"The god himself took up thy pen and wrote."
— Sri Aurobindo
Madhusudan was born with rock-like determination. He proved himself to be a student of exceptional gifts, and his teachers and professors with no difficulty recognised in him a fast-blossoming intellectual figure. When his boyhood was just commencing to bud into adolescence, countless coloured images rocketed in the sky of his imagination for a swift flare-up into fame.
From his adolescence he was consumed with the desire to be an out-and-out Englishman. There was no shadow of a doubt in him that the moment his feet touched the foreign shores he would become a world figure. According to him, Bengal, nay, the whole of India was sadly wanting in the capacity of appreciating a genius, whereas the free thinking of foreigners could evaluate real merit. Let us leave him to speak:
Where man in all his truest glory lives,
And nature's face is exquisitely sweet;
For those fair climes I heave impatient sigh,
There let me live and there let me die.
At last the fated day dawned. On February 9, 1843, Madhusudan embraced Christianity in spite of his parents' and relatives' thundering and wailing in chorus. On that red-letter day Madhusudan in Michael's heart sang:
Long sunk in superstition's night,
By Sin and Satan driven, —
I saw not, — cared not for the light
That leads the blind to Heaven.
But now, at length thy grace, O Lord!
Bids all around me shine;
I drink thy sweet, — thy precious word,
I kneel before thy shrine!
Again let us not miss Michael's song in Madhu in after years on the eve of his departure to England.
Forget me not, O Mother,
Should I fail to return
To thy hallowed bosom.
Make not the lotus of thy memory
Void of its nectar — Madhu1
Neither Shakespeare nor Milton but Byron was Madhusudan's hero. It is really worth noticing how the lives of Lord Byron and Michael Madhusudan were fashioned completely in a similar mould. The characters of the two can be summed up in one word: audacity. These two mighty poets at once remind us of Danton the French revolutionist: "L'audace, encore l'audace, toujours l'audace!"
With Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Byron won the world. To cite the poet himself: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."
With Meghnad-Badh the Indian poet distinguished himself. However, it took a few years for this epic to win recognition all over the country.
Bankim, the creator of Bengali literature, pays a glowing tribute to the poet of Meghnad-Badh thus: "...to Homer and Milton, as well as to Valmiki, he is largely indebted, and his poem is on the whole the most valuable work in modern Bengali literature."
"The Epic Meghnad-Badh," says Tagore, "is really a rare treasure in Bengali literature. Through his writings, the richness of Bengali literature has been proclaimed to the wide world." Vidyasagar's lofty praise runs: " Meghnad-Badh is a supreme poem."
Nolini Kanta Gupta, who ranks high among the great literary figures of Bengal, writes: "The day Bankim produced his artistic beauty, /Kapalkundala,/ and Madhusudan penned —
the day Rabindranath could declare —
Not mother, not daughter, not bride art thou,
O Beauty incarnate,
O Urvasi, denizen of Paradise! —
was a momentous day for Bengali literature to proclaim the message of the universal muse and not exclusively its own parochial note. The genius of Bengal secured a place in the wide world overpassing the length and breadth of Bengal. And Bengali poetry reached the highest status."
Let me deal a little more with Byron and Madhusudan. "Self-worshipper": such was the comment made by Keats on Byron. Macaulay goes one step ahead: "He [Byron] was himself the beginning, the middle and the end, of all his own poetry, the hero of every tale, the chief object in every landscape." But who can dare to accuse the Indian poet of the same crime? Not even a single criticism of the kind can be levelled against him. Be that as it may, I should like to draw the attention of my readers to a strangely significant matter. In Byron's Manfred what the Abbot St. Maurice spoke of Manfred can equally be applied to the life of Madhusudan:
This should have been a noble creature: he
Hath all the energy which should have made
A goodly frame of glorious elements,
Had they been wisely mingled, as it is,
It is an awful chaos — light and darkness —
And mind and dust — and passion and
Mixed and contending without end or order,
All dormant or destructive.
A wonderful linguist was Madhusudan. His reading is almost unbelievable. Besides Bengali, Sanskrit and Tamil, he studied Greek, Latin, Italian and French and could read and write the last two with perfect grace and ease.
His heart gave a throb of joy after he had made his first attempt at the Bengali sonnet. He presented the poem to his dear friend Rajnarayan (Rishi Rajnarayan Bose), along with a letter which runs:
"What say you to this, my good friend? In my humble opinion, if cultivated by men of genius, our sonnet in time would rival the Italian."
We are at once reminded of Italy's high appreciation of Madhusudan. It happened that when Madhusudan was staying in Versailles France, the third centenary of Dante was being celebrated all over the West. Madhusudan wrote a poem in memory of the immortal poet and translated it into French and Italian and finally sent it to Italy. Victor Immanuel, then ruling monarch of Italy, was enamoured of the poem and wrote to the poet: "It will be a ring which will connect the orient with the occident."
Madhusudan's life was at once a stupendous boon and an enormous sorrow. Loss of self-control was in the main responsible for this sorrow and his over-flowing poetic originality for this boon.
As Tamburlaine was Marlowe's first attempt at blank verse in Elizabethan England, even so Sharmistha was Madhusudan's first attempt at blank verse in Bengali literature.
The Bengal Tiger, Sir Ashutosh Mukherji, while paying a glowing tribute to Madhusudan's blank verse, said, "As long as the Bengali race and Bengali literature would exist, the sweet lyre of Madhusudan would never cease playing." He further added: "Ordinarily, reading of poetry causes a soporific effect, but the intoxicating vigour of Madhusudan's poems makes even a sick man sit up on his bed."
In France poor Madhusudan suffered tremendous blows from within and without. His Indian friends who had inspired him to cross the ocean had by now managed to forget the beggar Madhusudan altogether. Except for a very few well-wishers, the poet had to remain satisfied with many a fair-weather friend. But the Goddess of poetry had not deserted him from the day he began to worship her. The poet's boat was plying, as it were, between the Scylla of stark poverty and the Charybdis of innumerable loans. He was simply over head and ears in debt. As he was not in a position to clear off his debts, he was very often threatened by the four walls of a prison.
The tenebrous night was over. The sun at last dawned, thanks to the munificent generosity of Vidyasagar, equally known as Dayar Sagar (the ocean of kindness). The matchless Pundit of the country sent the poet a large sum of money. The son of Mother Bengal returned to her "Elysian lap." To our joy, Madhusudan realised his mistake. He wrote to his friend Gour from France: "If there be any one among us anxious to leave a name behind him, and not pass away into oblivion like a brute, let him devote himself to his mother-tongue. That is his legitimate sphere — his proper element."
Just three days prior to his death, Madhusudan, with the help of Shakespeare, expressed his deepest conviction of life to his dear friend Gour:
...out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
Gour too could easily have taken the help of Longfellow:
Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal.
Madhusudan died. We are as much ashamed as pained to confess that the gloomy veil of ungratefulness which had lain across the eyes of the Bengalis was not rent asunder until fifteen years from the day of his passing, when we, his countrymen, erected a tomb on his grave. No doubt, some of his countrymen did understand that such an act was essentially a duty on their part to perpetuate the memory of the mighty poet whose very life was to their gain, but there the matter ended. It is no good lamenting the past. The golden future is at our disposal. Now, we are proud to see that the all-inviting epitaph which shines there came from the poet himself:
Stop a while, traveller!
Should Mother Bengal claim thee for her son.
As a child takes repose on his mother's elysian lap,
Even so here in the Long Home,
On the bosom of the earth,
Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep
Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.4
As at the outset of this humble attempt of mine Madhusudan came under the lofty praise of Sri Aurobindo's immortal pen, even so at the close Madhusudan comes under the equally high praise of the Master-Seer of the Age:
"All the stormiest passions of man's soul he [Madhusudan] expressed in gigantic language.”