Henry Derozio has a just claim to being the first Indian poet who wrote in English. Born in India, of mixed Portuguese, Indian and British heritage, he began writing poetry at an early age of 17. He became well-known as our first nationalist poet since some of his most passionate poems were intensely patriotic. Hired at the Hindu college at the age of 17 years, he became famous as a passionate radical teacher who was extremely inspirational to his students. Well-liked and respected, he created a debating and literary society in the college, and created what was later called Young Bengal.
Heavily influenced by the French revolution, he signed up for the war-cry of liberty, fraternity and equality and began to question the social evils prevalent in Hindu society. Many of his students converted to Christianity, and became the votaries of a new Bengali movement.
Influenced by the Romantic poets, especially Byronm Shelley, Keats and Southey, most of Derozio’s poetry is derivative, perhaps due to his early age and the stifling sway of British society. But he lights up when he sings about Indians and India and his love of the land and his aspiration to change it. His poetry collections include ‘Poems’ and the ‘Fakeer of Jungheera’.
At the time when he began teaching and writing, Bengal was undergoing another tumult with the advent of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who established the Brahmo Samaj. Roy rejected idolatory though it attempted to retain Indian spirituality and values in its own way. India was then under the subjugation of the East India Company, not only physically but emotionally, culturally and mentally. It had lost its ancient splendor and honor and was treated as a conquered and inferior race by the British. Indian society, under attack for its values, religion, arts, literature, education and even basic intelligence had lost its sense of pride. 1857 had not yet awakened self-esteem in the natives in their own culture. The Bengali Spiritual renaissance initiated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sri Ramakrishna, Bunkim Chandra Chatterjee and, later Tagore, had not yet transformed the ‘dark inertia’ of a people into the multi-dimensional awakening and energizing of their Shakti.
This was barely space for a young Indian poet of foreign descent to find his own voice and idiom. In this circumstances, it is admirable that he carried the high note of deeply felt patriotism in his melodies, proud of his heritage and the lost grandeur of his land.
My country! in thy day of glory past
A beauteous halo circled round thy brow,
And worshipped as a deity thou wast—
Where is that glory, where that reverence now?
Thy eagle pinion is chained down at last,
And grovelling in the lowly dust art thou:
Thy minstrel hath no wreath to weave for thee
Save the sad story of thy misery!—
Well–let me dive into the depths of time,
And bring from out the ages that have rolled
A few small fragments of those wrecks sublime,
Which human eyes may never more behold;
And let the guerdon of my labour be
My fallen country! one kind wish for thee!
This sonnet takes the rhyme scheme of abababccdedeff, a Petrarchan Sonnet in iambic pentameter, which affirms his mastery of the language and the form. There is yet missing the unique strain and signature. As TS Eliot noted, a sonnet is a way of thinking and feeling, and the poet constructs it as a two-layered ‘meter-making argument’.Derozio makes it clear that he can wing on those eagle pinions, and take to flight, and, it is indeed a sad to contemplate what he could have accomplished if he had lived longer? Would he have helped initiate the Bengal renaissance sooner? Would he have created a body of work to rival and inspire the ‘Hindoostani minstrels’ to come after and ingrained his ideals in his students to inspire a revolution and demand for freedom sooner than it finally happened. Let us listen to his harp again:
Why hang’st thou lonely on yon withered bough?
Unstrung for ever, must thou there remain;
Thy music once was sweet—-who hears it now?
Why doth the breeze sigh over thee in vain?
Silence hath bound thee with her fatal chain;
Neglected, mute, and desolate art thou,
Like ruined monument on desert plain:
O! many a hand more worthy far than mine
Once thy harmonious chords to sweetness gave,
And many a wreath for them did Fame entwine
Of flowers still blooming on the minstrel’s grave:
Those hands are cold—but if thy notes divine
May be by mortal wakened once again,
Harp of my country, let me strike the strain!
I listen to these lines and I hear a single note, of a mind alone, seeking, a young Shelleyan genius who questioned relentlessly and rebelled against our falsehoods and hypocrisy—and what is romanticism if not eternal rebellion and heresy as David Baker has pointed out—
In Imitation of Lord Byron’s, “Know ye the land where the cyrpress and myrtle…” he exclaimed:
Know ye the land where the fountain is springing,
Whose waters give life, and whose flow never ends;
Where cherub and seraph, in concert, are singing
The hymn that in odour and incense ascends?
Know ye the land where the sun cannot shine,
Where his light would be darken’d by glory divine;
Where the fields are all fair, and the flowret’s young bloom
Never fades, while with sweetness each breath they perfume;
Where sighs are ne’er heard, and where tears are ne’er shed
From hearts that might elsewhere have broken, and bled;
Where grief is unfelt, where its name is unknown,
Where the music of gladness is heard in each tone;
Where melody vibrates from harps of pure gold,
Far brighter than mortal’s weak eye can behold;
Where the harpers are robed in a mantle of light,
More dazzling than diamonds, than silver more white;
Where rays from a rainbow of emerald beam,
Where truth is no name, and where bliss is no dream?—
Tis the seat of our God! ’tis the land of the blest—
The kingdom of glory—the region of rest—
The boon that to man shall hereafter be given— ‘
Tis Love’s hallowed empire—’tis Heaven ! ’tis Heaven!
When I read lines such as “The hymn that in odour and incense ascends,” and “Where melody vibrates from harps of pure gold…Where the harpers are robed in a mantle of light, More dazzling than diamonds, than silver more white, where rays from a rainbow of emerald beam, Where truth is no name, and where bliss is no dream?”, I hear a young unformed master who could have innovated a different kind of visionary Romantic poetry. His love for his students shines through in these lines:
Expanding like the petals of young flowers
I watch the gentle opening of your minds
And the sweet loosening of the spell that binds
Your intellectual energies and powers
That stretch (like young birds in soft summer hours)
Their wings to try their strength. O! how the winds
Of circumstance, and freshening April showers
Of early knowledge, and unnumbered kinds
Of new perceptions shed their influence;
And how you worship truth’s omnipotence!
What joyance rains upon me, when I see
Fame in the mirror of futurity,
Weaving the chaplets you have yet to gain,
And then I feel I have not lived in vain.
My favorite lines though come from the ‘Song of the Hindoostanee Minstrel’:
With surmah tinge thy black eye’s fringe,
‘Twill sparkle like a star;
With roses dress each raven tress,
My only loved Dildar!
Dildar! there’s many a valued pearl
In richest Oman’s sea;
But none, my fair Cashmerian girl!
O! none can rival thee.
If he could have written like the first four in a sustained manner, he would have not only been our first poet but might also have been among our foremost. He tries to catch the note again as he ends the poem, but perhaps he needed a few more years to mature his art.
Like birds from land to land we’ll range,
And with our sweet sitar,
Our hearts the same, though worlds may change,
We’ll live, and love, Dildar!
When I think of Derozio, these lines come to my mind, which prefaced his Poems in 1827, almost two centuries before our times,
“If the pulse of the patriot, soldier, or lover
Have throbbed at our lay, ’twas thy glory alone;
I was but as the wind passing heedlessly over,
And all the wild sweetness I walk was thy own.”
–Moore to the Harp of Erin
Modern Indian criticism have done him a great disservice by ignoring him. Makarand Paranjape was perhaps the first critic of note to have acknowledged his contribution to the Indo-English canon in his essay, ‘East Indian Cosmopolitanism: Henry Derozio Fakeer of Jungheera and the Birth of Indian Modernity.’ Makarand’s treatment of the 2050 line poem, its style, structure, idiom and content, should serve to introduce scholarship among our ‘exclusivist’ literary sameekshaks who are more interested in knowing as little as possible and advancing themselves as far as possible. But Henry sang, unconcerned, in lines on ‘Poetry’ that remind us of Shakespeare’s famous poem, “The Lunatic, the Lover, the Poet”, though they are nowhere as inspired or as inevitable in expression:
Sweet madness!-—when the youthful brain is seized
With that delicious phrenzy which it loves,
It raving reels, to very rapture pleased,—-
And then through all creation wildly roves:
Now in the deep recesses of the sea,
And now to highest Himalay it mounts;
Now by the fragrant shores of Araby,
Or classic Greece, or sweet Italia’s founts,
Or through her wilderness of ruins;—now
Gazing on beauty’s lip, or valour’s brow;
Or rivalling the nightingale and dove
In pouring fourth its melody of love;
Or giving to the gale, in strains of fire,
Immortal harpings—like a seraph’s lyre.
This sonnet is as well-written and flowing as what can be expected from a young man just beginning to discover the ‘religion of art’ so esteemed by Walter Pater.
From my deep bed of coral
I’ve risen for thee,
And left my green chambers
Far down in the sea;
My hall of pure amber
Is darksome and drear,
No star-light beaming…
To the depths of the ocean…
Come swiftly down, swiftly;
My grottos are mute,
For thee I’ll awaken
My song, and my lute.
From my deep bed of coral
I’ve risen for thee,
And left my green chambers
Far down in the sea!
This is as lyrical and mystical as it gets, while he experiments with created myth and legend, story-telling that aims to innovate even as it unshackles itself from the burdens of the past.
Oh’ when our country writhes in galling chains.
When her proud masters scourge her as a dog,
If her wild cry be borne upon the gale.
Our bosoms at the melancholy sound
Should swell, and we should rush to her relief.
Like sons, at an unhappy parent’s wail!
And when we know the flash of patriot swords
Is unto spirits longing to be free.
Like Hope’s returning light, we should not pause
Till every tyrant who on us hath trod
Lies humbled at our feet, or till we find
‘The Golden Vase’ is almost a call to rebellion, lines that I am obliged to admire, with a symbolism that works at several levels, esthetically, cognitively, vitally and emotionally. Henry Derozio, I have no doubt would have been a great poet, had he lived longer. But he opened the minds of our youth to new thoughts, against his own Anglo-Indian community, and helped create a movement that is today no longer a glacier but a deluge. For this alone, to him, our utmost gratitude and appreciation.
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