Story posted: Saturday, 28. May 2011 by CPA Media
Pictures From History / Themes / OZYMANDIAS
Dreams of Xanadu - The Allure of Orientalism
'Orientalism' is the name given to a romanticised and even meretricious vision of The East that developed following Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1799. From about this time Western adventurers and explorers began to penetrate the back-blocks of Asia and the Middle East, often followed by poets and painters. In fact this process of ‘discovery' was not only commercially driven, but also by a genuine lust for knowledge, to fill in the blank spaces on the maps. And, of course, as well as cruelty and squalor, there were wondrous things to be discovered and described, as the West learned, sometimes for the first time, of distant, ancient and sophisticated civilisations. This is epitomised by Flecker's Golden Journey to Samarkand:
We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand
James Elroy Flecker (1913)
Rediscovery of the Silk Road was a fortunate but almost accidental consequence of the struggle for control of western China and Central Asia known as the ‘Great Game’. Yet it was also driven in part by a romantic vision of ‘The East’ that would come to be known as Orientalism – a process that may have begun with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799. Certainly from about this time Western adventurers and explorers began to penetrate the back-blocks of Asia and the Middle East, often followed by poets and painters. The process of ‘discovery’ was not simply commercially driven, but also by a genuine lust for knowledge, to fill in the blank spaces on the maps. And, of course, as well as cruelty and squalor, there were wondrous things to be discovered and described, as the West learned, sometimes for the first time, of distant, ancient and sophisticated civilisations.
Perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge began the Orientalist process for Central Asia in 1797, when he penned his opium-dream poem Kubla Khan:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1797)
This was followed for the Middle East, in short succession, by Shelley’s celebrated sonnet Ozymandias, generally agreed to refer to the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt:
I met a traveller from an antique land who said
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert
Near them on the sand Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies
Whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains: Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818).
Similarly Burgon’s celebrated sonnet Petra, romanticising the Nabatean ruins of ancient Jordan:
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime
A rose-red city, half as old as time.
John William Burgon (1845).
By the mid-19th century the West was avidly seeking knowledge of these ‘Eastern climes’, and financial prizes, as well as fame and glory, were made available to a new breed of explorers and academics by August bodies like Britain’s Royal Asiatic Society, founded in 1824 to promote ‘the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia’. Similar institutions sprang up in Holland, France and Russia, and later in Germany and even Japan.
Meanwhile, Orientalist painting continued to flourish, reaching its zenith in the mid-19th century.
Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.Category: World
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