Collected Poems of Henry Derozio: Preface by Manu Samriti Chander; Edited by Amardeep Singh

Collected Poems of Henry Derozio

Brief Introduction 

by Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University 

This collection contains two volumes of poetry published by the first Indian poet to write in English, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. The two collections are Poems (1827) and The Fakeer of Jungheera and Other Poems (1828)

The collections were sourced from public domain page images of the original works available on HathiTrust and verified using a facsimile issued by the British Library Historical Print Editions. I have added a few editorial notes, and created semantic tags to aid in discovering Derozio's poems on various topics: Nationalism, ColonizationAncient GreeceIntertexts to English Romanticism, Hindu Religion and Mythology, South Asian Locales, and others

Thinking of teaching Derozio? Check out our Resource for Teachers. 

Finally, a plain text version of all of the poems on this site can be downloaded here.


by Manu Samriti Chander, Rutgers University

The Calcutta-born, English-language poet Henry Derozio prefaces his first poetry collection, Poems (1827), this way:

Though fearful of the inutility of general apologies, yet the Author feels that the circumstances under which his work appears before the Public require some explanations.

Born and educated in India, and at the age of eighteen, he ventures to present himself as a candidate for poetic fame; and begs leave to premise, that only a few hours gained from laborious daily occupations have been devoted to these poetical efforts. 

The publication of a work of this nature in India is not a frequent occurrence; and the Author trusts that a simple reference to the facts which he as laid before the Public will prove a sufficient plea for the imperfections of his little work. (link)

Trepidatious, humble, even self-effacing, Derozio enters the literary world almost reluctantly, a young man who hasn’t had the advantages that might allow him to devote his life to writing. And yet, the poem that follows this opening gesture presents a very different poetic persona. Addressing a harp symbolizing his native India, he writes: 

O! many a hand more worthy far than mine 
Once thy harmonious chords to sweetness gave, 
And many a wreath for them did Fame entwine 
Of flowers still blooming on the minstrel's grave: 
Those hands are cold—but if thy notes divine 
May be by mortal wakened once again, 
Harp of my country, let me strike the strain! (link)

Here the modesty of the preface, which returns in the phrase “many a hand more worthy far than mine,” gives way to a boldness that reminds us, even as Derozio presents an unassuming figure, he nevertheless aspires to the fame reserved for a national poet, what Emerson would call the “representative man,” the “true artist [who] has the planet for his pedestal.” Across his two collections of poetry, Poems and the 1828 The Fakeer of Jungheera: A Metrical Tale; And Other Poems, Derozio makes a bid to stand as the poet of India in the eyes of his countrymen and those of the wider world.

Derozio was born in 1809 to Sophia Johnson, an English settler in India, and Francis Derozio, who was of European (Portuguese) and Indian descent. He was educated at Drummond’s Academy in Calcutta, a school distinguished for educating Indians alongside European children, and he was exposed at an early age to the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment and English Romantic poets. The influence of these thinkers is evident across the poems collected in his two volumes, although “influence” doesn’t fully capture the way that Derozio actively intervened in the European literary tradition he admired. Far from simply following in the footsteps of such popular figures as Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, and Thomas Moore, Derozio uses their work often as a point of departure or as a signpost on his own poetic journey. Indeed, Derozio inaugurated his own tradition in India, inspiring his students to form the Young Bengal Movement. These liberal thinkers and activists were sometimes referred to as “Derozians,” and they carried their teacher’s ideas forward even after his death in 1831.

One of the clearest examples of how Derozio works from but not within the European Romantic tradition is the title poem to his second collection, The Fakeer of Jungheera, which uses the conventions of the Oriental Tale popularized by such English poets as Lord Byron and Robert Southey in order to critique Western writers’ romanticization of sati or widow-burning. In his note to the poem, Derozio makes clear that, among his aims, is the correction of “a mistaken opinion, somewhat general in Europe, namely, that the Hindu Widow's burning herself with the corpse of her husband, is an act of unparalleled magnanimity and devotion.” The careful reader will find numerous such instances--some explicit, some less so--where Derozio mobilizes the literary practices of his European counterparts toward ends inconsistent with their Orientalist worldview.

While Derozio has long been read by scholars in India, a newly international attention to his work has been sparked especially by Rosinka Chaudhuri’s edition of his collected writings, Derozio, Poet of India: The Definitive Edition (Oxford UP, 2008). Those interested in learning more about Derozio’s life and legacy and those curious to read work not collected in his two volumes of poetry will find a wealth of material in Chaudhuri’s excellent edition.

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