IMAGINED HOMELANDS: BRITISH POETRY IN THE COLONIES by Jason Rudy, Reviewed by David Latané
 

IMAGINED HOMELANDS: BRITISH POETRY IN THE COLONIES
By Jason Rudy
(Johns Hopkins, 2017) xii + 247 pp.
Reviewed by David Latané on 2018-03-05.

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The subtitle of Jason Rudy's instructive and astute new book matters. It is not Poetry in the British Colonies but specifically British Poetry in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada: colonies that ambivalently aimed to embrace or reject Britishness. Rather than chronicling the development of poetry in those future nations, this book formulates "six distinct frameworks for thinking through British colonial culture" (14). Rudy thus aims to show "how reading British colonial poetry reshapes our understanding of the period, its history, and colonialism more broadly" (4-5). He also argues that "poetic genre was central both to the circulation of feeling in British colonial spaces and to the sense of community that developed as a result of that circulation" (189). Unlike studies such as Jude Piesse's British Settler Emigration in Print, 1832--1877 (2016), Rudy highlights works published in the colonies rather than in the UK, and he also aims to gauge the effect of colonial poetry rather than evaluating it. By largely declining to rank British verse within settler societies and instead defining its cultural function there, Rudy freshly explains the impact of British poetry on the emergence of a national identity from each of the colonies. He thereby enhances our understanding of both the poetry and the world of settler colonialism.

The book begins in a microcosm, by examining the poetry written on ships and published in ships' newspapers during the long sea voyages that emigrants took to the antipodes. These periodicals, which Rudy found archived in libraries of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, are said to "reflect an in-between status: not exactly British, but not quite colonial" (20-21). To some extent, shipboard poetry answered the call of the tenth muse, ennui, for Household Words reports that the emigrants' voyage was "like taking apartments with no exit for four months" (qtd. 23). In such confinement voyagers often turned to parody. A passenger on the ship Rodney, for instance, cleverly parodied Tennyson's "Come into the garden, Maud," and a passenger on the ship Nemesis turned Hood's "Song of the Shirt" into "Song of the Ship." Closely reading such poems, Rudy links them with nostalgia. They aim, he suggests, to cure homesickness by means of fond imitation. They are "derivative" not because they lack imagination or creativity, but because they spring from what their authors love and miss. As exemplified by these shipboard productions, Rudy concludes, "British emigrant poetry intentionally maintained the structure of a greater cultural replication [; . . .] to critique it on account of its derivativeness misses the point of its composition" (42).

Rudy next argues that by imitating British verse, colonial poets were also replicating British customs and institutions. Yet paradoxically, Rudy finds within their parodies and plagiarisms (or near plagiarisms) a stepping stone "toward establishing independent colonial cultures" (15). What does it mean that the first poem in R. J. Stapleton's 1828 anthology Poetry of the Cape of Good Hope is "Lines to a Water Fowl," the well-known lyric by the American William Cullen Bryant? Perhaps that emigrants who copied poems by hand and carried them to distant shores felt free to claim them as their own, or present them as if they were? Before appearing anonymously in Stapleton's anthology, Bryant's poem was printed in a local newspaper as "Extracted from a Sailor's Album on Dyer's Island." The "affective interiority" (54) of works ported across oceans made them speak afresh in the colonies--whether reprinted anonymously in newspapers or republished by booksellers. Felicia Hemans travelled particularly well, and as Rudy demonstrates, various rewritings such as an 1868 Canadian extension of her "Homes of England" also strike the note of national independence. Likewise, a colonial poet named Adam Lindsay Gordon remade lines of Browning even while plagiarizing them. In a "critical rewriting" of "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," Rudy shows, Gordon turned it into something "grittier and more in keeping with the harsh Australian outback" (73).

Turning next to dialect and song among Scottish immigrants to the colonies, Rudy examines "Native Poetry" and the ambiguities of the second generation. Scots poetry and song, he argues, served to bind diverse immigrants together around "Scotland"-- one of the imagined homelands. Besides scrutinizing the Cape Colony in the 1820s, when Thomas Pringle of Edinburgh displayed his literary talents there, Rudy also shows how Scots dialect poets emerged in provinces of New Zealand and Canada.

Rudy sometimes strains to avoid saying the obvious about the self-branding of Scottish diaspora poets, and he mis-states a couple of points about pronunciation. Regarding a scene in Pringle's Narrative of a Residence in South Africa (1834), he claims that Pringle would have spoken "a version of Lowland Scots" rather than the "Broad Scotch dialect" (81). But I don't believe there is a difference. As for the Burns-like modulations between Scots and standard written English in the poetry of John Barr, a New Zealander, Rudy says he shifts to "Received Pronunciation" (94). But besides the fact that this phrase was not coined until 1926, how do we know he's shifting? Without spelling phonetically, how does Barr indicate, for example, that "My curse upon them, root and branch" is meant to sound like a middle-class person from one of the home counties?

I found Rudy more innovative, however, in analyzing the element of indigeneity in the poetry of second- or third-generation settlers "who liked to call themselves 'native'" (16), a term we would now reserve for the Aboriginal inhabitants. In chapter 4, Rudy argues that the "communal experiences" shaped by this poetry were often aligned with "the mechanisms of empire that enabled the murder and displacement of Indigenous peoples throughout British colonial spaces" (190). Some "native" poets were aware of this. In particular, Rudy writes, the poetry of Henry Kendall (1839-1882) includes "sensitive meditations on Australia's indigenous peoples" (144), and evokes the spooky places of Indigenous disappearances. As the product of a third generation Australian, Kendall's poetry exemplifies an "isolated, first-person lyricism" (119) that Rudy contrasts with a more communitarian (and triumphal) mode dictated by colonialism itself. Using Kendall's "The Wail in the Native Oak" as a touchstone for examining a number of other poets, he ends the chapter with the New Zealand poet Dora Wilcox (1873-1941), whose poems, he says, "exhibit a similar tension between belonging and discomfort" (130).

Chapter 5 then turns to the poetry of colonial laureates. "To the extent that British colonies invested in cultural replication," Rudy writes, "colonial laureates were their necessary accomplices" (134), for their laureate-like verse taught the settlers to feel at home. These poets include Michael Massey Robinson, appointed laureate by the governor of Australia in 1810; Fidelia Hill, who published the first volume of poetry by an Australian woman in 1840; and the Canadian Charles Sangster. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the one colonial laureate who can generally be found in conventional literary histories of Victorian poetry: Richard Henry (Hengist) Horne, "the farthing poet."

According to Rudy's large claim, "[t]he work of these pioneers, these colonial laureates, was foundational to the culture of Anglo settler colonialism: the transportation and revision of cultural institutions from home to abroad" (17). While this may acknowledge too much the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, Rudy demonstrates that poetry was ever present as the foundations of colonial cultures were laid. Though Horne's laureate work exemplifies, Rudy admits, "what many subsequent readers have found most distasteful in colonial poetry" (144), Rudy salutes Horne's motives: he clumsily attempts to turn himself into Melbourne's official bard, says Rudy, because he senses that something real is at stake. More interesting, though, is Sangster, whose work "challenges historical models of absolute cultural replication" (161) in the service of an evolving national identity.

It is perhaps inevitable that the last imagined homeland is the fantasia of the "Anglo-Saxon" race: a fantasy that unified segments of culture and society in both the British colonies and the United States at the end of the century. Ranging from Sharon Turner's The History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799) to the second Boer War, which involved colonists (and poets) from across the empire, Rudy examines works such as Douglas Sladen's 1888 anthology, Australian Ballads and Rhymes. Paradoxically, Rudy notes, "racism simultaneously fueled both nationalism and attachment to Greater Britain" (169). Rejecting Kendall's melancholy, alienated meditations on Australian natives, Sladen's introduction to his anthology calls for writers "more robust and dashing in their genius" (qtd. 171). The call was answered by Andrew Barton "Banjo" Patterson and Henry Lawson, whose work is said to show how the "ideals of community and genre" tracked through Rudy's earlier chapters "evolved into racial ideals across Britain's colonies at the turn of the twentieth century" (176)--as also seen in the poetry of "Young Canada."

The genres used by the poets discussed in this book entail belonging: they voice not the Romantic cry of the autonomous or alienated individual but a heteronomous determination of "home." Each of Rudy's six frameworks (shipboard poetry, reprints and adaptations, dialect, "native," laureate poetry, and jingoistic poetry) give scholars a new way of peering out of our portholes as we leave the proper "Victorian" canon behind. Taken all together, they shed fresh light on the function of poetry in the settler portions of the British empire.

David Latané is Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.


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