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  • Toward a Transcontinental (or InterEurasian) Canon
  • Chris Foss
Mary Ellis Gibson . Indian Angles: English Verse in Colonial India from Jones to Tagore. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011. xv + 334 pp. $39.95
Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913: A Critical Anthology. Mary Ellis Gibson, ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011. xv + 397 pp. $42.95

This wonderful set of companion texts from Mary Ellis Gibson represents a substantial contribution to our understanding of English language poetry in India during the long nineteenth century and, more broadly, to our understanding of both British and South Asian literature as well. There is much to be admired here (starting with the handsome covers), but above all it is the engaging content of both volumes that arrests one's attention. Gibson has not only enriched our knowledge of truly important voices but also opened new opportunities for further work in this crucial (if still underdeveloped) area of literary study.

Indian Angles won me over immediately with its introduction's beautifully written opening anecdote (not to mention its clever title). Even so, I continued to be impressed with the quality of the writing throughout. In particular, Gibson does a tremendous job providing helpful introductions, effective transitions, and clear summaries for all of her chapters and their individual sections, which should ensure readers will not lose their way as she leads them through what for many will be almost entirely new material.

Gibson's underlying premise is that "the canon of English language poetry in India cannot be fully understood through a retrospective nationalist reading." For her, since "all poets writing in English in India worked necessarily in a web of affiliation and rupture, identifications [End Page 528] and disidentifications," it is absolutely essential we "bring back into conversation all those who were, in fact, parties to literary exchanges in this period." To achieve this, she sets out not merely to recover many of the "totally forgotten poets we might now understand as 'British'" but further to read them in dialogue with "poets we now understand as 'Indian.'" Thus, all of her chapters aim to put the poems of writers from different backgrounds in conversation with one another, "attending to their recalcitrances and contradictions" so as to "bring these contradictions to bear on our taken-for-granted binaries (colonizer/colonized, colony/metropole, British/Indian)."

With such an emphasis, Gibson makes a strong case for her expanded canon and offers a welcome defense of poetry at the same time. She reminds her readers that poems were the dominant mode of belletristic expression in India well beyond the midcentury mark—indeed, never ceased to be an important form on into modernism—yet these texts remain "understudied and largely untheorized in colonial and postcolonial scholarship." In exploring the "intersection of British, classical and vernacular European, and classical and vernacular Indian canons," Gibson demonstrates how the poems that grew out of this "heteroglot and often ambilingual scene of writing" expose "empire as a heterogeneous space."

Her first chapter, on contact poetics in eighteenth-century Calcutta, realizes her goal of "lay[ing] a foundation for understanding the complex intertextual relationships between English language poetry written in India and the reception of Indic studies in Britain and Europe," primarily through its particularly strong sections on Sir William Jones. The second chapter is also well done, probing gendered and ethnic identities in the "culture of dispute" that grew up around "the meeting point of British poetics and the culture of Bengal in the 1820s and 1830s" via readings of Henry Derozio and Emma Roberts. Gibson looks at each poet separately at first, the former through the lens of bardic nationalism and the latter through that of landscape art, but then very adeptly brings them both together in a final section on sati.

Gibson's third chapter is, for me, the weakest part of the book. On the one hand, it provides indispensable background information regarding poetry's role in the world of letters, the periodical press, the educational system, and the booksellers and lending libraries in India during the first half of the nineteenth century. On the other, it is the only chapter that falls short in providing the sort of intertextual...


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pp. 528-532
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