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  • Spelling the Orient
  • Yin Yuan (bio)

The Light of the Haram" in Lalla Rookh features a scene of plant "cull[ing]" that reflects British imperial botany.1 A lovers'tiff between the Mughal emperor and his queen ends after Namouna weaves for her queen an enchanted wreath. Moore describes this [End Page 194] botanical labor in a catalogue that includes plants from Sumatra, Persia, the Malay Peninsula, and India, regions within Britain's botanical network.2 While Britain's state-sponsored enterprise entailed the violent acquisition and transplantation of exotic plants, Moore's horticultural scene emanates bliss.3 Namouna simply has to "h[a]ng above those fragrant treasures" for them to "shed" perfume that "fed / Her charmed life" (MPW, VII, 31–32). Rarefied language obfuscates empire's cannibalistic logic; diction and syntax underscore floral selfgiving to legitimize Britain as recipient of material blessings.

An "Oriental romance" celebrated for its sensuous rendering of the East, Lalla Rookh is anchored by the exotic matter it represents. Amidst burgeoning exotic consumerism, Britain's archive of Eastern things provided Orientalists with the material ground necessary for an immersive literary experience.4 This alliance between culture and matter structures William Jones's Botanical Observations on Select Indian Plants, which Moore cites in his floral catalogue. Jones concretizes Britain's fantasy of an Oriental bower by attaching it to the material sites of plant life. That materiality, interpreted through Hindu mythology, becomes the authenticating mark of cultural difference contained through Linnaean taxonomy.

Moore exploits this materiality to authenticate his Oriental romance. Yet, by highlighting the talismanic and transient nature of Namouna's "enchanted Wreath of Dreams" (MPW, VII, 29), he self-consciously [End Page 195] exposes this imperialist fantasy. Four times, Namouna cautions that "To-morrow the dreams and flowers will fade" (MPW, VII, 32–34). Beyond a commentary on unstable commodity flows, which do not always accrue to Britain's benefit, Moore's larger point is that the selfgiving Oriental bower is a discursive effect. Conjured by Moore's Orientalist "spell" (MPW, VII, 32), the tale has no substantive claim on the material East.

Moore's self-consciousness derives from his sense of the slippage between words and things. Exotic consumerism, which stoked the dream of a material Orient, highlighted the emptiness of the Orientalist discourse that traditionally produced that space for consumption, and, conversely, its generative power in making something out of nothing. In spelling out imperial logic, Moore underscores the imbrication between material and symbolic economies, highlighting the literariness of empire and the coloniality of literature.

Romanticists have interrogated how British subjectivity depends upon the narration of cultural otherness, but the element of selfreflexivity remains under-acknowledged.5 The increasing circulation of material bodies and things put unprecedented pressure on Romantic constructions of difference. In adapting to novel material economies, these constructions were exploratory; their instability carries seeds of subversion and dramatizes language's potential to be wielded for different ends. In the next decade, we should consider how the interplay between literary and material economies complicate normative expressions of power. Especially as Black Lives Matter protests have reinvigorated conversations about the rhetorical construction and political weaponizing of racial categories, we need to trace the processes of such constructions to their formative moments in order to imagine alternatives. [End Page 196]

Yin Yuan

Yin Yuan is an assistant professor of English at Saint Mary's College of California, where she works on eighteenth and nineteenthcentury British Orientalism.


1. Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh, The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore, Collected by Himself, 10 vols. (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1841), VII, 29. Hereafter, MPW.

2. Moore documents these geographical spaces in his own accompanying glossary (MPW, VII, 29–31).

3. In many cases, foreign plant matter provided literal food for empire, used to feed slaves who drove the transatlantic economy, or as "solutions" for famines created by colonial ventures. See Timothy Fulford, "The Taste of Paradise: The Fruits of Romanticism in the Empire," in Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism, ed. Timothy Morton (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 41–58; and Zaheer Baber, "The Plants of Empire: Botanic Gardens, Colonial Power and Botanical Knowledge," Journal of...


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