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Global Romanticism II: Imitation, Innovation, and Interlocution in Nineteenth-Century India

Palmer-Mercator-1879

by Manu Samriti Chander

I mentioned in my last post the Calcutta-born poet Henry Derozio (1809-1831), or “Indian Keats” as he has sometimes been called. I first discovered Derozio’s work in graduate school and planned to write about him in my dissertation, but I didn’t have the resources at the time to travel to work with archival material. Fortunately, since then Rosinka Chaudhuri has published an excellent volume with Oxford UP, Derozio, The Poet of India: The Definitive Edition, which collects his two volumes of poetry, various speeches, letters, and essays, and several pieces he published under such pen-names as “Juvenis,” “Leporello,” and simply “East Indian.”

Derozio’s mother, Sophia Johnson, was an English settler in India (his father was Portuguese, and there is evidence of native Indian ancestry on his father’s side as well), though his indebtedness to British colonialism goes beyond blood. The poet was educated at Drummond’s Academy in Calcutta, a school distinguished for educating Indians alongside European children, where he was exposed to the work of his English contemporaries—the second-generation Romantics, whom he engaged both directly, through epigraphs or direct textual references, and indirectly by taking up tropes and themes common to these authors (he was particularly drawn to Byron—everybody loves Byron).

I emphasize “contemporaries” because one of the things I noticed when looking at the criticism on Derozio from the early nineteenth century is the tendency to de-temporalize the poet. Critics regularly suggested that, before Derozio could hope to participate in the world of poetry, he had to “catch up” culturally, to cut his teeth on the great poets of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. For others, Derozio represented the promise of a nation coming into its own (though not there yet), a glimpse at an Indian modernity to be realized at some unknown point in the future—he was ahead of his time rather than of his time.

Conscious of this tendency, I have been focusing on Derozio as something other than an imitator and other than an innovator. I read him as an interlocutor, one who defines himself through his poetic allegiances and his subtle opposition to other possible affiliations. When read in this way, Derozio’s use of familiar tropes and established forms proclaims his identity as a Romantic poet, like those he admired, while his revisions of these tropes and forms distinguish him from other producers in a field that places supreme value on originality. We can see this, for example, in his ars poetica, “Poetry”:

Sweet madness!—when the youthful brain is seized
With that delicious phrenzy which it loves,
It raving reels, to very rapture pleased, —
And then through all creation wildly roves:
Now in the deep recesses of the sea,
And now to highest Himaloy it mounts;
Now by the fragrant shores of Araby,
Or classic Greece, or sweet Italia’s founts,
Or through her wilderness of ruins;—now
Gazing on beauty’s lip, or valour’s brow;
Or rivaling the nightingale and dove
In pouring fourth its melody of love;
Or giving to the gale, in strains of fire,
Immortal harpings—like a seraph’s lyre.—

The poem is something of a formal anomaly. The first two quatrains are borrowed from the Shakespearean sonnet. But the ninth line shifts to rhyming couplets.  The poem also lacks a strong volta, turning instead on the subtle transition from prepositional phrases to participial ones in line ten (again refusing the Shakespearean tradition of turning at thirteen and the Petrarchan tradition of turning at nine).  And, as goes the sonnet form, so goes the sonnet’s logic structure: rather than state, develop, and complicate a lyrical argument, Derozio offers a wandering logic, one that “wildly roves” instead of syllogistically progressing. I am reminded of the deliberate effort to revamp the sonnet form in “Incipet altera Sonneta” by Keats (“English Derozio”?).

As the poem travels geographically, it also travels temporally from the present to the past. The trip back in time recalls the Visionary’s journey in Shelley’s Alastor, where he sees in the ruins of the Near East the “thrilling secrets of the birth of time.” Yet where Shelley’s poem moves from the Modern West to the Ancient East, Derozio’s piece goes back in time as it moves from East to West. Even as Derozio affirms the idea so central to nineteenth-century poets that Greece is the seat of Western culture, he calls attention to the tendency to displace the Orient into a perpetual past, the same tendency that underlies the criticism voiced against his work.

I’m not sure Derozio was writing against Shelley, who was one of the poets he most admired. But I am confident he was writing with Shelley, along with Byron and Thomas Moore and Thomas Campbell and Letitia Landon. I am confident, that is, that he was working to establish a dialogue across national boundaries with like-minded poetry-lovers and political thinkers who, for the most part, never knew he existed. He was an unacknowledged world-legislator, a national figure with transnational sensibilities—not just a globally-minded Romantic, but also, I think, one of the first Global Romanticists.

Manu Samriti Chander is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. His research interests include nineteenth-century world literature and aesthetic theory. He has published on Immanuel Kant, Pierre Bourdieu, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley. His current project, Brown Romantics, traces the influence of British Romanticism in the literature of South Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

Top image adapted from George Palmer, “The World on Mercator’s Project,” in The Migration from Shinar; or the earliest links between the Old and the New Continents (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879).


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