Victorian Literary Tradition and Symbolism of Man and Colony

November 30, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Victorian concept of masculinity is one caught up a series of interrelated metaphors relating to the empire and national identity. Throughout the Victorian corpus there are a number of texts that create a metaphorical relationship between femininity and the colonised. In Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’, the poem represents the social conquest of marginal feminist politics through a metaphor of military conquest. Sexual and social domination therefore become metaphorically related to the colonial enterprise. Similarly, Froude’s report on colonial Trinidad serves to feminise the natives through depiction of their passivity and connection to the domestic sphere; the direction of the metaphorical relationship is reversed but the effect is similar – the representational practice of both categories become confused and the two become almost symbolically interchangeable. In contrast, the feminisation of the motherland serves an entirely different purpose. The mother country is depicted as a nurturing domestic space that needs to be protected and provided for by the colonising male. Epitomised by Queen Victoria, the image of mother England is an enabling and validating but ultimately passive force. This contrasts with the Victorian conception of a colonising masculinity. This masculinity is active and prescriptive, proving its bodily and mental control through a colonial exercise. As with the examples above, the process of colonisation and the achievement of masculinity become metaphorically indistinct so that one is analogous for and a part of the other.

The representation of the woman and the colony in Victorian literature works by a system of mutually reinforcing metaphors – the woman is the colony and the colony is the woman. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Princess’ attempts to articulate a distinction between masculinity and femininity. Ultimately, the poem repudiates Princess Ida’s feminist separatism and King Gama’s chauvinism. Nevertheless, the poem implicitly upholds a patriarchal power dynamic. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick goes so far to say “the Prince’s erotic perceptions are entirely shaped by the structure of the male traffic in women – the use of women by men as exchangeable objects, as counters of value, for the primary purpose of cementing relationship with other men.” Women become therefore become peripheral to the homosocial power-relationships. One of the more interesting aspects of this poem is that this exploration of gender politics is executed by means of a colonial metaphor; the issue of feminism/chauvinism is projected onto a colonial landscape. Therein, the woman is represented as an ‘Other’ landscape, in need of colonisation. The novel conflates Victorian anxieties regarding the session of colonial dependencies (as in ‘Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen’, another of Tennyson’s poems#) and radical feminism. Princess Ida states that her aim is to “[d]isyoke their necks from custom, and assert/None lordlier than themselves…” – here, the Princess draws simultaneously upon images of both separatist advocates in colonial states and radical feminist philosophers of the Victorian period.# The poem also accentuates cultural differences between the two kingdoms:

“I seemed to move among a world of ghosts;

The Princess with her monstrous woman-guard,

The jest and the earnest working side by side

The cataract and the tumult and the kings

Were shadows; and the long fantastic night

With all its doings hand and had not been,

And all things were and were not.”#

In this way, the concept of the unknowable woman and the unknowable native are amalgamated into a single representational unit; metaphorically, the woman becomes the colonised. This contrasts with James Anthony Froude’s ‘The English in the West Indies’ which retains all the individual elements of the aforementioned woman/colonised metaphor but reverses them to a similar end. That is, Froude uses techniques evident in Victorian representation of women and uses them to feminise (and therefore, disempower) the ‘native’. Throughout the text, Froude consistently indexes the native to a domestic sphere; that is, the traditional space of the Victorian woman. He says, “…plantains throw their cool shade over the doors; oranges and limes and citrons perfume the air, and droop their boughs under the weight of their golden burdens […] Children played about in swarms, in happy idleness and abundance”. Like the English domestic space, Froude’s West Indies are a place marked by simplicity and granted abundance (as opposed to abundance directly earned). Moreover, the West Indies (again, like the English domestic sphere) are represented as being in a precarious political position. The prelapsarian innocence that Froude describes are only maintained “so long as English rule continues…”. In his view, England is not motivated by mere altruism but states that to allow the West Indies self-government would be “to shirk responsibility”.# Like the traditional Victorian woman, the West Indies native is an innocent and delicate creature, unable to maintain their paradisal state without the protection of the masculine imperial project. Ultimately, Froude and Tennyson both construct their texts through the conflation of the feminine and the colonial and as an inevitable result, indexing masculinity to the imperial project.

If Froude and Tennyson use representational practice to code the colonised as a sexual conquest (and vice versa), contemporaneous English literature also shows a tendency towards a different kind feminisation of England – the motherland. The colonising male is coded as the provider and protector of an idealised, domestic home. England therefore, acts as a metaphor for the domestic mother-figure: spiritually and emotionally nurturing but ultimately in need of protection by the active, colonial male. Eliza Cook, in her 1851 publication of ‘The Englishman’ provides a unique instance of a female voice describing the workings of the colonial mechanism.# Throughout the poem, Cook creates a space of domestic comfort in the form of spiritual and emotional validation. She describes the titular Englishman as possessing “…a deep and honest love/The passions of faith and pride” and who “yearns with the fondness of a dove/To the light of his own fireside”. Moreover, writing as a woman, Cook’s evocation of national pride and solidarity becomes a test of true masculinity. If Englishmen are “lion spirits that tread the deck [and who]/Have carried the palm of the brave”, then male subjects who not conform to this image are, by implication of the poems representational politics are emasculated and disavowed; they are not truly Englishmen.# In return for their conformity, the figure of the colonising male is confirmed in his masculinity and granted a privileged cultural status. Their masculinity precludes them from banal mortality. They are “the deathless ones who shine and live/In arms, in arts or song,/The brightest the whole wide world can give/To that little land belong”. The male subject becomes validated and immortalised in reward for his exhibition of masculinity. He is able to claim the “glorious charter” that is to say “I’m an Englishman”. This masculinity is of course, directly related to the ability of the male to colonise on behalf of the domestic, feminised motherland. The Englishman is always described in terms of his activity (as opposed to passivity):

“The Briton may traverse the pole or the zone

And boldly claim his right;

For he calls such a vast domain his own

That the sun never sets on his might.”

Even morality of The Englishman is coded in terms of its activity. He “leaps with burning glow,/The wrong and weak to defend;/And strikes as soon for a trampled foe/As it does for a soul-bound friend”. In this way, the masculinity of the colonial male is delineated and re-affirmed by the female poetic voice, who in turn represents the validating domestic sphere that is England itself. A similar coding of the motherland can be found in Tennyson’s “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen”. The very title of the poem (and indeed, the act it describes) exhibit the power of the domestic female, epitomised in Queen Victoria to validate the colonial activity of the male subject. Domestic familial relationships are stressed in the poem; the colonising agents are not ‘other’ to the homeland but “[s]ons and brothers”. Tennyson evokes a sense of national solidarity through his continual admonition to the reader: “Britons, hold your own!” Most significantly, Tennyson expresses his wish that “…as ages run,/The mother may be featured in the son”. That is, that the then Prince of Wales, Albert Edward would live up to the success of his mother, Queen Victoria. The politics of the nation thus become flattened to the domestic: the mother enables the masculinity of her son, who in turn provide, “Produce of your field and flood,/Mount and mine, and primal wood;/Works of subtle brain and hand,/And splendours of the morning land.” Thus, in both poems, the masculinity of the son of England is indexed to his ability to provide – a metaphor that once again conflates domestic and colonial representations. The female voice (speaking from the motherland) may validate and enable this activity but the activity itself is ultimately the domain of the male subject.

These various appropriates of feminine metaphors act as a counterpoint to the development of a colonising masculinity. In Tennyson’s “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen”, discussed above, the poet constructs the image of colonising sons of England as a counterpoint to the female domestic epitomised in the image of Queen Victoria. Like Cook’s Englishman, Tennyson’s masculinity is an active, progressive forces, rather than passive or stagnant. The masculinity of the male subject is not implied but rather achieved through the colonising action:

“And may yours for ever be

That old strength and constancy

Which has made your fathers great

In our ancient island State,

And wherever her flag fly,

Glorying between sea and sky

Makes the might of Britain known”

The ability of the male to achieve masculinity (through identification with the father) is achieved through military/colonial conquest. If the role of the domestic female is to enable the conquest of the son-figure, it’s fully realised father-figure form retains the ability to order and control – the female space can only express a passive, matriarchal authority while the male possesses the active power of the patriarch. Tennyson explores this construction through reference to the United States. He states that previous rulers, “[d]rove from out the mother’s nest/That young eagle of the West/To forage for herself alone”. It is the domain (and responsibility) of the patriarch to organise and control the family-empire. The existence of the patriarch-figure implicitly creates the family unit and the empire as a whole. Most importantly, the masculinity of the imperial project serves to unify the nation and create a sense of security and solidarity. Tennyson describes this in the final stanza of the poem:

“Shall we not thro’ good and ill

Cleave to one another still?

Britain’s myriad voices call

‘Sons, be welded each and all

Into one imperial whole,

One with Britain, heart and soul!

One life, one flag, one fleet, one Throne!”

As a result, the ‘myriad voices’ of a dissolute empire become solidified through a masculine construct. This vision of masculinity if further expounded by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, “If—“. Written from a father’s perspective, the poem explores the transfer of masculinity from father to son. The title of the poem and the continual repetition of the word ‘if’ signal to the audience the prescriptive nature of masculinity. It is not granted but achieved if the subject in question conforms to the prescriptions. Like Cook’s description of masculine morality, Kipling indexes ethical behaviour to activity. The opening stanza of the poem describes a man who “can think — and not make thoughts [his] aim”. The ultimate pursuit of the ideal male is not metaphysical but actively physical – he is described as continually rebuilding, “with worn-out tools” that which is destroyed. The physicality of masculinity is something that Kipling repeatedly emphasises throughout the poem. The masculine man can “…fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”. He is judged both by his physical superiority and by his ability to progress both literally and metaphorically. His progression becomes metaphorically related to the colonial project itself, the act of moving out and testing oneself physically and mentally. Ultimately, Kipling suggests that masculinity is achieved through control. Firstly, through control of the self, “the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”. Having established this trait, the masculine male is able to control his surroundings. In a continual state of conquest, the man “can make a heap of all [his] winnings/And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,/And lose, and start again at [his] beginnings/And never breathe a word about your loss”. For those who manage to achieve the standards set out in the poem, Kipling promises “the Earth and everything that’s in it,/And — which is more — you’ll be a man my son”. As with femininity, metaphors of empire and masculinity become confused into a mutually referring set of signifiers. The ideal man is a colonising force and the imperial project is analogous to the achievement of masculinity.

In summation, the process of colonisation and the Victorian conceptualisation of gender are mutually reinforced through their representation in contemporaneous text. The literature of the time shows a tendency to depict the act of colonisation as sexual conquest by rendering the native population passive and feminine. Similarly, radical feminist politics are represented by Tennyson as a dangerous cultural other, in need of a colonising masculine influence. In both cases, the feminine and the colonial become conflated into indistinct categories so that one can stand for the other. In contrast, the image of the motherland serves as an equally feminine but more matriarch signifier. The matriarch, epitomised in the depiction of Queen Victoria can validate and enable the colonising male but is ultimately relegated to passivity. It is the domain, therefore of the male to provide for and protect the domestic sphere of the homeland through the colonial mechanism. This ability to provide and protect becomes a signifier of masculinity. Masculinity becomes itself imperial, therefore. As a result, the achievement of masculinity becomes, like femininity, conflated in ambiguity. Ultimately, the subjects achievement of masculinity comes about not only the act of colonisation itself but by metaphorical relationship to the creation and maintenance of the empire – an imperial masculinity.

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