Littell's Living Age/Volume 145/Issue 1868/An Indo-Anglian Poet

Originally published in the Gentleman's Magazine.

I am afraid it will be always very difficult to make the British public understand that the Indian question is a home question. Notwithstanding that we have become imperial in our actions, we remain in our feelings insular. The fact is shown beyond all doubt by the relative popularity of English fiction. Let ever so great a novel-writer select a foreign scene for the incidents of his story, and that story falls flat and does not get up again George Eliot’s "Romola" is but one example out of hundreds. We English must be familiar with the place written about before we can take an interest in the dramatis personæ; let the scene be placed at home, and we can find some likeness for it in our own experience; but with "foreign parts" we have, as a rule, not sufficient knowledge to permit of domestic sympathy with their inhabitants. This is a truth that travelled and cultured persons are slow to learn, but it cannot be gainsaid. To the ordinary mind the "unknown" may be "magnificent" but it is not attractive. Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider the exceeding difficulty which foreigners—even the very pick of them—have in representing to themselves how life goes on with us. Victor Hugo has been in England, I believe; yet what English writer, however inferior to him—nay, however crude and ignorant—could have portrayed the English so absurdly as he has done in "L’Homme qui Rit," for instance? Even in literary criticism, which to an alien is comparatively easy work, what mistakes have men like Guizot and Taine committed!

For a long time in India there have been efforts made by natives of position—chiefly Parsees—to become not only proficients in the English tongue, but to assimilate themselves to English habits and customs. I do not know whether they have given up the personal worship of the sun—which they certainly would have to do, if they visited us under present circumstances—but they have become, as they flatter themselves, thoroughly anglicized, and have written several books about us. They even publish a magazine in our language—or in what they confidently believe to be such—which is certainly amusing, and in its way instructive, for it shows the utter hopelessness of our becoming intelligible to them. I have not a word to say against this meritorious periodical, nor, indeed, against Indo-Anglian literature generally; but it is just as well that folks at home should know what it is. There is so much rubbish talked about the growing sympathy of native races with ourselves, and of "the giant strides" which their intelligence is taking, that an exhibition of the latest specimen may be wholesome.

To expose the shortcomings of the work in question is not a pleasant task, for the author of it is very young—" just verging," as he expresses it, "on his twenty-first year of mortality;" but the fact is, his faults are not those of immaturity, but of that ignorance and misconception of English life and thought which lie at the root of all that has been written of us by his fellow-countrymen. I do not mention the writer’s name, for obvious reasons; suffice it to say that it is in a good many syllables, and utterly unpronounceable; but the work in question is to be obtained in a certain Indian capital of the famous publishers, "Gopal, Navazen, and Co., in the Kalbedevi Road." It is called "Courting the Muse," and is a selection of poems. "Such a gift of genius from India," says the author, "is rare "(though not so rare as he imagines). "The association of ideas of the late lamented Miss Todd Dutt, of Bengal, were altogether English and Parisienne; and though, as a native of India, she may be classed among her shining offspring, indeed her best place is at the side of the latest French writers."

Notwithstanding this modest compliment to Miss Dutt our "original and genuine muse," as he calls himself, is not deficient in self-confidence; he shows that to have "a gude conceit o’ oursels" is not peculiar to the thermal line of Edinburgh; and, to begin with, in the dedication of his poem, he appeals to the Creator himself.

   Thou, who made the heavens, created earth!
   The sun, the moon! from its primitive birth!
   And all the stars that lustrous shine at night
   And the deep waters, moving murmuring white!
   Who destined man o’er universe preside!
   And reason, intellect given for his guide!
   Thine aid I implore; would that thou inspire
   My song and make it worthy of the lyre.

I cannot conscientiously say that this gentleman’s prayer was heard. "The Queen of Peristan," his most ambitious poem, is dreadful. It is like "Lalla Rookh" with the sense and the grammar taken out of it. His reflections upon human life are obviously, indeed, borrowed from Moore (when he was "Little"), but not his rhymes.

   How many wait for nuptial day’s approach,
   How many ask for wealth, and four and coach!

(This is really charming; and yet, if coach-and-four, why not four-and-coach?)

   How many maids for Hymen’s waters[1], thirst!
   How many ‘buse the bachelors accurst!
   How many younglings wish for wedlock’s joys!
   As wife were simple plaything, doll, or toys!
   How many ‘trothed awaited their honeymoon!
   How many look on woman’s death a boon!

(Here, it strikes one, there is need of a commentator. I think the poet means that if we really knew the fair sex as they are, we should wish them all in heaven.)

   How many better do marry age—and wealth
   And joys with others, husbands kept by stealth!
   How many duchesses, countesses, misses,
   Do pass in balls as veteran mistresses!

Here it is obvious that instead of "How many" the poet should have written "How few." But what a picture of society! Let us hope he does not draw it from his personal observations of Anglo-Indian life. If he does, where does he get his duchesses from?

Let us now take our "original and genuine muse" in his devotional attitude. It will be observed that in "A Parsee’s Prayer" the fervor of his religious feeling gets so much the better of him as somewhat to obscure the sense and meaning.

   Trembling and pale before thee stands
       Oh, Lord, thy humble minion.
   On me, oh, pour with blissful hands
       The joy, the hope, the peace. Thou lenient.

This is very subtle. Is it possible, in connection with "pouring," that the last line should read—

       The joy, the hope, the peace, the liniment?

It may be urged that this does not rhyme; but it rhymes as well as the other.

       Unconscious unto sin betrayed
            A devout redemption implore.
       Let Ardibesht preside o’er fate
            And Tir the granaries restore.

       Let Berhram give his helping hand
            To virtue, decency, and truth,
       And Plenty rule o’er smiling land
            Thro’ Angel Meher forsooth.

What the deuce does he mean by "forsooth"? And, indeed, what does it all mean? If that is a Parsee prayer, surely even the worst of infidels will prefer Christianity. There is, however, a certain confusion of religious creeds, and a vagueness as to the personages appealed to, which, in these days of pantheism, may have its admirers. I confess to having myself taken a fancy to Ardibesht, a name that strikes me as being properly some other name thus pronounced under the influence of intoxication.

I cannot refrain from remarking, by-the-by, in spite of the author’s appeal to Berhram to give his helping hand in the matter of "decency," that that deity has not always done so. However, there are spots in the sun; so it is not to be expected that his mere worshippers should be without them. Where our author is at his weakest is in sarcasm. He has given us a poem in the style and metre of "Don Juan" which is, perhaps, the worst that has ever obtained the honors of print. It is directed against our social vices; but, fortunately for us, wherever he intends to be extraordinarily severe, he becomes completely unintelligible.

   Such rows are very common at the ‘Change,
       In London, the resort of wealth and fashion,
   Where men never cheat, but purses sharp estrange,
       So honorable is their intention;
   While women sleep for pennies at the Grange,
       So damned to shame is their wicked passion.
           If Indians for a moral place you seek,
           I recommend you London safe for a week.

It seems evident that in the third line of this noble verse our author had some muddle in his mind connected with Shakespeare’s "the wise do call convey," but for the rest he must have drawn his inspiration and his rhymes, if from any known writer, from the poet Close. His knowledge of London, I fear, has been derived from some practical joker; though his way of expressing it is all his own. He retains the same unapproachable style in describing Indian life. Here is a picture of what India was before the English rule—

   No lavished charges burthened then the state;
       Not thousands were the order of those days;
   No separate plans Europeans procreate,
       Or "more for whites" was not the rulers’ craze:
   Not choicest bits assigned at highest rate
       To them alone—as modern India pays
   Even to idiots—with horses, garden, hansom,
       Clear two thousand every mensem.

In his intense indignation the poet really seems to take leave of sense and even sound, just as a very angry man is obliged to sputter instead of speak. It is quite a relief to come upon four consecutive lines—when he is thus moved—which are intelligible, or nearly so.

   Oh, English, Scottish, Irish whites, that haunt
       Our Indian soil and cling to it like leeches,
   Remember, ere our humbleness you taunt,
       That most of you when come had no whole breeches.

On the other hand, our author acknowledges what good we bring with us, as in the impassioned verse beginning—

   How mild and gentle, guileless, obliging,
   Is that Young Man’s Christian Association, etc., etc.

As a humorous work, intended to be so, but only funny when it strays into seriousness, this poem is, in short, without a rival.

The "Elegy on the Cabul Embassy has also not often been surpassed.

   Peace to the perturbed spirits of those dead!
       Peace may ye find in heaven’s unclouded skies;
   May blood-red flowers illumine o’er your bed
       To trickle tears from posterity’s eyes.

       * * * * *

   Calm be your rest who fought so bold, unworn!
       Calm be your graves as joined in death as life!
   Calm be the hearts that spouseless, sonless mourn!
       Calm the revenge, calm the avenging strife!

After such lines as these it seems to be superfluous to have an erratum, with "Please read kingdoms for kigdoms," in it. It is with a great sense of relief that we turn from our author’s elegiac stanzas to his amatory poems.

   To Polly the younger I love her so strong
   That wherever she linger my heart goes along;
   In the ball, at the dance, on the ring for skaters,
   Or volunteer’s advance ‘tis Polly me fetters.

   In the landau driven what transport divine
   Finds echo in my haven as her. eyes meet mine.
   On the stand, on the bunder, with music’s soft trills,
   When her papa goes under, what coos and what bills!

I wonder what the poet means by his proposed father-in-law "going under." Does he mean under the table, where he is naturally incapable of perceiving what is going on? That it has some reference to his being overcome with liquor seems clear, since a later verse runs thus:—

   When lo her father entered, all brandy and gin,
   But his head had not centred on our scene.

I have heard of a "head-centre," but never before of a head "centred." There are many new things, however, in English literature to be learned from the Indo-Anglians.

Finally, to show how accurately these gentlemen gauge the sentiments and feelings of even the females of our race, I will quote the poem entitled "A Bombay Lady’s Complaint."

   Oh for those stately ced’r and oak
       My anxious heart repines,
   And country chimneys’ morning smoke
       And tender drooping vines I

   Oh for the hawthorn bush and glade
       That sloped the hill adown,
   And minster spire’s uptowering head,
       Adorned with clock and crown!

   Oh for my redbreast robin’s voice,
       And bittern’s early song;
   Oh for the whitened fields and snows
       Of Lincoln’s Norman-Long.

   Oh for the river barque to glide
       Along the gravel shore;
   Oh for my Bella’s gentle stride—
       This Bombay seems a bore.

   Oh for the evening walks and drives
       Along the park and green,
   And for the happy parson’s wives,
       So chatty though so mean!

There is much more to the same effect. But observe the "redbreast robin," and compare it with the "four and coach." Where on earth did our author get the notion that English ladies rise early in the morning to hear the bittern? Having read about "pluralists," he perhaps thinks it is only "local coloring" to speak of "parson's wives." However, he is convinced, as are other Indo-Anglian writers, that he knows all about us.

"What have I written" (he means "what I have written") "your own annals show."

   Your English books, periodicals are at hand,
   From which I cull, etc., etc.

So that he appears at least to possess some data. And yet, what comes of it? I really do hope—having dropped money into missionary-boxes in my time—that we know more about the natives of India than they know about us; otherwise, I should like that money returned.

  1. This is a reference to Hymenaios, a Greek god of marriage ceremonies.