Tuesday, March 19, 2013

“Thou by the Indian Ganges’ Side”: The Eastern river in Early English Lyric


Here's the abstract for my seminar paper for this year's SAA in Toronto:
“Thou by the Indian Ganges’ Side”: The Eastern river in Early English Lyric
Considerable critical attention has been devoted over the years to the subject of domestic rivers in early modern English culture.(1) River banks have always been a staple pastoral locale, but by the seventeenth-century, English rivers became the basis of a small genre of panegyric poetry and the structural basis for chorographical works, most famously Drayton’s Poly-Olbion. In his recent essay “Fluvial Nation,” Andrew McrAae argues that rivers were a uniquely English subject and that their appearance in poetry reflects an attempt to incorporate the concept of mobility within the discourse of nationalism.(2)  Much less attention has been devoted to the presence of foreign rivers in English poetry, although the great eastern rivers, the Nile, the Indus, and especially the Ganges, make an appearance in nearly every major river poem. In fact, English poets consistently place domestic rivers in the context of the most famous foreign rivers. Drawing on a variety of extra-literary sources and on selected passages from the lyric, I argue that the literary conventions governing eastern rivers are remarkably similar to developing early modern English attitudes toward their own rivers. First, the traditional role of the eastern river as geographical boundary or marker became one basis for the notion that local rivers could convey regional or national identity. Second, the legendary wealth associated with eastern rivers was realized in England’s mercantile adventures on the one hand and in the increasing attention to property interests in domestic rivers on the other. Finally, the exotic and fabulous alterity always connected with foreign rivers allowed English rivers to become a pastoral and lyrical space.  Thus the appearance of the great eastern rivers in English verse anticipates and partially determines the role of the domestic river.

(1) See for example, Wyman H. Herendeen From Landscape to Literature: The River and the Myth of Geography (Pittsburgh, PA:  Duquesne UP, 1986), or Maggie Kilgour. “Writing on Water.” English Literary Renaissance 29.3 (1999): 282–305.

(2) Mcrae, Andrew. “Fluvial Nation: Rivers, Mobility and Poetry in Early Modern England.” English Literary Renaissance 38.3 (2008): 506–534.