Poets of John Company/Introduction


NO complete anthology of verse written by Englishmen in India has ever been compiled; and the reason is not far to seek. Those writers who have achieved distinction have won for themselves a permanent place in the records of English literature. No history of our poetry will neglect the names of Bishop Heber and of Sir Edwin Arnold. Those writers who have failed to secure such recognition have been forgotten; and their published works, no longer in circulation, have become the hobby of the bibliophile and the collector.

Three attempts have been made to rescue from neglect our English poets in India. Captain David Lester Richardson, who was on the staff of Lord William Bentinck, added, as an appendix to his Selections from the British Poets, several specimens of the poetry then produced in Bengal. This work was published in 1840. By that time the amount of this poetry was not inconsiderable; and Richardson contrived to bring together some eighteen names including his own. The specimens of the verse selected, if not of the highest order, are full of interest. This is the first anthology of Anglo-Indian poetry; and for its time it was the best. Richardson also compiled and edited The Bengal Annual, a collection of prose and verse that appeared on seven occasions; and much of the poetry of these annuals he included in his Selections from the British Poets. The work of Thomas Philip Manuel, who in 1861 published in Calcutta The Poetry of our Indian Poets, does not extend appreciably the range of Richardson's collection. The poems of this book are few in number and have been unskilfully chosen; but there are brief introductory biographies of the authors, and these are useful to the investigator. In 1868, Thomas Benson Laurence published his English Poetry in India, being biographical and critical notices of Anglo-Indian poets with copious extracts from their writings. This work ranks with that of Manuel, and is of equal value to the student. While these three publications show a certain interest in the poetry written by Englishmen in India, the date of their production makes them useless for the modern reader. The work of Richardson is inaccessible; and, if the anthologies of Manuel and Laurence were now available, they have been so badly produced and so inadequately edited, that for all save the lover of the curious, they are utterly without value.

The reader who desires some acquaintance with the poetry produced by Englishmen in India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has no conveniently single book of reference. Unless he is prepared to spend hours of investigation in a few selected libraries, he will read none but the best known authors. He will not discover the delightful Letters of Simpkin the Second, nor revel in the Hudibrastic nonsense of Qui Hai. Tom Raw, the Griffin, will be unknown to him; and all that occasional writing, often coarsely realistic, that belongs to an age when the trick of pleasing expression in verse came as easy to the gentlemen of England as the nimble handling of a rapier. He may come across the gentle verse of Reginald Heber, and learn something of the vigour of John Leyden; but he will not make the acquaintance of Henry Meredith Parker, whose delicate humour illumines historical and topical themes. He will miss the scholarly work of David Lester Richardson, whose varied career as soldier and teacher brought him into touch with every phase of Anglo-Indian life in the first half of the nineteenth century. Sir Alfred Lyall's verse may lie to his hand, along with the Departmental Ditties. But, unless he has unusual good fortune, he will not easily find the Leviora of Thomas Francis Bignold, nor delight in that unexampled quatrain that has immortalised Eastern Bengal. In short, he will be deprived of a great amount of the pleasure to be found in the occasional verse written in and about India throughout the first three quarters of the nineteenth century.

It would be unreasonable to maintain that, apart from authors of established reputation, there is any great quantity of valuable poetical work in the English literature of this period in India. Those writers who have fallen short of permanent recognition have, let it be admitted at once, deserved their fate. But, even if he miss the laurel wreath, an author may merit re-perusal. The peculiar conditions of their work, combined with its frequent historical interest, have given other than a purely literary value to the verse of several writers whose names this volume seeks to revive. There are poems whose appeal is enhanced by the special circumstances of their origin: of such is the amusing Ballad of Henry Torrens written in 1836; and, in far different mood, the Lay of Lachen by Colman Macaulay. In these works the "note of universality" may not be sounded; but their interest remains undisputed. There is much verse of this kind; but English poetry in India was not at all times occupied with ephemeral themes. Whatever may be said finally upon the value of the work produced by our exiled poets, their range and enterprise have been considerable. The best of them sought to interpret Eastern life and thought through the medium of English poetry, and so to assimilate their knowledge and experience of India as to enrich the literary inheritance of their countrymen. Less ambitious writers were content to find occasional topics in the comedy of Anglo-Indian life and in the varied scenery around them. Their handling of such themes was made the surer by long residence in India; and, in virtue of this, their work has a character and distinction of its own. Others, working through the medium of translation, have produced English poems of original value; and have contributed to that type of literary work which is associated inevitably with the masterpiece of Fitzgerald. Lastly, throughout much of the verse of this volume, there is illustrated the spirit of the literature of exile; and this, for an imperial and sea-faring people, must ever possess a peculiar attraction. In India the distinctive note of this literature was struck at the beginning of the nineteenth century; and it has been re-echoed in varying degrees of intensity, and in a great variety of moods, up to our own time.

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;

Quench'd is his lamp of varied lore,
That loved the light of song to pour:
A distant and a deadly shore
Has Leyden's cold remains.

A third writer, Henry Derozio, whose birth and education in Calcutta sealed his connection with the East, was an enthusiastic follower of Byron. The work of these authors falls within the period preceding Macaulay's arrival in India. The year 1835, the date of the latter' famous minute on education which prompted Lord William Bentinck's decision to introduce English in Indian schools and colleges, may be said to close the first period of English verse production in India. From this date until the middle of the century, poetry began to serve a less serious purpose than that exemplified in the work of Jones, Heber and Leyden. As social life began to develop in the larger cities, English verse became the medium of wit and satire. Of this kind Henry Meredith Parker is indubitably the first and best exponent. His contemporaries were John William Kaye, the founder in 1844 of the Calcutta Review, Henry Whitelock Torrens and David Lester Richardson.

Soon after the middle of the century the Mutiny revived the interest of England in India; and at this time two authors received their inspiration from the East, and surpassed all their predecessors in the quality and variety of their work. These were Sir Edwin Arnold and Sir Alfred Lyall. The first acted as Principal of the Dekhan College in Poona from 1856 to 1861; and, in this brief period, he developed a passion for India and its people that coloured all his later writing. His shorter poems reveal a sympathetic insight into Oriental character, and an unusual power of interpretation and description. In his more ambitious work he was influenced by the same ideas and aspirations as Sir William Jones, and paid as generous a tribute to the dignity and beauty of Eastern classical poetry. His occasional verse, lyrical, descriptive and narrative, is in its combined bulk and value, finer than anything produced in India before or after his time. In the work of Sir Edwin Arnold and of Sir Alfred Lyall, the poetry of Englishmen in India reached its maturity. The first applied the energy of true literary genius, and the precision of scholarship to the interpretation of oriental themes: the second allowed his intimate knowledge of India to become concentrated in verse of small bulk but of unmistakable quality. As a poet he is known by one tiny volume of less than thirty pieces; but amongst these is the incomparable Siva.

To compile an anthology of Anglo-Indian verse written during the last century and a half, and to publish it unexpurgated and unexplained implies no slight temerity. The dilettante whose travels have never drawn him east of Suez may say, as he once said to Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, the founder of The Englishman, "We eat no rice and curry in Cornhill." He will not believe that the art and spirit of poetry ever flourished amongst the merchant-adventurers of John Company—

Men who prepared ambrosial Sangaree,
And double Sangaree or Sangarorum:
Now took a fleet, now sold a pound of tea,
Weighed soap, stormed forts, held princes in terrorem,
Drank, fought, smoked, lied, went home and, good papas,
Gave diamonds to their little boys for taws.

Nor is it possible to maintain that these men who builded greater than they knew, have given us more than occasional and topical verse. The writers amongst them founded no literary tradition, and they established no school of poetry. Most of them were the imitators of poets whom they had known in their youth; but they have preserved a few quaint pictures of English life in an India that has passed away, and have shown an exuberant vitality that it might be our pride to recall. Their attitude to the East was simple and undisguised—it was a place of uncongenial, if remunerative, exile.

If this fact should ruffle any Indian reader of these pages, he will find consolation in the thought that Anglo-Indian poetry rises into originality and greatness only when it is concerned with purely Oriental themes. In his poem Siva, Sir Alfred Lyall abandons ephemeral topics and faces one of the immemorial problems of the world. He looks through and beyond the sensuous imagery of the Hindu temple to the conception of those terrible powers that hold man and rule his destiny. No English verse produced in India has sounded a deeper note of understanding than this; and no other poem has so concentrated the mingled sensations of mystery and awe that haunt the Western mind in contact with the tangible symbols of the Hindu faith. In The Light of Asia there is unfolded a whole panorama of Oriental life, idealised in the reflected glory of the Lord Gautama and his teaching, but the first comprehensive picture of Indian faith and custom ever given to the West.

Apart from its intrinsic literary or artistic merit, the verse produced by Englishmen in India from the time of Warren Hastings to the close of John Company's rule, contributed to an understanding of the East of reality. About ten years after the formation of the United East India Company, The Arabian Nights, translated from the French of Antoine Galland, had come for the first time into England. The influence of this work was great and lasting; and it created a fantastic conception of the Orient that is not yet wholly dead. The Rasselas of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the History of the Caliph Vathek by James Beckford, the Mejnoun and Leila of Isaac Disraeli and even The Shaving of Shagpat by George Meredith, are all products of the craze of Orientalism that smote the literature of eighteenth century England. But this Orientalism had no root in the real East. It was a thing of coffee houses and drawing rooms. Its inspiration, if the term is at all appropriate, was of a purely literary kind, the product of quill pens and inkpots, divorced from reality and with no breath of life. In 1760, Goldsmith devoted the thirty-third letter of The Citizen of the World to a satire upon "the fictions every day propagated here under the titles of Eastern tales and oriental histories," And, had he lived long enough, he would have been as ready to attack the mellifluous Lalla Rookh of Thomas Moore, or the laborious Curse of Kehama of Robert Southey. For this pseudo-oriental literature the antidote lay in the realism of those novels of Eastern Life that appeared between 1819 and 1839, novels written by men who had lived for years in Syria, Persia and India. In the Anastasius Thomas Hope described the Turk of the Levant. In Hajji Baba of Ispahan James Justinian Morier depicted the comedy of Moslem life in Persia. In Pandurang Hari William Browne Hockley of the Bombay Civil Service produced the memoirs of a Hindu prince. In the Kuzzilbash James Baillie Fraser portrayed the wild life of the Afghan border; and, in 1839, Colonel Meadows Taylor compiled the Confessions of a Thug, the greatest romance of the Indian road yet given to the world. The method of these writers was to select a single roguish character such as Fielding or Smollett might have drawn, and to set him loose in the country of their own special knowledge. In this way the whole moving life of the Orient from Asia Minor into Egypt and Arabia, and through Persia into Hindustan was portrayed in detail for the West. In 1839 this achievement was complete: and, in the literary movement to which these picaresque romances belong, the poets of John Company have an assured place.

This movement was in part a revolt from the fashionable and artificial Orientalism of the eighteenth century, and in part the result of the wars with France that made the Levant, Persia and India the centres of a critical diplomacy. After Waterloo, travel east of Asia Minor became popular; and an Orient other than that of Haroun-Al-Raschid was unveiled for a curious Europe. Of the novelists who found their themes in this new world, almost all save Morier are forgotten; and of the poets, Arnold was the last and best. But in the verse of his predecessors, there is much that the citizens of an India, greatly different from that of John Company, may be willing to recall, if not to admire.