds may have influenced his representation of the fall of empires in the Hyperion poems.[30] Generally for Keats the East is emptied of meaning, its place names exploited for their exotic and euphonic qualities, as in the sumptuous feast Porphyro sets before Madelaine in 'The Eve of St Agnes' (1819) with its

  Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon.[31]

Nevertheless, in Keats's 'Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil' (1818), we can see a condemnation of the mercantile mentality and its propagation of the trade in slaves. In up-dating Boccaccio's tale, Keats made Isabella's capitalist brothers into speculators in colonial ventures:

  For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
        And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gushed blood; for them in death
        The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
        A thousand men in troubles wide and dark
Half-ignorant, they turned an easy wheel
That set sharp racks at work to pinch and peel.[32]

Joan Baum comments that Ceylon was 'very much a public issue in 1818, a prime example of the East India Company's widespread corruption and repressive rule'.[33] 'Isabella' is unusually explicit for a Keats poem in its criticism of colonial and commercial endeavour. Far more typical of this work is the sense of cultural unease and anxiety occasioned by Classical Greek art. Recently, John Whale has shown how Keats's response to the Elgin Marbles is analogous to the various responses of De Quincey, Hazlitt, Shelley and of the pioneering showman and Egyptologist, the 'Great Belzoni', when confronted with the sacred objects of Eastern art:

The various representations . . . are subject not to a monolithic and synchronic authority, but to a binary play which is just as coercive and dangerous, especially when it enacts the fiction of its own collapse. The appropriating power of the Romantic ideology takes place side by side with claims of its own incapacity: sublime abstraction continues with bodily disgust; critiques of power alongside worship of power.[34]
  The imagined exotic places of 'Kubla Khan' and Don Juan, like that of 'Ozymandias', exhibit the binary play to which Whale refers. What Nigel Leask has termed the multiple 'anxieties of empire'[35] became manifest as instability, ambivalence - as a cross-hatching of narratives which disturbs the apparent logic of each. This is the case in the texts which Leask examines in this volume, including Southey's Orientalist epics, Byron's tales, travel narratives and the new and highly popular visual forms - large-scale topographical painting and panoramic displays. Without ignoring the ideological suppression of alterity present in those texts, Leask seeks to retrieve from them evidence of the disturbance which contact with another culture caused to traditional European modes of seeing and describing. He constructs a methodology which enables him to find within Romantic Orientalism an aesthetics by which the viewer/reader is dislocated from his/her cultural vantage-point and temporarily absorbed into the scene being represented - collapsing subject/object distinctions. Leask's discussion continues the critical inquiry into the cultural politics of the aesthetic sphere which has been foregrounded in recent works by John Barrell, Terry Eagleton and others.[36]

  The essays in this volume reveal the heterogeneous nature of British colonialism in the period and demonstrate how the material basis of conquest and direct rule is configured in a large variety of Romantic-period writers, both within and outside the traditional canon. They reveal that challenges to and re-inscriptions of colonialist ideology often co-existed in the same text, that apologies for imperialism often contained a radical element potentially subversive of that imperialism - and vice versa. They show that, rather than a simple opposition between colonizing Britain and its Oriental empire, a more complex geo-political imaginary was crucial to the formation of Romanticism. This imaginary, shaped and reshaped in the varied texts of the Romantic period, influenced, and continues to influence, the cultural imperialism and nationalism of Britain and America, movements in which Romantic literature and aesthetics were awarded key places. Given that this Romantic imaginary had, and has, influence of this kind, it is essential that we continue with the project of making ourselves conscious of its complex origins in the social, political and psychological questions posed by the development of colonialism. In showing Romanticism to have been dependent on writers' historical understandings of the British empire and other empires, to have been shaped by their views on race, slavery and gender, to have been influenced by their domestic politics, to have been motivated by their desire to imagine - and rule - the exotic, this volume attempts to provide a beginning to that project.

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