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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Carrying Over: Poetry as Translation in Early Romantic Poetics

  • Author(s): Ahmed, Adam Nagi
  • Advisor(s): Goodman, Kevis
  • et al.

Carrying Over reconsiders the widely held Romantic-era belief in poetry as a universal form by arguing for the centrality of linguistic and cultural translation within early Romantic poetics. It traces Romantic encounters with Eastern genres alongside an emerging imperial sense of the world in eighteenth-century British systems of knowledge, including philology, pedagogy, and biblical criticism. Expanding recent postcolonial accounts of world literature’s colonial origins, I show how Romantic works responded to a mounting scholarly effort to codify literature within England and its colonial peripheries. While Orientalist philologists like William Jones claimed to demonstrate “what true poetry ought to be” through their translations of Oriental works into familiar genres like the lyric and the romance, Romantic adaptations of non-Western forms (such as the Arabian Nights tale and the proverb) suggested what poetry could be once detached from these dominant modes. Indeed, I claim that these engagements with Oriental forms transfer, or “carry over,” problems of translation into issues of interpretation—moments of unintelligibility in which the poem appears as an agent of translation rather than its object. In doing so, these poets revise the world-literary assumption that locates poetry in European modes of expression, suggesting instead that poetry’s displaced origin precedes and lies outside of national forms.

After an introduction that explores the early Romantic revision of translatio studii, the first chapter considers Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fascination with the Arabian Nights against the backdrop of eighteenth-century empiricist pedagogical literature by John Locke, Anna Barbauld, and Maria Edgeworth. I show how the opaque and supernatural tales of the Nights precipitated a shift in early Romantic reading practice—from reading as a self-possessed act to a recursive and involuntary process—and offered a model for the enigmatic form of The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. In chapter two, I read William Blake’s use of proverb form in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell alongside an empiricist insistence on knowledge’s demonstrability, as articulated through eighteenth-century biblical criticism and colonial pedagogy. I argue that Blake’s resuscitation of the proverb form in the “Proverbs of Hell” posits a mode of unfinished knowledge, in which incompletion is converted from a mark of error into a sign of knowledge’s deferred but eventual recognition. My third chapter looks at the dream of the Arab in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, a vision of an itinerant Arab-knight saving poetry from destruction, to trace how this split figure embodies and unsettles the eighteenth-century belief in the primitive origin of poetry. I claim that the Arab-knight shows how poetry’s inheritance depends on its translation—its literal movement across linguistic and cultural boundaries. The dissertation concludes with a coda that explores the relationship between cultural translation and poetics in Walter Benjamin’s and Édouard Glissant’s different writings on translation.

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