The Bengal Annual: A Digital Exploration of Non-Canonical British Romantic Literature

Nature, Orientalism, and "The Literati of British India"

Upon first glance, the editor’s opening “sketch,” titled “The Literati of British India,” may seem like not more than a bundle of excuses and long-winded paragraphs describing various characters in the British Indian literary scene. However, this work, being one of the openers, contains valuable information not only about the author's Orientalist attitudes, but could also indicate a radical new take on the Romantic idea of Nature. The editor of the work compiled this annual to fulfill his role as a colonizer. He sought to accomplish this by creating a volume that not only portrays the prominence of the British Empire, but in doing so, further conquers the country it was produced in. His essay, “On the Literati of British India,” is entirely Orientalist in that it uses the Nature of India to portray the colony as an exotic, but inferior and wilting flower that can only be nurtured to health by the British.

As explained in the foundational page on the Romantic sense of “Nature,” the outdoors was commonly depicted as a centering and powerful force by British poets stationed in Britain. To poet Charlotte Smith, for example, being free from fear of Nature’s great strength and sublime energy was akin to being released from society’s crushing moral standards. She demonstrates this in her poem about a lunatic wandering the seaside cliffs who is free from fear of the storms and great heights common in this biome:

He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe. (Smith 10-14).

Smith compares the fearsome power of the sea to “giant horrors” which “wildly wander,” demonstrating her respect for the ocean and its sublime energy. The nature within her home nation, Britain, fills her with awe and terror at once. To be free of this feeling, she explains, would be caused by a lack of reason, which she envies. British nature, just like the tragedy life is fraught with, is not just powerful, but an overpowering, unfathomable, and leviathan force of awesome might. This fear and reverence towards nature, however, is entirely absent from David Lester Richardson’s use of natural imagery to discuss the Literati of British India.

While Richardson’s “sketch” is a short essay instead of a poem, its use of nature metaphors differs entirely from Smith’s. In "The Literati of British India," Richardson draws upon Orientalist notions of occidental superiority and oriental inferiority to portray Indian-born literature as a struggling flower: “Literature in India is to Europeans an exotic. It wants nearly all the conditions which make it thrive in the West. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should rear its head but languidly, and that it should but partially and impartially flourish” (4). The reverence and respect for British nature Smith holds is implied through contrast by Richardson. Literature thrives in the West, as it is set up as the opposite of the East within this “sketch.” While Richardson’s awe of British “nature” as a flourishing, thriving flower is different from Smith’s fear of it, the implied empowering of nature in Britain still exists. As such, the “flower” or literature of India is not blessed with such kindness from the author.

In contrast to the thriving, powerful British flower, the Indian flower flourishes partially--it is inferior, incomplete, and slow growing to the author. He further casts the “flowers” of India as not only incomplete in comparison to British Literature, but as stinking weeds, further confirming his orientalist bias. He writes, “The early shoots of [Literature published in India] are choked and overshadowed by the more favoured vegetation of a foreign soil, --sometimes, it is true, lovely, and magnificent, but much more frequently rank, worthless, and noxious’ (5). British Literature is such a strong, powerful, and lovely flower in this metaphor that any other “plant” appears to be rubbish in its presence. Again, like Smith, the author touts the power of his homeland’s nature within this metaphorical comparison, but Indian literature is robbed of that power and commands not awe, but ire. However, there is a way to “fix” Indian literature, as Richardson explains. In his words, “All these impediments will, no doubt, be removed with the obstructions to colonization....The flowers of local genius will no longer “blush unseen,” but expand to full perfection beneath the refined taste and acute discrimination of an enlightened colonial population” (5). Indeed, the only way to empower the “weakened” flower of India, in Richardson’s eyes, is to make it British-or at least more British, via colonization. It is this belief that the East is inferior to the west, represented through metaphors of nature, that implicate Richardson as a true Orientalist and posit the entirety of the Annual as a display of British power. To Richardson, it is only through British conquest that the “flowers” of India can flourish.

The Bengal Annual is instrumental to a complete understanding of British Orientalism and forces a different interpretation of the Romantic idea of Nature. When one only studies the Literati of Britain, such as our flagship big six writers and other Britain-housed Romantic writers, it is easy to generalize that all Romantic authors believed Nature was deserving of awe and respect, that all Nature infuses one’s heart with the sublime. However, Richardson’s work debunks this--to him, there is only one country whose nature commands these feelings: Britain, the source of his nationalist agenda. When the bias Orientalism instilled into this imperialist nation is cast to the side, this interpretation is neglected and the Romantic concept of Nature as a whole becomes incomplete. To understand a movement in its fullness, one must understand an empire--and the opinions coming forth from every corner of it.

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