The Bengali Book of English Verse/Introduction


The verse collected in this volume represents about one hundred years of poetical effort; and has its origin in England's introduction into India of western education. It is worth recording that the first volume of Bengali verse in English appeared five years before Thomas Babington Macaulay gave judgment in favour of the teaching of English in Indian schools and colleges. The fact is significant. It shows that the movement towards English instruction had begun before the administration of Lord William Bentinck, and had achieved definite results before the famous Resolution of 1835.

From this date the character of education in India was fixed. Early English Teachers in Bengal.An educational policy had been conceived and adopted—briefly, the teaching of English language and literature. It was the good fortune of Bengal that this policy was born in the spacious days when the literary life of England was brilliant and vigorous; and when, amongst the English in India, there were men who had lived largely in the life of their time. The shadow of a few great names lies broad over the scholastic history of the early 19th century in Bengal. Sir William Jones had handed down a rich scholarly tradition. Dr. John Leyden, the friend and colleague of Sir Walter Scott, had kept alive the fires of Border Song amid the fevers of Bengal and Java. Bishop Heber was a poet of rare delicacy as well as a strenuous traveller and priest. Before he left India in 1832, Horace Hayman Wilson had laid deep the foundations of his Sanskrit learning; and Henry Meredith Parker, by his witty occasional poems and the versatility of his talent, had delighted the English and Indian community up to the date of his departure in 1842. One of the earliest teachers of the Hindu College was himself a poet deeply imbued with the Byronic spirit. Henry Derozio was trained in the Dhurrumtollah Academy of John Drummond, a Scottish dominie of the old type; and, while engaged as an Indigo planter, he began to contribute verse to the Calcutta journals. In 1818 he was appointed to the Hindu College as a teacher of English literature and history; but the orthodox took fright at his outspoken treatment of sacred themes, and he had to resign his post. In 1831 after the enjoyment of much poetical effort and a few stimulating friendships, he died of cholera. His fluent and impassioned poetry brought him recognition in India, and contributed to his undoubted influence over his students who regarded him as a teacher of genius. In the Hindu College he established the tradition of an enthusiastic study of English literature which, on sounder and more scholarly lines, was carried on by David Lester Richardson.

To this teacher modern Bengal owes much. Like many Englishmen whose names are still alive in the East, he came to India as a soldier in the army of the Company. On his return to England in search of health, he engaged in literary work in London, published his poems and started a paper called The Weekly Review. The collapse of this journal in 1827 compelled Richardson's return to Bengal. In 1835 he acted as aide-de-camp to Lord William Bentinck; and in the following year, through the influence of Macaulay, he was appointed professor and, later, principal of the Hindu College. From this date, until his retirement in 1861, his career was definitely that of a teacher and man of letters. In addition to his miscellaneous literary work, Richardson was responsible for two publications of great value and interest. The first was the Bengal Annual, a collection of prose and verse that appeared on seven occasions between the years 1830 and 1836. To this work Indian and English authors contributed; and its pages make a delightful thesaurus of the outstanding names of the period. The second was the voluminous Selections from the British Poets. This compilation was undertaken at the suggestion of Macaulay and produced in 1840. Its chief interest lies in the anthology of British-Indian poetry—the first and best anthology of its kind—which the author compiled and added as an appendix to the major work.

It is pleasant to attempt to reconstruct the life of the Hindu College in these early years. The Hindu College.Its teachers were men of established literary reputation; and its patrons have written their names large upon the history of their age. There are frequent contemporary references to the quaint figure of David Hare, with long blue coat adorned by large brass buttons, moving through the class rooms, or attending the debates of the academic association. No less a personage than Thomas Babington Macaulay, who admitted that one of his compensations for exile in Calcutta was to hear Richardson read Shakespeare, has put on record his work done as an examiner for the Committee of Public Instruction. In the present age of conflicting pedagogic theories this makes curious reading. He speaks of examining on the texts of Shakespeare, Bacon, Cowley and Swift; and writes with characteristic absence of humour or hesitation—"I gave a subject for an essay, the comparative advantage of the study of poetry and the study of history." Whatever the Bengali students made of this majestic theme, there can be no doubt that, with Richardson for teacher and Macaulay for examiner, the atmosphere of their work was saturated with the literary spirit, and their labours were not confined to any petty scholastic routine. The day of the Indian Universities was not yet. The rush of modern competition transforming school and college courses into an immediate means towards desperately desired ends, had not set in. There was no examination fetish, nor any extensive system of cheap secondary education. German philology had not as yet invaded the fair domain of letters. The aim of college work was to learn the English language; and towards this end the good fortune of Bengal provided patrons and teachers who combined scholarship with culture, and who had lived largely in the life of their time.

To the encouragement and example of these men may be traced whatever English verse was produced by Bengali writers in the first half of the 19th century. The First Bengali Writers of English Verse.This was not large in quantity, and was the work of three authors: Kasiprasad Ghose, whose Minstrel appeared in 1830; Rajnarain Dutt who dedicated to Richardson his Osmyn, an Arabian tale, in 1841; and Michael Madhusudan Dutt whose Captive Ladie, published in 1849, is the most ambitious poetical effort of any Bengali writer. Michael Dutt is a curiously interesting figure. He was educated in the Hindu College, and won the friendship and patronage of Richardson who encouraged his bent towards poetry. In 1843 he became a Christian; and after residence in the Bishop's College, he went to Madras. Here, in 1849, he produced The Captive Ladie; and thereafter devoted himself to the study and cultivation of Bengali literature. In 1861 his classical narrative poem, Meghanadbadh, and his translation of the notorious Nil Darpan, brought him prominently into notice. In the following year he went to England and studied law; but his subsequent career was not fortunate; and in 1873 he died in poverty. His name is beloved by his countrymen; and Ram Sharma's memorial lines, quoted in this volume, have found a ready response in Bengal.

The success of Michael Dutt stimulated the brilliant band of relatives who produced in London, in 1870, The Dutt Family Album. The Dutt Family Album.This book must be of abiding interest and value to the student of literary history in India. Published by the house of Longmans, it is an anthology compiled from the original poems of Govin, Omesh, Greece and Hur Chunder Dutt. In the preface the authors claim consideration for their compilation as a curiosity, and as the work of foreigners educated out of England. Up to this date no Bengali writer had been trained in Europe. While it is true that Michael Dutt studied law in London, his production of the Captive Ladie belongs to the year 1849, before he had left Madras. The Dutt Family Album, therefore, may be taken to represent the older school of Bengali poetry in English. It was the compilation of men whose encouragement to literary work was received from such enthusiastic teachers as Richardson, and whose academic career began and ended in the Hindu College of Calcutta. The literary merits of this book, carefully judged in the light of the special circumstances of its production, are considerable. The quality of the verse, the range and variety of theme, the command of various metrical forms, and the restraint and dignity of the style, are everywhere pleasing. The most notable of the four authors were Govin and Omesh, who contributed 66 and 73 pieces out of the total of 197. Indian history, legend and landscape, the picturesque elements of the Christian and the Hindu faith, and such ideas as would attract an oriental in his first intercourse with the west, provide the themes of their verse.

Hur Chunder Dutt began to write early. In 1851 he produced in Calcutta a small volume of poems called Fugitive Pieces. Much of this was reprinted twenty years later in his second volume named Lotus Leaves. Both works are slight; but they contain a pleasing variety of themes drawn from Indian history, and the verse is everywhere graceful. His part in the Album amounted to eleven poems in all. Greece contributed forty-seven separate pieces; and in 1887 published with Messrs. Fisher Unwin a separate volume of poems entitled Cherry Blossoms. In this work several of the earlier contributions to the Album were reprinted, but the greater number of the poems were new. The book was carefully produced and contains much of interest and value. The author had specialised in the difficult sonnet form; and of the 165 poems of the book, no less than 70 are sonnets. The subjects of these poems are as varied as the author's experiences derived from much travel in Europe and India. With this last volume of Greece Chunder Dutt the poetical effort of these gifted relatives may be said to have reached its close. Their achievement was creditable both in its quality and in its consistency. That portion of their work embodied in the Dutt Family Album will remain as a memorial of a gifted family, and as a testimony to the influence of those English teachers who were the first to encourage the higher learning in the city of Calcutta.

The successful treatment of Indian historical themes, of which there are frequent illustrations in the Album, Later Poets.was continued by Shoshee Chunder Dutt who published in 1878 his Vision of Sumeru and other Poems, a compilation of verse written at any time in the preceding twenty years. The greater part of this volume is taken up with historical and legendary poems of such interest as to cause regret that their author did not seek inspiration more assiduously in the romantic history of India. To the year 1881 belongs the work of the Maharajah Sir Jotindra Mohan Tagore whose Flights of Fancy may still be read with pleasure. This is a slight volume of occasional verse dealing with a variety of pleasing topics, and exhibiting a cultivated command of English metre. Of the writers of this time the most voluminous was Nobo Kissen Ghose who wrote under the pseudonym of Ram Sharma. His verse is scattered throughout a number of magazines that appeared in Calcutta between the years 1878 and 1901. In 1886 he published his blank verse poem, The Last Day, in which are embodied interesting portraits of such outstanding men as David Hare, Rammohan Roy, Lord Canning, and Dr. Duff. His occasional poems are distinguished by the vigour of their expression and the independence of their author's mind. He dealt frequently with social and political themes; and his outspokenness was greatly emphasised by the refinement and energy of his language. Ram Sharma was born in the year of Queen Victoria's accession, and died in 1918. His long career is a link with the past. While he was educated in the Oriental Seminary under Captain Francis Palmer, and may have missed the influence of Richardson and the Hindu College, he belongs to the period that includes the work of the ten poets already named.

It may well be asked what is the value of the poetry produced by these writers. The Value of this Poetical Work.That they were devoted disciples of the art of letters is clear enough; but more than disciples they were not. To the student of Indian educational history their work must be of abiding interest; but in the larger world of literature, it can hold no distinctive place. Such poetry as they produced was Indian only in so far as it was written in Bengal, and was the result of education received therein; and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that here its oriental character begins and ends. Even the excellence of Michael Dutt lies chiefly in his ability to follow his metrical masters; while most of his successors approach the history of their country as if they had no part in its heritage. In dealing with the intimacies of the Hindu faith, it might be expected that these writers would produce something of unique interest. There are frequent odes on Indian deities and on religious festivals, but none of them are really arresting in their sincerity, or provide anything that is essentially eastern in conception. When Kasiprasad Ghose addresses Saraswati in this manner—

Goddess of every mental grace.
And virtue of the soul,
Which high exalt the human race,
And lead to glory's goal,

'Tis thou who bid'st the infant mind,
Its growing thoughts display,
Which lay within it undefined
In regular array.

—he is merely re-echoing the jingle of such 18th century rhymesters as William Hayley, and fails utterly to reproduce the atmosphere of his own faith. It is reasonable to expect from an eastern poet something that a western cannot give. But the reader of this literature will look in vain for anything that is peculiarly and exclusively oriental. Emerson, in one of his briefest occasional poems, obsessed by the conception of Brahma, has conjured up a whole world of eastern religious mysticism—

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep and pass and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanquished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

Sir Alfred Lyall in his poem, Siva, has looked through and beyond the sensuous imagery of the Hindu temple to the conception of those terrible powers that hold man and rule his destiny. In his verse the majesty and terror of an ancient faith are made to appeal from their own oriental setting. Sir Edwin Arnold, in such a brief lyric as The Song of the Serpent Charmers, has created the true atmosphere of the east. But the Bengali writers now under consideration appear to be at work in some strangely neutral zone of the imagination, and to be uninfluenced by the colour and atmosphere of their environment. The reason may be that these early writers in an alien tongue were anxious to anglicise not only their vocabulary but their ideas. If so, to contrast their efforts with the achievements of the three western poets already named, would be unfair. The latter deliberately sought the eastern point of view and the eastern atmosphere; while the former were content to exhibit their skill in the handling of a newly acquired and difficult language. They were amongst the earliest students of English in India; and while they have failed to contribute anything of real value to the literature of the Empire, they have at least justified their own publications as illustrating the successful study of a great literature and a difficult speech. They have laid the foundation of the work of several poets still in our midst; and have provided the curious student of Anglo-Bengali verse with the pleasure to be found in the perusal of all clever literary exercise.

The tradition established by these writers was broken by the daughter of Govin Chunder Dutt. The Modern School.This lady may be justly described as the founder of the modern school of English poetry in Bengal. In two ways she differs from her predecessors—in her European education received in England and France; and in her acceptance of oriental themes at the very time when, by her talented application, she had forged for herself an instrument of expression from two difficult European languages. Toru Dutt was born in 1856; and, at the age of 13, was taken to Europe by her parents. In 1872, after various courses of study in London and Paris, she returned to Calcutta. Four years later she died of consumption. Into her tragically brief career, there was crowded a literary accomplishment little short of marvellous. She was an enthusiastic student of French, and wrote that language with ease and precision. Her romance, Le Journal de Mlle. D'Arvers, was published in 1879, three years after the appearance of her first work, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields. The history of the latter book is curious. Mr. Edmund Gosse tells how, in the office of the Examiner, he was lamenting with the editor, the famous William Minto, the dearth of new books of merit. As he was speaking, the postman brought in a packet from India which contained a curiously coloured pamphlet printed at the Saptahik Sambad Press of Bhowanipore. Those acquainted with the binding and type of the Calcutta presses will understand the amused surprise of the London editor when he handled an orange-tinted cover and read the mysterious names on the title page. Minto handed the book to Mr. Gosse who, glancing at it later, happened to light upon this rendering of Victor Hugo's serenade:—

Still barred thy doors! The far east glows,
The morning wind blows fresh and free,
Should not the hour that wakes the rose
Awaken also thee?

All look for thee, Love, Light and Song;
Light, in the sky deep red above,
Song, in the lark of pinion strong,
And in my heart, true love.

There was sufficient beauty and skill in these lines to arrest the attention of any critic; and in 1881 Mr. Gosse wrote the preface to the first collection of Toru Dutt's original poems entitled Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. This volume, published by Messrs. Kegan Paul, contains her latest and best work. Unlike her predecessors, Toru Dutt did not wilfully anglicise her ideas. For the first time in literature of this kind, there is struck a genuinely Indian note that reveals the sincerity of a mind proud of the intellectual traditions of its native land. The technical skill of this poetess is superior to that of any of her predecessors; and this, in view of her extreme youth, is little short of amazing. Her verse is finely knit, vigorous and of a pleasing variety. It is never obviously imitative, and moves with such freedom and independence as are inseparable from genuinely creative work. Toru Dutt was nurtured in a literary family; but this environment does not wholly explain the achievement of this gifted lady whose genius was so tragically denied maturity. She brought to her work a certain fervid originality that, before the end of the 19th century, redeemed Bengali literature in English from the commonplace. She is the first of the new school of Indian poets, and both in England and India her place and her memory are assured.

Of living authors whose work has been illustrated in this volume, it is unnecessary to speak at length. Poets in our midst.There is much in the life of modern India to foster intellectual and artistic activity. A perfervid political enthusiasm; the intense realisation of racial and national sentiment; a fuller knowledge of India's intellectual heritage, and a careful balancing of the rival claims of eastern and western culture—these may well stir the artistic impulse of a people naturally endowed with the gift of expression. But only two writers of English verse have come to prominence; and one of them is not specially concerned with eastern thought or life.

Manmohan Ghose left Oxford in 1892, having won distinction in the classical schools. In 1898 he published with Messrs. Elkin Mathews a small volume of poems entitled Love Songs and Elegies; and if he were to produce nothing more, his position as a true poet and as an exquisite artist would demand recognition. Unfortunately the whole work of this gifted author is not yet accessible in any single volume. Much of it has appeared in magazine literature; and of this, one poem—A Song of Britannia—is the finest poetic expression of patriotism yet called forth by the war. Manmohan Ghose has brought to the work of a poet a fine scholarship and a cultivated critical taste. In his poetry there is a subtler melody and a more convincing exhibition of technical skill than have yet appeared in the history of Bengali verse in English.

His contemporary, the poetess Sarojini Naidu, shares his fastidious choice of language, but seeks a more popular fluency of rhythm. This lady, like her gifted predecessor, Toru Dutt, was educated in London, and has already found an eager audience in England and India. Her popularity may be in part explained by her skilful treatment of eastern themes, and by her representation of these in a genuinely oriental light. It is significant that the task of wedding the rich vocabulary of England's poetry to purely oriental subjects has been accomplished by two Indian women. The feminine imagination will not endure expatriation, and clings tenaciously to the subtle memory of its origins. After half a century of barren literary exercise, Toru Dutt was the first to find in her own land an inspiration for her genius; and her achievement is being triumphantly repeated in the work of her accomplished successor.

The story of Bengali adventure in the realm of English poetry is not yet complete. But it is a pleasing task to put on record a century of this endeavour, and to trace its progress towards a rich fulfilment.

T. O. D. DUNN.

United Service Club,

Calcutta, December 1918.