Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Robert Southey and the Romantic Failure of China

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Robert Southey and the Romantic Failure of China

Article excerpt

In his seminal Oriental poem of 1801, Thalaba the Destroyer, Robert Southey teasingly alludes to the topos of China. In Book 6, Southey describes how Thalaba sleeps after journeying at night to a dark valley. On waking, he is confronted with "a scene of wonders" as a thousand streams wander across the plain into the "blue ethereal ocean," creating isles of colourful mosses and lichens and spectacular gushing fountains:

  This was a wild and wondrous scene,
  Strange and beautiful, as where
  By Oton-tala, like a sea of stars,
  The hundred sources of Hoangho burst.
  (Southey 2004, 3: 94)

Southey here refers to Whang-ho (Huang He) or the Yellow River. His notes to these lines direct the reader to two sources. The first is "A Description of Tibet" collected in the fourth volume of 'Thomas Astley's New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (1745-47), from which we learn that "in the place where the Whang ho rises, there are more than an hundred springs which sparkle like stars, whence it is called Hotun Nor, the Sea of Stars." This remark is attributed to the Jesuit, Antoine Gaubil. The second source is Thomas Percy's remarkable 1761 edition of the first Chinese novel ever to be translated into English or any other European language for that matter, the seventeenth-century Ming work, the Hao Ch'iu Chuan or The Story of an Ideal Marriage (Hau Kiou Choann or The Pleasing History in Percy's version). Percy supplies a note describing how the "Whang ho, or as the Portugueze call it Hoam-ho, i.e. the yellow River rises not far from the source of the Ganges in the Tartarian mountains west of China." He points out that the river receives its name from the "yellow" mud which stains the waters and composes a third part of its volume: "the Chinese say its waters cannot become clear in a thousand years; whence it is a common proverb among them for any thing which is never likely to happen," a proverb actually used in the novel (Southey 2004, 3: 252; Percy 1761, 2: 214-55).

Southey's tentative engagement with the literature of China, through Percy's edition of the Hau kio Choann, might be regarded as metonymic of the Romantic-period response to the Qing Empire of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was clearly fascinated by the Chinese empire and he absorbed much of Percy's translation, yet his interest in and knowledge of China was not itself translated into a work of the Romantic imagination. In a letter to John Rickman of October 1808, Southey remembered the novel well enough to use it in a discussion of one of his bete noires, the practice of polygamy by non-European peoples. Southey argued that polygamy was in some way responsible for the perceived stagnation of 18th century China. Contra Southey, Rickman argued that China "goes on pretty well" despite its well-known practicing of polygamy and that it was the "want of an alphabet" that really accounted for what he stereotypically describes as "the frozen limits of Chinese science." China's successes, meanwhile, Southey ascribed to its remaining an "undivided empire" due to the "unique circumstance of its haying a literary aristocracy, all subordinate authority being in the bands of men whose education and whose habits of life make them averse to war. Robbers are the only rebels there; the demoralizing effects of the system are the same there as elsewhere. Shuey-ping-sin exemplifies that" (Southey 1849-50, 3: 191-92). "Shuey-ping-sin" (Ping-hsin) is the heroine of the Pleasing History though the novel actually centres on the issue of arranged marriage rather than polygamy, which is not heavily featured, though briefly mentioned in Percy's notes (1761, 4: 143-44).

Southey read a great deal more about China than what was discoverable in Percy and in Astley's collection of voyages. While still at Westminster school, he encountered the seven-volume English translation (1733-39) of Jean Frederic Bernard's Ceremonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723-43), lavishly illustrated by the engraver Bernard Picart. …

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