Classical Culture in British India, Part II: Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Poet and Classicist

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Part I of this essay can be read here.

Reading Latin and Greek literature was not merely an eccentric curiosity in British India; nor was knowledge of it restricted to Englishmen. The finest Bengali poet of the 19th century was a passionate reader of Homer, Vergil and (above all) Ovid; to learn about his life is to wonder why he remains so little known among Classicists in the English-speaking world, and why all but a handful of academic experts in “the classical tradition” scarcely even know his name, or recognise his achievements as a writer – or linguist.

Grave of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Calcutta, India.

Madhusudan Dutt (the ‘Michael’ came later) was born on 25 January 1824, in the Jessore district of central Bengal, the son of a prosperous pleader in the chief civil court in Calcutta. He entered the Hindoo College at thirteen, and distinguished himself as a talented literary show-off. His lifelong friend Gourdass Basak described him thus in a later biography:

He, like Krishna, was dark in complexion, but handsome in features, with eyes beaming with expression. His sparkling wit and brilliant repartée were to him the flute, as it were, with which he charmed and enthralled. It was the poetry of his soul, the music in the fibres of his composition, that made everyone gravitate towards him. The magic of his conversation, the sweetness of his manners, acted like electricity on those who associated with him. When he was in your presence, you could never open your mouth; you would only hear him talk, laugh, and break your sides with laughter. He was a universal favourite. Once met, he was always and ever afterwards, ‘Hail fellow, well-met’.[1]

Gouache painting of the young Krishna on a swing, c.1755 (British Museum, London).

From his schooldays, Dutt’s ambition was not merely to write poetry, but to become a great English poet; buoyed by early publication in Calcutta literary journals, he began to submit his work to the editors of Blackwood Magazine and Bentley’s Miscellany in Edinburgh and London from the age of seventeen. The following excerpt gives an idea of what Dutt’s English-language juvenilia was like:


Reader! Who ever publishes a sonnet with a preface? I hear, or fancy that I hear, you say, ‘none’. Well! I publish. I am an enemy to what men call ‘custom’. But be that as it is, I publish my sonnet with a preface; I have to teach the world something new. Don’t get offended. Behold!  I have written a Sonnet in Blank-verse. What a rare experiment! Believe me, Reader, the Muse appeared not to resent this ‘breach of etiquette’ towards her. O Joy! O Glory! O Happiness! that I have done successfully what none had dared to do before me! Excuse this short outburst of impassioned exclamation. I have laid my scene in the planet Saturn, because I despise everything earthly.

Dutt’s other ambition was to escape India and go to England; for him this was inextricable from literary success:

I sigh for Albion’s distant shore,
Its valleys green, its mountains high;
Tho’ friends, relations, I have none
In that far clime, yet oh! I sigh
To cross the vast Atlantic wave
For glory, or a nameless grave!
My father, mother, sister, all
Do love me and I love them too;
Yet oft the tear-drops rush and fall
From my sad eyes like winter’s dew.
And, oh! I sigh for Albion’s strand
As if she were my native land!

Dutt was an only child, with an evidently shaky grasp of British topography. At least the poem is emotionally accurate: his longing to go to London is a constant theme throughout his letters. This poem was composed in 1841; luck, circumstance, and a series of unfortunate decisions ensured that Dutt didn’t see England until 1862, when he was 38.

The actor Utpal Dutt (1929–93) in a scene from Modhu Bose’s 1950 film Michael Madhusudan. The image at the head of this article is taken form the same film.

In stereotypically Bollywood fashion, the first crisis of Dutt’s life involved an arranged marriage. He gives an account of this in one of his vivid English-language letters:

27th Nov. [1842]

            My dear Gour,

It is the hour for writing love-letters since all around, now, is love-inspiring. But, alas! The heart that ‘Melancholy marks for her own’, imparts its own morbid hues to all around it; and how can I, the most wretched being, on whom yon ‘refulgent lamp of night’ now shines, write love-letters or gay letters? You don’t know the weight of my afflictions; I wish (Oh! I really wish!) that somebody would hang me! At the expiration of three months from hence I am to be married; – dreadful thought! It harrows up my blood and makes my hair stand like quills upon a fretful porcupine! My betrothed is the daughter of a rich zamindar [landowner] – poor girl! What a deal of misery is in store for her in the ever-inexplorable womb of Futurity! You know my desire for leaving this country is too firmly rooted to be removed. The sun may forget to rise, but I cannot remove it from my heart. Depend upon it – in the course of a year or two or more – I must either be in England or cease ‘to be’ at all; – one of these must be done! You are my friend, Gour! I disclose these secrets to you, without the slightest fear of their ever seeing the light: You are a gentleman. Hitherto I kept these secrets even from you. But now I cannot; I want sympathy – and to whom am I to look for it? I won’t go to College tomorrow; excuse me for this haughty piece of disobedience. You are loved – and honoured – and ever shall be so; I will show you my wretched self, now and then; – but to College – I will not, I cannot go. I hate the damned fellow Kerr [James Kerr, Vice Principal of the Hindoo College]. He wounded my feelings. By the bye – what do you mean by writing to me – ‘I will act the part of a friend’ –? Upon my word, I don’t understand it; you really mystify me; explain this fully. If you don’t go to College today, let me know of it. Perhaps I might give a call on you – but if you have nothing of importance to keep you away,  pray do go. Don’t be absent for my sake – that would be quite silly – foolish. Remember me to Madhab and Moti. Give my love to both of them. Pray send me my Tom Moore, and that volume of your Shakespeare which contains his Othello and Hamlet. If Othello and Hamlet are not in one volume, send me the two that contain them; and believe me,

Yours affectionately,

M.S. Dutt.[2]

Watercolour portrait on ivory of the young Michael Madhusudan Dutt (British Library, London, Add.Or.5606).

On 9 February 1843, Dutt was baptised a Christian. This saved him from marriage, but caused a scandal in Calcutta society – as a precaution, an armed guard was placed around the Old Mission Church during the baptism ceremony; the repercussions carried on almost to the end of his life. He was unmarriageable in Hindu society now, and could no longer perform the traditional ceremonies required of a Hindu son after the death of his father; baptism would also have consequences with respect to his inheritance. Yet his father continued to support him for a few years; on 9 November 1844, at the age of twenty, he enrolled in Bishop’s College. According to the Principal, he arrived with “a creditable knowledge of Latin, and of the elements of Greek”. [3]

We do not know how or where Dutt acquired this knowledge; in the year and a half between his expulsion from the Hindoo College and his arrival at the missionary institution, he appears to have taught himself, with the aid of the Eton Grammars of Latin and Greek, and such other elementary texts as were available. Yet this did not necessarily enable him to hit the ground running when he began taking formal instruction.

Surviving ‘Lists of Studies’ for Bishop’s College make clear just how much Classical literature students were expected to master, without the aid of translations. A student at Bishop’s College, after perhaps two years’ study, would have read at least as much Latin and Greek as a modern-day PhD student in Classical Philology at Harvard. Probably more, in fact.

In this atmosphere, Dutt distinguished himself as the top student not “of European extraction”, and one of the very top students overall; the main reason he was only third out of 25 in his class was his relatively shaky knowledge of the Greek New Testament. In a surviving exam script (of 9 June 1847), where he was asked to cite a passage from the Gospel According to John, Dutt wrote: “As I cannot remember the words as they are in the Greek text, I refrain from translating these sentences in my own way.”[4] When Dutt left the school, the Principal of Bishop’s College wrote, in a letter dated 23 July 1847:

He is very intelligent, a good Greek & Latin scholar and a thorough master of English, as you may suppose when I mention that before coming here he affected fame as an English poet.

None of these attainments turned out to be of any use when Dutt’s father cut off his allowance.

Frontispiece from the collected works of Bharatchandra Ray (Calcutta, 1860) (British Library, London, 279.34.d.25).

Dutt left Calcutta on 29 December 1847, arriving in Madras on 18 January 1848. Eventually finding work as a teacher at the Madras Male and Female Orphan Asylum and Boys’ Free Day School, he took another step in the opposite direction from England and literary success: on 31 July 1848, he married Rebecca Thompson, daughter of a gunner in the horse artillery brigade. Within a few years he had four children to support.

In Madras, Dutt was overworked, and his salary pathetically low. However, he began to find work as a journalist and editor to supplement his income; also, he quite incredibly found the time to complete at least two substantial poems in English. The Captive Ladie: An Indian Tale In Two Cantos was published in early 1849, along with a work in blank verse entitled Visions of the Past. Early reviews were encouraging, but Dutt was shaken when the Bengal Hurkaru derided his efforts as

very fair amateur poetry… if the power of making has deluded the author into a reliance on the exercise of his poetical abilities for fortune and reputation, or tempted him to turn up his nose at the more commonplace uses of the pen, the delusion is greatly regretted.

Even more wounding was the verdict of J.E.D. Bethune, President of the Education Council in Calcutta, to whom he sent a copy of the book.

Bethune, probably without even reading The Captive Ladie, advised Dutt to give up on English poetry and devote his energies to his mother tongue. So much for having his poems reviewed in England then; but he came to accept Bethune’s verdict (though he was still composing verse in English as late as 1855). Amidst constant distraction and stress, Dutt devoted what time he had left over after teaching, journalism, and a growing young family to patient study: from a letter to Gourdass Basak dated 18 August 1849:

I am badly off and have hardly anything to jingle in my pocket. Beg I must not. My wants, at present, are of such a nature as philosophy cannot justify. I have a great deal to say about Mr. Bethune’s. You must look upon me as a most unthinking father if you are under the impression that I do not think ardently and uninterruptedly on such a subject. Perhaps you do not know that I devote several hours daily to Tamil. My life is more busy than that of a school boy. Here is my routine: 6-8 Hebrew, 8-12 School, 12-2 Greek, 2-5 Telegu and Sanskrit, 5-7 Latin, 7-10 English. Am I not preparing for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers?

Gouache painting of a Brahmin storyteller and his wife, from Tanjore, c.1790 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

This manic program of self-education may not be quite as exaggerated as it first appears: in a letter to Raj Narain Bose over a decade later (15 May 1860) Dutt mentions casually, by way of excusing his negligence as a correspondent:

I have my office-work to attend to; I generally devote four or five hours to Law; I read Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek, and scribble. All this is enough to keep a man engaged from morn to dewy eve, and so on.

In Madras, Dutt seems to have kept his head down, channelling his natural exuberance into journalism (and at least one love affair), but otherwise maintaining a low profile. Late in 1855, he heard the news that his father had died. He left Madras, arriving in Calcutta on 2 February 1856; he would never see his wife or children again.

Dutt’s affairs were in some disorder: he could not claim his inheritance until seeing off four separate lawsuits from relatives who wanted his father’s property (two estates, a house, and his mother’s jewellery). He needed a job, and ended up first as an interpreter for the Calcutta Police Court, then as a judicial clerk; by 1860 he began to think about the law as an escape from perpetual financial distress. His personal life was a mess as well: in 1858 he was joined in Calcutta by his mistress, Henrietta Sophia White, daughter of a colleague from Madras. They would remain together for the rest of their lives; she bore him three children.

Gouache painting of an interpreter and his wife, from Tanjore, c.1770 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Despite all the stress, this Calcutta period ended up as the most successful and fulfilling of Dutt’s life: in 1858 he was commissioned by a pair of wealthy landowning brothers to translate a new Bengali play into English for their private theatre, and was paid 500 rupees for his efforts (four months’ salary at the Police Court).

He convinced them that he could compose a much better play by himself, and swiftly produced Sermista, a drama based on an episode from the Mahabharata, which enjoyed instant success. He found himself acclaimed as Bengal’s premier poet, and over the next few years would write three further plays, beginning with Padmabati Natak (1859), his first experiment with blank verse in Bengali. In 1860, his annus mirabilis (or was that 1861 – he might have had more than one), he completed a long poem in blank verse, the Tilottamasambhab Kabya, and began his single most impressive and durable work, the epic Meghnadbadh Kabya. The first volume of this was published on 4 January 1861. Dutt was justly proud of his effort:

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 is impossible to equal Virgil, Kalidasa, and Tasso. Though glorious, they are still mortal poets. Milton is divine.

By 1862, Dutt had no competition: adding to his achievements with the astonishing Ovid-inspired collection Birangana, he was beyond all doubt the greatest and most accomplished literary artist in his language; moreover, his legal battles had finally been won, and he could enjoy, for the first time in his life, some stability, and dignified comfort. It was now time to live out another dream: on 4 June 1862, he finally sailed for England, to study law, intending to return to Calcutta in glory no longer as an entertaining, impecunious poet, but “Michael M.S. Dutt, Esq. of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-law”. The decision destroyed him.

Gouache painting of Kala-Bhairava, an emanation of the god Shiva, with trident and hound, from Trichinopoly, c.1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The five years Dutt spent in Europe were not merely below his expectations, but lonely, miserable, and blighted by severe poverty. London was too costly, in part due to unexpected expenses and the simple costs of living, but mainly because Dutt had been profoundly unwise in managing his inheritance. He had the idea of moving his family to Versailles – perhaps he thought this would save money; the majority of his surviving letters from the period are desperate pleas for help to the superhumanly kind Ishwar Chandra Vidyasaghar. Most pathetic of all, given his circumstances, is the following fantastic and hysterical attempt to save face before his Calcutta friends:

12, Rue des Chantiers,
Versailles, France
26 October, 1864

My dear Gour,

I have received your kind and welcome letter and would have replied to it earlier but for ill health. You amuse me vastly, for the reports to which you allude are absolutely unfounded and evidently owe their birth to some busy brain highly poetical in its constitution! My good friend, know that I am writing this letter to you, not from within the gloomy and frowning walls of French prison, a modern ‘Bastille’, but from a room elegantly fitted up with all the comforts (if not luxuries) of European civilisation and so forth, and that I have done nothing in London of which even the most virtuous of my friends need be ashamed.

The fellow, who has been concocting all these lies about me, reminds me of King Henry IV and I say to him, “Harry the [sic] wish was father to this thought”. The scoundrel, no doubt, wishes me all sorts of misfortune; but I hope to disappoint him. I have too great a regard for myself to gratify his malignity. Can’t afford, Sir, to be charitable and generous in this affair! I hope this will satisfy you, my lad, and other friends who take some interest in me.

You are, no doubt, anxious to know why I am here in France. I will tell you. London is not half as pleasant a place to live as this country, and its brutal climate does not agree with Mrs. Dutt’s health, though I myself am strong enough for any country under the sun. Besides, I have here greater facilities for mastering French and Italian than there. To these two languages which I already read and write with great ease, I am going (in fact I have already begun) to add German. So that if you should ever see me again, you will find me a little more learned than I was when we saw each other. I do not neglect the law altogether, but I have not yet commenced to work away seriously at it. I have neglected some terms, and will have to remain in Europe a little longer, but that is not to be regretted at all. I wish I could live here all the days of my life, with means to take occasional runs to India, to see my friends; but I am too poor for that, though you needn’t have very [sic] large fortune to do all that.

This is unquestionably the best quarter of the globe. I have better dinners for a few Francs than the Rajah of Burdwan ever dreams of! I can for a few Francs enjoy pleasures that it would cost him half his enormous wealth to command, – no, even that would be too little. Such music, such dancing, such beauty! This is the Amaravati [Heaven] of our ancestral creed. Come here and you will soon forget that you spring from a degraded and subject race. Here, you are the master of your masters! The man that stands behind my chair when I dine, would look down on the best of our princes in India. The girl that pulls off my muddy boots on a wet day, would scorn to touch our richest Rajah in India. Every one, whether high or low, will treat you as a man and not a ‘damned n****r’. But this is Europe, my boy, and not India.

“A ‘damned n***r’” – the mask slips for a second; then the letter witters on, mentioning that Dutt has enjoyed “the honour of bowing to, and being bowed to, by the Emperor and Empress of the French”, that his daughter Sermista and son Milton are pleasantly Frenchified; ‘dear Gour’ is advised to send his children to Europe for their education.

12, rue des Chantiers, Versailles, France, in 2011.

Talk of a footman, and indeed any servants, must have been fibbing: of the eighteen families living in 12, rue de Chantiers, six received money from the government’s charity fund; for the ten months between September 1863 and June 1864 the Dutt family lived off nothing, racking up debts of 2,600 rupees (perhaps £260 pounds at the time) which they could ill afford to pay back. Somehow, Dutt managed to complete his studies in London, and was called to the Bar on 17 November, 1866. On 5 January 1867 he left Europe for good, his days as a poet behind him, except for a few (mainly lacklustre) late efforts.

The last years of Dutt’s life are depressing to behold. He squandered not only money but his reputation as well, spending far beyond his means, as if to make up for the squalor of his European sojourn; living in the style of which he dreamt all his life, and anxious to maintain the prestige supposedly expected of a British-trained barrister, he took to drink and wrecked his health. His legal career did not prosper; when he died, six years after his return from France, his debts amounted to an incredible 42,000 rupees; though he had long since been evicted from his grand new house, with its large staff and stylish furniture. His only remaining luxury was cheap whisky.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written for Antigone on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here, on the pleasures of Poussin here, on Neo-Latin syphilis here, on Apuleius the ‘witch’ here, and on V.S. Naipaul and Latin here.

Part I of this essay can be read here.

Further Reading:

Ghulam Murshid’s English biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt Lured By Hope (Oxford UP, India, 2003) is an abridged translation of a Bengali-language original; until Oxford commissions a complete translation, this will serve most readers’ purposes admirably. Alexander Riddiford’s 2013 volume Madly After the Muses (Oxford UP, 2013)remains the most comprehensive study in English on Dutt, and should be the starting point for all further research into this extraordinary figure. Phiroze Vasunia’s The Classics and Colonial India (Oxford UP, 2013) is also well worth consulting.


1 From Yogindranath Basu’s 1893 biography; quoted in William Radice’s translation The Poem of the Killing of Meghnad: Meghnadbadh kabya (Penguin Classics, London, 2010).
2 From The Heart of a Rebel Poet: Letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Ghulam Murshid (ed.) (Oxford University Press India, New Delhi, 2004). This book, essential for the study of Dutt – and a captivating read in its own right – is shockingly rare, despite having been published by Oxford; relatively few university libraries seem to have a copy.
3 For information on Dutt’s Classical studies, see Alexander Riddiford’s magisterial Madly After the Muses: Bengali Poet Michael Madhusudan Datta and his Reception of the Graeco-Roman Classics (Oxford UP, 2013); in the interests of full disclosure I admit that I am mentioned in the acknowledgements, and consider the author to be one of the relatively few friends for whom I would uncomplainingly take a bullet.
4 See Appendix 1 to Riddiford’s Madly After the Muses, which features a transcription of the entire surviving exam script, and a thorough commentary.