College Literature 30.4 (2003) 180-183
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Haddad, Emily A. 2002. Orientalist Poetics: The Islamic Middle East in Nineteenth-Century English and French Poetry. The Nineteenth Century Series. Aldershot: Ashgate. $69.95 hc. 220 pp.
Emily A. Haddad's study of the influence of orientalism on European poetics is a timely reminder of the long-standing tendency of the West to stereotype the Islamic Middle East. In this case, the stereotypes are seen to have what may be an unexpected effect: In Orientalist Poetics:The Islamic Middle East in Nineteenth-Century English and French Poetry, Haddad argues that orientalism was essential to English and French poetic developments through the nineteenth century. Perceived by European orientalists as entirely nonrepresentational, Islamic art was a stimulus to consideration of alternatives to a mimetic poetics. Furthermore, since it was inaccessible to empirical verification, the Orient as a subject was a site for destabilization of the convention of mimesis. Most significantly, the Islamic Middle East was seen by nineteenth-century European poets as "ontologically unnatural" (2002, 9) in environment, morality, and spirituality, thus serving as an ideal subject for poetry whose makers were exploring the role of nature as poetry's one best subject and its point of origin. In short, as model and source, the Orient and orientalism provided the opportunity for poetic experimentation which culminated in a revolutionary aesthetics: "Nineteenth-century poetics' evolution [End Page 180] towards a stance of art for art's sake owes both its origin and its progression in large part to . . . the Orient's supposedly inherent artfulness . . ." (10).
Haddad isn't interested in detailing a distinction between French and English orientalisms, though she comments on the value of countering the "totalizing, monolithic orientalism" of Edward Said (2002, 54). Instead, her study elucidates the role played by European orientalism in the debate over crucial questions of poetics: edification vs./and entertainment, (mis)representation, and the (un)natural subject of poetry. Organized into four chapters which are further subdivided into extremely short sections (two to seven pages each), her book traces the complicated route of the evolution of romanticism in the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, William Wordsworth, and others, and then the post-romantic poetics of, primarily, William Wordsworth, Théophile Gautier, Mathew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde. Plentiful footnotes position Haddad within the current critical scene and offer avenues for more in-depth research, and a cumulative rhetoric reminds the reader that patience may lead to greater rewards than will immediate gratification of the desire to identify a writer's argument.
Shelley's The Revolt of Islam and Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer are the grounds on which Haddad explores the convention of poetry's function as pedagogy through pleasure. Haddad points to Shelley's appropriation of the Romantics' Orient—ahistorical, exotic, and thus available for idealization—in order to instruct his readers in his vision of a bloodless revolution of love. She shows how The Revolt of Islam feeds on conventional associations of Islam with tyranny, slavery, and violence and their vehicles of religion and sexism, and how, with 1001 Nights as its model for structure and images, it masks Shelley's (denied) pedagogy in pleasure while also allowing him to reject a poetics of mimesis. Southey, on the other hand, by grounding his poetry in extensive research, could claim an instructive purpose as well as a representational style, but his use of imaginative excess and Arabesque ornament as integral to his poem's structure, his construction of foreignness as a hermeneutic category, and his reference to orientalist material as a resource undermine his poem's mimesis and complicate its position in the debate over poetic imitation and poetry's purpose.
More specifically in terms of representation, Haddad examines the "aesthetic compromise"(2002, 55) with neoclassicism reached by Hugo in Les Orientales and the parodic orientalism with which Musset responded to Hugo and challenged mimesis in "Namouna: conte oriental." Hugo offered orientalism as a poetic methodology, an intellectual mode of engagement, that asserted the...