A Study in Anglo-Indian Melancholy

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.”


From the very beginnings of Anglo-Indian literature there has been a tendency for the writings of Englishmen in India to be pervaded with the note of melancholy. A foreigner judging us by our writings would say that we were a rather lugubrious and heart-sick community, liable at times however to a wild and reckless merriment. It is natural to ask whether our literature misrepresents us. The Englishman, and still more the Scotsman, is typically reserved; easily both of them conceal their deepest emotions. Does the activity and gaiety of the Anglo-Indian community merely conceal an innate and deep-set melancholy? or do most of us, deep down in the depths of us, really enjoy our Indian life? That the note of gloom pervades Anglo-Indian literature and is only thrown off by a reaction to the other extreme, can be illustrated from a hundred writers. Sir William Jones addresses his absent wife in verses adapted from the Arabic

Two younglings wait the parent bird
Their thrilling sorrows to appease:
She comes—ah! no! the sound they heard
Was but a whisper of the breeze.

John Leyden in his “Ode to an Indian Gold Coin,” flings it from him, crying:—

From love, from friendship, country torn,
To memory’s fond regrets a prey,
Vile slave, thy yellow dross I scorn;
Go mix thee with thy kindred clay!

Passing by the occasional melancholy of Heber and Derozio and Rattray’s “The Exile” and D. L. Richardson’s “Home Visions” and similar poems, we find the same note continuing to the end of the century, and bitingly, almost brutally expressed, in Sir Alfred Lyall’s “Land of Regrets” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Galley Slave.” No four lines ever summed up the darker side of Anglo- Indian life better than these:—

He has found what a blunder his youth is,
His prime what a struggle and yet
Has to learn of old age what the truth is,
In the land of regret.

More terrible, though more hopeful, are Kipling’s lines:—

By the brand upon my shoulder, by the gall of clinging steel,
By the welt the whips have left me, by the scars that never heal;
By eyes grown old with staring through the sun-wash on the brine,
I am paid in full for service— would that service still were mine!

The genius of Kipling reveals itself in these last six words. No one painted more terribly than he the horrors and ghastlinesses of India, but there were notes in his writings which struck on the ear as something new in Anglo-Indian literature. We have the note of pride in the land of his birth

Of no mean city am I
For I was born in her gate.

We have too the note of duty:—

Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need.

Pride in the country of one’s adoption and duty to India, the true Anglo-Indian’s supreme consolation when work seems dreary and the homeland a dream—these were new notes in Anglo-Indian writing. Whole shelves of older Anglo-Indian books may be read through without meeting them. Here and there they may occur, but far more rarely than in these days might be expected, now that they have become a commonplace. To this change of atmosphere Kipling was not the least contributor.

It becomes amply evident that the note of pessimism and melancholy has pervaded most Anglo-Indian poetry. Except in the professedly boisterous rhymsters like Aliph Cheem it is rarely absent.

In prose writings, too, it is met everywhere. “Pandurang Hari” was the work of one who was obviously utterly without hope as regards the future of the people of whom he wrote—the Marathas. Allardyce’s “City of Sunshine” leaves the reader with an equally despairing impression as regards the future of the Indian people. To Mrs. Ross Church in “Véronique” and “Gup” India was “the nursery of bigotry, prejudice and smallmindedness, the Juggernat of English domestic life.” Sir George Chesney’s “The Dilemma” is a tragedy as gloomy as Hamlet. “The Wetherbys” of John Lang leaves one with the feeling that English military life in India before the Mutiny was morally so bad, that in despair of reforming it there was only one course open to the writer — to laugh at it. The idea of a subaltern becoming a Captain because four seniors drank themselves to death is really amusing if regarded from the right point of view! Such at least is the general impression given by the book. Even that prince of humorous essayists, Aberigh-Mackay, cannot resist telling us in his “Twenty- one Days in India” how Baby’s “Papa has a Rajah and a Star of India to play with, while Mamma has the warrant of Precedence and Hill Captains, but baby has nothing;” but soon “Baby is planted out for evermore in the dark and weedy cemetery that lies on the outskirts of the station where he lived and died.” Of later writers Mrs. Steel’s and Mrs. Cotes’s work is not definitely tinged with the note of gloom, though some of their work like “The Potter’s Thumb” leaves us with the feeling that in India the Potter has potted very much awry.

Scores of light-hearted and irresponsible writings may doubtless be quoted as for instance Sir H. E. Cunningham’s “Coeruleans” or “Chronicles of Dustypore” against the proposition that pessimism and lugubriousness are definite features of the bulk of Anglo-Indian literature. But the very fact that those writers who escape the note of gloom are carried over by the reaction into uproarious hilarity or the extreme of gaiety of itself contributes to attest the argument.


“Oakfield,” a novel, was written in 1853 by William Delafield Arnold. The writer was a son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby and, therefore, a brother of Matthew Arnold. He spent some years in a sepoy regiment, and then obtained the post of Director of Public Instruction in the Punjab. He died at Gibraltar on his way home to England.

Of William Arnold, Matthew Arnold in “A Southern Night” wrote:—

Thy memory, thy pain, to-night
My brother! and thine early lot
Possess me quite.

The murmur of this midland deep
Is heard to-night around thy grave,
There, where Gibraltar’s cannoned steep
O’erfrowns the wave.

For there with bodily anguish keen, With Indian heats at last foredone, With public toil and private teen — Thou sank’st alone.

Slow to a stop, at morning grey,
I see the smoke-crowned vessel come,
Slow round her paddles dies away
The seething foam.

A boat is lowered from her side;
Ah! gently place him on the bench!
That spirit — if all have not died —
A breath might quench.

“Oakfield” is undoubtedly largely autobiography. In the story, Edward Oakfield, a clergyman’s son, who after taking his degree at Oxford is living on there, suddenly decides to accept an ensignship in the East India Company’s army. Indifferent like Arnold of Rugby to dogma, but clinging sternly to his ideal of duty, he is revolted by the conventionality of English social and religious ideas. As a clergyman he see no escape and gives up the idea of holy orders. What else is left? “The bar? I would rather learn to plough in a remote colony.” “I see only two courses open—either to quit society altogether, or to mix in it on its own terms.” He felt that if he stayed in England in any profession open to him, he would fail to realize his ideals, nay he would cease to strive for them.

“But do you expect,” said his sister, “that going to India will free you from these dangers and difficulties?”

“Ah stop! You are getting on too fast; what I am telling you now is why I left Oxford; I do not know what I go to, but I know that what I leave is full of danger to me.”

And so, impelled by a conviction that the daily spectacle of social and religious enormities, utterly irreconcilable with the faith he held, must have a bad effect on a man’s mind, leading him to acquiesce in what is false and monstrous, and with a vague idea that in the “colonies” a less sophisticated and purer atmosphere might be met with, Oakfield left England, only to be plunged straight into the officers’ mess of one of the worst sepoy regiments in India!

The result was inevitable. What military society in India was like before the Mutiny we know from Lang’s “The Wetherbys.” Ovid in Tomi was a far happier man. Straight from Oxford, from a sober and disciplined home, from the haunts of ancient peace, Oakfield, that is, Arnold, became a member of a society of men of no education, who never spoke without an oath, who gambled, were in debt, fought duels, and never mentioned the country and its people without contempt and hate. Arnold’s hero was unfortunate in getting into a particularly bad regiment; but, as things were before 1857, most messes would have disgusted him.

“I do not mean,” writes Oakfield of his mess, “only that the higher elements of the gentlemanly character are wanting. Courtesy to inferiors — Heaven save the mark in this country! fancy talking to an officer of courtesy to a native! — honesty in money transaction and so on; but there is not even a refinement of outward manners; so far from being above, they seem infinitely below par in this respect. I had always thought of a mess as the abode of luxurious refinement, even, it might be, to effeminacy. I find it a bad tavern. I had not expected to hear literary conversation at a mess table, but still less such appalling ribaldry as I did hear in the fortnight during which I belonged to the mess. I am not likely to be prudish in these matters; I have spent all my life at Winchester and Oxford, and at both places have been in company with boys and men who were noted for this style of conversation, but am quite certain that a man saying, at a wine party, such things as are common at the 81st mess, would have been kicked out of the room as a gross offender, I do not say against morality, but gentlemanly taste. They pride themselves on a very subtle distinction between dinner and after dinner. A man is supposed to be reasonably decent while the cloth is on the table but may compensate himself by the utmost license of blackguardism directly it is off. I stayed in the mess for a fortnight, but could not stand it any longer; so now I live alone. . . . There are more officers than gentlemen, and there are two men who appear to be both.”

Starting life under these unpropitious circumstances Oakfield was not likely to have a great love for the country. But the detestation and hatred of the land which peeps out in every page become almost nauseating. Stanton, an Anglo-Indian of ten years’ standing, is made to say:

“Of course I did not like India, nobody does. People who ship their sons off to India every day, little think to what a blighted life they are sending them.”

One evening Oakfield sat next to a civilian at dinner. He asked him how he liked the country and his magisterial work. He hated the former and apparently took very little interest in the latter.

In another place there is a discussion about the inhabitants of the land. While Oakfield protests against some of the stronger expressions of dislike, even he accepts the charge that they are unblushing perjurors in the courts, and consequently almost despairs of the whole race. As Sir Alfred Lyall said, “He does them the very common injustice of measuring their conduct by an ideal standard of morality. Anglo-Indian officials leave their country at an early age, in almost total ignorance of the darker side of English life as seen in a police court or wherever the passions and interests of men come into sharp conflict.... In consequence they stand aghast at the exhibition of vice and false swearing. A London magistrate transferred to Lucknow or Lahore would find much less reason for astonishment.”

It is an interesting study — Oakfield revolted by almost every phase of Indian life, the climate, the ugliness of the country, the people, both English and Indian, the lack of any nobility of aim in government or its officials — yet clinging to his ideals, despite his instincts. Like the author of the book, Oakfield returned home only to die, though unlike Arnold, he reached the shores of England. How great Arnold’s dislike to India must have been is shown by one of the closing incidents of the book. Herbert Oakfield, Oakfield’s younger brother, fired by stories of Indian life, is eager to adopt an Indian career, like his brother. A friend of Oakfield, Wykham, performs what the author obviously regarded as a supreme service, which is ultimately rewarded by the hand of Oakfield’s sister, by dissuading Herbert from the idea.

“I tell you, Herby, you would hate India; everybody does. The best men, such as your own brother, who work hard and as it is said, get on, hate it; idle good-for-nothing dogs like myself hate it. Perhaps the worst like it best; they can get drunk there, and that is about all they want; but even they hate a country where beer and wine are expensive.”

Such were the unsparing statements which could be mude in a novel written with a high moral purpose sixty years ago. Imperialism, and the higher conception of duty which it has brought with it, coupled with an enormous material improvement in the condition of our lives, has made such a statement untrue, even if it ever was true; and, besides that, there has been a moral change, in that we should regard such reviling of the land we live in as indecent and an offence to all good Anglo-Indian patriots. But William Arnold lived sixty years ago; he wrote without hope and utterly without humour, in deep dislike of the country and in heartsick longing fof the sweet things of the homeland. Non cuivis adire Corinthum — it is not within everyone’s capacity to find India congenial. And many a man, both Englishman and Indian, in these latter days has found the transition from the physical and mental activities of English university or city life to the corresponding aridities of an Indian up-country station inexpressibly painful. And if such a man ever cease to suffer, it is because in the midst of overmuch work — or play — he has ceased to remember, and perhaps ceased to think. Arnold never forgot and always suffered; and if we do not repine as he did, it is because our minds are of grosser texture, our paths laid in pleasanter places, and our outlook unconsciously modified by a higher sense of duty to India than was fashionable sixty years ago.


Turn we now from melancholy in prose to melancholy in verse. And for our typical example let us take “Indian Lyrics,” a book of verse possibly forgotten now but not deserving of complete oblivion. William Trego Webb, of the Bengal Educational Service, published his “Indian Lyrics” at Calcutta in 1884, in which year they were reviewed in the Calcutta Review. “The life of a European in India,” said the reviewer, “is to Mr. Webb merely a dismal exile of monotony and routine.” “We wish that Mr. Webb, instead of accentuating and intensifying the sadder features of our life here, had attempted to invest them with a new interest and dignity.” Just though this criticism was, Webb, unlike William Arnold, was the fortunate possessor of a sense of humour, and the struggle between this sense of humour and Webb’s ingrained tendency to melancholy has not a little interest. Certainly the critic rises from the perusal of the Lyrics convinced that though there are undoubtedly better places to live in than India, yet it is not such a land of unrelieved misery as “Oakfield” would suggest.

The book opens with a series of sonnets on “Our Indian Servants,” in which, sonnet by sonnet, each of the ordinary servants of an Indian household is characterized in clever verse, though whether it was as seemly as it was clever to “fit the ordinary features of a punkah-wallah or a syce into the solemn cadence of the sonnet” may be doubted. The mythical kite that breaks the khitmatgar’s dish, whenever an excuse is needed; the khansamah’s bill, daily dread of the housewife; and the steed that grows spare as the syce grows fat, all obtain their due meed of the poet’s attention. As illustrative of the humour of these sonnets, the closing lines of the sonnet on “The Malli” are worth quoting:

But wonder fills me where those Mallis go
That deck our homes with flowers week after week,
And day by day, though scant our gardens show.
Some say they forage mid the grave-stones bleak,
It boots not, friend, to ask; enough to know.
The Earth hath flowers and Mallis eyes to seek.

Next follows another series of sonnets, “Ourselves and Others,” in which are characterized all the ordinary inhabitants of a station, the Civilian, the Surgeon-Major, the Judge, the Professor, the Policeman, and so on. Whether in his sonnet on the Station Chaplain, “placed in this land with no soul-mastering aim,” in which we meet with a touch of Oakfield’s fire, he was unjust to the chaplains of thirty years ago, may be left to men who remember tham to decide; but when he tells us that to his stubborn world, the worse for Indian wear,

Repentance seems a dream and Faith a name,
So smaller duties claim him; schools are planned
Or tombs repaired, or when such labours pall
In grassy courts he smites the flying ball,

we seem to recognize that certain features have not yet changed. Nor is Webb’s sonnet on the Professor less true now than then. In defiance of the truism that the Indian student wishes to learn English and not dialects of it, Webb tells us

To divers climes indigenous, his speech
Varies as his instruction. Here to wit,
Sound the broad accents of the northern Scot;
A son of Erin there essays to teach,
Or wight of German stock. Their scholars sit
Blank faced till use makes plain the polyglot.

Anyone who has listened to the babel of tongues, Scotch, English, Irish, Teutonic, Swedish and nondescript, which may be heard any fortnight at a meeting of the Senate, has a profound sympathy for that compulsory polyglot, the Indian student.

We may note, in passing, the “Eurasian,” of whom

Methinks I hear indignant Nature cry,
“O England, who are these, if not thy sons?”

After these two series of sonnets, however, in which his humour is allowed fair play, Webb’s melancholy begins to get the better of him. He stands on the Kutub Minar. His closing thought is:

Here, where I climb.
Afar our English Delhi shineth well:—
Shall she fall, like the cities of the prime?

This is a trend of thought to which he recurs more than once, as for instance in “The Song of Death” —

Ah! in far years shall cruel slaughter
Glut here her ire, as once of yore?
Shall these broad streams and wells’ still water
Be dyed with English blood once more

Perhaps the Mutiny was not yet so remote as to make such foreboding inexcusable. But they illustrate the gloomy tendency of Webb’s mind.

On the Gangeb, he can only think of the river as a picture of Man’s life. As eddies and currents suck the swimmer under, so

From the desolate
Blind depths dark eddies swift, that lurk beneath,
Stretch dreadful arms to seize him: Time and Fate,
Pain and Desire and Fear, Despair and Death.

“Slaughter Ghaut, Cawnpore,” “The Residency Churchyard, Lucknow,” “A Himalayan Cemetery,” “In Memoriam, Lord Mayo,” “Baby’s Grave,” “Indian Cemeteries,” and similar lugubrious subjects provide Webb with congenial themes and add to the prevailing gloom.

It is in the “Lyrical Pieces,” which form the bulk of the book, that Webb tries most persisently to be a light and humorous poet, and yet time after time almost involuntarily shows himself to be at heart pessimist. He chooses light themes, such as “The Old Punkah-wallah” and the “Mosquito;” he attempts light treatment, as in “The Parsi Hat;” but he is at his best in dirges, in poems on cemeteries, and when he is telling us in one way or another what an uncomfortable place India is.

How can love in the plains be sweet
Stifled and scorched by the fierce May heat?

he cries in one poem, in constant refrain. Sometimes his thoughts fly to the joys of being buried in a Himalayan cemetery, where the English snow would fall lightly around him! At another time in “Indian Cemeteries” he shudders at the idea of being buried under “those mammoth structures drear,” so well known to us in Calcutta.

Some of us, revelling in the beauty of the “gold- mohur” and other spring flowers in Bengal, fail to see why a poem on “Spring in Calcutta” shall be necessarily a gloomy thing. Not so Webb.

See, blurred with amber haze, the sun
’Neath yon dim flats doth sink to rest;
And tender thoughts, that homeward run.
Move fondly with him to the west.

They leave these hot and weary hours,
The iron fate that girds us round.
And wander ’mid the meadow flowers
And breezy heights of English ground.

The sun is set; we’ll dream no more;
Vainly for us the vision smiles;
Why did we quit thy pleasant shore,
Our happiest of the western isles?

The climax — the splendid and ringing climax — of Webb’s melancholy is reached in “The Song of Death,” the one poem of the book which of itself shows that Webb laughed at life less easily and less congenially than he looked in the face of death.

My fellow exiles, fill your glasses, We’ll sing one song before we die; The tiger in the jungle-grasses
Has sucked the peasant’s life-blood dry:

Forth from his hole the cobra creeping
Steals slow across the cottage floor
To where yon weary mother’s sleeping:—
Methinks her babe will wake no more.

Webb laughed at mosquitos and crows and white ants and punkah-wallahs and zemindars and the hats of Parsis, but his laughter was forced and unreal; he always returned to protest against the heat and misery and desolation and death of the country he lived in. The protest comes in “Spring in Calcutta;” in “The Song of Death” and in “The Gorgeous East;” less clearly in “Jackals,” “Rain,” “Indian Cemeteries,” “Ode to a Mosquito,” “Night Noises” and many another. But nowhere more clearly and more defiantly did Webb utter it than in his outburst in “The Song of Death”—

Accept this earnest of our duty,
Thy slaves and not thy sons are we;
Thou grave of England’s strength and beauty,
Hear how we sing to Death and thee!

The closing poems of the book are collected under the title “Rhymes of the P. & O.” Such verse is capable of infinitely varied treatment; but though it inevitably contains a good deal of humour, it cannot escape the prevailing tone of Webb’s mind. On the boat returning to India there is a lady rejoining her husband;

She thinks not of the purple heaven,
But of a summer passed away;
When through sweet English woods she went,
Farewells and partings half forgot.
And with those little children bent
To pluck the blue forget-me-not.

But now:

Alone those little children run
To pluck the blue forget-me-not.

The “Lay of Sea Sickness” naturally provides Webb with a theme suited to his lugubrious heart, though he gives it the conventional treatment of simulated seriousness:—

The voice of the singer is dumb,
The piano is silent and lone,
The captain is flippant of tone
And jests at humanity’s woe.

The climax comes when he goes home in a boat with eighty children on board! And here perhaps we may cease to carp at his repining, fully admitting that India is not worth while, if, to get out of it, a mere man must live for three weeks or a month cooped up with eighty children!

In this worst of all horrible ships Eighty children are sailing, And a Babel resounds from their lips Of laughter and wailing.

How I long for that golden prime
Of tempestuous weather,
When we all had a peaceable time
Of illness together.

Webb was an altogether slighter man than William Arnold. But his “Indian Lyrics” illustrate our present topic equally well with “Oakfield” and perhaps better. In “Oakfield” there is no fight against pessimism; Webb’s melancholy is shot through with humour; he laughs through his tears though the tears are there all the time. He does not allow himself wholly to be overcome; there is much at which he repines, but he looks bravely for the compensations; for many aspects of Indian life he has a profound distaste, and expresses that distaste; but he does fight, as far as in him lies, against an unworthy repining; sometimes in his struggle he goes too far and his cheerfulness is palpably forced as when he cries in what is perhaps the most pathetic poem of all

Don’t talk Old England in patriot vein.
I’m sick of its clouds and its fogs and its rain;
For a climate that’s cheerful, not fickle and drear,
Give me the clear sky that shines over us here.

But apart from false and hollow protestations of the sort, he does fight against his melancholy vein, and if he does not completely conquer it, who are we to sit in judgment? The Calcutta Review in 1884 condemned him for unduly accentuating the sadder side of our English life in India; but if Englishmen were as outspoken as they are reserved, and had the skill to express their feelings, how many of us would differ in the ultimate texture of our minds from that of Webb? For we are exiles; we do pine for the sweeter things of English life, for the keener and deeper play of intellect that is possible there, for the mental vigour that deserts so thany of us under the sun of Bengal; for the wider access to books, music and the drama; for the more frequent contact with minds better than our own, for the delight of rosy checks and children’s voices and the wisdom of the greybeard grandfather; for the keener human sympathy that tends to desert us and leave us cold and hard, as we live year after year in a land whose people we do not understand and whose people do not understand us. And there are many who in the melancholy induced by too prolonged and unsatisfied longing for these things, put up a poorer fight than Webb. His melancholy is the secret unexpressed melancholy of us all, unexpressed not because we do not feel it, but mainly because it has gone out of fashion to express it. But if we escape because we drug our minds completely with the narcotic of work, or of those varied pastimes which rob us of the time, even if we have the inclination, to think, Webb chose the better part; for it is good from time to time to think of the typical things of English life, and it is not good, even for the sake of our mental comfort, to forget the pleasaunces of our own land.

Presidency College,
E. F. Oaten