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54 - Monarch-of-All-I-Survey

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2019

Claire Lindsay
Affiliation:
University College London.
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Summary

‘Monarch of all I survey’ is a common phrase with a hybrid pedigree in travel writing history. It derives from William Cowper's 1782 poem ‘Verses, Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk’, about the castaway's life on a desert island, his ‘sovereignty’ of that ‘horrible place’ a corollary of being ‘out of humanity's reach’: ‘I am monarch of all I survey’, the poem begins, ‘My right there is none to dispute; /From the center all round to the sea, /I am lord of the fowl and the brute’ (Cowper 1980, 403). The verse – redolent of power and irony in equal measure – also provides a fitting title to the published diary of Sir Charles Rey of the Bechuanaland Protectorate in Southern Africa from 1929 and 1937, in the form of a quotation attributed to Rey (‘Monarch of all I survey – What a joke!’) on the day of his appointment to office there, which fell on All Fools Day (Kirk-Greene 1989, 449). ‘Monarch of all I survey’ has since passed into the theoretical lexicon to describe a familiar scene in many travel narratives. Conceptualized by Mary Louise Pratt in her authoritative study Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (2008 [1992]), the constituent parts of this phrase are equally resonant. Where ‘monarch’ invokes the colonial precedents of the experience described by Pratt (see colonialism), it also speaks to the elevated social and economic rank of the travelling subject in contradistinction to the landscape being observed, the expansive, indefinite ‘all’ which, as Stephen Greenblatt (1991, 53) puts it in another, analogous context, ‘prudently avoids any specification of what [it] amounts to’. Meanwhile, the verb ‘survey’ indicates another kind of elevation, that of the bird's eye view, and denotes the visual observation and inspection at the heart of the experience. Typically taking place on peaks or promontories, the monarch-ofall-I-survey scene expresses the deep connection in travel writing between aesthetics and ideology. In this situation (Pratt's examples derive from Richard Burton's 1860 Lake Regions of Central Africa, among other works), the aesthetic qualities of the landscape ‘constitute the social and material value of the [territory's] discovery to the explorer's home culture’ (Pratt 2008, 201) with any aesthetic deficiencies therein regarded as an invitation for and authorization of colonial ‘improvement’.

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Chapter
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Keywords for Travel Writing Studies
A Critical Glossary
, pp. 157 - 159
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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