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Atmavilap or Lament of Myself

Clinton B. Seely

My intent, when I began to think about this short presentation for the North American Bengali Conference, was to search for and bring to light any possible links between Michael Madhusudan Datta and the United States of America. It seemed a most appropriate topic for the 4th of July weekend. Admittedly, the connection would be slight, nowhere near as strong as that between Michael and England, either physically or literarily, and not at all as solid as that between Michael and Europe. But we know and have known of one connection to America, of a literary sort, for Michael identified it for us. My question was, as I started to think about this paper: Were there other links, either references to American literature or palpable influences from American literature upon Michael's work? When I began, I thought there was one; now I am not sure.

Let me speak briefly of the one link that Michael proudly calls to our attention. During the latter stages of his sojourn in Madras, Michael gave a lecture entitled "The Anglo-Saxon and the Hindoo." He had quite literally fled from Kolkata to Madras at the end of 1847 to get away, it would appear, from his father, and he returned to Kolkata only in 1856, following his father's death. Michael's lecture is designated "Lecture I" in its published version, preserved for us in what we have of his collected works. No other lecture, no "Lecture II," has so far come to light. Nor has any of Michael's biographers been able to give us specifics about the auspices under which this lecture was delivered. The audience would necessarily have to have been highly sophisticated, highly educated Englishmen, for the allusions, literary and historical, are themselves sophisticated, exhibiting a high degree of erudition on the part of the author. The thrust of the talk is utterly Orientalist in nature; I am using the connotations of "Orientalist" we have learned from Edward Said and his book entitled Orientalism. In that lecture Michael is highly disparaging of the Hindoo, whom he calls degraded and in need of being "Christianized" by the noble Anglo-Saxon. Remember, Michael is himself a Christian at this time and has been for just over a decade. In the course of emphasizing the contrast between the high-minded Anglo-Saxon—the term itself is an elevated expression for the British colonialists—and the lowly, depraved Hindoo, Michael employs a series of pairs of characters, both real and fictional, drawn from history and literature. I quote from his lecture, including two of the pairs: Octavius, the good, and Brutus, the bad; Eva, the good, and Topsy, the slave girl, symbol for the degraded Hindu. These are Michael's words:

You now see before you, as it were, on a stage, two actors—the Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu. One of them is indeed well-graced, ravishing the eyes of the audience with his manly beauty—enchanting the ears of the audience with the dulcet tones of his voice!

. . . Octavius feasting in the tent of the luxurious Antony, the golden goblet blushing and sparkling with the delicious blood of the vine of sunny Italy in his hand, the chaplet of dewy roses on his head: Brutus sternly watches the purple current of life, ebbing out from the ghastly wound inflicted by his own suicidal hands! Eva, with the transplanted rose of the West, blooming on her cheek, the blue heaven of her eyes beaming with cloudless sunlight; and poor Topsy—the degraded daughter of a degraded race, standing before her like a ghastly phantom, an unearthly vision! (p. 630-31)

Michael delivered the lecture sometime in the year 1854. Besides holding a teaching job, he worked for a number of journals while residing in Madras and seems to have had no trouble getting his writing into print. In the published version of his lecture, he gives, in accordance with established practices of the day, endnote references that identify the sources for many of the more erudite literary and historical allusions made in the body of the lecture. We are informed, in such an endnote, that Uncle Tom's Cabin is the source from which is drawn the Eva/Topsy allusion, the last in the series of pairs I just cited.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published in book form in 1852, some two years only before Michael referenced it in his lecture. But Ms. Stowe's anti-slavery novel proved to be a runaway best seller, moving quickly abroad to English-speaking audiences outside the United States and also getting translated into a number of other languages. Edmund Wilson, in his massive work, entitled Patriot Gore, on the American Civil War and the literature pertaining to it tells us of the incredible speed with which Uncle Tom's Cabin moved out beyond the shores of the US and of the equally incredible number of copies of the book sold. It clearly had no trouble reaching colonial India, even becoming available in a lesser administrative center like Madras —lesser, that is, in comparison with Calcutta. Michael read it. That connection between Michael and American literature is easily and firmly established without a doubt.

If Michael read Harriet Beecher Stowe, it seems reasonable to ask oneself whether he read, or even knew of, other American writers. His letters, now nicely collected and edited for us by Ghulam Murshid in his recent book, The Heart of a Rebel Poet: Letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, do not give any hint of him having read American poets or prose writers, other than the phenomenal Ms. Stowe and her sensational novel. It was Ghulam Murshid's earlier book, the excellent biography of Michael entitled "Ashar chalane bhuli," that first set me to wondering. Specifically, I wondered whether Michael, with the title to the poem whose first line is "Ashar chalane bhuli," rendered by Murshid and his translator, Gopa Majumdar, as "Lured by Hope," was not somehow playing off of Stowe's contemporary, Walt Whitman, and particularly his famous, monumental poem, "Song of Myself." The title to Michael's poem that begins "Ashar chalane bhuli" is "Atmavilap," which can easily and justifiably be translated in English as "Lament of Myself," very much calling to mind the Whitman wording, "Song of Myself."

Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Michael's "Lament of Myself" are worlds apart in sentiment and poetic structure. Be that as it may, it still seemed conceivable to me that Michael might have been mirroring, or even mocking, the bold egoism of Whitman's lyric, that was first published in 1855, well before Michael's "Lament of Myself," which came out in the Brahmo journal Tattwabodhini in September of 1861.

Let me give you a taste of both poems, first Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" (1892 edition):

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Compare those nine initial lines of Whitman with the first of the seven short stanzas that comprise "Lament of Myself," in Bangla, then in my translation. Coincidentally, Michael, born in January of 1824, was 37 years old when he wrote this poem:

আশার ছলনে ভুলি          কি ফল লভিনু, হায়,
                      তাই ভাবি মনে?
জীবন-প্রবাহ বহি          কাল-সিন্ধু পানে যায়,
                      ফিরাব কেমনে?
দিন দিন আয়ুহীন,          হীনবল দিন দিন,--
তবুও এ আশার নেশা          ছুটিল না? এ কি দায়!

Fooled by hope's deception,          what is it I have gained?
                      I think on that, alas.
The currents of this lifetime          flow toward extinction's ocean.
                      How can I reverse them?
Daily my life ebbs from me,          daily my strength lessens—
Still then, this hope's intoxicant,          does it release its grip, ah no!

Whitman's poem is self-centered, self-assertive. Michael's is also self-centered but, additionally, self-critical, self-pitying, for he sees himself and his life as being not within his control. Whitman experienced none of the split-personality that colonialism could foster, and at least part of the sentiment of Michael's poem can be attributed to the bifurcated world any educated Bengali in the 19th century had to face.

"Lament of Myself" is not the only poem in which Michael expresses regret. We see it also in his first sonnet, composed exactly a year earlier, in 1860, and titled "The Poet's Mother Tongue" (Kavi-matribhasha), renamed "The Language of Bengal" (Bangabhasha). Michael introduced the sonnet, a most productive verse form still today, to the non-English literatures of South Asia. In this first-ever sonnet in Bangla, he chastised himself for having ignored Saraswati, the Indian muse, and gone a begging to the West for his literary inspiration and sustenance. But who is this Michael who laments? Is there not another Michael, THE Michael whom we have come to know, who is the dominant personality of the two, who is, in fact, more like Whitman, the poet of "Song of Myself," and less, and only occasionally, the Michael of "Lament of Myself"? Is that not the usual Michael, the Michael who could write to a friend, referring to his recently published Meghanadavadha Kavya: "The poem is rising into splendid popularity. Some say it is better than Milton—but that is all bosh—nothing can be better than Milton: many say it licks Kalidasa; I have no objection to that. I don't think it impossible to equal Virgil, Kalidasa, and Tasso." Is that not our familiar Michael, the Michael who can claim to be better than the immortal Sanskrit poet Kalidasa?

From the opening lines of canto four of Meghanadavadha Kavya, we hear a strong voice of the poet, seeking inclusion in the parampara or lineage of past Indian poets. It's a confident voice, a presumptuous voice of someone who sees himself worthy, with some help from his betters, of taking his place alongside the immortal poets of his own Indian tradition:

I bow before you, guru among poets, before your lotus
feet, Valmiki. O crown-gem upon the head of
Bharata, I, your slave, humbly follow after you just
as the wretched poor follow as camp followers of an
Indra among kings when that king goes on a pilgrimage
to a sacred spot. Meditating day and night on foot-
prints you have left, how many pilgrims before me have gained
entrance to fame's temple, by subduing world-subduing
Samana--to become immortal. Sri Bhartrhari;
scholar Bhavabhuti, called Srikantha; a man of marked
mellifluence, Kalidasa--known throughout Bharata
as the favorite son of Bharati; most captivating
Murari, epitome of his namesake's melodic
flute; and poet Krttivasa, a repository of
achievements, ornament of this Bengal. --O forefather,
how am I to sport with regal geese upon the lake of
poetic rasa if you do not guide me? I shall string
anew a garland after plucking blossoms tenderly
from your literary garden. I strive to beautify
our language with divers decorations, but where shall I
(impoverished me!) obtain that gem cache, Ratnakara, if
you do not help? Show compassion, lord, to this needy one.

Though politely humble, the poet's voice here is positive, assertive, and confident. And this is the voice we most associate with Michael--the Michael of the wonderfully bombastic letters in English in which he declares that he "despises Ram and his rabble" or in which he compares himself to Milton, Kalidasa, Virgil, and Tasso, and concludes that all but Milton could be bested--by himself, of course. In what I just read to you is the strong, confident Michael whom I met through his literature many years ago. And because I know that confident Michael, it seems slightly odd to me that the most current biography of this man—and a very good biography it is—should be titled with the opening line of "Lament of Myself" and its connotations of a regretful Michael.

Let me now return to the original premise of this presentation—which was, to investigate possible links between Michael and American literature other than the connection with Uncle Tom's Cabin. As noted earlier, Whitman's "Song of Myself" came out in 1855, in his one and only book of poetry, revised a number of times, his Leaves of Grass. Michael's "Lament of Myself" was written and published in 1861, shortly after the publication of his magnum opus and great success, Meghanadavadha Kavya. The chronology was right for Michael to have seen Whitman's poem. It turns out, however, that when Whitman first published his poem in 1855, it bore no title at all. Subsequently, in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, it had the title "Poem Of Walt Whitman, An American." Only when republished for the third edition of Leaves of Grass did this particular poem by Whitman have the title "Song of Myself." That third publication of the poem appeared in 1882, two decades after Michael's "Lament of Myself" had appeared, and nearly a decade after Michael's death in 1873. Obviously, the mere title of Whitman's poem could not have inspired the titling of Michael's 1861 poem "Lament of Myself." There is no palpable second link between Michael and American literature, at least not here. But linked directly or not, Walt Whitman and Michael Madhusudan Datta have much in common as powerful poets, each a pioneering force within his own American and Bangla literary tradition.

This is an address given to the North American Bengali Conference, Baltimore, USA, July, 2004. Published in Parabaas January 2021

Professor Emeritus of South Asian Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago, Professor Clinton B. Seely taught literature and the Bangla language for ... (more)

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