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Sounding Imperial

Poetic Voice and the Politics of Empire, 1730–1820

James Mulholland

Publication Year: 2013

In Sounding Imperial, James Mulholland offers a new assessment of the origins, evolution, and importance of poetic voice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By examining a series of literary experiments in which authors imitated oral voices and impersonated foreign speakers, Mulholland uncovers an innovative global aesthetics of poetic voice that arose as authors invented new ways of crafting textual voices and appealing to readers. As poets drew on cultural forms from around Great Britain and across the globe, impersonating “primitive” speakers and reviving ancient oral performances (or fictionalizing them in verse), they invigorated English poetry. Mulholland situates these experiments with oral voices and foreign speakers within the wider context of British nationalism at home and colonial expansion overseas. Sounding Imperial traces this global aesthetic by reading texts from canonical authors like Thomas Gray, James Macpherson, and Felicia Hemans together with lesser-known writers, like Welsh antiquarians, Anglo-Indian poets of colonialism, and impersonators of Pacific islanders. The frenetic borrowing, movement, and adaptation of verse of this time offers a powerful analytic by which scholars can understand anew poetry’s role in the formation of national culture and the exercise of colonial power. Sounding Imperial offers a more nuanced sense of poetry’s unseen role in larger historical processes, emphasizing not just appropriation or collusion but the murky middle range in which most British authors operated during their colonial encounters and the voices that they used to make those cross-cultural encounters seem vivid and alive.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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Introduction: The Global Aesthetics of Poetic Voice

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pp. 1-32

“Poetry,” the French philosopher Denis Diderot argues, “must have something in it that is barbaric, vast, and wild.”1 His counterparts in Great Britain found such barbaric wildness in oral traditions near and far. Coming from seemingly primitive speakers whose passionate voices were thought to be natural and authentic, folk traditions felt enlivening and even slightly dangerous. Ancient bards...

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1. Thomas Gray, Virtual Authorship, and the Performed Voice

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pp. 33-66

In the middle of a transition toward a fully developed literary marketplace from early modern notions of patronage and coterie circulation, eighteenth- century authors transformed and renegotiated their role in society. While the eighteenth century was not the first historical period to grapple with the effects of print on models of authorship— printing presses had existed in England since 1476— it...

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2. Wales, Public Poetry, and the Politics of Collective Voice

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pp. 67-92

In 1822, hundreds of participants gathered in London for an eisteddfod, the traditional Welsh music festival that had been restarted during the eighteenth century after long neglect.1 The 1822 festival, held in a tavern called Freemason’s Hall, had poetic recitations, competitions among musicians, and medals awarded for the best poems and essays. Participants could listen to Welsh national...

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3. Scotland and the Invention of Voice

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pp. 93-119

Perhaps the most controversial English language text of the eighteenth century was James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language (1760). Replete with warriors and ghosts, desolate landscapes and chivalrous romance, these fragments of poetry were considered by some to be an invaluable cultural artifact...

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4. Impersonating Native Voices in Anglo-Indian Poetry

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pp. 120-155

In addition to hiring tax collectors, surveyors, and merchants, the East India Company— that “great Machine!” of sprawling commerce, as one admirer described it— also employed imaginative authors and scholars, to advance British interests.1 If the conquest of India was a “conquest of knowledge,” as Bernard Cohn suggests, then writers and scholars were as important to it as generals...

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Coda: Reading the Archive of the Inauthentic

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pp. 156-166

Oral traditions and foreign voices from the edges of the British Empire revitalized eighteenth- century English literature as poets experimented with various ways to represent these traditions and voices on the printed page. The techniques they developed were a response to the period’s shifting relationship to cultural media: the positive revaluation of folk traditions as heroic, not vulgar...


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pp. 167-192


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pp. 193-210


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pp. 211-217

E-ISBN-13: 9781421408552
E-ISBN-10: 1421408554
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421408545
Print-ISBN-10: 1421408546

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 17 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 859687818
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sounding Imperial

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • English poetry -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • Political poetry -- History and criticism.
  • English poetry -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • English poetry -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Politics and literature -- History -- 18th century.
  • Politics and literature -- History -- 19th century.
  • García Márquez, Gabriel, ǂd1928- ǂxCriticism and interpretation.
  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
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