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«Shelley’s Orientalia: Indian Elements in his Poetry Jalal Uddin Khan Qatar University jukhan Shelley, one of the major English Romantic ...»

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ATLANTIS. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies. 30.1 (June 2008): 35–51

ISSN 0210-6124

Shelley’s Orientalia: Indian Elements in his Poetry

Jalal Uddin Khan

Qatar University


Shelley, one of the major English Romantic poets, was greatly influenced by the Indian

thought that reached him through the works of the early English Orientalists of his time.

Although his dream of personally visiting India had never materialized, his favorite

readings included Sir William Jones's poems and essays on Indian subjects in the 1770s, Captain Francis Wilford's essay, ‘Mount Caucasus’ (1801), Sidney Owenson's The Missionary: An Indian Tale (1811) and James Henry Lawrence's The Empire of the Nairs, or the Rights of Women; An Utopian Romance (1811). This paper is an attempt to provide an account of the influence of these works on some of Shelley's major poems (such as Queen Mab, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Adonais’) in their setting, style and themes. As a revolutionary, Shelley was influenced by the forces of liberation and freedom suggested by oriental models as opposed to the hackneyed and overused neoclassicism of European literature. This paper will argue how his was an effort at a sympathetic understanding of India as a cradle of ancient civilization that knew no divide in terms of the so-called Western moral and racial superiority. His creative vision of India embraced an approach to integration as opposed to the Victorian reaction of mixed feelings. In fact, the Indian influence was not just a matter of stylistic embellishment away from the traditional but an indirect yet powerful means of attacking the Western political system he so passionately rebelled against.

Key words: The Orientalism controversy, the reductionist theory, visionary integration, ancient Indian civilization, freedom, transcendence.

Romantic ideals of love and romance, permanence and transcendence and freedom and liberation found expression through a variety of modes and motifs such as Hellenism, Medievalism, Pastoralism and Orientalism. Initially conceived as a fanciful exercise about passing curiosities of the East, Romantic Orientalism came to be connected with the rise and glory of Empire and the accompanying challenges and tensions, subsequently becoming more imaginative, academic and objective. Compared with the similar writings of the past, Romantic Orientalism claimed to be more realistic on account of the local details it made use of as at the same time it became more poetically interesting and suggestive. In the wake of European colonial expansion, many European writers, including the major English Rom

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fashionable discourse of Orientalism, approaching their subject matter with scholarly disinterestedness and leading to the concept of Orientalism as a body of serious scholarly works on the Middle East and South Asia. Moving away from the earlier notion of the Orient as a mere exotic and extravagant fantasy of cheap commercial glamour, they viewed the Orient, according to Edward Said, in abstract, extracting terms, as a vague ideological rather than a historical geopolitical reality. Said, the foremost postcolonial literary critic, observed that Western writers set themselves off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self so that their Orientalist texts tell more about their own than our Asian culture. He argued that regardless of whatever academic or scientific objectivity they might lay claim to, their writings were ultimately a deliberate attempt to distort and misrepresent the ‘other’ in the colonized East with the end of managing, dominating and controlling it from a morally ‘superior’, unscrupulous, racist, imperialist and ethnocentric perspective.

Said’s landmark theory, first laid out in his book Orientalism (1978), has been highly influential in the field of postcolonial study of the relationship between literature, history and culture. However, it has also been critiqued as problematic and controversial in its so-called sweeping generalization. As pointed out by Nigel Leask, “Said falls into the trap of constructing ‘the West’ in exactly the same ahistorical, essentialist terms as Europe’s ‘Orient’, the object of his critique” and his theory fails to adequately respond to the fact that “…the ‘Easts’ of literary orientalism are as manifold, various, and historically contingent as the ‘Wests’ which produced them. Moreover, whilst Said is correct in mapping Orientalism on to the historical rise of empire, he seriously overestimates the confidence and unity of purpose of European imperialists and writers, failing to register adequately the anxiety, not to mention the critical scruples, which often underwrite oriental texts” (2005: 138-39). 1

Deirdre Coleman, quoted in Roe, agrees with Leask’s qualification saying:

The principal complaints are that Said’s conception of Orientalism is too monolithic, and his methodology too rigidly dichotomized between East and West. These limitations result not only in an Occidental stereotype of the racist Westerner but leave little scope for the multiplicity of orients imagined by hosts of writers, artists and scholars. Nor did Said’s argument take account of what was so palpable in so many Orientalist texts—the anxiety of empire and its accompanying sense of European vulnerability. (2005: 247) It is true that Said’s somewhat overgeneralization at times ignores the other side of the coin: that oriental writings do indeed open up an exploration of the rich and complex cultural history of the East and do betray a sense of ironic doubt, ambiguity and mixed feelings not only about the East itself but also its occupation by the West. It needs to be pointed out here, however, that Said himself warned against reductionist readings of his argument that tended to be confined to a fixation on the binary opposition between the West and the Orient and a tendency to homogenize both categories. 2 He never entertained positions that might allow Orientalism to be used as a derogatory term rather than a scientific concept. Nonetheless, recent scholars, as shown above, have Also see Nigel Leask (1992).

See the author’s disclaimer in the afterword to Said (1995).

ATLANTIS. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies. 30.1 (June 2008): 35–51 ISSN 0210-6124 Shelley’s Orientalia 37 been trying to distance themselves from the supposedly over-reductive readings that Said made of Oriental texts.

All Orientalist writers were not equally comfortable about Western colonization of the East. This is especially true of Shelley, whose love of freedom, purity of ideals and transcendent philosophy rise far above the racist, ethnocentric and imperialist construction of an Indian East and thus defy Said’s seemingly straight and clear-cut categorization. Shelley’s singularly idealistic, humanist, selfless and morally unalloyed attitude to society, together with the influences that helped him learn about the greatness of ancient Indian civilization, made him look at India with unequivocal admiration and enchantment. Far from constructing an ‘inferior’ other out of it under the ‘superior’ moral vigil of the colonial power (in the sense Said defines Orientalism), he created an India exactly the opposite—a storehouse of transcendent mythic philosophy and visionary ideals to reach out to. This enabled him to create and embrace the India of his imagination and rise above the fray of politico-historical dichotomy with which the colonized India was so much fraught. The India that may have played into the hands of those who, in Said’s view, tended to fall into the pit of misrepresentation and distortion and exaggeration was not the one he entertained and envisioned.

In critiquing Said, my contention is that Orientalist writers, be they travelers or diplomats, merchants or missionaries, instead of misrepresenting as a way of their racially-motivated strategy, were in fact truthful to their experience and to what they saw. And what they saw was indeed largely true about the culture of their colonized lands in the East as a whole. Instead of being prejudiced, they may have depicted a part only, just like any writer, which does not mean they were intentionally fragmenting, splitting, bifurcating, dissecting, slicing the East to inject race or power or were so weak and shortsighted that they were blind to the truth and beauty of the whole. No writer is ever under the obligation of understanding and speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A writer’s business is to be revealingly suggestive and insightful about part or otherwise and thereby evoke the possibilities of the rest within the demands of his craft and space.

European Orientalist writers were no exception. They learnt about India and let Indians learn about themselves and their Eastern heritage—rich and long and complex as it was—both from within and without, as far as they could, significantly contributing to the artistic utterance about the East. It was not (and can never be) the wholesale monopoly of only the native writers of one culture to educate and enlighten their people. Western Orientalists made a difference to this effect, more to the advantage of Indians than their own, and provided the very important dimension of how outsiders from the vantage point of a ruling position could afford to safely detach and distance themselves and look at Indians and examine them dispassionately and disinterestedly.

They had the power and skill to rule and so they did. They said what they said about Indians without fear or favor and they were starkly true in what they said. Any denial of this would be attributable to the general sense of inferiority of those who have been subjugated for long and who still harbored that sense continually bred of their classridden, poverty-ridden and corruption-ridden society now ruled by their own domestic masters, postcolonial colonizers at home. Deprived of healthy freedom of expression

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and with hardly any critical discrimination or accountability, but with doubtful moral transparency and much deep-seated fear and conflict of loyalties and interests either under the home-grown dynastic or dictatorial rulers or ‘divide-and rule’ foreign occupiers, it is the local writers, then, in the Arab, Turkish, Persian and Indian lands who were likely to fail (with exceptions, of course) to see and tell the real clear truth about themselves. Instead, they may have found an escapist second self in various internal or external agents—religion, nature, personal or spiritual love, apolitical, visionary ideas—for a cover-up. Even if they succeeded in describing what was happening on the ground, in society, their success was likely to be partial, incomplete, marred with bias, connivance and careful carelessness.

What follows below is a discussion of the influences on Shelley, especially Sir William Jones, whose works were an investigation of the greatness of India as a seat of one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. In 1812, Shelley ordered Jones’s Works (1799), among nearly 70 other titles (White 1940: 243).

The literary history of Orientalism goes back to the time of Chaucer’s ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ (1386), Knolles’s History of the Turks (1603), much admired by Dr. Johnson and Lord Byron, and Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1613), a key influence on Coleridge’s oriental poem ‘Kubla Khan’. It continued through the works of the Restoration writers such as Dryden, Waller, Milton (Persian and Indian elements in Paradise Lost, Bk. XI) and others dealing with India and other Easts. Since the publication of D’Herbelot’s encyclopedic Bibliotheque Orientale (1697), Antoine Galland’s Arabian Nights Entertainment (1704-12) and many other influential works throughout the eighteenth century, 3 there had been a popular demand for tales of diverse Eastern origins and settings—Chinese, Arabian, Egyptian, Turkish, Persian, Indian and Abyssinian—partly for a refreshing change from whatever was familiar and conservative and partly from a desire to indulge colonialist feelings or even to suggest the opposite, that is, freedom and liberation from all kinds of oppression and occupation, including the imperialist.

Completely disregarding neoclassical restraint and discipline, such tales sometimes served to expose the folly and excesses of oriental traditions and cultures in a gothic manner and sometimes the beauty and excellence of them, indirectly implying by contrast a criticism of contemporary European Enlightenment mores and manners. At first there was a fascination for China during the greater part of the 18th century, which Mention may be made of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721) and Spirit of the Laws (1748), Lord Lyttleton’s Persian Letters (1735), William Collins’ Persian Eclogues (1742, later as Oriental Eclogues in 1757), Horace Walpole’s Letters from Xo-Ho (1757), William Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1762), John Hawkesworth’s highly successful Almoran and Hamet (1761), and Account of the Voyages…in the Southern Hemisphere (1773), Alexander Dow’s Tales of Inatulla of Delhi and The History of Hindostan (both 1768), his Zingis (a drama, 1769), and Sethona (also a drama, 1774), Frances Sheridan’s ‘Persian’ History of Nourjahad (1767), a successful moral oriental novel, staged as a musical play, Illusion in 1813, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), Anquetil Duperron’s French translation of the Zoroastrian Zend-Avesta in 1759 (English translation in 1771), Travels in India, and the Upanishads in 1786, Sir William Jones’s essays and translations directly from Eastern origins in the 1780s, and William Robertson’s Historical Disquisition on Ancient India (1791).

ATLANTIS. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies. 30.1 (June 2008): 35–51 ISSN 0210-6124 Shelley’s Orientalia 39 was later replaced by an interest in Indian, Arabian or Near Eastern elements in Romantic Orientalism. As pointed out by Leask, “William Hazlitt’s criticism of the millionaire Beckford’s collection of tacky chinoiserie seen at Fonthill Abbey” was just a telling sign of this shift of interest (2005: 140).

India was one of the major ‘Easts’ that occupied the attention of most orientalists.

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