- East, West, and the Afterlife of British Romanticism in East Asia
Every so often, we meet a moment when Romantic studies becomes something more than an academic discipline. Mine came during graduate school when one of my elderly relatives asked me what I was doing in school for so long. Ignoring the undertone of carping criticism I answered, "Studying British Romantic literature," only to witness, to my great surprise, the seventy-something Korean corporate veteran recite from memory William Wordsworth's "My heart leaps up" in English. This moment has given me something to chew on ever since, enlightening me to the fact that the knowledge and appreciation of English literature runs deep in the East Asian collective consciousness.
Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, along with Shakespeare, Whitman, Yeats and the like, represented the new literary canon that was to replace the outdated Chinese classics at the turn of the twentieth century as East Asian nations caved under the pressure to modernize. English literature had a formative influence on East Asia's institutionalization of modern literature, and the literary scholarship and readership of the modern East still bear the brunt of this sea-change brought by the advent of the West. For a possible answer as to why British Romantic literature caught the attention of so many Asian readers and writers, I turn to John Guillory's Bourdieusian outlook on eighteenth-century England's literary canon formation. Guillory explains that the high culture of Western classics gave way to an English vernacular canon with the bourgeois uprising, locating the site of this culture war in Thomas Gray and Wordsworth.1 Romantic questions of modernizing literary language, aesthetic perception, and national culture must have hit home for those on the other side of the globe struggling to modernize by following the Western model. [End Page 112]
Recent scholarship on East Asia's reception of British Romanticism covers a wide range of historical connections and intertextual engagements found in literary and critical works from late nineteenthand early twentieth-century China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.2 Such active reception, I would further note, was taxed with instances of the Eastern consciousness resisting, fretting over, and reluctantly coming to terms with the otherness of the West. First encounters with the West had brought out fundamental differences in worldview and mode of representation. Romanticism appeared to be a Western construct to the Eastern eye, and the Romantic ideology was no longer just a problem of transcendental escapism or aestheticism but a mark of Western difference. In this context, British Romanticism becomes a valuable site for exploring the mutual gaze between East and West. We know Orientalism suffused British Romanticism; now it is time to complete the story by recognizing the East's production of knowledge and Occidentalist desires. Reframing Romantic studies with the East-West question will force us to define what that question is. Is it colonial? Racial? Cultural? Civilizational? It will also force us to look deeper into the nebulous connections in world literature made by our global history. One approach to the Bigger Six Romanticism may be to probe the afterlives of the Big Six outside their time and place.
Suh-Reen Han is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Seoul National University.
1. John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
2. See Suh-Reen Han, ed. "English Romanticism in East Asia," Romantic Circles Praxis Series, (December 2016); British Romanticism in Asia: The Reception, Translation, and Transformation of Romantic Literature in India and East Asia, ed. Alex Watson and Laurence Williams (Singapore: Palgrave, 2019); Romantic Legacies: Transnational and Transdisciplinary Contexts, ed. Shun-liang Chao and John Michael Corrigan (New York: Routledge, 2019).