Poetique | A Reading of Emma Roberts' 'The Rajah's Obsequies'

Poetique (poetry + critique) is a series on this blog where we dissect and bring our own reading to works of poetic genius.

'The Rajah's Obsequies' by Emma Roberts belongs to her only volume of verse titled Oriental Scenes, Sketches and Tales (1832). Not a lot is known about Roberts, a British woman who shares her name with the contemporary American actress. In Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913: A Critical Anthology, Mary Ellis Gibson records that Roberts came to India in 1828 and entered the Calcutta literary scene at a time when both Indian and British-born poets had created a lively, if small, literary culture. Roberts established and supported herself as a professional writer; she saw the importance of marketing her work and managed to make poetry pay.

'The Rajah's Obsequies' gives an account of the ritual of sati being performed in the city of Benares (present day Varanasi). The poem can be categorized as a product of 18th and 19th century 'Orientalist discourse' as discussed by Edward Said in Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978). Said describes the late 18th century as a period of unparalleled European expansion that coincided with an advancement in the discursive creation of the 'entity' called the 'Orient' (the East) as the 'other' of the 'Occident' (the West). This led to a vast body of works that described the 'Orient' as a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, and remarkable experiences. Roberts' poem can be effectively read using the framework provided by Said.

The romanticizing impulse

The first few stanzas of the poem give a panoramic view of the beautiful and holy city of Benares with its 'green luxuriance' and 'lofty minarets'. The romanticizing impulse of the Western poet cannot be overlooked; the romanticization of the 'Orient' was common in such narratives. The poet writes,

The holy city's temples glow
Reflected in the stream below,--
A mass of cupolas and towers,
Arches, and pillared colonnades,
And flat-roofed palaces, where flowers
Are clust'ring round the balustrades.

The lines remind one of P. B. Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' (1819). Shelley writes,

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them...

The gaze, knowledge, and truth

At two points in Roberts' poem there is a shift in scene from the external environment to the internal. One, when the poet describes the zenanas or the women's quarters. Two, when she describes the 'frugal meal' of the 'Hindoo'. One can argue that there is a shift in the 'gaze' from the public/outer world to the private/inner world of the native. The 'gaze' is necessarily of an outsider since a native would hardly look at his own surroundings with 'spell-bound eyes'. The extent of the 'gaze' defines the exhaustive nature of it; it can not only 'observe' the outer but also 'survey' the inner world of the native. In other words, the West does not only claim to know the public environment of the native but also the private sphere and both exist as the West knows them to exist.

Knowledge and discursive creation of the 'Orient' are two of the most important concerns of Said. Knowledge for the empire, writes Said, is the ability to survey a civilization from its origin, to its prime, to its decline. The object of this knowledge, the 'Orient', is vulnerable to scrutiny and represented by narratives such as the poem. In this representation, the West also creates the 'Orient' through discourse (a concept given by Michel Foucault and used by Said). By using a specific vocabulary and rhetoric to describe the 'Orient', the West also produces it. Discourse is proliferated through language and dominant discourse often assumes the power of validating a Truth that is absolute, scientific, and unquestionable.

Darkness, degeneration, and empire

The grand descriptions of Benares in the poem are soon undercut by the following lines,

Yet here the river's crystal flood
With living victims is profaned,
And here with streams of human blood
The temple's reeking courts are stained.

From this point onward, the poem acquires dark overtones. What follows these lines is a description of the ritual of sati or the immolation of the Rajah's wives on his funeral pyre. Sati was considered as one of the 'backward' and 'barbaric' practices in India by the British administration at the time. But one cannot deny the fascination that it held for 'Orientalist' writers, the proof of which can be found in the numerous narrative accounts of it. Roberts' poem suggests that the 'bright' city of Benares is 'eclipsed' by this 'backward' tradition. This can be connected to the idea that the greatness of the 'Orient' lies in the past; in the modern day, it has degenerated. The mission of the West was to rescue the East from this degenerated state and 'civilize' it. 

This theme of 'darkness' is sustained till the very end of the poem. The poem ends with the speech of the Rajah's elder wife, Mitala. The limited number of critical analyses that exist around the poem, see the speech as prophetic; Mitala forsees the conquest of India by the 'Persian Satrap', the 'Tartar King', and eventually by the 'west's pale warriors'. The references are to the Mughal Empire and to British colonization. It is known that the West considered the Mughal period in India as synonymous to the Middle Ages in Europe. The Middle Ages were described as dark periods marked by political, economic, and social decline. However, the reference to the Mughal Empire, in the poem, is juxtaposed with the British conquest giving rise to an ambiguity. Is the poet, through Mitala, saying that the two conquests would enslave the country and bring further decline? Or alternatively, that they would 'rescue' the country from darkness?

Gender in the poem

The speech of the elder wife and that of the younger wife form the larger parts of the poem. The two speeches, along with their speakers, can be seen in contrast to one another. The younger and more passive wife speaks of her love for her 'native vales' and presents a romanticized vision of a 'heavenly home'. The elder wife, on the other hand, is like an 'offended goddess' who is 'revolting' at the sacrifice. She calls the ritual 'unholy' and refers to the King as a 'tyrant'. In both speeches, there is sustained voice of the Western poet romanticizing the future of India under the British rule and critiquing the monarchical system and 'backward' practices.

However, one must not forget that the two speakers in the poem are women and the poem itself is written by a woman. In order to discuss gender within 'Orientalist' discourse, one would need to go beyond the Saidian framework. One would need to question the position of a British woman poet in Western society in India at this point in history: what were the opportunities and avenues available to her? How were her works received and how widely were they read? For the sake of this analysis, one has limited the argument within the framework given by Said. 

Painting/Illustration: Sati Pratha by Rekha Rai. Source: Artzolo

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