Ornamentalism: an assortment
of collectables, domesticated
bric-a-brac, imports from the orient;
samplings of stuff, made sophisticated:
the leather-bound folio, paper-backed
penguins, specimens in formaldehyde.
The trinket, the hand-crafted artefact;
exotic and familiar, side-by-side.
Foreign objects, ambassadors abroad,
international treaties exercised.
A continental-shelf, cross-bow and sword:
“en garde!” – the world has been homogenised!
. We explore the unfamiliar; enough
. to give it status; substance over stuff.

© Tim Grace, 24 May 2014

To the reader: I’d been sitting beneath a decorative array of ‘exotic’ ornaments that in a moment of attention had me intrigued. The eclectic display was purely ornamental with no hint of suggested expense or value. “Ornamentalism” I thought. As it happens, the term ‘ornamentalism’ was coined by David Cannadine who expanded on the concept to describe ‘How the British Saw their Empire (~1850 to ~1950).

To the poet: Through the appropriation of exotic customs (including artefacts) the modern Imperialists integrated non-British cultures into a homogenised new-world order. The strict interpretation of a sonnet is similarly transformed by the introduction of slightly foreign influences; and so the form adapts and retains its significance. In this way, a structure keeps its relevance and meaning. Through ‘ornamentalism’ we loosen the grip of conservative hierarchies; and so, become familiar with alternative possibilities.


Title: Ornamentalism:
How the British Saw their Empire
Author: David Cannadine
Publisher: Allen Lane (2001)

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