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 ...
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).”