Reminiscences Around Palgrave, the Golden Treasury

How nice it would be if our schools could reintroduce teaching of humanities from very early as we had the golden chance in our times. That would certainly help to make better citizens for the future, and help to consolidate and further construct that ephemeral – but real too! – Mauritianism that we talk about

Last week I spent some delightful and fruitful moments in the company of an elderly couple. The husband, a retired colleague, was much senior to me as a doctor, at least fifteen years I estimated. He had gone for medical studies in France in 1949, coming back in 1964, one year before I myself set out to study medicine on the other side of the world, in India.

What brought us together was a reference I had made to Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in an earlier article of mine that he had read. He was kind enough to call me up, and after we talked briefly about some other articles and he specifically mentioned the one containing the reference to Palgrave, he offered me an invitation for a cup of tea at his place so that we could have a longer conversation. He also requested me to bring over my copy of Palgrave, as he did not have one. Of course I gladly accepted to respond to his solicitation at the earliest which was about a month later, that is last Thursday.

It was a nice sunny afternoon in Vacoas, a contrast to overcast and rather coldish Curepipe, and my host welcomed me warmly on the steps of his colonial house before we went inside to the cosy living room. He introduced me to his wife, and we took our seats on the sofa set that he told me was, like the house, a legacy to him from his dada (paternal grandfather).

As we started our conversation, he recalled a couple of occasions when we had met, and I had to confess to him that I had a vague memory of perhaps one occasion. But this was no longer relevant! The important thing is that we were meeting now, and he talked fondly about his dada to begin with, and how in his days important personalities used to frequent the house often. Come, he said next, let me show you around. And I soon realized that we were in some ways one of a kind: in several of the rooms there were books neatly laid on side tables or arranged in shelves.

The highlight was his study where, in addition to general books lining other shelves, there was the one containing all the books – and my specialised magazines he proudly added! – which he had used during his medical course, and that was another commonality that we shared, as I also brought all my books too, and they are still preciously kept and also referred to from time, as they have both a technical and a historical value as to the evolution of medical practices. He pulled a couple of his own which we leafed through together – and he showed me a tome of an atlas of osteology (the study of bones) which he had lent to one of his young relatives who had recently gone through the medical course. Good books, like old wine, acquire much more than sentimental value as they age – one feeds the mind, and the other as a matter of fact does a good bit of the same too, but through the stomach.

Let me digress a moment to explain: scientific studies have established that red wine in moderate amounts, due to its content of a regenerative substance called resveratrol, is good for the blood circulation, as it helps to maintain the fluidity of the blood, thus facilitating the blood’s flow into and their adequate irrigation of the smaller arteries that are found in all organs including those of the brain as well. And as the brain is the seat of the mind (that’s another debate), its efficient functioning is to some extent at least sustained in the process. Q.E.D…

The best songs and lyrical poems

To come back to the Palgrave’s: there was a shine in his eyes as he held the book tenderly in his hands, opening it with such care and almost love. Nostalgia surfaced and he narrated to me that he had won the book as a first prize in English Literature when he was at the Royal College Curepipe. That was in Form III, and until he left for university he had the copy but unfortunately it was misplaced or lost by the time he got back to the country. On several occasions he tried, but in vain, to obtain another copy. When he read that I too had been fond of the Palgrave’s and that many years ago I had come upon a facsimile copy of the original in a bookshop in New Delhi, and had immediately bought it – the only copy available! – he dearly wished to have me lend it to him for a while.

In fact, not only was he keen to read through the poems that he used to be fond of (as many of us who were fortunate to be so exposed still do), he also planned to make a copy that he wanted in turn to leave as a legacy in the library of the secondary school which his dada had founded. Further, he wished that I would some day come to the college and address the students. How could I refuse this so sincere request from a friend, which we had now become through this reconnect after we don’t even remember how many years. There is no age for new friendships.

From online sources, here are some words about the book and its author for those of the later generations who may not be familiar with it. The full title was Palgrave: The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. It was originally published in 1861 by Francis Turner Palgrave and ‘became the standard anthology of poetry for over 100 years. Its original aim was to teach “those indifferent to the Poets to love them, and those who love them to love them more” (italics added), and in its many editions since then it was recognized to be the most popular anthology ever published.

To mark the 150th anniversary of its original publication, this facsimile reproduction of the 1861 edition features a specially-commissioned Foreword by Carol Ann Duffy (the current Poet Laureate) which celebrates its heritage and affection in the hearts of poetry lovers worldwide.’ Who exist even in tiny Mauritius, and I have another elderly colleague and friend who can still recite whole poems from Palgrave that he also had used at RCC – in the late 1940s too!

Palgrave lived from 1824 to 1897, and was born at Great Yarmouth in England. In 1843 he won a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, going on to take a first class in Literae Humaniores. Subsequently he entered the Education Department at Whitehall, and after a teaching career and a vice-principalship, he became an examiner in the Education Department. In 1985 he became professor of poetry at Oxford. He died in London, and was buried in the cemetery on Barnes Common.

An unforgettable part of our lives

I and many of my generation can testify to the Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as a valued anthology, which we used to get on loan from Form I through Form V. But again, as I have indicated above, it remains an unforgettable part of our lives ‘long years after we no more had it to read’ – to paraphrase from ‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth who ends the poem with the lines:

‘The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more’.

And, as most of us had no prior notion of poetry, being therefore both ignorant and ‘indifferent’ in some way, Palgrave’s certainly made ‘those indifferent to the Poets to love them, and those who love them to love them more’. We came to love both poetry and poets – how can it be otherwise as they are but one! – and it was left to each student to have his own favourites. Among the English poets, mine remain the romantic ones, especially William Wordsworth and John Keats who in fact was a doctor who switched over completely to the writing of poetry, and unfortunately died at the age of twenty-five of pulmonary tuberculosis (then known as ‘consumption’) in Italy.

In my case this love was kindled as early as in the first term of Form I (1957), when Regis Fanchette made me read ‘The Daffodils’, and stopped me at the very second line to show me how to put emphasis on the ‘thousands’ rather than the ‘ten.’ In Form II, Dr Karl Noel asked me to read ‘L’Albatross’ of Charles Baudelaire, and he was very pleased with my rendering, an appreciation which led to my interest in French poetry as well. And in Form IV, one morning as he entered the class Georgie Espitalier Noel created magic in my mind and heart with his theatrical (he ran the Dramatic Club at RCC) recitation of the first four lines of John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ :

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk,

— and then ordered, in his booming voice and the perfect diction that he was reputed for, one of us to continue.

By then also, the new rector Mr Bullen had got several school societies and clubs going, and one of them was the Indian Cultural Society chaired by Professor Ram Prakash. He introduced us to the Gitanjali of Tagore, and on several occasions we recited ‘Where the head is held high and the mind is without fear…’ among others, and other poems too, such as those of Allama Iqbal.

Although at Higher School Certificate we were already in our respective streams of science or classics, through General Paper we continued to have a link with at least some poetry, and involvement in the clubs and societies, such as the Classical Music Society run by Mrs Brooks, helped to balance our education with a good dose of the humanities. Which, as I understand, has not been the case for a few decades now, the focus being on more utilitarian subjects such as accounts and similar others.

The resonance between medicine and literature

If our educational cheminement at the hands of these fantastic masters of their art be labelled ‘elite’ – a word we had never even heard of in those days – then so be it! What we learnt slowly built up the humane dimension of our personality, and certainly the sensitivity we acquired played a significant role in the training of those of us who went on to become doctors. There is resonance between medicine and literature, poetry in particular, where we are brought face to face with human predicaments, especially those of pain and suffering, and we are better able to cope, even empathise as a result of the prior exposure in our education to such situations as they are captured in poignant words.

So on that afternoon, we had a lot in common to share, and I told him about a friend who nearly twenty years ago gifted me George Pompidou’s Anthologie de la poésie française when he made a trip to Paris, in lieu of champagne that he was proposing to get for me. That complemented nicely my stock of poetry books, as I didn’t till then have the equivalent of Palgrave’s for French poetry.

Before I left him, my friend recited some lines from the Ramayana which he had learned from his dada. And as it happens, I also have added to my repertoire Hindi poems, having bought a copy of the book of ex-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poems. And I am sure we will have some more such precious moments to spend, as I have promised to visit again.

How nice it would be if our schools could reintroduce teaching of humanities from very early as we had the golden chance in our times. That would certainly help to make better citizens for the future, and help to consolidate and further construct that ephemeral – but real too! – Mauritianism that we talk about.

  • Published in print edition on 25 September 2015

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