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


To not discuss the concept of Orientalism when talking about the Romantic literary period is to ignore one of the key fundamentals to the British Romantic imagination. This page seeks to illuminate some of the nuances that Orientalism brings to Romantic literature. Not only that, but the project will also explicate several instances in which we see Orientalism at play in The Bengal Annual.

Edward Said, one of the key thinkers on the subject of Orientalism, thoroughly defines the concept in the introduction of his book Orientalism. He writes:

Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural ( as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do). (12)

There is a lot to unpack here, with most of the quotation being one sentence. The key idea that Said is arguing here is that Orientalism is a discourse that is established by the British Empire to describe the “East” or the “Orient,” through all the means listed above. This discourse is Eurocentric and Britain-centric, meaning that it is assumed that Britain is the country of privilege, status, and power. 

This unequal representation does not stop at simply implying that Britain is the “better country,” but rather, essays were written to communicate the “fact” that in order for Indian literature to be notable, they needed the help of the British. “The Literati of British India," an essay within The Bengal Annual, is one such example of this. Not only does the author and British colonialists assume Indian literary merit as lesser than, during this time period, several essays were published in argument for colonization and enforcing British education over native Indian education. Thomas Macaulay, in his essay "Minute on Indian Education," writes that while he has not read any “Oriental” literature in their original languages, Sanscrit and Arabic, he boldly assesses that:

I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of  their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library  was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. (419)

By assessing the value of Indian and Middle Eastern literature, without actually reading the texts in their own languages, he pursues the argument that European literature and the English language should be taught over the native curriculum. He writes: “How, then, stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue” (419). This privileging of British and European literature over “Oriental” literature is not just a matter of establishing tastes, but it is also an argumentation for invading and colonizing other countries to their tastes.

The other aspect that we have to look at while discussing Orientalism is the “Oriental Renaissance.” This concept was pioneered by Raymond Schwab in his work Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880. In summation, Schwab discusses the excitement and revitalization of the British imagination by rediscovering landscapes, symbols, and language. The problems that came from this “rediscovery” are that “The East” soon became conflated with stereotypes propelled by English literature that are pervasive today. For example, some stereotypes involve the East being erotic, wise, mystical, magical, supernatural, sexual, etc.

We have explicated three poems to illustrate these concepts discussed here: “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Coleridge, “To---”By Capt. Mcknaughten," and “Sonnet--To England” by D. L. Richardson. These poems are helpful in showing how we see Romantic authors utilizing stereotypes of Oriental imagery to amplify their work, and in Richardson’s poem we see the privileging of England as the preferred country over a country like India. We also see within this poem the representation of the Romantic concept of Space/Place and Nature.

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