The Harp as Poetic Resistance in “The Harp of India”

In Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s poem, “The Harp of India,” Derozio appropriates the image of the harp to connote the consumption of Indian culture within Britain, similarly to the consumption of Irish culture into the British. For Ireland, the harp is an image which represents cultural, musical, and artistic heritage, and it is a uniting figure for Irish liberation movements contesting against the colonial rule of Britannia. Therefore, one might wonder why Derozio decides to use a typically Irish image to within an Indian context, but, rather, it seems like an image which works well as a poetic device for speaking to colonial power.

Like the poetry of his Irish counterparts, Derozio uses the image of the harp to represent cultural celebration, a reclamation of culture within a society plagued by colonial influence. Derozio represents his harp as a broken instrument: “Unstrung for ever, must thou there remain;/ Thy music once was sweet — who hears it now?” (ll 2-3). If the harp represents national identity and cultural pride, the “harp of India” is busted, unstrung and in need of repair.

Although it is broken, the speaker of the poem indicates a familiarity with the instrument, as the poem reads: “O! many a hand more worth than mine/ Once thy harmonious chords to sweetness gave” (ll. 8-9). Despite the fact that the harp cannot be played, and the speaker of the poem acknowledges their own inadequacy in playing it, there is a similarity between the act of playing the instrument and writing the poem, as both conjure a musical quality: the harp literally the plucking of chords and the poem stringing words together with a rhythmic pattern and linguistic mastery.

Likewise, the poem is itself musical, conjuring the sonnet form to laud the beautiful music of the instrument. Additionally, the speaker notes the “flowers still blooming on the minstrel’s grave,” the undoubtedly given to the skilled master of the harmonious instrument (l. 11). Although the musical minstrel is dead, the poetic minstrel lives on, within the pen of the poet. The last three lines of the poem celebrate the return of the minstrel, this time through the hands of the poet: “Those hands [the minstrel’s] are cold — but if thy notes divine/ May be mortal wakend once again,/ Harp of my country, let me strike the strain!” (ll. 12-14). Derozio, although crying the death of the minstrel (the old guard of Indian culture), shows the bards of language to be the new holder of the torch, a new minstrel by which the people can celebrate their national heritage, their cultural pride, and their rights to national sovereignty.

Peace

—Nathaniel Schwass

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