British Conquistadors and Aztec Priests: The Horror of Southey's Madoc

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To European imaginations in the early nineteenth century, the world was larger than ever before. What Raymond Schwab described as an Oriental Renaissance, an eager European exploration of world cultures in the late eighteenth century, continued the Renaissance of earlier centuries by making the world appear more immense, complex, and ancient than ever before. Translations of Persian love songs and Hindu hymns gave European readers a sense of sympathetic connection with cultures outside the domain of Biblical and Classical traditions, and helped to create a popular taste for scenes of India and the Far East on stage and in poetry. Not only did such Oriental scholars as Sir William Jones publish popular translations, but they also investigated relations between Classical Greek, Arabic, and Indian mythic symbols and concepts of divinity. Contributing to the syncretic idealism of Orient scholarship, Jacob Bryant's A New System; or, an Analysis of Antient Mythology (1774-76) conjectured enthusiastically about specific correspondences between Eastern and Western literary traditions, as well as the origins of the Celts and the Saxons before the Roman conquest of Britain. (1) Eighteenth-century Oriental scholarship reflects not only a determination to find commonalities between world civilizations, but also an interest in proving the eminence of Europeans over a hierarchy of more or less advanced cultures. Growing up during the heyday of this movement, scholar-poets such as Robert Southey considered the wide range of world religions, pondering what they saw as a combination of profound truth and poisonous superstition in the universal development of spiritual belief systems.

Often these scholarly interests in finding commonality, on the one hand, and in proving eminence, on the other, produced an imbalance in early nineteenth-century travel narratives, histories, fiction, and poetry addressing cultural confrontation. That imbalance is worthy of serious study today, as we experience continued confusion over the impact of "first world" upon "third world" cultures. Perhaps nowhere is that imbalance more striking than in Southey's epic poetry, which continues to disturb his twentieth and twenty-first century readers as much as it once did his contemporaries. However thoroughly researched Southey's epics may be, they focus distressingly on the violence and ritual bloodshed of New and Old World cultures, and certainly Madoc, like the later Tale of Paraguay, seems overtly to justify British imperialism. We are understandably troubled by narratives caricaturing non-Western cultures and apparently valorizing conquest, since as Marlow shrewdly observes in Heart of Darkness, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." (2) Nevertheless I contend that the disturbing aspects of conquest in Southey's poems are well worth "looking into."

Southey's Madoc, his early epic which engages most directly with European imperialism, deserves careful consideration for what I will call its "hybrid horror." My assessment of this poem's hybrid horror builds upon Homi Bhabha's explanation of hybridity as an alienated response to the grounds of imperial authority, a response which reproduces the voice of imperial justification in a way that estranges it, placing it in a new cultural framework that destabilizes its initial significance. Bhabha describes hybridization as an unexpected outcome of imperialists' and missionaries' attempts to differentiate cultures. Instead of accepting their differences as defined by imperial authorities, native subjects invent new identities as hybrids, becoming an "in-between" that features characteristics of each group, characteristics that cannot be reconciled with a transcendent unity envisioned by any one party involved in a struggle for dominance. …