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Global Romanticism VI: Legitimacy and Legislation

Palmer-Mercator-1879

I have spent the ten months between my last post and this one developing my research on Egbert Martin, about whom I’ve written in the last couple of posts. As I’ve continued to fill in the picture of Martin’s literary life, I’ve begun to think about issues of legitimacy—what authorizes a prospective world-legislator to take his place within a transnational community of literary figures? The back page of Martin’s second collection, Leo’s Local Lyrics, offers some answers to the question. It shows a series of blurbs from almost all of the major local newspapers: the Daily Chronicle is quoted identifying Martin as “[t]he ablest of the poetical writers of whom British Guiana can boast”; the Colonist notes that “[t]he verses of this Poet are so familiar to the public that they need no words of recommendation”; and the Berbice Gazette calls him “[o]ne whose works plainly bespeak talent and ability of a high order.”

Then also the blurbs tell us that Martin “has been favorably noticed by the London ‘Standard,'” that “Lord Tennyson considered [Martin’s first collection] worthy an autograph acknowledgment,” and that the same “Poet Laureate of England has taken kindly notice” of the Guyanese poet. Such reviews affirm what Pascale Casanova has suggested in The World Republic of Letters, namely that  legitimacy comes through consecration from centers of literary power.

As I mentioned previously, Martin was deeply conscious of the negative reviews that his first collection received and worked rather deliberately in his second book of poems to focus on the local—including poems about lush natural landscapes and native spirituality, for example, and featuring illustrative woodcuts by Charles Stephens—in order to capitalize on the expectation that the colonial poet represent (in both senses of the word) his native land.

The strategy worked: London’s Saturday Review wrote of the poems’ “untutored frankness that harmonizes delightfully with the quaint and primitive cuts”—high praise considering the same paper had declared, in a review of Martin’s first collection, that “Leo’s poems have not even the thinnest guise of poetry,” calling his work “trite,” “silly” and “nauseating.” The New York Freeman informed readers that the poems were “redolent of the flavour of the tropics and possess much artistic merit and a pleasing musical rhythm,” adding that “The wood-cuts by Mr. Charles Stephens, though crude, are effective in giving an idea of the local scenery.” Shortly thereafter, one of Martin’s “tropical studies” was included in a popular Boston-based journal, Robert Littel’s Living Age, though the piece was not attributed to Martin, only identified as “Demerara Lyrics.”

Egbert Martin, "The Shaded Spot," Littel's Living Age No. 2246 (July 9, 1887), p. 66

from Littel’s Living Age No. 2246 (July 9, 1887), p. 66

It’s not hard to see what was appealing about the poem to audiences outside Guyana. The fierce sun, the palm-fronds, rustic cottage and plantain-leaves all confirm received images associated with the tropics.

But perhaps, even as Martin submits to the demands of an international market that fetishized tropical scenes, he nevertheless works to reclaim legislative authority. Structured around the recurring opposition between white heat and cool shade, the poem nevertheless ends in a space of gray indeterminacy, suggesting that any truth gleaned from the poem about Guyana is only a partial truth, that what we know of the space is matched by what we do not know. This theme is suggested rhythmically, as well, as we move from consistent masculine rhymes to, finally, a trio of feminine rhymes, from the certainty of steady iambics—punctuated with but not disrupted by occasional substitutions—to the anomalous string of dactyls in the last line, interrupted with a medial iamb: O-ver the / BOR-der-land / be-TWEEN / KNOW-ing and / UN-know-ing.

What I mean to say is that, in performing his difference in order to accommodate the tastes of a world market that reduced Guyana to a set of familiar tropes, Martin also, in the final line, calls into question the multiculturalist epistemology of the metropolitan center, suggesting that attempts at “knowing” otherness are destined to fail—if Guyana cannot escape its marginal position within the “world republic of letters,” it nevertheless can resist poetically the fixity of all geographical positions qua objects of knowledge.

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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