Literary Shelf

Foreigner Critics of Indian English Poetry

“Indian poetry has been made known to English readers by distinguished English writers. A hundred years ago Sir William Jones translated the beautiful play of Sakuntala into English, and for the first time drew the attention of European readers to the beauty of Indian thought and poetry. H. H. Wilson followed in his footsteps and rendered into graceful English verse some others of the best dramatic works in the Sanscrit language, and also a beautiful poem called Meghaduta. Wilson's English translation of the Rig Veda has since been completed and published; and Mr. Griffiths has brought out a commendable metrical translation of the great epic Ramayana. Max Muller has translated the ancient Upanishads and the Buddhist work Dhammapada into English prose; and the genius of Sir Edwin Arnold has made thousands of readers in Europe and in America familiar with the wealth of Indian thought and imagery, and the beauty of Buddhist precepts and doctrines.”

- R.C. Dutt in his Preface to Lays of Ancient India: Selections from Indian Poetry Rendered Into English Verse, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & co., ltd., 1894 

Rather than starting it with the quotes from the critics, we want to begin with one from R.C. Dutt who himself speaks of the Western classical scholars who have really furthered Indic poetry in English. 

In his General Introduction, Charles Johnstone writes:

“The Bhagavad Gita is one of the noblest scriptures of India, one of the deepest scriptures of the world. It is rich in beauty and full of poetic power. The characters stand out in heroic grandeur, in the midst of a splendid setting of martial valor? The figures of Arjuna, very human in despondency and doubt, and of Krishna, majestic, resolute, persuasive, are clear, living, of universal truth. On another side, the Bhagavad Gita is full of inspiration, of religious devotion, of keenest insight into the heart of man. The conflict of motives that beset human action, the clinging fetters of selfishness which check us in the path to the immortal, the subtle evasions of the lurking whisperer in the heart: all are clearly seen and vividly revealed. Yet, withal, the claims of abstract thought are not forgotten; every stage of Indian philosophy, every shade of logic and metaphysics, is given its place; and many practical suggestions are put forward, touching the problems of Indian politics and history, hints as valid to-day in human affairs as they were two thousand years ago.”

(Charles Johnston, Bhagavad Gita “The Songs of The Master”, Flushing..., New York, 1908, p.vii)

Who are the men to be called the critics? Had there been not the Europeans, could we have poetry in English? Indian English poetry is not English poetry, but Hindustani poetry in English representing a vast tract of land vibrant with variations in language, culture, food, dress, climate, geography, cartography, landscape and weather condition outstretching far beyond the boundaries. The land of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the land of Rama and Krishna, Mahavira and Buddha, how to take to it, to the sacrosanct chants of the mantras dropping like raindrops, the mystic drum beats so vibrant around? Before we call it Hindustani, we have a vast resource to delve into spanning from the classical to the folk versions doing the rounds.

Indian English poetry, is it English poetry really? If it is, it is of where, who the speakers of the language? It is but written English, grammatical English. A grammarian’s English we like to copy it down. A litterateur’s English we like to follow. As a spoken language we could not be proficient in. Our English was bookish, written, grammatical. We dared not take it. The Anglo-Indians too lost track of in this country of exotic flora and fauna, unity in diversity, multi languages and cultural spaces, multi ethnic combinations and variations.

Actually, it was Indology, Sanskrit studies, Indian culture, Oriental studies, translation studies with which the story began it. The history of Sanskrit departments opened in foreign, have we ever tried to know our history and culture? How were the kingdoms of Thailand, Indonesia and so on? The lore of Rama and Krishna, we did not. What shores could it reach?

Can we talk of Indian English poetry and criticism in the absence of English writers who popularized the ancient lore of India in the West? The names of the institutes and publishing houses too need to be discussed in this regard. Only the image of Gandhi and Nehru is not it all. There is something more than.

To discuss the things taking a clue from E.F. Oaten, let us see:

“Anglo-Indian literature may be said to have been born in 1783, the year of the arrival in. India of Sir William Jones, the great Orientalist, who became the first Anglo-Indian poet. Prior to that date it cannot be said to have existed, unless we except certain rather crude volumes of travel and letters devoid in the main of any literary merit.”

(A Sketch of Anglo-Indian Literature, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, London, 1908, p.16)

“The thirty years which followed the arrival of Sir William Jones in India, contain the name of only one other man of literary genius, John Leyden, the Orientalist and lyric poet, who reached India in 1803 and died in 1811. These two remarkable men, Sir William Jones and John Leyden, were practically the only men of literary power whom England gave to her great dependency until the third decade of the nineteenth century.”

(Ibid, p.17)

“Sir William Jones was primarily a lawyer and an Orientalist, and only secondarily a poet. He set sail for Calcutta in 1783, in order to take up a position as Judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William. He immediately employed his talents in scientific and linguistic research, and became the founder and first president of “The Calcutta Society.”

(Ibid, p.19)

In the words of F.B. Bradley-Birt,

“In ail the fascinating pages of Anglo-Indian romance there is no more brilliant and pathetic figure than that of the boy poet — Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. His brief career, so full of effort and enthusiasm, flashes like an inspiration across the dull grey story of his unhappy fellow-countrymen Recognized at eighteen, even among the select little inner circle of intellectuals who then held sway in Calcutta, as a poet and writer of outstanding ability, he wielded an influence among his own contemporaries and over the younger students of his day, that, even allowing for the spell of his compelling personality, can only be regarded as amazing. To all with whom he came in contact he made the same magnetic appeal. Beneath the impulsiveness and vivacity and enjoyment of the boy there lay the depth and strength and broad-mindedness of the man, and it was this happy combination of the grave and gay, of the spontaneity of youth and the wisdom of age, that constituted something of the secret of his wonderful charm. Yet behind them both there lurked always the tragedy that his birth and genius entailed. It is the note of sadness that everywhere predominates, and as one reads his beautiful lines and impassioned words one feels the deep-rooted melancholy of the writer and the presentiment that he himself had of the inevitableness of his impending fate. In the midst of his strenuous work and youthful enthusiasm the end came to him in his twenty-third year.”

(F.B. Bradley-Birt, Poems Of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Humphrey Milford Oxford Univ. Press, 1923, p.i-ii)

E.F. Oaten discusses Edwin Arnold, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Lyall and others under the same Anglo-Indian purview of delving. Khushwant in one his columns admired the finer poetic talent of Kipling in terms of Hindustani Indian pidgin-English and his barrack-room ballads are no doubt a hit. We could not judge him then. We do not know if we have been able to understand his poetry or not, but his is an Indian English that he uses to say his things. As a poet he is a journo and the sahib’s conversation with the desi orderly his crux of the matter. The same stuff we find it in a plenty in Joseph Furtado’s poetry.

We think Manmohan Ghose is more competent in writing English standard poems than Aurobindo whose base is rooted into Indian things. Ghose wrote poems at a time when there were almost none around us. Stephen Phillips, Laurence Binyon, Manmohan Ghose and Arthur Shearly Cripps are the poets whose poems appeared in the collection.
In his Preface to Primavera: Poems, by Four Authors, in 1890, John Addington Symonds wrote:

“It would be invidious to institute critical comparisons between the styles of these four friends and their respective merits. It may, however, be remarked that Mr. Manmohan Ghose's work possesses a peculiar interest on account of its really notable command of the subtleties of English prosody and diction, combined with just a touch of foreign feeling. The artful employment of imperfect rhymes in "Raymond and Ida" illustrates what I mean. Occasionally, too, Mr. Ghose produces exactly the right phrase by means of a felicitous simplicity. 

"In the deep West the heavens grow heavenlier,
Eve after eve; and still
The glorious stars remember to appear;
The roses on the hill
Are fragrant as before;
Only thy face, of all that's dear,
I shall see nevermore!"

Take, again, these two lines:

"Forget the shining of the stars, forget
The vernal visitation of the rose."

(Primavera: Poems, by Four Authors. Oxford: Published by B. H. Blackwell, Broad Street)

The Chicago address of Vivekananda was stupendous and as a result of that many disciples of his strove to take up his treatises and philosophy. Advaita Vedanta, Nishakam Karma, Karmayoga and so on are the focal points which come to mark in his speeches and writings. His foreigner disciples have written biographical works.

After perusing the notes of Sister Nivedita, we shall find it:

“The Master was longing to leave us all, and go away into some place of quiet, alone. But we not knowing this, insisted on accompanying him to the Coloured Springs, called "Kshir Bhavani", or Milk of the Mother, it was said to be the first time that Christian or Mohammedan had ever landed there, and we can never be thankful enough for the glimpse we had of it, since afterwards it was to become the most sacred of all names to us. An amusing incident was that our Mussalman boatmen would not allow us to land with shoes on; so thoroughly Hinduistic is the Mohammedanism of Kashmir, with its forty rishis, and pilgrimages made fasting, to their shrines.”

(Notes of some wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Edited by Swami Saradananda, 1913, Udbodhan Office, Calcutta, pp.96-7)

Arthur Symons in his Introduction to her book writes:

“She sat in our midst, and judged us, and few knew what was passing behind that face '' like an awakening soul” to use one of her own epithets. Her eyes were like deep pools, and you seemed to fall through them into depths below depths.”

(The Golden Threshold, Sarojini Naidu, Heinemann, 1909)

An Introduction from Edmund Gosse will put it as thus:

“Indeed, I am not disinclined to believe that she is the most brilliant, the most original, as well as the most correct, of all the natives of Hindustan who have written in English. And I say this without prejudice to the fame of that delicious Toru Dutt, so exquisite in her fragility, whose life and poems it was my privilege to reveal to the world thirty years ago.”

(The Bird of Time, Sarojini Naidu, Heinemann,, 1912)

Long before Tagore and Aurobindo, Sarojini and Harindranath, Nissim and Kamala, Derozio tried his hands at putting down his thoughts and ideas, Kasiprasad wrote poems about Indian festivals, Toru recreated the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Madhusudan told about Prithviraj. But side by side we should keep it in mind that there were many Indologists and Orientalists working in such a genre of literature and those scholars we have never striven not know.

To talk about Gitanjali is but a history. To talk about it is to talk about history, culture and synthesis; his company, friendship and readers. Brooke, Bradley and Yeats were his strongest admirers.

What did Pound find in Tagore’s Gitanjali? Ezra Pound found singsong quality, musical melody, unique lyricism, stillness of nature, Oriental flavor, stillness of nature, provincial linguistic nomenclature, great art, friendship with Yeats and his reading sessions abroad in homes, friendly companies and his service to the nation’s Foreign Office. 

To see in the words of Edward Thompson:

“The best of all his own translations, the English Gitanjaii is a haunted book. He had spent so much time with these versions, in India and on his voyage to England, that the book was essentially a new one; his personality had passed into it. Despite its name, it contains translations, not only from the Bengali Gitanjali but from a number of other works.”

(Rabindranath Tagore Poet and Dramatist, Edward Thompson, Geoffrey Cumberlege Oxford University Press, 1926, p.222)

In her Introduction to Songs of Kabir, Evelyn Underhill writes:

“Kabir’s story is surrounded by contradictory legends, on none of which reliance can be placed. Some of these emanate from a Hindu, some from a Mohammedan source, and claim him by turns as a Sufi and a Brahman saint. His name, however, is practically a conclusive proof of Moslem ancestry: and the most probable tale is that which represents him as the actual or adopted child of a Mohammedan weaver of Benares, the city in which the chief events of his life took place.” (Songs of Kabir, translated by Tagore, The Macmillan Company, 1915)

People say it that Tagore’s translation is based on Kshiti Mohan Sen and Ajit Kumar Chakravorty’s texts.

James H. Cousins in his Introduction to the book:

“I am told that Mr. Khabardar is a popular poet in his mother-tongue, Gujerati, and I can well believe it on the assumption that a poet's wealth of ideas and. metrical power is capable of spending itself through more than one language. In Mr. Khabardar's case it obviously should be so. He has lived and listened so closely to Keats and Francis Thompson and other masters of lyrical English, and he has made their speech and method so fully his own—in these English poems of his—that it is only on the rarest occasion that a close reader comes on an accent which discloses the foreign lip.”

(The Silken Tassel, Ardeshir F. Khabardar, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Madras, India, 1918)

In his Preface E.E. Speight writes:

“Mr S S. Chordia is one of the promising Indian writers of English verse — that most hazardous of experiments who seem likely to give the world what it would like to hear. Some two years ago he was kind enough to send me two of his publications, a cluster of sonnets and a small company of stories in which I was very glad to find matter for delight — the presence of such lines as 

A gentle potter took my dust away.
His quest of truth was water on a leaf 
Of stately lotus, —

where the spirit of the East is imminent m our modem English words that are got of such ancient lineage.”

(Chitor And Other Poems, Shyam Sundar Lal Chordia, D. B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Kitab Maha], 190, Hornby Road, 1928)

The Beats, the gypsies, the hippies, the Hare Rama Hare Krishna Movement too impacted modern thought and culture, the new generation swaying, drifting far in pursuit of happiness, seeking refuge in.

Even before Nissim, there were poets who were never promoted. Do  we ever try to know them? We talk of modern English poetry, also of modern Indian English poetry. But please say it to us, when were we modern? Could we have been without the radio, the watch, the cycle and so on? Had townships not grown, had the town culture not? Had there been not offices, schools, colleges and the means of transport could we have been? If we go through the archived copies of the Illustrated Weekly of India, we shall come to know what it was modern Indian English poetry alike instead of what say you today about its growth and development.


More by :  Bijay Kant Dubey

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 173      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.