The historical poetics group met with graduate students and faculty at the University of Maryland, with each member of the group contributing a five minute discussion of poems by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and Toru Dutt. The opening statements ranged across texts and issues, with special attention to Harper’s Moses and the Aunt Chloe poems. Most participants were less familiar with the work of Toru Dutt, the Bengali poet.  A variety of her poems were discussed, including “Out Casuarina Tree,” “Savitri,” and “The Royal Ascetic and the Hind.” In afternoon and on the morning following, we met as a group among ourselves and continued the themes that had been raised on Saturday.

Participants found the pairing of Dutt and Harper compelling, suggesting that Dutt and Harper shared, although in highly asymmetrical fashion, a relation to migration and to cultural and religious syncretism. Both were insider / outsiders and both, in very different ways, resisted the standard or normative assimilationist pressures that impinged on them from all sorts of directions with a great deal of force. Their poems force us to triangulate both national boundaries and genre.  

With Harper’s Moses we traced a complicated relationship to genre – most people call it an epic poem. But the poem employs many genres, verse-play, then ceases, indulges in moments of extended storytelling, adventure, story within stories, song, closing poem, different from each other and rest of poem, re-telling, didactic commentary, narrative voice in midst of first person account, and elegy. Incredible generic hybridity is masked by the poem’s ostensibly easy diction. And the poem raises complex issues of print and reading.

We discussed Dutt’s multinational contexts—Bengal, Europe, England, and back, and engaged in a comparison of Dutt and Kipling, both of whom grew up within a strong evangelicalism but then stepped outside of it. Tricia Looten’s coinage, the ‘preternational’ was mooted as a way of reading of Dutt’s “Our Causuarina Tree.”


Saturday, October 15th

Public session from 10:00am-12:30pm in Tawes 2115, University of Maryland, College Park

All are welcome to join us for a discussion of the following texts (PDFs available by clicking on the titles) by Frances E. Watkins Harper and Toru Dutt. Lunch will follow for all who attend.

Frances E. Watkins Harper
Moses: a Story of the Nile (1869; 1889; 1893)
from Sketches of Southern Life (1872; 1886):  “Our English Friends,” the Aunt Chloe sequence (5 poems), “‘I Thirst’,” “The Dying Queen” and, in 1886, “The Jewish Grandfather’s Story”

Toru Dutt
from Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan: “Savitri,” “Sita,” Miscellaneous poems:  (7 poems):  “Near Hastings,” “France–1870,” “The Tree of Life,” “On the Flyleaf. . . ,” “Sonnet-Baugmaree,” “Sonnet-The Lotus,” “Our Causarina Tree”