To the eighteenth century we must look, if we would understand the beginnings of English poetry in India. The traditions of that great age will die hard in the East; and it would be strange if the period that includes the career of Clive and Hastings had left no literary work of permanence. Towards the close of the eighteenth century the history of India had been given definite direction. England and France had fought to a final conclusion their duel in the East; and the shadow of Napoleonic dominance had been dissipated by the lightning of Nelson's guns at the battle of the Nile. In those triumphant days began the literary work of Englishmen in India; and, as befitted the eighteenth century, there was a high seriousness in this beginning. To Sir William Jones the heaped treasures of Oriental learning made as urgent an appeal as the hoarded wealth of the Moghul Empire to the merchant-adventurers of the Company. Apart from his work as a translator, he attempted to explain and illustrate the Hindu mythology in a series of original odes. His verse became a vehicle of scholarly instruction, exemplifying the stately dignity that derives from Milton and Gray. By the time of his death in the year 1794, he had ennobled the activities of his countrymen in the East, and had revealed to Europe a whole fresh world of literary investigation.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the romantic movement in the literature of England had begun to influence the small group of writers of whom Reginald Heber and John Leyden were the chief. The first has much of the gentle spirit of William Cowper; and the second has the fire and vigour that belong to the Scottish Border. Leyden was the friend of the great Sir Walter who alluded to his death in The Lord of the Isles.
Scarba's Isle, whose tortured shore
Still rings to Corrievreckan's roar.
And lonely Colonsay:
Scenes sung by him who sings no more,
His bright and brief career is o'er,
And mute his tuneful strains;