When I was sixteen years old and on vacation at my uncle’s home in western India, my summer friend copied for me the entirety of Lord Byron’s “All for Love” and gave me the sheet, torn from a schoolbook, to keep as a remembrance.
It was one of those brief friendships, lasting just one summer, but it was intense in its mutual girlish infatuation, bright and hot like the sun that shone down on us every day. Shy confidences spilled out like rare rubies that had been hidden from the light but that now shone brilliantly, and one such ruby was my summer friend’s love for Byron’s “All for Love.” We pored over Byron’s lines, turning them over and over in our heads. In their magnificent and bold extravagance, they were not unlike the romantic Bollywood songs we listened to. Bollywood’s lyricists shared Byron’s iconoclastic sentiments. In those songs, love trumped religion, class, and caste:
Go ahead, break apart
your temple and mosque
but never break a lover’s heart
For the Beloved lives there.
The scales on which you weigh your love
In them don’t weigh your silver.
. . .
Fire and love, they burn the same
but water extinguishes fire.
The tears that flow from the Beloved’s eye, though,
They make the flames glow brighter.
(translation, courtesy of the author)
This song was sung in the hugely popular and successful Bollywood film, Bobby, released in 1973. Its eponymous young hero, played by Rishi Kapoor, broke many a girl’s heart and paved the way for a new kind of film centered on a new kind of cinematic romance: a youthful romance between lovers (and actors) who were closer to our own age, more like us than our parents. And they wore jeans!
My summer friend and I were pubescent teenagers nursing the sweet pain of boy crushes and unrequited loves, and we drank in the thrilling imagery of the Beloved’s fire-feeding tears and the undying passion of her lover, Bobby. To us, these Bollywood songs were sexually charged, and their innate compatibility with Byron’s poetry was received and accepted without the filter of critical self-reflection.
Critical self-reflection came later for me, in the American college classroom, when what was romantic had to be disentangled from what was Romantic. What may seem remarkable now was something I never remarked upon then—that a nineteenth-century British aristocrat, a scandalous bisexual lover, cosmopolitan traveler, freedom fighter, and modern English poet par excellence, spoke directly to gawky unworldly teenage Indian girls from conservative middle-class families among whom arranged marriages were the enforced norm.
But for me, that summer, Byron was universal, just as Bollywood was universal. The language of love was as universal as the language of beauty, which of course had to be beautiful itself in order to apprehend beauty. As Keats—who also admired the “respondent glow” of Byron’s poetry—put it:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.
And besides, there was Dr. B—otherwise known as Shobhana Bhattacharji—the teacher who instilled in English majors at Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi an abiding love for the Romantics: she who often strode into class wearing boots and a sari; who drove her own car to work (women drivers were still scarce in the capital in the 70s); whose morning ritual was to hitch herself up on her desk and light a cigarette (another social taboo) before launching into yet another enthralling lecture on Byron or Keats or Shelley. It was Dr. B who made the Romantics come to life for us by introducing us not just to their poetry but also to their turbulent lives and times.
The poetry of Earth is never dead.
Dr. B. shaped and molded the Romantics into living breathing beings, inhabitants belonging not to the Sceptered Isle, nor even to the Seat of Empire, but indeed to the Earth.
Fast forward five years to a mid-western American university where I began my doctoral studies, and Dr. B’s hold over me and the Romantics weakened considerably. In the early 1980s, traditional English departments in the US were still working in the long shadow of the New Critics, whose baleful presence manifested in such soul-crushing book titles as Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Well Wrought Urn. A girlhood romance born in the tropics was no doubt doomed to perish when subjected to the wintery chill of scansion exercises, the tabulation of symbols, and the identification of intentional fallacies; well wrought indeed.
When postcolonial theory began to dawn in the mid-80s, it exacted its own price. Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha—aptly characterized by Robert Young as the “Holy Trinity” of postcolonial theory—exerted a far-reaching influence that, at its most basic, questioned the entire edifice of Western metaphysics and Western material practice. For South Asian students like myself, postcolonial theory validated fields of study that were closer to home, and it was liberating. I went on to write a dissertation on the topic of race, nationalism, and Indian literature, breaking up with the Romantics in the process. Reading Keats (my favorite of them all) in this phase made me cringe—as when he alluded to the “dusky face” of “Asia” leaning on an “elephant’s tusk” in the “palm-shaded temples” of the “Ganges’ sacred isles,” or contrasted his “[B]eauties of deeper glance” with “the whitest arms” of England’s “artless daughters,” or when Keats’s “stout Cortz” “star’d at the Pacific” “with eagle eye.”
When I recently told Dr. B. in a Facebook conversation about how the Romantics had made me cringe, she scoffed at my narrow, ideological standpoint. “Seat of empire nonsense!” she declared. The Romantics, she pointed out, “appealed to freedom fighters” in nineteenth-century India. “We also had a Romantic movement inspired by them,” she reminded me. “Thank god for those wider-minded times before we began to get bogged down in identity politics of the narrowest kind, that thinks you are a traitor if you say you like something other than yourself,” she said. Dr. B was right, of course. We had our own literary Romanticism, and although such poets as Rabindranath Tagore and Henry Derozio were influenced by the likes of William Wordsworth, nineteenth-century Anglophone Indian literature was never quite derivative.
Dr. B went on to share fascinating tidbits about her own undergraduate experience studying the Romantics in the early 1970s. Her teachers were “pretty ghastly.” They were, she wrote, “strongly influenced by the Arnold-Eliot later Victorian-Modernist attitude . . . trashing [the Romantics] without explaining very much.” It was the heyday of New Criticism; hence “all biographical and historical information was kept out like Satan in a good Christian home.” Not surprisingly, then, Dr. B’s early years teaching at Jesus and Mary College were challenging. Then, she cracked the code: “Eventually I hit on it,” she told me. The Romantics “were human beings, not angels, ineffectual or otherwise, nor demons. They belonged to a specific time and place, which molded them and to which they responded. Fine. NOW the poetry was likely to make sense.”
Fortunately for herself and her students, Dr. B brought Satan in through the front door. What she tried to convey to us was that the Romantics were pioneers of the sort that makes them endlessly baffling and interesting. As she put it: “Of course, once you have got to these promised lands, the other thing about them holds you in thrall, viz., HOW THE HECK DO THEY DO IT. How can they say they are writing about a nightingale . . . and not include it in the poem, yet have millions of readers convinced that they have written about the nightingale.”
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown[.]
I discovered my summer friend’s torn notebook page earlier this year, folded up in an old copy of Keats’s collected works in which my penciled marginal comments were still faintly visible. The handwritten poem, and the paper it is written on, constitute a kind of archive that is still pleasurable to inhabit after all these years. Even the errors, frozen in time because forever uncorrected, are a pleasure: the missing article “the” in stanza 2, the repetition of “to see the bright eyes of the dear one discover” in stanza 3, giving it the anomaly of five lines. These errors return me to the hand that committed them to paper and to the writer who, moving from poem to paper, was momentarily distracted. Re-reading my summer friend’s imperfect copy of Byron’s “All for Love,” I realized what Dr. B knew: the postcolonial pleasures of the European canon can lead us to claim those texts for ourselves. The resistive and restorative powers of pleasure may speak louder—and do more for postcolonial reclamation—than theories that insist, implicitly or explicitly, that we break up with the texts that we have grown up loving.
Alpana Sharma is professor and chair of English at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She publishes and teaches in the area of post-colonial literature and cinema. Her most recent publication, “Intimations of Modernity: The Legacy of Toru Dutt,” will appear in MLA’s Options for Teaching Series, Teaching Anglophone South Asian Women Writers, later this year.