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Why Toru Dutt matters: networking Victorian Poetry
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Who do we read when we read Victorian poetry in our classrooms, for our research and even (yes, even) in our leisure time? Perhaps you might think that the debate has been settled somewhat by the magisterial Victorian poetry print anthologies published by Broadview, Blackwell and Oxford University Press, among others. But what happens with a poet like Toru Dutt, who doesn’t really fit with any conventional history and paradigms of Victorian poetry? The only anthology I found her in, after a quick search of my bookshelves, is the Oxford University Press’s Nineteenth-Century Women Poets anthology, which includes two of her poems. Not that this omission is a black mark against the others, by any means, which do important work in the recovery and reconfiguration of the canon. The point is that Toru Dutt doesn’t really fit with our conceptions of the period that are at least partly represented by the act of anthologizing. I think we should care about this because Dutt, in the very way she is a misfit, teaches us about the limits of the period and genre categories that we work within. (I’m using the term “misfit” from Robert Miles’s Romantic Misfits).

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dutt because I will be speaking at the MLA11 in a special panel devoted to her, organized and chaired by Chris Foss of the University of Mary Washington. If you search for panels on Victorian poetry in the MLA website, this one does not appear (mind you, sadly not many do appear, but perhaps that’s for someone else to post about). Of course, there are some good reasons for this, but they seem all to do with her misfit status. As an Indo-Anglian poet, she’s not seen as belonging to the British Victorian poetry category, and yet historians of Indian nineteenth-century poetry often don’t know what to do with her either. She was a Bengali poet at a time when her native Calcutta was a deeply cosmopolitan place and Europhilia embraced. Dutt translated from French and from Sanksrit. She attended lectures for women at the University of Cambridge. She had things to say about women’s suffrage in Europe and India. She conceived herself as an Indian and European poet.

Tricia Lootens, whose highly insightful articles on Dutt are the most important recent criticism on her, claims she teaches us that late Victorian women’s poetry may be one of “alien homelands” (“Bengal, Britain, France”). Dutt’s self-conscious positioning of her poetics within post-Romantic concerns – especially post-Wordsworthian, but also post-Keatsian – makes her Anglophilia an overt choice, as Lootens argues, and thus a strategy of poetic empowerment not subjugation. But her awkward relationship to dominant accounts of Victorian poetics and traditional national boundaries suggests that Victorian poetry could be richer for encompassing poets beyond Britain, and, indeed, that Victorian poetry thought of itself as “beyond Britain“. Dutt’s misfit status teaches us that, in actual fact, we may have conceived a Victorian poetry that is anachronistic and drawn imaginary lines around poetry that overly circumscribe our field. Placing Toru Dutt squarely within the map of Victorian poetry may bring cries of colonial appropriation, but I think that’s overly simplistic. Victorian poetry is more elastic, more transnational, more “beyond Britain”,  (and as Lootens argues “beyond English itself” [ibid.]) than we have yet dreamed of. I’ve been thinking along the same lines in my work on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s circle of politicised women poets in Italy, a collection of American, English, Scottish, Anglo-Greek and Indo-Anglian writers who had a profound influence on the seminal Aurora Leigh, the novel-poem which is taken as the pivotal moment that shifts women’s poetics from the hyper-feminised lyric modality typified by the annuals to a more vigorous, political, active poetry. It turns out that this key Victorian text is inherently transnational in its influences and poetic debts, just a it charts the transformative possibilities of Ango-Italian nationhood in the eponymous heroine.

If we see Victorian poetry as a complex transnational field of British and Anglophone writers, and less as solely British Victorian poetry, then we have a newly re-invigorated debate. The concept of network is important to me here, and dear to the heart of VPN, because we think of our website as opening innovative possibilities of communication between scholars, students and readers of Victorian poetry, but we also think of Victorian poetry itself as an intrinsically networked field.

Here’s to a 2011 full of creative poetry networking of every kind!

Some essential reading on Toru Dutt:

Chandani Lokugé (ed.), Toru Dutt: Collected Prose and Poetry (OUP, 2006)

Tricia Lootens, “Alien Homelands: Rudyard Kipling, Toru Dutt, and the Poetry of Empire”, in Joseph Bristow (ed.), The Fin-de-Siècle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s (Ohio UP, 2005), pp. 285-310

Tricia Lootens, “Bengal, Britain, France: The Locations and Translations of Toru Dutt”, Victorian Literature and Culture 34: 2 (2006)

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