RK de Silva as Serendipitous Sleuth resurrects Benjamin Bailey’s Sonnets from the 1840s

Nan, in the Sunday Island, 18 December 2011. with different title: “Dr. Rajpal K de Silva’s Book of an Original Manuscript of 1841”

I wrote in this column last Sunday about Dr Rajpal Kumar de Silva who made a serendipitous find of an 1841 handwritten manuscript in an antiquarian bookshop in London. Titled Poetical Sketches of the Interior of the Island of Ceylon it contains within its beige, gold lettered leather covers impressions of Ceylon by Rev. Benjamin Bailey in sonnet form along with comments and copious appendices. I have been looking through Rajpal’s computer entered manuscript with the text of the original manuscript and its pictures and sketches exactly reproduced. Rajpal has however included a Foreword; a comment on Benjamin Bailey as friend of John Keats by Prof Ashley Halpe; an essay by Robert S White, Professor of English, University of Western Australia, who in 2010 published John Keats: a literary Life; valuable cum interesting appendices and a detailed bibliography which Rajpal says is unique being enhanced with sketches and detailed references to the history of the time, plus biographies of the original author and his poet friend. Letters exchanged between various people, mostly of Bailey are also reproduced. With detailed references, he also identified the two Benjamin Bailey’s who worked in Ceylon almost at the same time, so that mistaken identities, or both being thought of as one person would not recur.

Rajpal’s book will be out soon and available on sale. It enriches the original mss with the three essays I have mentioned and much more. The original mss, as I said in my last article, has close hand-written pages which Rajpal and his partner, Mano, deciphered with difficulty and obvious strain to the eye and then put it in the computer.Rev. Benjamin Bailey (1791-1853): Benjamin Bailey was born on 5 June 1791 in Linconshire, now Cambridgeshire. He entered Magdalen Hall,Oxford, in 1816, at the then mature age of 25. He read for Holy Orders. Words used to describe his personality range from ‘rather stern’ to ‘pompous’ so we could surmise he had a stiffer upper lip than the average Englishman! However, he was passionate about theology and philosophy and was also an ardent admirer of Dante, Milton and Wordsworth. So when he met the maturing poet John Keats in 1817, to whom he offered the sharing of his room on campus, he was naturally prejudiced in favour of him on account of his poems. Keat’s description of Bailey was “One of the noblest men alive at the present day”. It was at this time as house-mate of Benjamin Bailey that Keats wrote the “Third Book of Endymion” which was acknowledged in large measure to the encouragement and sense of security given by his host to the poet; and thus the famous lines…

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever!

Its loveliness increases, it will never

Pass into nothingness…. “

About Keats he wrote: “His manliness was a principal feature of his character. His integrity and good sense were not inferior. Socially, he was the most lovable creature … He had abundantly more of the poetical character, a hundred times more, than I ever saw in an individual.”

In 1819 Bailey married Hamilton Gleig, the daughter of a Bishop. In 1827, due to her failing health, he decided to move fromEnglandand secured an appointment in a small church inMarseilles. In 1829 the bishop ofLondonarranged for the Baileys to migrate toCeylon, he as Senior Colonial Chaplain. She died in 1832 and was buried in St Peter’s Church Fort. Bailey spent 20 years in this country, being appointed Archdeacon of Colombo in 1847.He had two surviving children, a son who joined the Ceylon Civil Service and married Governor North’s daughter, and a daughter – Janet Mitford – who married a resident Englishman. Rajpal supposes the writing in the mss is hers since Bailey had awful handwriting.

Due to the turbulent connection of the British government with Buddhism and Bailey writing to the press what was considered insubordinate, he was called upon to retire. He went back toEnglandto die on 25 June 1853. His friends inCeylonhowever erected a memorial stone to his memory in the grounds of St. Peter’s Church, Fort.

His poetry: Bailey was a poet who wrote copiously. In his preface to his mss, Bailey says: “The three parts, entitled Poetical Sketches of the Interior of Ceylon, though composed in the measure of the sonnets, are nevertheless to be considered as together forming one descriptive and moral Poem. .. external features of Nature, emotions and affections of the mind. … The matter here collected together, is the production of four excursions into the interior of this beautiful island, in the years 1834, 1835, 1936 and 1838.”

From 1829 to 1852 the recorded output of his writings – whether religious, translations, poetry or prose was prolific by any standards. His unfortunate death at the age of 62 no doubt deprived not only the Church but also the general reading public of an outstanding intellect. He dedicates his first poem aboutCeylonto his dead wife:

“This the first product of my stronger mind,

When I emerge from my deep solitude,

I dedicate to Thee! Thou wert not blind

To Nature, which with rapt thought has views..”

Later “And I was left to struggle with my grief

Heart-broken, lonely, desolate …”

The epitaph to is wife in Part III of Poetical Sketches …is engraved on her monument at St Peter’s Church, Fort, Colombo.

Here resteth all of thee that Death

Had power to take with thy sweet breath;

I would my dust were here, and I

Now shared thine immorality.”

He has written mostly sonnets on very many places ofCeylonand situations and sights. The place names are particularly intriguing – Cosgodde and Bentotte, Baddagam, Hembleattawella (?), TheGindarahRiverGin-Ganga

The versifying is nothing to be raved over. Its style is more pre Romantic with constant reference to God and Church and with a lofty overtone. But the great good of Rajpal’s making the poems readable to a wide public is to place on record the obvious love this man of the British Raj had for this country and to know how things were then, what places like ‘Nuwera Ellia’ looked like.

And wintry cold

Breathes through the air, & shivers on the rocks:

While woollen garments round our limbs we fold

The tropic Spirit laughs in the blast, & mocks…”

He does not however touch on the people, only nature, and never on politics of the time or on colonialism in his sonnets. At the end of each of the four parts are copious notes on each sonnet and each part has Bailey’s prefaces.

The new publication: Rajpal has kept to the original size of the book and even replicated the beige colour of the cover with gold lettering. It has additions made to it. I saw the first trial copy of the completed book. It is superb. While writing this piece I dipped into his first printed draft of the mss. It took long and I had to move from one place in the text to another, reading through lots of notes by Rajpal and quoted letters etc. So how stupendous would have been his reproduction of the mss in published form, not only the difficulty of reading the writing of the mss but undertaking so much reference, mostly in UK libraries and the works of Keats and by him. What could be said is that all that tremendous effort is worthwhile because the result is a book to posses and to read with historical facts emerging about John Keats the poet,Ceylon in the mid 19th century and an Englishman’s poetic writings. Here is a valuable addition to the comparatively small collection of writings of occupiers ofCeylon during its eras of colonization.

Leave a comment

Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, sri lankan society, world events & processes

Leave a Reply