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Of Bards and Bad Press

Rosinka Chaudhuri

Edited by Eunice de Souza
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 341, Rs. 475.00

Edited by Chandani Lokuge
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 405, Rs. 650.00


Eunice de Souza concludes her remarks in the introduction to Early Indian Poetry in English with a telling comment taken from a letter written by the Canadian novelist, Shauna Singh Baldwin. In the letter, the writer recounts being given, as a punishment for some misdemeanour, a long poem by Michael Madhusudan Dutt on Alexander to memorize and recite. This incident, the footnote adds, helped to develop in her a life-long interest in Alexander. De Souza dryly remarks that she hopes that ‘at least some of the poems in this anthology will not meet this fate!’   ‘This fate’ that has been the lot of nineteenth-century writers of English poetry in India for a very long time now is even more of a bottomless pit of ignorance and indifference than Eunice de Souza imagines, for Michael Madhusudan Dutt, in fact, never wrote a poem on Alexander. How Ms Baldwin managed to retain a life-long interest in Alexander from a poem titled ‘King Porus’, that glorified, in opposition to the colonizing emperor, the Indian patriot, Porus, will remain something of a mystery for us no less than for her. Putting aside whatever it tells us of Ms Baldwin’s retentive powers, this incident remains emblematic of the ‘bad press’, as Eunice de Souza puts it, that nineteenth-century poetry has long received. She is also right in pointing out that our amnesia about this body of work is due, in most part, to the non-availability of the primary works in their complete and most interesting manifestations; anthologists down the ages have ignored ‘the polemical, the political, the quietly personal’ in favour of the mystical and oriental type of verse that they then felt, no doubt, was the embodiment of the essence of India. Thus Derozio, the first Indian to write English verse, has been read for generations in the 1923 and 1980 Oxford University Press editions, which culled the poems of their epigraphs, notes and footnotes, and chose only the most breathless of the shorter lyrics and sonnets. As a result the most fiercely political, witty and engaged poet of his time was reduced to a proto-Romantic, gazing upon the moon or the twilight in a daze—a situation that can only be rectified by a more persistent and sustained engagement with the entire corpus of his work, much of which lies scattered and uncollected in newspapers and journals of the time.   The effort that Eunice ...

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