Aug 19, 2014
In literary history, Romantic Orientalism is the recurrence of recognizable elements of Asian and African place names, historical and legendary people, religions, philosophies, art, architecture, interior decoration, costume, and the like in the writings of the British Romantics. At first glance, Romantic literature may seem to be divided between the natural settings of sheep fields in the southwest of England or the Lake District and the unnatural settings of medieval castles that are, for all their remoteness from present-day reality, always Christian and at least European, if not always British. But a closer look reveals a tiger — decidedly not indigenous to the British Isles — in one of Blake's most famous songs; an impressive dream of "an Arab of the Bedouin Tribes" in book 5 of Wordsworth's Prelude; the founder of the Mongol dynasty in China as well as an Abyssinian "damsel with a dulcimer" in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"; Eastern plots, characters, and themes in Byron's "Oriental tales," some of which show up later in Don Juan; a poet's journey into the innermost reaches of the Caucasus (the legendary boundary between Europe and Asia) in Percy Shelley's Alastor; a tempting affair with an Indian maiden in Keats's "Endymion" and a feast of "dainties" from Fez, Samarcand, and Lebanon in "The Eve of St. Agnes"; an Arab maiden, Safie, as the most liberated character in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Orientalism, via the literature and art of the time, was increasingly in the air (as well as the texts) in both London and the British countryside.
The Orientalism of British Romantic literature has roots in the first decade of the eighteenth century, with the earliest translations of The Arabian Nights into English (from a version in French, 1705–08). The popularity of The Arabian Nights inspired writers to develop a new genre, the Oriental tale, of which Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) is the best mid-century example (NAEL 8, 1.2680–2743). Romantic Orientalism continues to develop into the nineteenth century, paralleling another component of Romanticism already presented in the Norton Web sites, "Literary Gothicism." Two of the authors here — Clara Reeve and William Beckford — are important figures in the history of both movements. Like Gothic novels and plays, Oriental tales feature exotic settings, supernatural happenings, and deliberate extravagance of event, character, behavior, emotion, and speech — an extravagance sometimes countered by wry humor even to the point of buffoonery. It is as though the "otherness" of Oriental settings and characters gives the staid British temperament a holiday. Gothicism and Orientalism do the work of fiction more generally — providing imaginary characters, situations, and stories as alternative to, even as escape from, the reader's everyday reality. But they operate more sensationally than other types of fiction. Pleasurable terror and pleasurable exoticism are kindred experiences, with unreality and strangeness at the root of both.
Before the publication of Edward Said's extremely influential and controversial Orientalism (1978), scholars tended to view the Eastern places, characters, and events pervading late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British literature as little more than stimuli for easy thrills. But this attitude has changed dramatically. Along with its well-studied interests in the inner workings of the mind, connections with nature, and exercise of a transcendental imagination, the Romantic Period in Britain is now recognized as a time of global travel and exploration, accession of colonies all over the world, and development of imperialist ideologies that rationalized the British takeover of distant territories. In the introduction to their fine collection of essays in Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780–1834 (1996), Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh notice references to the Spanish "discovery" and penetration of the Americas, British colonial wars, and "ethnographic exoticism" in several shorter pieces of Lyrical Ballads (1798) and connect the Ancient Mariner's voyage to a "growing maritime empire of far-flung islands, trading-posts, and stretches of coastline on five continents." Wordsworth and Coleridge were more aware of British expansionism than we had realized.
Such recontextualizing of Romantic Orientalism gives it a decidedly contemporary and political character involving questions of national identity, cultural difference, the morality of imperialist domination, and consequent anxiety and guilt concerning such issues. A handy example is the call for papers at an international conference on the topic at Gregynog, Wales, in July 2002, whose focus is "the cultural, political, commercial, and aesthetic dimensions of the synchronous growth of Romanticism and Orientalism. The European Romantic imagination was saturated with Orientalism, but it reflected persistent ambivalence concerning the East, complicated in Britain by colonial anxiety and imperial guilt. We shall consider how Western notions of cultural hegemony were bolstered by imperial rhetoric and challenged by intercultural translation." As a spate of new books and articles attests, a political approach to Romantic Orientalism is currently one of the major enterprises among critics and theorists.
Colonial anxiety and imperial guilt may not be immediately apparent in the extracts assembled for this online topic, from Frances Sheridan's History of Nourjahad, Sir Willliam Jones's Palace of Fortune and Hymn to Narayena, Clara Reeve's History of Charoba, Queen of Ægypt, William Beckford's Vathek, W. S. Landor's Gebir, Robert Southey's Curse of Kehama, Byron's Giaour, and Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh. But the texts are representative of the materials that scholars are currently working with, and three of them — the works by Sheridan, Beckford, and Byron — have recently been reprinted in a New Riverside Edition, Three Oriental Tales (2002), with an introduction and notes by Alan Richardson pointing out the works' "use of ‘Oriental' motifs to criticize European social arrangements." The texts and additional background materials included in this topic enhance the reading of canonical Romantic poems and fictions, as well as suggest how those poems and fictions connect with the political and social concerns of their real-life historical contexts.
The Norton Anthology of ENGLISH LITERATURE