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26 - Romantic cultural imperialism

from Part IV - The Ends of Romanticism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2009

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Summary

It is astonishing to consider that a literary movement typically associated with daffodils and waterfalls might have had a secret obsession with imperial domination in the East; that there might have been a strange connection between the sleepy hillsides of England’s Lake District – Romanticism’s spiritual home – and scenes of conquest in India, Egypt and Palestine. But scholars have gradually come to recognize that most of the major writers of the Romantic period (with the notable exception of William Blake) had at least a passing flirtation with the most prominent cultural component of imperialism, namely, Orientalism – if not a full-blown Orientalist phase – and that almost all had some kind of interest in the larger imperial project, of which Orientalism was merely one manifestation among others. Indeed, for many of the period’s writers the Orient (which by the end of the eighteenth century had become the focal point of Britain’s imperial energies) provided not just an important point of reference for cultural or political difference, but an essential scene in the formation of a literary career (‘stick to the East’, Byron once famously advised Thomas Moore). The early part of the Romantic period witnessed, for example, the publication of Sir William Jones’s translations from (and imitations of) poetry in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, William Beckford’s Vathek, Robert Bage’s Fair Syrian, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer and Curse of Kehama, Cornelia Knight’s Dinarbas,Walter Savage Landor’s Gebir, Richard Johnson’s Oriental Moralist, Elizabeth Hamilton’s Letters of a Hindoo Raja and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, not to mention the virtually endless matrix of references to ‘Oriental despotism’ in the surge of political pamphlets in the 1790s.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2009

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