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  • The Orient and the Young Romantics by Andrew Warren
  • Jennifer L. Hargrave
The Orient and the Young Romantics. By Andrew Warren. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 286. Cloth, $99.00.

Scholarship on Orientalism in the Romantic era often fixates on British nationalism's importance to Britain's imperialist endeavors. Yet the word "British" appears a mere eighteen times in Warren's monograph. While nationalistic themes haunt his analyses, Warren refreshingly turns toward Orientalism's entanglement with eighteenth-century solipsism. He posits that second-generation Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—understood Orientalism as a solipsistic enterprise. Warren traces the Young Romantics' attempts to undermine Western imperialism through self-consciously ironic poetry. This poetry reveals how Orientalism's solipsistic perspective is itself a form of despotism, ironically the very power for which Orientalists faulted Oriental governments. For the Young Romantics, the Orient "provides a setting in which to explore and critique the epistemological, existential, and above all political limits of their own solipsistic imaginations" (p. 3). In other words, Byron, Shelley, and Keats used their poetry to challenge dominant imperial ideology while simultaneously acknowledging their "positional blind spots" as British poets ensnared in Western ideology (p. 16). In short, Warren understands the Young Romantics as engaged in proto-postcolonial critique.

Although Warren focuses primarily on the second-generation Romantics, he also delineates the eighteenth-century genealogy from which these poets emerged. In two short inter-chapters, Warren reads the philosophical works of Montesquieu and Rousseau as underpinning the Young Romantics' understanding of Orientalism. Montesquieu's figure of the Oriental Despot and Rousseau's concept of l'étranger represent the Orientalist inheritance with which the Young Romantics grappled. Yet the Young Romantics' most sustained intellectual exchanges were with their immediate predecessors, the first-generation Romantics. Warren only briefly analyzes the Oriental aspects found in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry, and instead chooses Southey as his representative of High Romanticism. Chapter 1 identifies Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) [End Page 157] as an Orientalist epic that strives to represent and critique the Orient without fully succumbing to Oriental style. Southey attempts to depict the Orient as a unified whole but not "the self-contained totality of Islam's 'mythological imagination,' but rather a constant and uneasy process of distantiation, denegation, and cultural translation which posits a possible totality" distinct from the West (p. 57). Southey unintentionally fails by revealing the false disjunction between Europe and the Orient. It is upon this unstable ground that the Young Romantics locate their critiques of extant Orientalism.

The real strength of Warren's work lies in his readings of second-generation Romantic poetry, each of which demonstrates the poet's negotiation of the "porous border between self and other, autonomy and influence, action and reflection" that Orientalism sought to reinforce (p. 22). In Chapter 2, Warren reveals Byron's critique of Orientalism in Lara (1814), a text often identified as Oriental despite its Spanish setting. It is precisely Orientalism's haunting of the Spanish locale that reveals the false border between East and West that Byron's poem makes evident. Lara establishes the "philosophical, ethical and socio-political matrix" upon which Shelley formulates his critique of Orientalism in Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude (1816) and Epipsychidion (1821), the subjects of Warren's third chapter (p. 123). Chapter 3, the first of two on Shelley, focuses on how the poet believes Orientalism might be challenged through "sustained … ethical care" (p. 151). In particular, Shelley uses the adjectival "human" to demonstrate how a revaluation of human sympathy could undermine Orientalism, which is inherently solipsistic. Chapter 4 moves from Shelley's ethical to political arguments against Orientalism. Within Shelley's The Revolt of Islam (1818), Warren perceives not only a continued attempt to deconstruct an East/West dichotomy, but also a new accusation that the British political imaginary relied upon the very "discourse of the solipsistic Oriental Despot" that Orientalism sought to critique (p. 186). Shelley's poem demonstrates that "despotism is not so much Oriental as Orientalism is despotic" (p. 133). For this reader, the most intriguing of Warren's chapters is the final one dedicated to Keats's poetics. Warren contends...


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