Mary Ellis Gibson’s Indian Angles and its companion anthology, Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913, offer the most comprehensive picture yet of English language poetry and the environment in which it was produced on the Indian subcontinent over the long nineteenth century. Gibson’s deep historicization enables a detailed and lively recreation of nineteenth-century India’s dynamic cultural and literary scene. Her knowledge of British and Indian poetics, of formal and genre conventions, of classical and vernacular influences, and of reception history allows her to mine a range of polyglot works, many of which will be unfamiliar to scholars of the period. Perhaps most importantly, her insistence on reading together all the poets who were writing on the subcontinent—whether Indian, East Indian, English, Scottish, or Irish; male or female; elite, middle-class, or subaltern—models how a trans- or multi-national canon of English language poetry might be imagined and discussed. Gibson’s ambitious project roves widely, and her two books will long be important reading for scholars of Anglophone poetry, nineteenth-century studies, and colonial, postcolonial, and transnational literatures.
Canon-making—or, perhaps more accurately, canon-remaking—may well be Gibson’s primary aspiration for Indian Angles. One of the book’s chief contributions is her interrogation of the process of canonization that has either assigned poets writing on the subcontinent to British or Indian national traditions or, when the fit was too forced, consigned them to oblivion through canonical exclusion. In Gibson’s words, Indian Angles aims both to critique “canonical boundaries and the nationalist discourses that necessarily shaped” them (2) and to privilege instead a “mutually constitutive history of British and Indian poets” (3).
Her exclusive focus on poetry represents another act of canonical revision. Gibson argues persuasively that poetry has been under-represented and under-theorized in our study of nineteenth-century Indian literature, resulting in historical distortions and missed opportunities for enhancing our understanding of the competing forces that shaped India’s literary culture. Drawing on archival research from public and subscription library records, Gibson argues that poetry was the dominant belletristic form in India through the mid-century, and that it maintained its privileged position, at least among elites, until the century’s end. Poetry’s very nature, Gibson suggests, gives it a special role in the study of intensely heterogeneous cultural environments. With its reliance on linguistic virtuosity and on formal and generic conventions, poetry works as a kind of “pressure cooker” that makes clear the intricate and sometimes subtle “historical and ideological … contradictions of empire” (8) which may be less visible in other genres.
Gibson’s canonical interventions are bold. They are also well-supported and argued in chapters that reflect, even at the structural level, her commitment to recreating the fullest possible sense of the players, the anxieties, and the contradictions of colonial India’s poetic culture. Each chapter pairs writers from different backgrounds and shows how their identities and relationships transcend reduction to binaries such as British/Indian, metropole/periphery, colonizer/colonized, Christian/Hindu, loyalist/nationalist.
Gibson pushes hard against the notion of a singular British culture in colonial India. Poets such as John Leyden, Mary Carshore, and Sir William Jones, we learn, identified with the internal colonies of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (respectively). The complexity of Jones’s attitude towards the metropole, shaped both by his Welsh identity and his orientalist scholarship, is particularly striking. In her first chapter, Gibson shows that Jones viewed both London and Calcutta as important global cultural centers and, perhaps more radically, that he imagined Eastern knowledge as reinvigorating Western thought. Yet, Gibson is careful not to erase the power differentials inherent in any colonial situation: she acknowledges that Jones’s extreme privilege insulated him from the consequences of boundary crossing that were very real for Indians perceived as too Westernized, especially after the 1857 rebellion.
Gibson’s reading of The Dutt Family Album (1870) in her fourth chapter, for example, shows how Christian conversion complicated some Indian poets’ relationships both to Britain and to the emerging Indian nationalist movement. For Gibson, as for most postcolonial scholars, the simultaneously saccharine and aggressive Christian piety of poems like “Lines, Written While on a Visit to Kalighat” proves challenging. However, Gibson resists diminishing the emotional stress, social ostracism, and financial sacrifice the Dutts endured in order to practice their faith. She even raises the possibility that at least one poem in the collection, “The Caves of Elephanta,” articulates a kind of Christian-humanist opposition to imperial violence. Rather than dismiss the Dutts as Christian zealots or imperial sympathizers, Gibson undertakes the admittedly difficult task of “tak[ing] their poetry seriously, and…on its own terms” (183). This critical strategy pervades Indian Angles, and Gibson emerges from the pages of her scholarship as a thorough guide, attending to the full range of complex influences and identifications at work on the individual poets she examines.
Gibson’s combination of historicism and emphasis on individual agency is both striking and refreshing. Many of the strongest sections of Indian Angles examine individual poets’ struggles to invent themselves in their poems amid all the competing influences that necessarily shaped India’s emerging body of English language poetry. Two interrelated personas emerge as central to the relationship between colonial India and poetic self-identification: the bard and the exile. Drawing on Katie Trumpener’s foundational work on bardic nationalism, Gibson shows how the bardic traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were both appealing and largely unavailable to English language poets in India. For example, in her second chapter, Gibson argues that both the Indian-born Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and the English-born Emma Roberts experimented with but ultimately could not claim the bardic role. Through readings of Derozio’s “Don Juanics” (1825) and “The Harp of India” (1827), Gibson argues that India remains an unstable and strained space for the poet, pulled among his complex ethnic, poetic, cultural, and philosophical identifications. Despite his important place in the Indian nationalist canon, Gibson reads Derozio as “a bard in search of a nation” (72). For different reasons, India remains similarly unstable for Emma Roberts. Gender powerfully shapes Roberts’s relationship to the Indian landscape and to the conventions of bardic nationalism, resulting in poetry that cannot imagine a distinct nation and, ultimately, cannot claim the authority of a bard.
Both Derozio and Roberts wrote before a codified version of identity emerged from the Indian nationalist movement. Gibson shows that throughout the nineteenth century, poets remained uncomfortable positioning themselves as Indian—that is to say, national—bards. For example, in her fifth chapter Gibson follows Tricia Lootens and Meenakashi Mukherjee in reading Toru Dutt as operating in a narrowly Bengali rather than pan-Indian context. She builds upon their work by arguing that Dutt turns away from mimicking the masculine bravado required of bards and instead critiques patriarchal/nationalist structures. Poems like “Buttoo” “Jogadhya Uma” and “Sonnet—The Lotus,” all from 1882, depict new models of domestic and national empowerment for women. The allure and pitfalls of claiming the authority to sing of India in an environment rife with contradictory influences also structure Gibson’s readings of Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore, the subjects of her final chapter.
Like the bard, the prototypical exile sings of a clearly defined and deeply felt national home. Gibson’s work, however, focuses on poets rooted in multiple national, cultural, and linguistic traditions: poets whose relationship to their Indian or British homes remained complex and often tense. The position of the exile is thus as unstable for Gibson as that of the bard. Gibson’s third chapter shows that even a seemingly consummate exile like David Lester Richardson—a man born in England, whose wife and children resided in England, and who longed to return to England—performs the role in conflicting ways. His sonnets to his children idealize his home as the rural, bucolic England of bygone days. But when confronting the reality of England’s transformation into an urban, industrialized nation—a transformation, he suggests, largely owing to the commercial exploitation of India—Richardson’s easy nostalgia wavers, as does his identification as an exile.
Later in the century, the emergence of an Indian national consciousness makes the trope of exile available to Indian poets writing in the metropole. According to Gibson, some Indian poets in this period experienced what she calls “double exile,” an “almost schizophrenic division” between Indian and British identifications (237). Manmohan Ghose’s long lyric “Exile” (1898) uses the trope of exile to explore the contradictions that both define and strain transnational identities in a time of intensifying nationalism. Through Ghose’s poetry, Gibson shows how the trope of the exile and the trope of the bard are, like so much else in Indian Angles, intricately intertwined and “mutually constitutive” (3).
Indian Angles challenges us to understand more fully the historical, poetic, and political realities of nineteenth-century India. Gibson’s companion anthology, Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913, assembles in one book much of the primary source material necessary to do so. Her introduction and, especially, her explanation of “Theoretical Premises and Editorial Principles” clarify the connection between the critical investments in Indian Angles and the selection of the anthology’s poems. Gibson aims, above all, for inclusiveness. According to her, the anthology presents “a full selection of the poets who were writing in English in India in the long nineteenth century” and attempts to “reconstruct” as fully as possible “the conversations among poets that constituted early Indian English language literature” (2). As part of her move away from the nationalist canons (both Indian and British) that have elevated some poets and erased others, Gibson gives unusually balanced representation to little known and highly canonical poets. Honoria Marshall Lawrence, for example, receives as much space as Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Rabindranath Tagore. Similarly, Govin Chunder Dutt and The Dutt Family Album are allotted as many pages as Rudyard Kipling. Gibson also represents female poets with particular generosity. Of the eleven women included, Gibson allocates ten pages or more to five of them: Roberts, Lawrence, Carshore, Toru Dutt, and Naidu. Only eight of the twenty-eight men included in the volume receive as much space. In truth, as Gibson herself acknowledges, her editorial decisions—for example, her inclusion of as many poems by E.L. as by Kasiprasad Ghosh—may surprise or even perplex those familiar with what has hitherto been the Indian English language canon. Reinforcing the theoretical interventions in Indian Angles, Gibson’s anthology seeks to undo the omissions of pre-existing nationalist canons and to represent nineteenth-century poetic culture on the Indian subcontinent in its richest diversity.
In addition to being inclusive, Gibson’s anthology is also inviting, seemingly designed to usher other scholars into the complex world of Indian English language literature. For example, Gibson begins each poetry selection with a thorough biographical sketch, positioning each poet in a detailed socio-political, historical, and poetic context. Taken together, the biographical sections are a sort of text-within-a-text. Appearing in chronological order according to the poets’ birthdates, the biographies alone trace the intricate web of exchange between diverse poets throughout the long nineteenth century. Similarly, even without the benefit of her introductory materials, one can learn a great deal from Gibson’s many poetic annotations about the lives and movements of individual poets, about their relationships to other poets and poetic traditions, about India’s geography, and about British and Indian history dating back to ancient times. By offering a book-length treatment of her subject in combination with the anthology’s introduction, biographical sketches, and poetic annotations, Gibson provides multiple and overlapping points of entry into an imposing field. Together, Gibson’s books represent a major advance in both our understanding of and our access to colonial India’s English language poetry.
Natalie Phillips Hoffmann is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her areas of interest include Anglophone poetry, nineteenth-century studies, and transnational literatures. She is currently at work on a dissertation entitled “Rewriting Nationality in an Era of Empire: English Language Poetry and National Identity (1830-1900).”