Essays in Romanticism

Figuring Orientalism: The Arabesque and Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer

Essays in Romanticism (2017), 24, (1), 21–34.

Abstract

In the preface to Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Robert Southey identifies his irregular metre as “the Arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale. ” At the same time, he acknowledges a distinctly Western model for his verse (Dr. Frank Sayers’s poetry on Norse mythology), and disparages the arabesque aesthetic in a later footnote, calling it “absurd to the eye” and “a waste of ornament and labour. ” I examine these discrepancies, arguing that Southey undermines both Eastern and Western aesthetics, resulting in his own liminal and hybrid arabesque. Furthermore, we can read Thalaba as a stand-in for Southey: just as Thalaba destroys the types of immoralities associated with an “arabesque” East, Southey endeavors to purify the aesthetic of excesses and create the space for his formal refiguration. At stake in Southey’s particular development of the arabesque are both the aesthetics and the politics of the (mis)representation of the East in Romantic writing.

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Author details

Solomon, Christina