An Appreciation of Revd WS Senior of England and Ceylon

Sukumar Shan … in Visual Storyteller

W. S. Senior Reverend Walter Stanley Senior (10 May 1876–23 February 1938) was an English scholar, poet and member of the Church Missionary Society. Popularly known as the “Bard of Lanka”, his works are still widely read in the island nation. He was also Vice Principal of Trinity College, Kandy, Sri Lanka .Walter Stanley Senior was the son of Walter Senior, a clergyman. His uncle was Edward Senior, headmaster of Sheffield Royal Grammar School[6] which he attended from 1888 to 1891. He continued his early education at Marlborough, a school to which he was deeply attached and about which he wrote both in prose and verse. From Marlborough he won a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford. He took a First Class in Classical Honour Moderations (Intermediate examination) and a Second Class in Greats (classics or philosophy). He was the author of a work titled Pisgah or The Choice, which won the triennial prize poem on a sacred subject in the University of Oxford, 1914.

Trinity College – The early years

Reverend Senior came out to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1906, and served as Vice Principal of Trinity for a decade. When the then Principal of Trinity, Rev. A. G. Fraser, was looking for talent in the English Universities which he could enlist into service at Trinity College, Kandy, he came across Senior who formed one of a brilliant set of men, including the late Dr. Kenneth Saunders from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, N. P. Campbell, also a Balliol man, who was recognised as a great scientist, and J. P. R. Gibson, later Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge. In the absence of Rev Fraser, Senior also deputised as Acting Principal for a short period.

Trinity emerged as a public school with a scholastic reputation with the appointment of Mr. Senior. His earliest students included two University Scholars, Mr. L. M. D. de Silva, KC, and Mr. J. L. C. Rodrigo, who succeeded him as Classical Lecturer at the University College. Many of his pupils adorned various walks of life but several times that number cherishes the memory of a beautiful character.

A little known fact during his stay is Kandy was his role in the marriage of Mr. George E. de Silva, which was solemnised in 1909 at St. Paul’s Church, Kandy. The marriage, to Miss. Agnes Nell from a very conservative Dutch family was opposed by many to the point that The Vicar refused to marry them, and it was left to Rev. W.S. Senior to solemnise the marriage.

A portrait of Rev Senior by David Paynter, also a Trinitian, hangs in the Trinity College Library.

Other work in Sri Lanka

Rev Senior assumed duties as Vicar of Christ Church, Galle Face, in 1916 and continued in this post until 1919. Mr. Senior’s interest in educational work prompted him to accept the post of first Registrar of the University College and lecturer in Classics, but the material aspects of office and security had no appeal whatever to a man of his fine sensibilities. He was also the personal tutor of James P Obeysekere, and lived with the family in Reid Avenue while teaching at University College.

Senior was a fine classical scholar with a remarkable gift for conveying his own enthusiasm for the best in literature to those who were privileged to be his students. In the opinion of good judges he was the best English poet Sri Lanka has produced – for though he wrote when at Marlborough and Balliol, his best work was done in Sri Lanka and for Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). A book of his verse was published under the title Vita Magistra (1937). A common vein in many of his finest pieces is an appreciation of the diversity and beauty that is Sri Lanka. Rev Senior also has the distinction of being the author of the famous Hymn for Ceylon as well as the Hymn of Trinity College, Kandy and that of St. John’s College, Jaffna. His best known work however is the soul-stirring epic titled The Call of Lanka, which many consider to be arguably the finest poem dealing with Sri Lanka ever written.

In a letter to a friend, written a few before his death, he said: “The idea has come to me that I should like my ashes, for I contemplate cremation rather than burial, to be interred in St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Haputale.” His gravestone at St Andrew’s is a testament to his life, bearing the plain legend He Loved Ceylon preceded by the opening lines from his poem, Lanka from Pidurutalagala: Here I stand in spirit, as in body once I stood Long years ago, in love with all the land, This peerless land of beauty’s plenitude.” The pulpit of the Trinity College Chapel is dedicated to his name.


* Requiem at Trinity College Chapel with Errol Fernando” ….


The Call of Lanka

I climbed o’er the crags of Lanka
And gazed on the golden sea
When out from her ancient places,
Her soul came forth to me;
“Give me a bard,” said Lanka,
“A bard of the things to be.”

“My cities are laid in ruins,
Their courts through the jungle spread,
My scepter is long departed
And the stranger lord instead.
Yet, give me a bard,” said Lanka.
“I am living, I am not dead.”

“For high in my highland valleys,
And low in my lowland plains,
The pride of the past is pulsing
Hot in a people’s veins.
Give me a bard,” said Lanka,
“A bard for my joys and pains.”

I offer a voice O Lanka,
I, child of an alien Isle;
For my heart has heard thee and kindled,
Mine eyes have seen thee and smiled;
Take, foster mother, and use it,
‘Tis but for a little while.

For, surely of thine own children,
Born of thy womb, shall rise
The bard of the moonlit jungle,
The bard of the tropic skies,
Warm from his mother’s bosom,
Bright from his mother’s eyes.

He shall hymn thee of hoar Sri Pada,
The peak that is lone and tall.
He shall sing with her crags, Dunhinda,
The smoking waterfall.
Whatsoever is fair in Lanka,
He shall know it and love it all.

He shall sing thee of sheer Sigiriya,
Of Minneria’s wandering kine;
He shall sing of the lake and the lotus,
He shall sing of the rock-hewn shrine,
Whatsoever is old in Lanka,
Shall live in his Lordly line.

But most shall he sing of Lanka
In the bright new days that come.
When the races all have blended
And the voice of strife is dumb
When we leap to a single bugle,
March to a single drum.

March to a mighty purpose,
One man from shore to shore;
The stranger, becomes a brother,
The task of the tutor o’er,
When the ruined city rises
And the palace gleams once more.

Hark! Bard of the fateful future,
Hark! Bard of the bright to be;
A voice on the verdant mountains,
A voice by the golden sea.
Rise, child of Lanka, and answer
Thy mother hath called to thee.

A Hymn for Ceylon

Jehovah, Thou hast promised
The isles shall wait for Thee;
The joyous isles of Ocean,
The jewels of the sea ;

Lo ! we, this island’s watchmen,
Would give and take no rest,
(For thus hast Thou commanded,)
Till our dear land be blessed.

Then bless her, mighty Father,
With blessings needed most,
In every verdant village,
By every palmy coast ;

On every soaring mountain
O er every spreading plain.
May all her sons and daughters
Thy righteousness attain.

Give peace within her borders,
Twixt man and man goodwill,
The love all unsuspicious,
The love that works no ill;

In loyal, lowly service
Let each from other learn,
The guardian and the guarded,
Till Christ Himself return.

To Him our land shall listen,
To Him our land shall kneel,
All rule be on His shoulder.
All wrong beneath His heel;

Oh consummation glorious,
Which now by faith we sing;
Come, cast we up the highway
That brings us back the King.

Farewell to Lanka (an excerpt from Rev Senior’s last poem)

I pass, but Thou, forever Thou remainest,
Lord yet to-be of all the lure of Lanka,
Blood from her heart, high Blossom of the ages.
O Star; O Sun of all the magic distance,
All the green palm-lands setting into Ocean.
All the far dream-blue diadem of mountains.
All the lone mares of pelican and egret;
Kingly unrippled Nuwara Wewa watching.
Silver itself, Mahinda’s ridge of silver.
All the high rocks, the forest-ruin rising,
Storied and still, throughout a marvel-isle
From Trincomalee to Tissamaharama:
Kindling all these, by these to passion kindled,
Deep to their deep, a death-less Music calling,
Mould thou the songs that mould a noble people.
Peace shall be Thine; but mine is holy torment.
Knowing I know not half the lore of Lanka
Land of heart’s longing

   ***   ***

A NOTE: Sukumar Shan could well be the cameraman and writer who features in the web outlet Ceylon Then / Sri Lanka Now! =



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8 responses to “An Appreciation of Revd WS Senior of England and Ceylon

  1. EMAIL COMMENT from HS Mevan PIERIS in Colombo, 20 October 2021:
    “Dear Michael,
    Thanks very much indeed for sharing this wonderful account of The Revd. Senior. I do remember my mother and uncle Danton Obeyesekere telling me that Revd.Senior was a Saintly man and they enjoyed participating in prayers conducted by him at the ‘Maligawa’, my great grand-mother’s residence opposite Royal College. The late Revd. Senior was a close friend of my Great grand-mum, Cornelia Henrietta Obeyesekere (sister of Sir Solomon), who had allowed Revd Senior to stay at her home and enjoy all the comforts. I do have his book of poems and enjoy reading it.”

    YES …. Nobless Oblige!! His wealth that he shared was Spiritual Wealth which he carried in abundance. This he has shared with so many, in many different ways; and indeed in the form of poetry which shall never fade away.

  2. AN EMAIL NOTE from LAKSHMAN GURUSWAMY in USA, 20 October 2021: …. “Michael, ….
    Once again, we owe you a deep debt of gratitude for keeping alive the memories of Christian expatriates who manifested their love of the Lord, and their love of Sri Lanka. Their universal message of love inspires me to more clearly discern the message in Hebrews: Given how we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.

    Keep up your invaluable work ……Best

  3. AN EMAIL COMMENT from ERROL FERNANDO in Melbourne, 29 October 2021:

    “Michael, …….I see that you have included the link to my joyous experience in 2019 accompanying the school choir in the chapel singing ‘Where river, lake and mountain meet’. Known as the College Hymn,the words were composed by Vice Principal Rev W.S. Senior. Trinity College Kandy is indeed located, with a slight stretch of the imagination, where river, lake and mountain meet!’ “

  4. It fascinates me the number of people who where inspired by my grandfather. I dont share his way with words, but do share his love of SRI LANKA. ………….Fred Senior.

  5. THANK YOU Mr Senior. Perhaps you can send us supplementary information on your faher’s lineage –before and since…. and afew choice photographs from his time in Ceylon.

  6. AN EMAIL RESPONSE from Mr FRED SENIOR, 3 Augus 2022:

    “Greetings Sir It is my grandfather WSS. Mrs Chantal De Saram is publishing my copy of granddads autobiography .Between covid and those dreadful politicians it has been on hold. I will contact you if you are interested in a copy. I live in NZ and I am retired, but still send various items to Sri Lanka over the last 16 yrs which are distributed by Chantal. She was Siva and James Obeyeskere’s. daughter. When I first went to SL in1976 I was amazed at the respect there was for my grandfather who died 11 years before I was born ….. in 1949.
    Yours Fred Senior”

  7. Mevan Pieris

    Dear Fred,
    My maternal great grand-mother was Cornelia Henrietta Obeyesekere. My mother, Cornelia was the daughter of Donald Obeyesekere, and used to tell me what a lovely priest Walter Senior was. I have my mother’s copy of Reverend Senior’s book. Is this one to be published a different version ? If so I would love to receive a copy.
    Best Regards
    Mevan Pieris

  8. Ranil Perera

    I believe Rev Senior wrote the Hymn for Ceylon.

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