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Graven images: the woman writer, the Indian poetess, and Imperial aesthetics in L.E.L.'s "Hindoo Temples and Palaces at Madura.".

CRITICAL SCHOLARSHIP ON LETITIA LANDON HAS LONG BEEN FASCINATED BY THE Improvisatrice figure that haunts much of her poetic writing. Glennis Stephenson, Linda H. Peterson, and Angela Leighton among many others have produced a considerable body of critical opinion on L.E.L's poetess subjects. In her essay entitled "Receiving the Legend, Rethinking the Writer: Letitia Landon and the Poetess Tradition," Tricia Lootens notes that L.E.L. has been perceived of as "a primary source of the poetess tradition" and as one who has "opened up new understandings of feminine poetry's relations to the aesthetic, philosophical, and political preoccupations of the time." (1) Lootens, however, proceeds to call for a reading of Landon "as English first rather than as feminine" in order that "we may establish new relationships between her work and other women poets" (p. 245). In this essay I propose to offer a reading of L.E.L. as both English and feminine, with reference to one of her poems on India, in order to demonstrate the complexity of L.E.L.'s aesthetic and to supplement existing critical analyses of the configurations of the poetess tradition as found in L.E.L.'s verse.

The sample chosen is an intriguing poem that first appeared under the title of "Hindoo Temples and Palace at Madura" in Fisher's Drawing Room Scrapbook, 1836 later republished in The Zenana and Minor Poems with a Memoir by Emma Roberts (1839) and the Poetical Works of 1873. In its original context the poem functioned as supplement to an engraving of the Madura-Meenakshi temple of Madura, or Madurai as it is now spelled, a city in Southern India. "Hindoo Temples" is listed under the somewhat dismissive category of "Minor Poems" in F. J. Sypher's 1990 edition of L.E.L.'s poems, where it may be found under its present title "On an Engraving of Hindoo Temples." In the negligible degree of critical interest it has attracted it shares a fate similar to that of most poems Landon wrote for the drawing-room scrapbooks. L.E.L. herself, however, regarded the Fisher poems differently. In a memoir that functions as preface to The Zenana and Minor Poems, Emma Roberts records L.E.L.'s own assessment of her Fisher Scrapbook poems in a footnote. Roberts writes: "In one of her letters to Fisher, urging their republication, [L.E.L.] says "Some of my best poems have appeared in the 'Drawing Room Scrap Book.'" (2)

A close reading of a poem like "Hindoo Temples" certainly reveals it to be one of L.E.L's most sophisticated formulations of feminism in the context of Imperial aesthetics, revolving as it does around its central allusion to the well-known Tamil poetess Avvaiyar. In my analysis of this poem, I shall demonstrate that L.E.L. discovered a model of women's writing in colonized India that neither Orientalist positions (such as William Jones's) nor Anglicist positions (such as Thomas Babbington Macaulay's) could fully comprehend or articulate. Indeed, I hold that this poem afforded L.E.L. the opportunity to contemplate the Imperial character of patriarchal aesthetics and to situate her resistance to it in the figure of the Indian woman. For the relationship that transpires between her poem as feminist verbal text and the engraving as Imperial visual text is one of dialogue and interrogation.

The Fisher Drawing Room Scrapbooks were illustrated annuals that, in the 1830s, routinely proffered the Indian Empire to readers as visual feast for consumption. Exquisitely produced and bound, the scrapbooks drew upon conventional Imperial iconic representations of the Indian. Temples, sacred rivers, palaces, tombs, and suttee rituals recur with predictable regularity, in a collusion between Imperialism and the picturesque that has been frequently noted, for by such means were Indian art and architecture, like the Indian landscape, made available for pleasure and possession. As products of the marketplace, the assumptions these annuals promulgated about art and Empire were inevitably conservative. How they became a site of contending discourses on these two subjects with specific reference to the editions authored by L.E.L. and how a woman writer like L.E.L. negotiated for herself a space within the commodified text in order to propound her own feminist politics of the poetess tradition, is a story yet to be told. Any discussion of L.E.L.'s poetics and her formulation of the woman writer are, in fact, incomplete without a consideration of the way the Scrapbooks propelled her into negotiations with paternalistic Imperial discourses on India and the aesthetic concerns and anxieties they generated.

L.E.L.'s interest in India is already tangentially present in earlier discussions that viewed poetry as the medium by which cultural universals rather than differences could be explored. In November 1832, writing in the New Monthly Magazine in a piece entitled "On the Ancient and Modern Influence of Poetry," L.E.L. noted: "Poetry in every country has had its origins in three sources, connected with the strongest feelings belonging to the human mind--Religion, War, and Love ... how full is the Scandinavian faith of the wild and wonderful! or to the East, how gorgeous their tales of enchantment, with their delicate Peris, and the fallen and fearful spirits in their subterranean caverns!--again, the faith of Brahma, with its thousand deities" (Landon, "Ancient and Modern Poetry," pp. 59-60). (3) The reference to Brahma demonstrates L.E.L.'s acquaintance with the name of at least one member of the Hindu Trinity-Brahma, the Creator--the other two being Vishnu, the Preserver and Shiva, the Destroyer.

L.E.L.'s rhapsodies on Hinduism's congeniality toward poetry would seem to locate her as a late successor to a form of Romantic Orientalism that developed most powerfully in India in the late eighteenth century. Such Orientalism was best typified in figures such as Sir William Jones, Supreme Court Judge at Fort William, Calcutta, translator of Persian and Sanskrit grammars and classics and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. William Jones's College at Fort William, Calcutta instructed East India functionaries in Sanskrit and pioneered a revival of its literary texts through translation. The Orientalists, as they were called, were apologists for the classical languages of Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, the cultural heritage of a Hindu and Muslim elite. Subjected to vehement criticism, the Orientalists would find themselves increasingly under attack in the 1830s by those who advocated a government policy of teaching English to the natives of India as a means of countering an allegedly unscientific, superstition-bound culture with, as Macaulay disparagingly put it, "Astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school,--History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long,--and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter." (4) As an expression of eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism, the Orientalist school would soon be vanquished by the Anglicist policies of Mill and Macaulay under Lord Bentinck's Governor Generalship. Even during the eighteenth century, Anglicist response to scholarship by Orientalists like Jones had been keenly antagonistic. O. P. Kejariwal in his history of the Asiatic Society notes that when Jones hailed Kalidasa as the Shakespeare of India, Blackwoods's Edinburgh Magazine, adopting the Anglicist position, retorted that "neither the human mind nor human life did ever so exist in India, as to create the faculties as those of Shakespeare." (5)

L.E.L.'s India poems, written in the 1830s, participate in the most crucial moments of the Orientalist-Anglicist debate. (6) Ironically, despite the imminent defeat of the Orientalists, it was this decade that witnessed the most sustained achievements of the Asiatic Society, founded in 1784. The year 1832 saw the establishing of the Boden Chair in Sanskrit at Oxford, with Horace Hayden Wilson, a former President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal as its first occupant. Throughout the early 1830s, the society's Journal of Asiatic Studies records impressive gains in fields such as archaeology and numismatics under the stewardship of Prinsep, Masson, Cautley, Cunningham, and Burt, so that the Fisher Annual's etchings of ancient Indian monuments might well have been part of the wave of interest generated by current strides in scholarship in these areas. However, Lord Bentinck, famed for his reformist zeal on thuggee and suttee, would soon be swayed by the growing stridency of Anglicist voices, raised in clamor against the Orientalists' agenda. In 1833, provisions for free postage of the Journal were withdrawn by the government. In the year preceding L.E.L.'s publication of "Hindoo Temples," the outcome of Macaulay's Minute on Indian Education was the English Education Act of 1835 that removed English instruction from the Sanskrit College at Benaras and the madrassa or Muslim seminary at Calcutta, on the grounds that its pupils barely learned the language, and assigned its teaching exclusively to Government institutions where it was made the medium of all instruction. The English Education Act would prove to be the death-knell for centers of Hindu and Muslim literature and learning. Macaulay's confidence had prompted his notorious declaration: "I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia" (Macaulay, Minute, p. 349).

The Orientalists would later be lauded by Indian nationalist leadership in the twentieth century for their passionate engagement with an Indian cultural heritage. However, the work of Indologists and Orientalists such as Jones remains inherently patriarchal in light of another binarism already emerging in the nineteenth century that invokes an opposition between a North-Indian, "Aryan," Brahminical, and Sanskritic cultural hegemony and a South-Indian, Dravidian, non-Brahminical marginality. British Orientalists like Jones focused upon Sanskrit, a language generally accessible only to upper-caste, priestly males, and hence associated with Brahminical cultural hegemony. Alternative literary traditions, most notably those of South India, belonging to the Dravidian family of languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam were rendered invisible by oriental scholarship such as his.

Historian Sumathi Ramaswamy in Passions of the Tongue traces the emergence of twentieth-century Dravidian politics, which contested the" Imperialist" character of Sanskrit and valorized the Tamil language as female and mother, back to a nineteenth-century reaction to eighteenth-century Orientalists like Jones. Ramaswamy notes:
 A century of colonial linguistic practice had only reinforced
 the ancient Sanskritic dogma that all languages (of India) are
 corruptions of a primordial, eternal Sanskrit. British scholar-
 administrators and their Brahman teacher-assistants based in
 Calcutta's Asiatic Society and College of Fort William had
 declared Sanskrit as the fount of Indian "vernaculars," the
 sole generator of high Hindu civilization, and the only
 language worthy of comparison with the lofty Greek and Latin. (7)

She then goes on to observe:
 Less noted, is the resistance to such formulations that arose almost
 from the beginning of colonial rule among British administrators
 based in South India. Skeptical about the clubbing together of the
 languages spoken in "their" part of the sub-continent with the
 northern tongues, these men were especially critical of the
 characterizations of Tamil or Telugu as "vulgar derivatives" of
 Sanskrit. This skepticism was first voiced in Alexander Campbell's
 Grammar of the Telegoo Language (1816) and in Francis Ellis's
 introduction to that grammar. (pp. 39-40)

This lobby of British opinion produced works such as Robert Caldwell's epoch-making Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages in 1856. Caldwell established for the first time a sense of Tamil as a classical language, proclaiming that Tamil "can dispense with its Sanscrit altogether if need be, and not only stand alone but flourish without its aid." (8) Throughout the nineteenth century, British missionary interests in the Madras Presidency of South India, and in Sri Lanka, would result in a growing focus on Dravidian culture and the Tamil language. Robert Caldwell, who established proof of a Dravidian family of languages, Peter Percival, who first translated Tamil proverbs into English, and Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Alexander Johnstone, who was L.E.L.'s source on South Indian art, history, and geography were some important grammarians and missionary scholars of this period. The Dravidian scholars of the nineteenth century have traditionally not been counted among the Orientalists. They remain a problem for the Orientalist-Anglicist binary, since they complicate Imperial aesthetics by their recognition of a literature in a language for which no claims could be made for European origins. In this, their agenda differed from those of Indologist scholars such as Jones and the German Max Mueller, who labored to prove Sanskrit's European origins as an "Aryan" tongue. However, they shared in the Anglicist zeal for religious, if not cultural conversion.

When L.E.L. chose to write of a South Indian poetess, she was therefore entering into the highly contested territory of Indian-ness. Despite the hazards attendant upon such an enterprise, L.E.L. negotiates these binaries with amazing finesse, in order to establish a feminist position, which avoids co-optation into either the Orientalist or Anglicist camp. By focusing on a South Indian landscape (the temple city of Madurai), Tamil literature, and the Tamil poetess Avvaiyar, L.E.L. bypasses the Sanskritic, Brahminical Orientalism of Jones, and its patrisitic traditions. Instead, while writing of the engraving of the Madura temple, she chooses to develop the ekphrastic moment in her poem through the elaboration of an allusion to a Dravidian poet, whose lowly caste and gender are foregrounded in her text.

The poem is a complex negotiation with official Imperial discourse and the pronounced paternalism of Anglicist positions toward the art and culture of the Indian sub-continent. To begin with, the title directs our attention to the picturesque, a mode that permits the visual dominance of India through the Imperial gaze. L.E.L.'s interest in art is recorded by Emma Roberts who notes: "All works of art afforded L.E.L. great enjoyment; though not using the pencil herself, she saw everything with a painter's eye, making pictures in her mind, and being struck, even in crowded streets, with any fine light or shade falling upon picturesque architecture" (Roberts, p. 19). (9)

Sara Suleri has noted the evidence of a specific "feminine picturesque" in Imperial aesthetics, practiced by the memsahib, that attests both to her own implicatedness and marginality within the Imperial project, given the picturesque's thinness of formal language combined with its functions of scopophilic control. In the 1790s, a mainstream and arguably masculine picturesque had already been instrumental in appropriating India for consumption as evidenced in the success of the public exhibitions of the Daniells' engravings of Indian scenes and monuments in London that led to a fashion for scenic India in wallpaper and ceramics. L.E.L.'s textual interrogations and dialogue with the picturesque, however, offer a third and as yet unexamined aspect of this art form's manifestations in Victorian Imperial discourse. As texts produced by a woman who existed on the margins, and were largely consumed by a genteel female readership, L.E.L.'s poems seem firmly within the parameters of the memsahib's aesthetic. Yet L.E.L. also strains at the boundaries and limitations of such poetics, or, to adopt a more feminine metaphor of sewing as embellishment, her texts, in embroidering the borders of the picturesque, pull upon its very fabric.

That Landon was aware of the inherent tensions between the literary and visual appeal of such productions is evident in her correspondence. Proposing to review the surplus engravings of print sellers and to make "a selection from the prettiest of these and form them into an Annual to be called The Choice" sometime after 1831, Landon, in her frank discussion of the market with William Jerdan, notes: "Those who buy books and those who buy prints are two different classes--and the engravings would nine times out of ten be new to the readers. How well the collection of prints previously published has answered in the case of the Drawing Room Scrap Book--and there the subjects being almost exclusively Indian views, and landscapes were not of the most popular kind--people like pretty pictures" (Landon, Letters, p. 100). Interestingly enough she does not, at this point in time, view the Indian landscape as sufficiently tractable to the designs of the picturesque.

L.E.L.'s responses to the Indian picturesque vary from outright collusion to complication and resistance. The 1835 Fisher Annual demonstrates this. While some of her poems are no more than attempts to evoke the romance of Indian history, as in her narration of the fratricidal war between the sons of Shah Jehan in her response to the scene of Jahara Baug, Agra, others operate in a more complex relation with their illustrations, even if some of these do not fall strictly within the category of the picturesque. In an elaborate colorplate frontispiece entitled "Hindoo and Mahomedan Buildings," under the canopy of what seems like a magnificently carved Hindu interior repose relics of temple statuary and palace artifacts in the foreground, while, framed by its pillars are shadowy domed Islamic edifices in the background, receding vistas of Moghul domination that are disclosed to the viewer, whose perspective is that of the colonized Hindu "insider" (see Fig. 1). (10) Among the human figures who inhabit the inner Hindu space is a European male bearing a musket, who looks away from the Hindu artifacts that absorb the Indians, onto the Moghul edifices outlined against the horizon. L.E.L.'s poem nostalgically dwells upon the splendor of Hindustan's architecture, laid waste by Islamic invaders, only to invoke an implicit parallelism between all Imperialisms in the rhetorical line that queries: "Religion, empires, palaces are--where?" ("Hindoo and Mahomedan Buildings," p. 10).


In another instance, L.E.L. seems almost to prefigure E. M. Forster's modernist readings of India as symbol and metaphor in the Marabar caves, when responding to an engraving of the Elephanta caves, temples hewn into mountains, she remarks: "What know we of them? Nothing--there they stand, / Gloomy as night, inscrutable as fate. / Altars no more divine, and shrines which know / Nor priests, nor votaries, nor sacrifice; ... / Two senses here are present; one of Power, / And one of Nothingness" ("The Caves of Elephanta," p. 55). Invoking absence and emptiness with echoes of negation generated by a repetition of "nor" that accompanies descriptions of lost scenes, as also by the mocking homonyms of "no" and "know" that taunt the viewer, the picturesque's claims of rendering visible and available to the gaze all that it seeks for its own gratification and pleasure are contested by L.E.L.'s text.

At other times L.E.L. seems to challenge the picturesque on its own voyeuristic terms. An engraving of the British Residency in Hyderabad has for its accompanying text a poem on the daughter of the Nizam, the princely state's Muslim ruler, a woman of the zenana who would doubtless have been invisible to the Imperial gaze. If L.E.L. counters an image of masculine British power here with that of a hidden Indian majesty that is feminine, it remains nonetheless very much an exercise in cultural literacy on the part of the reader to recognize the disturbing juxtapositions of image and text. Outright textual interrogation of the image, and an attempt to explore Imperialism's dynamics in terms of gender and its implications for art and the picturesque would occur only in the next Annual, when L.E.L. came to write of the Madura-Meenakshi temple.

The 1836 annual has its share of conventional Indian romance, but the feature that seems worthy of notice is the presence of several Indian female subjects and the exercise of a specifically feminine form of lyricism in this annual: "The Hindoo Mother," poverty stricken and bewailing her dead infant; the speaker of "The Hindoo Girl's Song"; and a fisherwoman's plaint of watchful waiting for the return of her man in the poem that accompanies an engraving entitled "Bombay Harbour;--Fishing Boats in the Monsoon." This rendering of the Indian voice as female and subaltern in these admittedly conventional lyrics culminates in L.E.L.'s focus upon the Indian poetess in "Hindoo Temples and Palace at Madura," the final Indian poem of the anthology.

The engraving of the Madura-Meenakshi temple, drawn by W. Purser, from a sketch by Captain Chapman of the Royal Engineers, and engraved by W. Floyd, depicts the gopurams or towers of the South-Indian temples as miniaturized details, framed by the leafy boughs of trees that overshadow the scene, thereby signifying that all aesthetic activity in India transpires within the overarching and dominant presence of Nature. A view of India as essentially pastoral and even primitive emerges, thus contradicting any ostensible claims made by the engraving's title of representing an Indian aesthetic heritage (see Fig. 2).


However, through its ekphrastic concerns as meditation upon a British engraving's rendering of Indian expressions of the sculptural and architectural, L.E.L.'s poetic text resists Imperial aesthetics. The poem's opening lines offer a veiled indictment of British philistinism and affirm the inadequacies of Anglicist aesthetic evaluations of Hindu art and civilization: "Little the present careth for the past, / Too little--'tis not well! / For careless ones we dwell / Beneath the mighty shadow it has cast." (11) In these opening lines the ancient splendor of the temples dwarfs and overshadows a guilty reading community. As for the engraving, it metamorphoses from a materially manageable visual text in the hands of the English reader, to monumental proportions that eclipse Imperial stature. If the ekphrastic moment humbles the imperious reader, it also proceeds to complicate the experience as it exposes its own inadequacies, with the text developing the allusion to Avvaiyar in the next four quatrains: "A woman's triumph mid them is imprest / One who upon the scroll / Flung the creative soul / Disdainful of life's flowers and of its rest" (p. 50). L.E.L.'s footnote to these lines adds: "When I speak of 'a Woman's triumph,' I allude to the celebrated Aviya. She was a Pariah of the lowest class, but obtained such literary distinction, that her works are to this day the class books of the scholars of the highest rank and caste in all Hindoo schools in the Peninsula" (p. 50).

Writing of Landon's poetess figures, Angela Leighton has noted that L.E.L. "freezes the woman into a picture, statue, an art object," postures that turn her "into a sexual or artistic property for the man" (p. 61). However, the impression upon the temple walls in this text could allude both to the physical form of the woman as well as to her artistic "triumph." The preceding stanza strengthens such an interpretation, by speaking of the triumphs of ancient Indian civilization: "Mighty the legacies by mind bequeathed, / For glorious were its pains / Amid these giant fanes, / And mighty were the triumphs it achieved" ("Hindoo Temples," p. 50). The "woman's triumph," given the use of the possessive case, could therefore refer not just to the person of Aviya, but also to her achievements, in other words, to her verses inscribed upon the temple's walls.

To whom might L.E.L. be referring when she speaks of Aviya? The locus of the temple is Madura, a city in the Indian state of Tamilnadu, which would therefore make Aviya a Tamil poetess. Madura is home to the famous shrine of the Goddess Meenakshi, and its origins are ancient. In his study of the festival of the wedding of the goddess Meenakshi to Shiva at Madura or Madurai (as it is spelt today), William P. Harman traces references to the city back to Ptolemy. (12) L.E.L.'s footnote records that Madura was known for its learning and "celebrated college," and was at one period "the centre of might, majesty, and dominion in India" (p. 51). This could be a reference to the Sangams or academies at Madura, credited with the production of classical Tamil literature between the first and third century A.D. Historians of Tamil literature have designated this period as the Sangam Age. Madura would have evoked considerable interest among the British in the early nineteenth century for it had only just come under British rule in 1801. (13) Furthermore, in a footnote omitted from the Sypher edition of L.E.L.'s collected poems L.E.L. names her source on India for this poem as Sir Alexander Johnstone, a man who evinced a lifelong interest in Tamil literature, Tamil Shaivism, and Sinhalese Buddhism. Alexander Johnstone (1775-1849) was an ardent evangelical Christian who spent much of his life in Madurai and eventually became Chief Justice of Ceylon. L.E.L.'s footnote reads: "Among other anecdotes connected with the spirit of improvement now alive in India, Sir Alexander Johnstone, whose kindness in communicating information I cannot sufficiently acknowledge, told me one of his relative, the late Mrs. Damer" (p. 51). (14)

These details, along with L.E.L.'s own references to Peninsula India, most surely affirm Aviya's Tamilian identity. Aviya is an anglicized and still current alternative spelling for Auviyar, or Avvaiyar, a famous classical woman poet in Tamil literature. She is represented in Tamil literature as an elderly, celibate, itinerant, devotional poet, whose gnomic lyrics and wisdom are legendary. In fact the name simply means "venerable old lady." (15) Tamil literary scholarship has engaged in considerable debate regarding the identity of Avvaiyar. However, what remains significant is that a provision for encoding authorship as female existed in Tamil literature dating back to the Sangam period. K.V. Zvelibil notes:
 Auvaiyar is one of the least tangible figures in Tamil literature,
 though she had the distinction of being probably the first Tamil
 author ever translated into a European language.... It seems there
 were at least three poetesses bearing the name Auvai, or Avvaiyar
 who should be distinguished: a classical bard supported by Atikaman
 Netuman Anci the lord of Takatur, the authoress of a great number
 of bardic poems in the anthologies; a poetess of the 9-10th cent.
 of mainly didactic and moral maxims and some religious poetry; a
 still later poetess, probably a contemporary of Ottakkuttan, or
 even Pukalenti, of the 12th-14th cent. In addition, much later works
 were ascribed to the composite Auvaiyar, the "Old Lady." (Zvelibil,
 Tamil Literature, p. 170) (16)

L.E.L. recognizes the value of this poetess figure for her mission of resistance to patriarchal aesthetic traditions. By reading the inscriptions "imprest" within the temples that the engraver has failed to "capture," L.E.L.'s text reads the inadequacies of the picturesque. The visual text cannot "represent" the hidden, secret, and feminine power of Indian art. Woman's writing becomes a trope for the writing of all ruled races in its capacity for invisible resistance, since it subversively eludes the desiring, Imperial colonizing gaze, which is also implicitly masculine. However, as L.E.L.'s text inscribes the hidden text of the sexed subaltern into visibility, it "enscrolls," in the process, the disdainfulness of the poetess towards "life's flowers," or conventional femininity.

The foregrounding of Avvaiyar's unmarried status would seem to classify her with L.E.L.'s other solitary poetess figures. Hence the text speculates: "How must that youthful cheek have lost its bloom / How many a dream above / Of early hope and love / Must that young heart have closed on like a tomb" (p. 50). But, unlike L.E.L.'s other youthful, poetess figures such as Eulalie and Sappho, for whom writing and desire are co-terminous and deathly, in Avvaiyar, L.E.L. offers a configuration of the poetess as survivor, not victim, for Avvaiyar leaves her "soul immortal on her words" (p. 51). The text therefore resists the elegiac. The body of the poetess ages, but textuality opposes mortality's compulsions. Hence "her triumph was complete and long, / The chords she struck are yet alive" (p. 51). Unlike the suicidal Sappho, the legendary Avvaiyar lived into old age. Indeed among the innumerable legends that associate the latter with long life, Zvelibil in Tamil Literature mentions one version that claims Avvaiyar extended her life by consuming the nellai fruit.

While Landon makes no mention of what seems almost a Hindu revisioning of the myth of Eve and the mortal fruit, she does endow Avvaiyar with an upward, Promethean gaze since women like her "aspire / To ask the stars their lore, / And from each ancient store / Seek food to stay the mind's consuming fire" (p. 51). Landon's Avvaiyar differs sharply here from Sappho and Eulalie, her major poetess figures, who remain gravity bound in their impulses, either narcissistically contemplating the ocean's depths or seeking monumental selfhood in elaborate burial shrines. Instead, these lines reverberate to the hyperbole associated with intellectual malcontents of the Rennaissance stage such as Christopher Marlowe's Faustus, in order to celebrate a feminism heroic in its resistance against a conventionally tragic fate. Eve's hunger for knowledge, the "food that stays the mind's consuming fire" is not fatal in Avvaiyar's instance. The poetess, offered as a model to the English reader, is one who covets an ancient past's esoteric secrets that a masculine Imperial perspective ignores, and by reinscribing female desire as mental rather than physical, L.E.L.'s text affirms the woman writer as triumphant savant rather than one defeated by the promptings of her own carnal nature.

The text then proceeds to develop social oppression as a paradigm for aesthetic oppression. By metaphorically invoking the rigid taxonomies propounded by discourses of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century, L.E.L. interrogates fashionable postulates of biological determinism in regard to race or gender: "Vast was the labour, vast the enterprise / For she was of a race, / Born to the lowest place, / Earth's Insects, lacking wings whereon to rise" (p. 50). Avvaiyar's caste origins have elicited considerable debate. Zvelibil notes that one version of the Avvaiyar legend ascribes her to be the sister of the low caste Tamil poet and saint Tiruvalluvar, and another views her as the offspring of an inter-caste union between a Brahmin father and Pulaya mother (Tamil Literature, p. 170). Hepzibah Jesudasan insists that Avvaiyar's itinerant lifestyle precludes any possibility of Brahminical status. Jesudasan also notes that one of her verses speaks of "meat rich upon the bone" (Jesudasan, p. 136), proving her openness to lifestyles, and by inference, we might also add, the likelihood that she was no high-caste vegetarian. (17)

Dwelling upon the Hindu caste system that British Imperial opinion frequently denounced, the lines suggest parallels with European discourses on natural hierarchies of sex and race dominant throughout the nineteenth century. The colonized subject, thus inflected by concerns of caste, race, and gender, nonetheless resolutely resists being sited by such hierarchical discursive practices. Instead, by placing the low-caste, Dravidian colonized female subject within the spaces of the Brahminical, for untouchables were not permitted entry into temples in the nineteenth century, L.E.L., in this poem, offers us her most triumphant act of textual politics. She thereby indicts Imperial and patriarchal aesthetics for its exclusionist and, by implication, Brahminical norms and troubles its rule. Like colonized writing, women's writing may occupy the prohibited precincts of imperious patriarchs and even inscribe and "impress" itself upon the yielding aesthetic forms of patriarchy's high priests.

It is a matter for further speculation if L.E.L. knew of the actual existence of the Avvai temples of South India, dedicated to the worship of the Mother Goddess, since avvai in Tamil also means mother. If she did, then her descriptions of such structures acquire an even stronger sense of feminism in alliance with the colonized. Hence, the platitudinous sentiment of lines such as "A great example she has left behind / A lesson we should take" acquires profound irony, as the colonized subject becomes tutelary to the colonizer. Here is Macaulay's agenda reversed.

Nonetheless, the text seems to recuperate Imperial ideology at the end by proclaiming: "Our Sword has swept o'er India; there remains / A nobler conquest far, / The mind's ethereal war, / That but subdues to civilize its plains" (p. 51). L.E.L.'s own constrained position as a writer of marketable verse seems to have required such a negotiation with Imperial pieties. One way in which she could articulate the political character of feminism was by writing a poem that possessed a duplicity of voice and could thereby appear "publishable" rather than seditious. Her footnote on Mrs. Damer that addresses the issue of female education supports this sense of double-valencing at work within her text:
 The question of female education was much disputed, and popular
 opinion was certainly against it. Sir Alexander, however, brought
 this instance of a connexion of his own, who united birth and all
 social advantages with the highest degree of cultivation. At his
 request Mrs. Darner made a bust of Nelson, and sent it to the King
 of Tanjore. It was received with great attention, and the skill with
 which it was executed made a strong impression in favour of female
 education. ("Hindoo Temples," p. 51).

L.E.L.'s marginalia here is double valenced in its relation to the poetic text, operating as much marginalia did in Medieval and Renaissance times in its mediations between reader and text. On the one hand, the poet's voice appears to affirm a distinctly Macaulayan agenda. But, if the British woman in this footnote seems to participate in the colonial enterprise as obedient handmaid, by ensuring the currency and circulation of the emblems and signifiers of British military might, she is also, like Avvaiyar, one who discourses before kings and their courts. And like Avvaiyar, she is one who surpasses socially powerful males, both British and Indian, in her capacity to educate and enlighten.

However, the footnote also disrupts the text in mid-flow to compel a re-reading of the concluding quatrains that permits for ambiguities of sense to surface:
 Our sword has swept o'er India; there remains
 A nobler conquest far,
 The mind's ethereal war,
 That but subdues to civilize its plains.
 Let us pay back the debt we owe,
 Let us around dispense
 Light, hope, intelligence,
 Till blessings track our steps where'er we go.
 O England, thine be the deliverer's meed,
 Be thy great empire known
 By hearts made all thine own,
 By thy free laws and thy immortal creed.
 (p. 51)

Is L.E.L. unequivocally espousing the Anglicist agenda of mental colonization, given the almost jingoistic apostrophe to British Imperialism that concludes the poem? Images of light and illumination are employed conventionally in order to describe the paternalistic and unilateral character of the Imperial mission, evoking visions of a continent steeped in the darkness of superstition and error. However, a tension is also set up within the very same quatrain with the introduction of a motif of reciprocity that describes Britain's relation with an ancient culture as debt to be discharged, with the consequent reward as meed, or wage to be earned. The dispensing of light all round might then apply not so much to the geographical terrain of the Indian subcontinent but to the shadow within which the "careless ones," Imperialists, ignorant of a monumental past, were said to dwell in the opening lines of the poem.

An interpretation of the final quatrains as L.E.L.'s subtle sermon on cultural humility gathers strength when we examine the ambiguity of her syntax in describing the nobler conquest of the mind that awaits history. In speaking of "the mind's ethereal war, / That but subdues to civilize its plains" is L.E.L. endorsing cultural messianism, with "its plains" referring back to an India over which the British sword has already swept, or, alternatively, does the "mind's ethereal war" suggest the mentally and spiritually conflicted Imperial subject, whose inner realm needs both subjugation and civilizing--one whose sympathetic perturbations are voiced by the poem? Is the meed of England thereby to be a state where "free laws" render Imperialism redundant? L.E.L.'s doubleness of tone here, at once triumphant and self-castigating, seems to encode a lesson preached by the female voice, of cultural resistance to an Imperialist and paternalist agenda, in a style and form as gnomic and aphoristic as that of the original Aviya, undermining masculinist Imperial discourse even as she seems to lisp it. Bearing in mind the footnote on the female as educator and instructor of kings, we can see that the conscious move toward conventional Imperial idiom in the poem's conclusion results in an almost studied triteness.

L.E.L.'s feminist meditation upon an engraving of a temple as sculptural and religious artifact appears doubly ekphrastic in its preoccupations, yet diverges in several ways from its more traditional literary manifestations. Murray Kreiger observes that the ekphrastic moment frequently elicits a desire to abandon the artificial sign (language) in favor of the natural sign (the visual), but L.E.L.'s poem, with its emphasis on writing, reverses that process. (18) The visual sign is suspect, in that it obscures the presence of the artificial sign (Avvaiyar's poems) which suffers the danger of remaining unread. L.E.L. also breaks with the traditional ekphrastic position that perceives art as the autonomous "well wrought urn" by introducing concerns of the artist's gender and identity into the act of aesthetic contemplation. By having her text read Avvaiyar, L.E.L. offers us female poetry not solely as the product of lyre or voice (as in the case of Sappho and Eulalie), but also as material text. Woman's writing, set in stone, carves for itself a space in the most inhospitable of patriarchal spaces. And, in an act of religious and cultural heresy, L.E.L. seems to declare that, like the "graven images" of the Hindu temple, the low-caste female writer may ultimately be canonized and enshrined.


(1) See Tricia Lootens, "Receiving the Legend, Rethinking the Writer: Letitia Landon and the Poetess Tradition," in Romanticism and Women Poets, ed. Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Berendt (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1999), pp. 242-259. See also Glennis Stephenson, "Poet Construction: Mrs. Hemans, L.E.L. and the Image of the Nineteenth-Century Woman Poet," in Re-Imagining Women: Representations of Women in Culture, ed. Shirley Neuman and Glennis Stephenson (Toronto: Toronto Univ. Press, 1993); Angela Leighton, Victorian Woman Poets: Writing Against the Heart (London: Harvester, Wheatsheaf, 1991), and Linda H. Peterson, "Rewriting A History of the Lyre: Letitia Landon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the (Re) Construction of the Nineteenth-Century Woman Poet," in Women's Poetry, Late Romantic to Late Victorian: Gender and Genre, 1830-1900 ed. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), pp. 115-134.

(2) See The Zenana and Minor Poems of L.E.L. With a Memoir by Emma Roberts (London, 1839), p. 26.

(3) See "On the Ancient and Modern Influence of Poetry," in Critical Writings by Letitia Elizabeth Landon, ed. F. J. Sypher (Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1996), pp. 59-65.

(4) For Macaulay's remarks on Sanskrit and Arabic, see his Minute on Indian Education, February 2, 1835, in Speeches by Lord Macaulay with his Minute on Indian Education, ed. G. M. Young (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 351.

(5) See O. P. Kejariwal, The Asiatic Society of Bengal: The Discovery of India's Past, 1784-1838 (Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 59-60.

(6) In addition to Kejariwal, see Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Studies and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988).

(7) Sumathi Ramasamy, Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997), p. 39.

(8) Robert Caldwell, A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (London, 1856), p. 31.

(9) For a discussion of the feminine picturesque, see Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 75-110. On the picturesque as practiced by male artists, see Mildred Archer, Early Views on India: Thomas and William Daniell (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980). Archer notes the fashion for Indian scenery in ceramics and wallpaper created by the exhibition of the Daniell's aquatints to the British public. For Landon's letter to William Jerdan, circa 1834, see Letters by Letitia Elizabeth Landon, ed. F. J. Sypher (Ann Arbor: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 2001), p. 100. For poems discussed as samples of L.E.L.'s responses to the picturesque, see "Hindoo and Mahomedan Buildings," Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book, With Poetical Illustrations by L.E.L., 1835 (London, 1834), pp. 9-10; "The Caves of Elephanta," pp. 55-56; "The Nizam's Daughter," pp. 37-38. For instances of the female subject and feminine lyricism see "The Hindoo Mother," Fisher's Drawing Room Scrapbook, 1836 by L.E.L. (London, 1835), pp. 5-7; "Hindoo Girl's Song," p. 16; "Fishing Boats in the Monsoon," pp. 25-26.

(10) The author wishes to thank the library staff of the University of Iowa's Special Collections Services for image reproductions from the Fisher Drawing Room Scrapbooks.

(11) "Hindoo Temples and Palace at Madura," in Fisher's Drawing Room Scrapbook, 1836, by L.E.L. (London, 1835), pp. 50-51. All subsequent quotations are taken from this text.

(12) William P. Harman, The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989), p. 36. Noting that the ancient text of Parancoti's Siva's Sacred Games traces the name of Madurai back to the Sanskrit word Madhura, meaning "sweetness," and that the city was a counterpart to the North Indian city of Mathura, Harman notes: "Ptolemy's Geography mentions the northern 'Modoura,' while the southern 'Madura,' is mentioned both in the Geography and in The Periplus of the Erithrean Sea" (p. 36).

(13) R. Sathyanatha Aiyar notes that many native chronicles of Madura "were collected, translated and carefully edited by William Taylor in 1835 in his two volumes of Oriental Historical manuscripts." See R. Sathyanatha Aiyar, History of the Nayaks of Madura (Madras: Univ. of Madras Press, 1980), p. 23. Mildred Archer notes that the Daniells' engravings included scenes of the Madura fort (pp. 228-229).

(14) Sir Alexander Johnstone, or Johnston as it is generally spelled, had a long association with Tamil culture, both in India and in Sri Lanka, where he became Chief Justice of Ceylon. Although L.E.L. adds an "e" to Johnston's name there is every evidence that she is referring to the Chief Justice of Ceylon. She refers to Sir Alexander Johnstone in another poem in the Fisher Annual of 1836 entitled "Dr Adam Clarke and the Two Priests of Budha." The poem relates how two Buddhist monks followed Sir Alexander Johnstone to London and begged to be converted to Christianity. See Fisher 1836, pp.42-43. R. F. Young and G.P.V. Somaratna chronicle this very story about Sir Alexander Johnston and two converts baptized Adam and Alexander, after Dr. Adam Clarke and Sir Alexander, in Vain Debates: The Buddhist-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon (Vienna: Institute for Indology, Univ. of Vienna, 1996), pp. 57-58. Speaking of Johnston's "insatiable curiosity about Tamil Saivism and Sinhalese Buddhism" and how "his numerous unpublished manuscripts in research libraries constitute an invaluable source for reconstructing the early European interpretation of the religions of Ceylon and the Indian mainland, " the authors recount the conversion of two Buddhist monks "Munhi Rathana" and "Dherma Rama," who "followed Johnston's ship out of the Colombo roads in a dingy and begged him to take them.... On arrival in London, Johnston took them to tea with Prime Minister Wilberforce [sic] and then packed them off to Bristol where they studied under Clarke for two years. Only after a lengthy probation were they baptized, at Liverpool's Brunswick Chapel (Wesleyan)." For details of Johnston's early life at Madura where his father took up residence as Paymaster, his exposure to Oriental learning while at Madura through his tutor Colin Mackenzie, and his subsequent rescue of the Mackenzie Collection Oriental manuscripts now housed by the India office and in the Oriental Manuscripts Library at the University of Madras, see Dr. James T. Rutnam, The Early Life of Sir Alexander Johnston, Third Chief Justice of Ceylon (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Law and Society Trust, 1988), pp. 7-8. Interestingly, Rutnam also notes that the most well-known portrait of Sir Alexander as Chief Justice of Ceylon, by J. Cochran after Thomas Phillips, was published in London by Fisher, Sons & Co., in 1831, the publisher of the Drawing Room Scrapbooks, notes, plate 1, p.i.

(15) Kamil V. Zvelibil, Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature (New York: E. J. Brill, 1992), p. 54.

(16) Kamil V. Zvelibil, Tamil Literature (Leiden, Netherlands: E. R. Breill, 1973), pp. 169-170. See page 170, for reference to her eating of the fruit.

(17) Hephzibah Jesudasan, Count-down from Solomon, or The Tamils down the Ages through Their Literature, v.i Cankam and the Aftermath (Chemmancherry, Chennai: Institute of Asian Studies, 1999), p. 136. See also Alexander M. Dubianski, Ritual and Mythological Sources of the Early Tamil Poetry (Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 2000) f.p. 54. "There is an interesting line from a poem belonging to Auviyar written following the death of her patron Netuman Anci: 'He was stroking my head smelling offish (pulavu narum)'" (PN235, 9). Unlike the kavi or court poet, the itinerant poet as virali was often associated with fishing. Dubianski's note continues: "Pulavu denotes 'unpleasant smell' mostly the smell of raw fish and meat. It is inherent in the uncultivated nature and is generally associated with sites dangerous for man: the wasteland or the sea."

(18) Murray Kreiger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992).
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Author:Fernandez, Jean
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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