The enthusiasm for the English language in Bengal dates from even before Macaulay’s famous minute of 1835 establishing the teaching of English language and literature in Indian schools and colleges. Five years before the Minute of 1835, the first book of poems in English by an Indian appeared – The Shair and Other Poems by Kasiprasad Ghose. This was followed by Michael Madhusudhan Dutt’s The Captive Ladie in 1849, The Dutt Family Album in 1870 and Toru Dutt’s Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan in 1882.
The year 1875 could be said to be the end of Orientalist poetry so prevalent in nineteenth century Bengal. 1876 saw the publication of two works that marked definitive stylistic departures from the earlier school of poetry. The first was the publication of Toru Dutt’s A Sheaf Glean’d in French Fields and the other was the first book of poetry to be published in English outside Bengal, Behramji Malabari’s The Indian Muse in English Garb. Another interesting development is the publication of poetry written in English by Indians abroad unlike the earlier school of poetry which was predominantly published from Calcutta. Malabari’s work was published in Bombay and was followed by Vesuvala C. Nowrosjee’s Courting the Muse (1879) followed by M. M. Kunte’s The Rishi (1890).
Manmohan Ghose (1867-1924) was the second son of an illustrious surgeon, Dr. K.D. Ghose. Together with his two brothers, Binoy Bhushan and Aurobindo, he studied at Loreto Convent, Darjeeling. In 1879 Manmohan was taken to England where he remained till 1894. On his return to India, he joined Patna College as a professor in English, he also worked as an Inspector of schools and was appointed professor in Presidency College, Kolkata. Manmohan Ghose never felt at home in India, as his letters to Laurence Binyon reveal. Separation from his parents as a child, the shock of his mother’s derangement and his hard struggle in England left an indelible mark on his poetic mind. Literature and friendship with Oscar Wilde, Laurence Binyon, Lionel Johnson and Stephen Philips contributed a lot to enriching his mind.
A subtle sense of grief underlies most of Manmohan Ghose’s poems. He began writing poetry when he was in England and some of his poems were published in a volume called Primavera which also contained poems by Laurence Binyon, Arthur Cripps and Stephen Phillips. Oscar Wilde reviewing the volume wrote of Ghose, “The temper of Keats, the moods of Matthew Arnold, have influenced Mr. Ghose, and what better influences could a beginner have?”
Manmohan Ghose’s poetry broke away from the earlier school of Orientalist poetry. His poetry often spoke of a longing to return to England, where he had spent twenty two years of his life. A poem called ‘April’ is reminiscent of Hopkins and is descriptive of that month in England.
Haste, April, upon city streets to blow
Thy purest, warmest breezes; fly beneath
The flower-girls’ rags, poor beggary’s basket stow
With lordliest gold of daffodils aglow,
I will not love thee, save with sighing breath
On pale, worn cheeks thou waft reprieve of death.
While his contemporaries in India, including his brother Aurobindo Ghose, were writing on nationalistic themes drawing upon ancient Indian culture, Manmohan Ghose turned to England for his inspiration.
In his Introductory Memoir to the Songs of Love and Death, Laurence Binyon points out that Manmohan Ghose was more Oriental than Western. Ghose’s poetry expresses his sorrows and sense of loneliness and is autobiographical in nature. A distinctive feature of Manmohan Ghose’s early poetry is its romantic strain.
Long ago hither in passionate boyhood,
Lightly an exile, lightly leagues I wandered
Over the bitter foam, so far Fate led me
Only to love thee.
Lost is that country, and all-but forgotten
Mid these chill breezes . . .
The poet’s yearning for his motherland strangely contrasts with his unfulfilled desire for making England his home.
The poem “London” reminds one of Charles Lamb.
. . . How sweet,
To eyes sated with green the dusty brick-walled street!
And the lone spirit, of self so weary, how it rejoices
To be lost in others, bathed in the tones of human voices
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And a sense of vast sympathy my heart almost crazes,
The warmth of kindred hearts in thousands beating with mine.
Each fresh face, each figure, my spirit drinks like wine,
Manmohan Ghose’s love and respect for his wife inspired two series of poems, Immortal Love and Orphic Mysteries. Addressing his beloved from whom he derives inspiration, he writes,
You build the verses. Thoughts and words,
It is from you they come:
Your beauties, virtues, sing themselves.
What need for me to sum?
The poems in this volume express his love. There are occasional references to the beauty of nature. He not only admires and describes nature but is able to look into its essence. Unlike Toru Dutt who used ancient Indian myths and legends, Ghose used European myths.
Orphic Mysteries has a sub title, Songs of Pain, Passion and Mystery of Death. The poems in this volume reveal the poet’s deep loss at the death of his wife.
I see the roses on her grave,
They make my sad heart bleed,
I see the daisies shine like stars.
And is she earth indeed?
Manmohan Ghose’s work reveals a poetic genius perfectly at home with the English language. He had an unfailing sense of rhythm and a felicity for nature description.