Sebastian Lecourt: The Light of Asia and the Varieties of Victorian Presentism

Edwin Arnold

by Sebastian Lecourt

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

The complaint that the term Victorian, with its ambiguous conflation of nation, period, and personage, represents an undo stumbling block for scholars of Dickens or Eliot is hardly new. Indeed, in many ways it belongs to a wider crisis of categories instigated by postcolonial theory. One of the main lessons that figures such as Said taught us, after all, was that so many of the genre and period tags organizing our field – west and east, modern and ancient, novel and epic – are ideological projections that function to pull diverse global histories into the master narratives of western modernity. Over the past two decades, transnationally minded critics have sought to take this critique on board in a number of ways. Some have deliberately explored the ideological freight of western comparative forms through a re-politicized formalism in the tradition of Lukács (Puchner 2006; Slaughter 2007; Esty 2011). Others have embraced a new particularism that examines how individual texts, as they circulate internationally, can be taken up in surprising ways that belie their Eurocentric roots (see the essays in Burton and Hofmeyr 2014). Still other critics have looked toward the world systems that make such circulation possible (Moretti 2000).

Within Victorian studies itself, Caroline Levine and Priya Joshi have used elements of the latter two approaches to reimagine the term Victorian, not as a national or period marker, but instead as the name of a transnational media network built by Queen Victoria’s agents – a sprawling infrastructure of printing presses, railroads, telegraphs, and educational institutions that disseminated imperial media around the globe (Joshi 2002; Levine 2013). The refreshing thing about this approach is that it expands the idea of the Victorian temporally as well as geographically, opening up a kind of presentist optic that permits us to read Victorian literature beyond the horizon of its immediate historical context. Once you do the legwork of reconstructing this Victorian media network, you discover that a great deal of our contemporary information world, from the Indian public libraries that interest Joshi to the Gothic and Pre-Raphaelite affects haunting contemporary pop music, is built upon Victorian foundations. What is more, you realize that we encounter a striking amount of pre-Victorian culture as it was remediated by Victorian writers. The Oxford philologist Max Müller’s translation of the Upanishads, for example, may yet be found at major bookstores and free online in countless e-editions. Call this historicism as presentism, a historicism that treats today as a reality constituted by multiple deep pasts.

I have recently explored this critical landscape on the v21 blog and elsewhere.[i] At last October’s V21 Symposium, however, Jesse Rosenthal drew our attention to one danger in such an approach: the danger of too easily privileging those aspects of Victorian media that we fancy make the most natural precursors for ourselves. In this golden age of television, the serial publication of the Victorian novel can seem a lot more interesting than the adaptation of Victorian novels into lavish theatrical productions, a practice that resonates better with the bestseller-to-blockbuster pipeline of 1990s Hollywood. The risk of presentism, in other words, is that we might return to a kind of Whig history in which the past functions primarily to lead to ourselves.

What I want to suggest here, though, is that Joshi’s brand of diffusionary history also has resources for resisting this kind of circularity. Specifically, I have found it instructive to read Victorian literature, as she defines it, not just through its contemporary afterlives but also through its uptake by subsequent periods – in particular, to revisit nineteenth-century texts that we no longer consider important but represented seminal works to readers in the 1920s or the 1960s. Recently, for instance, I have written on The Light of Asia, an epic poem about the Buddha published by Edwin Arnold in 1879 (Lecourt 2016a; 2016b: 114). Arnold (no relation to Matthew) taught for years in India before returning to London in the seventies to work as a journalist and poet. Although The Light of Asia was but one of several adaptations of Asian religious works that he published over the following years, it would become an especially celebrated bestseller, going through dozens of editions in multiple languages and inspiring both stage and screen versions. Mahatma Gandhi credited The Light of Asia, along with Arnold’s verse translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with rekindling his interest in Indian religion, while T. S. Eliot would recall the poem fondly as something that had expanded his mental horizons as a young man (Clausen 1973; Franklin 2005). Meanwhile the poem also had a major impact upon emerging Buddhist nationalisms from Ceylon to Japan to Burma.[ii]

In both metropolitan and colonial contexts, Arnold’s poem helped promulgate a Protestantized construction of Buddhism as a religion that was about neither rituals nor doctrines but rather moral individualism (McMahan 2008). While we think of this vision of Buddhism as a phenomenon of the twentieth century – the modernist rebellion against Victorian religious morality, or postwar Baby Boomer frustrations with middle-class materialism – it might better be described as Victorian Protestant earnestness turning its righteous gaze against Protestantism itself, an evangelical anti-formalist polemic that has latched onto a non-western religion in order to chide its own culture. Recognizing it as such reveals that the line between presentism and historicism, reading the past through the lens of our priorities and assessing it on its own terms, can be quite hard to draw. Not only do we frequently receive the past as mediated by other periods, but the stances from which we criticize particular historical epochs may rest upon foundations built within them. In the case of Arnold’s poem, where once we might have seen a period and its various afterlives, we now perceive a set of constantly mutating preoccupations that are as vital in current-day America and Japan as they were in Victorian England or Ceylon. This is just standard dialectical history, of course, but it reminds us that presentism can never be completely present, and if done self-consciously can encourage a great sensitivity to the complexities of the past.

Moreover, reading Victorian texts as they influence us through intervening cultural moments can strengthen historicist practice by highlighting how, in reframing the past around our own concerns, we inevitably take part in a certain history. In her paper at last October’s V21 Symposium, Anna Kornbluh championed the power of anachronistic reading to juxtapose different texts from across literary periods and thus rescue us from the myopia of contextual interpretation. “What Susan Stanford Friedman has called ‘cultural parataxis,’ the radical collage of texts from different geohistorical coordinates,” she ventured, “can produce new textual insights and new theoretical insights” (Kornbluh 2015). Tracing the multiple afterlives of something like The Light of Asia, however, puts anachronistic reading itself into a kind of historical perspective by showing that such willful comparison of literary materials out of period is not some gesture against history but rather the latest episode in the history of what Levine calls affordances: the way in which literary forms are both in control of their own history and not, suggesting a certain set of imaginative possibilities that only others can realize for them (Levine 2014: 6-7).

Indeed, a global, cross-period historicism might actually embolden an anachronistic hermeneutic by letting us compare the ways that we reframe nineteenth-century literary materials with how other periods have done it – letting us see, that is, how our anachronistic readings take part in the ongoing process by which forms are used and reused, disseminated and appropriated. My own copy of The Light of Asia, an 1889 edition published by Roberts Brothers in Boston, belonged a professor at a small religious college in northern California where my mother works. His copy, in turn, was inscribed in pencil by a Margaret Burr back in 1890. I cannot say what either reader made of the poem, though I assume that their takes differed from mine, which is driven both by memories of a teenage interest in Buddhism and by a scholarly preoccupation with the history of religious studies. But it fascinates me that we are part of the same history, dependent in some sense upon that imperial encounter in South Asia a century and a half ago.



Blackburn, Anne. 2010. Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burton, Antoinette and Isabel Hofmeyr. 2014. Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons. Durham: Duke University Press.

Clausen, Christopher. 1973. “Sir Edwin Arnold’s ‘The Light of Asia’ and its Reception.” Literature East and West 17: 174-91.

Esty, Jed. 2011. Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Franklin, J. Jeffrey. “The Life of the Buddha in Victorian England.” ELH 72 (4): 941-974.

Gombrich, Richard and Gananath Obeyesekere. 1988. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Harris, Elizabeth J. 2008. Theravāda Buddhism and the British Encounter. New York: Oxford University Press.

Joshi, Priya. 2002. In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kornbluh, Anna. 2015. “History Repeating.” Paper presented at the V21 Colloquium, Chicago, October 9.

Lecourt, Sebastian. 2015. “Victorian Studies and the Transnational Present.” V21 blog post.

—–. 2016a. “Idylls of the Buddh’: Buddhist Modernism and Victorian Poetics in Colonial Ceylon.” PMLA 131 (3): forthcoming.

—–. 2016b. “That Untravell’d World: The Problem of Thinking Globally in Victorian Studies.” Literature Compass 13 (2): 108-17.

Levine, Caroline. 2013. “From Nation to Network.” Victorian Studies 55 (4): 647-66.

—–. 2014. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Malalgoda, Kirsiri. 1976. Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750-1900. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McMahan, David. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (January-February): 54-68.

Puchner, Martin. 2006. Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rosenthal, Jesse. 2015. “Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development.” Paper presented at the V21 Colloquium, Chicago, October 9.

Slaughter, Joseph. 2007. Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law. New York: Fordham University Press.


[i] See Lecourt 2015 and 2016b.

[ii] For overviews of the revival, consult Malalgoda 1976; Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988; Seneviratne 1999; Harris 2008; Blackburn 2010.



Sebastian Lecourt is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston.  His essays have appeared in PMLA, Victorian Studies, and Victorian Literature and Culture. 


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