Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies, by Jason R. Rudy

Elleke Boehmer on a refreshing argument that verse allowed its makers and readers in the empire to adjust to new settings while maintaining ties with Britain

March 8, 2018
Thomas Pringle
Source: Alamy
Thomas Pringle

Poetry as news. Ballads as entertainment. Stanzas as cultural anchors. Genres as affective capsules. In the 19th century, as Jason R. Rudy writes in his lucid, even-handed book ­Imagined Homelands, poetry – specifically genres such as sentimental verse – became for colonial societies a crucial mode of engagement with the work of settlement as well as, more rarely, a mode of critique.

Drawing on extensive archival work on four continents, Rudy’s vibrant investigative study moves deftly among the colonial poetries of Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, with particular emphasis on the first two, and finds fascinating examples of direct copying, echoic referencing and inventive reconstruction of British verse techniques in such diverse media as shipboard newspapers, colonial anthologies, exhibition performances and individual collections. He adapts Yopie Prins’ interpretative method of “historical poetics” to offer his own contextually informed readings of some of the leading poets and versifiers who imagined new forms of belonging in these far-flung yet interconnected places, including Alexander McLachlan, Eliza Dunlop, Thomas Pringle, Henry Kendall and Fidelia Hill.

If poetry was, like law and religion, caught up in the vast “cloning system” of settlerism, in James Belich’s now-canonical phrase, or “Anglobalization”, in Niall Ferguson’s, Rudy’s key contribution is to point out the degree to which this heuristic practice was inventive and even indigenising. Poetry was crucial in orienting settlers in their new environments and providing what Leela Gandhi calls affective community. However, unlike the law, poetry has mostly received bad press for this seemingly unoriginal mimicry. Rudy’s refreshing account of genre as an “instrument of cultural coherence” will significantly change this. As he explains, whether through direct plagiarism or creative rewriting, poetry allowed its makers and readers to adjust to their strange new contexts while at the same time maintaining nostalgic and other affective bonds with Britain. It provided an emotional see-saw between these different worlds.

In recent years, a new historical subgenre has emerged between the areas of global book history, post-colonial studies and imperial discourse study – a genre of cultural history concerned with the means and materials of imperial circulation. Rudy’s ambitious book is an important contribution to this field, joining forces with Antoinette Burton, Isabel Hofmeyr and Tricia Lootens, among others, and with recent essay collections such as Global Histories of Books and Fighting Words. With its comparative range and sensitivity to echo and influence traced across transcontinental distances, Rudy sets a high bar for others to follow.

At certain points, however, such as when he reads Dunlop or Pringle within the context of the newspapers where they were published, he might have considered in more sociological depth the shaping effect of institutions and media technologies on this work. One also wonders to what extent a study of the Anglo-Saxon poetic community might ultimately entrench, however inadvertently, a sense of its exclusivity. Some attention to the hybridising influences of proximate Irish, Afrikaner and Quebecois cultures might have complicated the poetic map of Greater Britain in useful ways. For now, however, Rudy has given us a convincing study not only of how and why certain texts circulate within global cultures, but also how those cultures are kept interconnected by means of that very circulation.

Elleke Boehmer is professor of world literature in English at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Postcolonial Poetics: 21st-Century Readings, due to be published later this year.

Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies
By Jason R. Rudy
Johns Hopkins University Press, 264pp, £37.00
ISBN 9781421423920
Published 5 January 2018

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