Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 June 2014
“When the history of the literature of our country comes to be written, there is sure to be a page in it dedicated to this fragile exotic blossom of song” (Dutt xxvii). This sentence is Edmund Gosse's famous final flourish to his memoir of Toru Dutt, which introduced her posthumous volume Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, published in 1882, five years after her death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-one. But what would Dutt's page look like in the history of “our country,” by which Gosse means of course England? This question is a tricky one, because placing a late nineteenth-century Bengali who was a Europhile, a Christian convert, and an English-language woman poet within a British Victorian tradition is a simplistic, if not a problematic appropriation of a colonial subject into the centre of the British Empire. Where Dutt belongs has long preoccupied critics who try to recuperate her poetry for an Indian national poetic tradition, or for a transnational, cosmopolitan poetics. The issue of placing Dutt allows us also to press questions about the conception of Victorian poetry studies, its geographical, cultural, and national boundaries, not just in the nineteenth-century creation of a canon but in our current conception of the symbolic map of Victorian poetry. But, while recent critics have celebrated her poetry's embrace of global poetry as a challenge to the parochialism of national literary boundaries, Dutt's original English-language poetry also suggests an uneven, uncomfortable hybridity, and a wry, ironic interplay between distance and proximity that unfolds through her use of poetic form. This essay investigates what it means to “make something” of Toru Dutt, in the nineteenth century and in the twenty-first century, what is at stake for Victorian poetry studies in privileging Dutt and her multi-lingual writing, and whether her celebrated transnationalism might not also include a discomfort with hybridity that reveals itself through the relation between space and literary form in her poetry.
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