John Leyden, the poet

John Leyden, a Scott, was born to this world in 1775 at Denholm, some 50 miles south of Edinburgh to a shepherd family. From his early childhood, he was a voracious reader. As he started schooling, his reading continued, much beyond his years and one anecdote stands apart. As his school was 3 miles away, his father brought him an ass to ride. The little boy would not fearing ridicule from his classmates. However when he heard that the owner of the ass had a rare book in his possession, he agreed. Graduating to the University of Edinburgh, he studied Greek & Latin. A boy of bashful countenance, an ‘orrible accent, he was nevertheless brilliant in his studies. Later he studied math, logic, history, philosophy, rhetoric, divinity & church history. When he started public speaking he cut a sorry figure at first, with many laughing at his attempts. He persevered and said thus to his friend (something I will remember for a very long time for I myself have been on this path) who was in the same boat, as he was terrified of public speaking. Leyden said “I shall through constant practice at last be able to harangue, whilst you, through dread of the ridicule of a few boys, will let slip the opportunity of learning this art, and will continue the same diffident man through life”.

An interesting observation - Did you all know that in the 1790 time frame and even earlier, it was believed that Occult was secretly taught in venerable Oxford? And that an Oxford Scholar was synonymous with one skilled in magic or the black art? The reason I bring it up was due to the fact that after studies Leyden used to sit in the darkened church to study. Local people always associated the church as one that was haunted and with Leyden cooped up in the darkness of the hall, peering at his books, they suspected him of studying the occult. But they left him alone and he proceeded to learn to learn more languages, namely Hebrew & Arabic. Around this period, he announced his entry into the world of theology and his development of a deep interest in poetry. His forays proved even more interesting as he took up medicine as well. By 1798 he was licensed to preach, however proving to be a bad preacher with a harsh vocal tone and graceless delivery. Over the next three to four years, he had immersed himself in the literary world of poetry, editing and publishing.

Leyden having seen that his future was not with the clergy and not seeing any vacancies to apply to, considered touring deep into Africa, but his friends fearing his safety suggested that he try Asia instead. Accordingly a friend used his ‘influence’ and found that there was one opening coming up, an assistant surgeon in the EIC. Taking a crash course, Leyden excelled in the examination and obtained his diploma and an MD. It was Dec 1802. He was to join the ship Hindustan, India bound, when he suffered from severe stomach cramps and backed out. That was fortunate indeed for the ship hit a sand bank and many people were killed. Later in the ‘Hugh Inglis’ sailing out in April 1803, Leyden set out for Madras. Reaching there 5 months later, he joined the General Hospital, and after spending some time in Madras, he picked up Tamil.

It was at this time (1798) that the Tipu Sultan war was ending at Mysore, and Leyden was sent on a survey to Mysore & the ghats. For a while he was ill and after recuperation, he was allowed to visit the sea coast factories of the EIC in Chirakkal Malabar (1805). Finally he found a land to his liking, both the countryside and the inhabitants, as he reported. The scenery of the Coorg hills reminded him of Scotland and the sight of the confident Malabar natives (he now compares the proud Malayali & Coorgi to cringing Hindoo’s elsewhere). He writes that he was astonished when the Subedar at Coorg came up to him and confidentially shook his hand with gusto, not having experienced this elsewhere in India. He lived in Malabar for 4 months and in that time traveled around the whole of Kerala. During this period he picked up basic Sanskrit and around Sept 1805 he left for Malaysia and after a year there, returned to Calcutta. All through this period he suffered ill health, but by 1809 he is OK again.

Leyden did have difficulties in mastering Sanskrit due to the lack of good teachers (and the caste system which prohibited him being taught the scriptures) and even tried to pass himself off as the son of a Swami (somewhat like the Roman Brahmin). In1811 he is deputed to Java for the British conquest of the said state. While there he visits a room in the Batavian Dutch archives and comes out violently ill with fever. Three days later, he was dead, aged 36 proficient in some 45 (some mention 34) languages but leaving behind only his collection of poems.

This poem of his is considered a masterpiece. In it, he recalls his plight in those far away shores, after seeing a gold coin in Malabar. I was fascinated by the poem, and the understanding of the situation having been an expatriate for all of 22 years now. Few acclaimed works by the British mention Malabar, this being one that I can think of.

To quote Cambridge History - His poetry is a simple expression of the emotions which all Anglo-Indians (the British in India – not Eurasians) experience at some time—pride in the military achievements of our race, loathing at the darker aspects of Indian superstition and the exile’s longing for home. His Ode to an Indian Gold Coin deserves a place in every Anglo-Indian anthology of verse as an expression of this last emotion.

Ode to an Indian Gold Coin – Dr John Leyden (1755-1811)

Written at Chirakkal – Cannanore

Slave of the dark and dirty mine!
What vanity has brought thee here?
How can I love to see thee shine
so bright, whom I have bought so dear?

The tent-ropes flapping lone I hear
for twilight-converse, arm in arm;
The jackal's shriek bursts on mine ear
when mirth and music wont to charm.

By Cherical's dark wandering streams,
where cane-tufts shadow all the wild.
Sweet visions haunt my waking dreams
of Teviot lov'd while still a child,
Of castled rocks stupendous pil'd
by Esk or Eden's classic wave.
Where loves of youth and friendships smil'd,
uncurs'd by thee, vile yellow slave !

Fade, day-dreams sweet, from memory fade!
the perish'd bliss of youth's first prime.
That once so bright on fancy play'd
revives no more in after-time,
Far from my sacred natal clime,
I haste to an untimely grave ;
The daring thoughts that soar'd sublime
Are sunk in ocean's southern wave.

Slave of the mine! thy yellow light
Gleams baleful as the tomb-fire drear —
A gentle vision comes by night
my lonely widow'd heart to cheer;
Her eyes are dim with many a tear
that once were guiding stars to mine:
Her fond heart throbs with many a fear
I cannot bear to see thee shine.

For thee, for thee, vile yellow slave,
I left a heart that lov'd me true I
I cross'd the tedious ocean-wave,
to roam in climes unkind and new.
The cold wind of the stranger blew
chill on my wither'd heart: the grave
Dark and untimely met my view
and all for thee, vile yellow slave!

Ha ! com'st thou now so late to mock
A wanderer's banish'd heart forlorn,
Now that his frame the lightning shock
of sun-rays tipt with death has borne?
From love, from friendship, country,
torn, to memory's fond regrets the prey,
Vile slave, thy yellow dross I scorn
go, mix thee with thy kindred clay!

Written by Dr Leydon, a Scottish doctor, who went to Malabar in search of a fortune. He had all of 40 Sterling Pounds when he started his ventures…

The poetical remains of Dr John Leyden – Rev James Morton

Pic – Borrowed from the web thanks


Anonymous said…

It's such a pleasure to read such researched trivia on your posts! Bits of these could be found on the internet, yes - but the way you put your heart into the research and bring it all together so coherently gives it a very nice flavor - a wonderful read in itself.

I hope you have a copyright widget somewhere - I've been giving links to some of your interesting articles to my friends.

Very nice read.

narendra shenoy said…
Fascinating as usual! As much as the matter itself, or perhaps more than the matter, I think it is the way you present the story that makes it so interesting.
harimohan said…
dear maddy
you never surprise us with your innate ability of gleaning facts and presenting them expertly on varied topics ,specially in history .
the poem has i notice rhyming ends ,this is the way i asociate a poem but modern poetry has different rules i think ,they appear more like prose in cut sentences !
great post this
Maddy said…
Thanks Gauri, Narendra & Hari..
I am always happy when somebody enjoys the output from the research as much as I do conducting it..
Thanks once again for your kind comment..
very interesting read.unusual to fine a techie writing such stuff.
Nice post , so much research has gone into it. Frankly , I hadn't heard of this poet before this.
Maddy said…
Thanks New Crusade
Interesting background, Thanks for the same.