Here at YPN, we’ve often published features exploring the life and works of poets who have had a big impact on English literature – from William Blake to Elizabeth Bishop, Edith Sitwell to Robert Browning. In this latest feature, Stephanie Sy-Quia explores the life and works of Sarojini Naidu, an Indian poet and activist, in the context of WWI poetry and the literary canon.
In January 2020, the actor Laurence Fox stirred up a controversy when said the inclusion of a Sikh soldier in the World War One film 1917 was an ‘oddness in the casting’ which ‘felt incongruous’. He called the film ‘institutionally racist’ for including Sikh soldiers for what he assumed were reasons of political correctness and meeting diversity requirements. In fact, some 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought for Britain in World War One, and more than 75,000 of those died. Fox later apologised, but what this incident revealed was how few people knew about India’s part in World War One.
The story of the First World War that most of us learn in school concentrates on Europe: the fine young men of the British Isles went off to fight with and against other young European men. War movies, which come out with impressive regularity, are full of young white men running up and down trenches. Go to Hyde Park Corner, and the war memorials there only feature statues of men in European uniforms. Even though Britain called on its colonies to contribute a huge amount – soldiers, food, tax – these contributions have been overlooked and even erased.
War poetry: What is it good for?
Poetry plays a huge role in how we memorialise the First World War. Think of World War One poetry and chances are, you will think of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, with its anger at the idea that it is glorious to die for your country. Or you may think of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, which expresses sentiments of honour, dedication and duty with its famous call: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England’. We know these poems so well because they are published in countless anthologies and read aloud on occasions of remembrance, and they are key in shaping how we think about of the war.
I want to turn to another poem about the First World War, which you might not have heard of: Sarojini Naidu’s poem ‘The Gift of India’.
Sarojini Naidu was from a Bengali Brahmin family. She was born in Hyderabad in 1879 but educated at King’s College London and Cambridge. She lived in England for several years, publishing two poetry collections, and was the protégée of Victorian literary greats Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons. She later met Gandhi and became one of his close associates, accompanying him on the landmark Salt March and the second Round Table Conference. Inspired by the suffragist movement she’d seen in London, she became an activist: she addressed Indian women on issues of Indian independence and toured the country making speeches, eventually racking up four prison sentences for her anti-British activity. It was around this time, during the First World War, that she wrote her most famous poem, ‘The Gift of India’.
Let’s read the poem – you can find it in full here.
We start off in the world of treasure, pearls and ‘Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold’. The poem is written in a loose iambic pentameter (a metre that stresses every second syllable: de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM) and rhyming couplets, making the lines tight and emphatic. It all sounds quite jolly, and maybe even forced – though there’s definitely something dark underneath it, with the final stanza ending in ‘doom’. When we get to the last line of the second stanza (‘the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France’), suddenly, those hippity-hoppity rhymes which were maybe starting to get a bit irritating have turned around to bite you:
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of Victory?
We start to work out that the poem’s speaker is India, the ‘you’ is Britain, and that the poet is deeply sad and angry at the thought of India sending over a million men to support its coloniser’s war effort. Even ‘Victory’ is in ‘torn red banners’ in the poem.
The poem ends with a command to remember India’s sacrifices:
When the terror and tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the deathless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!
As we know (and as Naidu probably guessed), there has been a huge amount of ‘memorial thanks / To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks’ – but very little of this thanks is directed at India’s ‘martyred sons’.
Naidu has chosen a clever poetic form to question those in power. The poem uses classic English styles (rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter) against the British, to point out how ungrateful and unfeeling India’s colonisers are. To borrow a phrase from Audre Lorde, she is using the master’s tools against him.
In later life, Naidu’s career became more exclusively political. After Indian independence in 1947, she became the first female governor of a state, the Upper Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), a post she held until her death in 1949. Sadly, she has since sunk into obscurity. When Oxford University Press published its anthology Poetry of the First World War (2017), ‘The Gift of India’ was not in it. In fact, the book only included two poets who had been born outside of Britain, and one of them was Rudyard Kipling – whose poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ remains a key text of white supremacist thinking.
Who do we choose to remember?
One more comparison. Let’s contrast ‘The Gift of India’ with another famous World War One poem, Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’. You might know these lines from Binyon’s poem: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.’
The two poems have a very similar style, structure and rhyme scheme, and share an almost identical image of drums. But their feeling is different: Binyon celebrates ‘our boys’, ‘Fallen for the cause of the free’, focusing on honour and glory, whereas Naidu’s poem is angry, demanding that Britain give its colonies their due. Both poems ask that the fallen are remembered – but just as ‘The Gift of India’ has been largely forgotten by the British public, so have the soldiers from Britain’s colonies been forgotten, in favour of the idea that the war was won by white Europeans.
We’re now approaching questions about the canon, and which writers we choose to remember. The literary canon is the group of texts and authors that a culture considers its ‘great’ works of literature – in English, this often includes Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and so on. These are the writers whose names are considered general knowledge, whose work is taught in schools and universities, and which we turn to at ceremonies, weddings and funerals.
But when choosing certain ‘great’ texts to remember, so many are excluded. Why has Sarojini Naidu’s poem been forgotten, but Binyon’s not? Who decides what is part of a national literature? What is the canon for?
Historically, white men in positions of power (editors, critics, patrons, politicians) have chosen other white men to be our ‘greats’. This has supported their worldview that they were better than women (who were hysterical) and people of colour (who were uncivilised). The more white men’s good stories about themselves are repeated, the more their way of thinking becomes the norm, and the cycle repeats itself.
British poetry of the First World War is just one very good example of this process. We must never underestimate the role of power (who has it, and how they’re trying to protect it) in deciding the merit of art, and how exclusion is its most powerful weapon. Pointing this out is important, because national literature is important. It tells us who we are, where we’ve come from, what we believe in, and who has a right to be part of public life.
‘Precocious if imitative’
The Open University’s biography for Naidu describes her as the author of ‘precocious if imitative verse’, i.e. not very original and therefore not very good.
But, as we’ve seen, Naidu was the protégée of Victorian greats Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, and all three were part of a turn-of-the-century movement called British Decadence. Lots of people at the time were writing with extravagant language, tight form, self-indulgence and melodrama – you might know Oscar Wilde, who was one of the most famous Decadents. If Naidu’s style seems outdated and ‘imitative’ now, it is important to remember that she was writing like her contemporaries.
Besides, Naidu was a woman, a person of colour, and a colonial subject, trying to enter a British literary world controlled by white men and what they wanted to hear about. They liked their ‘poetesses’, when they were speaking at all, to do so from positions of heartbreak. And if they came from an ‘exotic’ faraway land, then those poets were expected to describe it in vivid terms. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Naidu wrote in the ways that she did – read ‘Nightfall in the City of Hyderabad’, for instance, or ‘Suttee’.
Take a closer look, though. What is interesting is how she uses these expected themes and styles to question authority: her writing is full of female speakers grieving departed love objects, be they sons or husbands, paralleling the grieving India we saw in ‘The Gift of India’. There are definitely revolutionary themes in her poem ‘To India’, for instance:
Mother, O Mother, wherefore dost thou sleep?
Arise and answer for thy children’s sake!
We again have to ask why the Open University calls Naidu ‘precocious but imitative’ – what worldviews are they seeking to protect by not taking her work seriously? This is the sort of coded and patronising language many women and people of colour face when their work is discussed, even today.
It’s so important to be aware of who is making judgements on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry, and why. As with every other area of life, work, and culture, diverse representation in what we read matters. When we learn about different aspects of our common history and how we can best engage with them in the present, everyone benefits.
If you’re interested in other voices excluded from mainstream World War One poetry, a good place to start is The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights, edited by Tim Cross. You can also read more about Naidu in the context of British Decadence in the Penguin Classics anthology Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu (edited by Lisa Rodensky, 2006).
Stephanie Sy-Quia is a freelance writer and critic based in London. She is a member of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics Mentorship Scheme, working to address the disparity in poetry criticism of and by writers of colour. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, and others.