Writes RS de Saram in 1959, of Walter Stanley Senior: “… a man who lived in Ceylon for twenty years and regarded them as the best years of his life. He loved Ceylon with all his heart. ‘Foster-mother’ he calls her and himself, humbly, ‘child of an alien isle’… Walter Stanley Senior was no alien. He had that quality of greatness which transcends both race and place”. Notwithstanding, however, the WS Senior that is often introduced to contemporary classrooms on early twentieth century writing (as a much deliberated footnote, too) hardly carries the same recommendation which de Saram so generally bestows on this one time Trinity College master from Yorkshire.
For one, in the contemporary classroom, WS Senior is largely no more than a curiosity – a relic of the pre-independance period whose musings and wandering imagination is often seen as a replication of the romantic gaze of the colonial psyche. His “The Call of Lanka”, in particular, is often used as an icon for the kind of poetry that is shown to be patronizing in spirit, which seems to frequently irk the postcolonial reader. However, DCRA Goonetilleke’s reading of Senior in his Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003, I feel, is worth sharing:
“Senior does not share [Leonard] Woolf’s liberal ideas but he is a colonial in a well-meaning way. He sees British Imperialism as ‘tutelage’ and although he thinks Ceylon’s progress is slow, he looks ahead to Independece and a Commonwealth of Nations, an ideal one no doubt, and senses change in Ceylonese society during his own stay… Perhaps, his poetry is best summarized by the phrase George Orwell used with special reference to Rudyard Kipling – ‘good bad poetry’” (197).
In the same paragraph Goonetilleke proposes that Senior’s poetic craftsmanship is derived from writers of the Tennysonian line – the writing of a ‘minor’ Tennyson, if at all. Though he doesn’t state it explicitly, the Goonetilleke’s implication suggests that perhaps Senior’s sense of romantic scenery and his visualizations that border on what we from our postcolonial vantage point see as “exotic ruminations” are inevitable derivations from the Tennysonian mode. Though my views are inconclusive on this point, what R.S de Saram suggests of Senior – that he is one who, with time, develops a genuine and empathetic bond with the island – is well illustrated through his writing, which demands us to re-read Senior’s poetry with better commitment.
Of Senior’s corpus, the poem that most appeals to me – and indeed, the poem that unequivocally testifies to Senior’s bond with Lanka – is the memorable piece titled “Goodbye (?)”, which is written towards his last days. The poem is in two parts – the opening, outlining a pending departure from Lanka: a Ceylon that is fast changing and is growing hostile to foreign presences, with a “new race rising with never a use for” people like Senior. A homeward journey, back to “the haunts and hearths of the homeland” is thus seen as compelling. However, in the second stanza, the predicament of departure from the homely Lankan climes to which Senior had, over the years, grown mellow to the dark and damp Northern English settings is strongly captured:
Yet, O my soul, remember: when you’ve sailed the seas away,
And the English climate’s chilly, and the English clouds are gray;
When the birds are sad and silent, and the sun is seldom seen,
And life is miles of houses with miles of mud between,
You will see in a sudden vision, you will see with a sudden sigh
The scarlet-splashed flamboyant awash in the azure sky;
You will see Anuradhapura and the old kings’ bathing-pool,
And the shadowy blue kingfisher on the carven granite cool;
And the Pass of Haputala, and the Lowland flat and far,
And through Granvillea feathers, the rosy evening star;
And the moon-besilvered jungle; the dipping magic Cross
’mid steady balm in-blowing from the silver foam and floss;
And better than places – faces, the Aryan Face (your own)
With its brown and olive beauty, the youths and maids you’ve known;
And the tender pearl of India in the black and brilliant eye –
My soul, you will break with longing – it can never be goodbye.
This stanza, in which the (perceived) exotic and nostalgic imagery make perfect contextual sense, is one of the most powerful passages of Senior’s writing, synthesizing the strong fellow feeling he had for the Ceylonese, as well as the cultural and geographic beauty of the island. The persona in Senior’s poetry, perhaps, is best mirrored in a character like Mr. Fielding in E.M Forster’s A Passage to India; or, let us say, in the persona Forster molds based on his Indian encounter.
In studying who Walter Stanley Senior may have been, one must also take into close consideration the possible mentoring influence he may have had from Trinity’s famous Principal, Rev. A.G Fraser, who was the very man who first summoned Senior to Ceylon, while the latter was a fresh graduate from Oxford. In W.S Senior. Call of Lanka: Ceylon in Prose and Verse, an anthology of Senior’s writing published by Trinity College, Kandy in 1960, the following reference to Senior’s being summoned to Lanka is made by Mrs. Emily Senior:
“About the middle of 1905 Stanley received a letter from [Rev Fraser] saying, ‘come to Ceylon and be our Vice-Principal here’… He offered to CMS and was accepted, and to Ceylon he came. There he spent what he always felt were the best twenty years of his life. ‘It was the land of my life work. In Ceylon I met my wife. Here our four children were born. In Ceylon I made dearest friends’. It was ever for him ‘the land of beauty, and glamour and kindness’” (6).
Rev. Fraser (1873-1962) was the Principal of Trinity College from 1904-1924, and is considered to have assisted in Trinity’s expansion in quality and standards. The note by Mrs. Senior, above, makes reference to Fraser as having found Trinity a “school of brick” and, much alike Augustus Caesar did with Rome, to have left it “a school of marble”. Similarly, Ali Foad Toulba — an Egyptian Prince who studied at Kingswood, Kandy in the 1890s, and who returns to Ceylon in 1921 — in his Ceylon: the Land of Eternal Charm (1926) dedicates a chapter to the Trinity he saw, under Fraser’s Principalship. To him, Fraser is “none of the stiff, priggish, pedantic, scowling type of headmaster” with “a total absence of self-consciousness and self-assertiveness…” and one with “no colour question, no shibboleths of race or creed” (162-163). Fraser is also known to be an experimenter in education who introduced to Trinity many aspects of Lankan culture, including the study of Sanskrit, at a time of rigid colonial oversee.
It can be surmised that young Senior’s personality was to an extent influenced by his close association with Fraser, whom Ali Foad Toulba acknowledges as follows: “to such a worthy gentleman I therefore most respectfully raise my cap, and long may Trinity be blessed with so distinguished a Headmaster” (163). Our reading of Walter Stanley Senior’s poetry can thus benefit from an “absent biography” and a historical footnote or two which we, for convenience or out of negligence, fail to take with us to class or to the reading room. A writer who, I feel, is a cornerstone and icon in Ceylonese writing of the pre-independance period is therefore relegated to a nook in which his importance is undermined and cast out of alignment. A dedicated reading of Senior’s poetry may even locate some of his writing as indeed being from a “foster son” to a land he held in reverie and esteem.