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A poetic colossus and his stylish, striking and sonorous works



Among the shortcomings of our education system is that literature, especially poetry, is mostly presented to impressionable minds as an exam subject, that too in a dry, formulaic rote with any attempt at personal interpretation unwelcome. Thus most of us never know its role in showcasing mankind’s aspirations and experiences, of language’s capabilities, and vivid accounts of the human and natural conditions. Like by this Victorian-era poet whose work still endures and inspires.

“Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all”, “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die”, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new”, are some pearls from his works that will be familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of English literature.

And their unique creator, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), stood tall both in height and achievement. Sporting a large beard and long hair, clad in cloak and broad-brimmed hat, he was popular with commoners and royalty alike, was Britain’s longest-tenured Poet Laureate (42 years), the first to be raised to the peerage for purely literary contributions — and among the top 10 sources for the Oxford Book of Quotations.

In addition, he penned one of the most moving homages ever in English, the best-known war poem (which both manages to extol its grandeur and lament its cost), penning tributes to his homeland’s most famous heroes (King Arthur, and the Duke of Wellington) and foreseeing aerial conflict and commerce and something like the UN (in “Locksley Hall”).

Born on August 6, 1809, to a middle-class cleric’s family in Lincolnshire, Tennyson, the fourth of 12 children, showed an early talent for writing, completing a 6,000-line epic poem at the age of 12.

After his father began to suffer frequent mental breakdowns, leading to growing tension in the family, he escaped to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he made some of his best friends (especially Arthur Hallam, whose untimely death inspired his “In Memoriam A.H.H”), and honed his poetry skill (winning the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces).

His first solo collection of poetry was published in 1830 and though criticised in some quarters as too sentimental, brought him to the attention of top writers. However, the very next year, his father died and he had to abandon his studies to come home and take care of his family. Soon after a failed business venture wiped out most of the family’s wealth, he published a two-volume set of his poems, which brought him much fame and a means to live. The crowning moment came on his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1850, succeeding William Wordsworth.

Queen Victoria was an ardent admirer, writing in her diary that she was “much soothed & pleased” by reading “In Memoriam A.H.H”. Meeting the poet in 1862, she recorded he was “very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him”.

This could also be said about his poetry, which spanned a wide gamut of myths and legends of all ages (even Akbar and Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid) to common-place (and not so common) situations to nature, and displayed a richness of imagery, a regularity of rhythm, and revision most careful, and though a rich seam of melancholy and loss runs through his work, it is robust (and satirical too at places).

This can be seen in that outstanding paean to brave but misguided heroism “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Cannon to right of them/Cannon to left of them,/Cannon in front of them/Volley’d and thunder’d;/Storm’d at with shot and shell,/Boldly they rode and well,/Into the jaws of Death,/Into the mouth of Hell/Rode the six hundred….)” or in “Break, break, break,/At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!/But the tender grace of a day that is dead,/Will never come back to me” or even the epitaph-like “Crossing the Bar” (whose solemn words “came in a moment” on a short ferry ride), whose opening – “Sunset and evening star,/And one clear call for me!/And may there be no moaning of the bar,/When I put out to sea” — has been much used by some well-read judges on retirement or transfer.

But for me, his most influential was “Ulysses”, studied at St Francis College, Lucknow, for the Class 10 board and explained so masterfully and cogently by Mrs N. Narain that much of it remains fresh even two decades later, especially: “I am part of all that I have met;/Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move” or “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!….but every hour is saved/From that eternal silence, something more,/A bringer of new things”.

What could be better advice?

By : Vikas Datta

(The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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Is Sonia the answer to ego hassles in non-BJP camp?



Sonia Gandhi

An indication as to how difficult it is going to be for the opposition at the national level to get its act together was available after K. Chandrashekar Rao met Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata to lay the foundation for a federal front.

However, even before the proposed alliance could get off the ground, the differences about its framework were visible. While the Telangana Chief Minister wanted it to be a non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), non-Congress group, his West Bengal counterpart kept her options open about including the Congress.

A feature of these alliances is that each of their constituents is guided by the ground realities in their own states which may be at variance with the political condition in some other state. For instance, the Congress may be a more formidable adversary for Chandrashekhar Rao in his state, but it isn’t so for Mamata Banerjee. So, while the Telangana Chief Minister wants to keep the 133-year-old Grand Old Party at arm’s length, Mamata Banerjee, a former Congress person, is more accommodative.

Similar conflicting perceptions are known even within one party such as the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) where the Kerala comrades are against any proximity to the Congress, obviously because the latter is a force to reckon with in the southern state, but the Marxists in West Bengal are keen on a tie-up with the Congress against the BJP since they no longer face any major threat from their old opponent in the state. Rahul Gandhi’s hope, therefore, of forming a “workable” anti-BJP alliance with other parties faces considerable roadblocks.

Yet, the BJP’s current vulnerability is obvious to its political enemies. At the same time, the non-BJP parties know that none of them is capable on its own of offering a serious challenge to the ruling party at the Centre. Banding them together is the only alternative. The egos of individual leaders are also a problem, for none of them will be willing to concede the role of a leader to another.

Difficulties of this nature have plagued earlier such formations. In the Janata Party (1977-80), the duel was between Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram. In the Janata Dal (1989-91), it was between V.P. Singh, Devi Lal and Chandrashekhar.

It was to overcome similar confrontations in the confused post-1996 scene that the name of then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, was proposed by United Front leaders like H.D. Deve Gowda, Mulayam Singh Yadav and others, but was rejected by the CPI-M. The BJP, on the other hand, has been fortunate in having an unchallenged leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996 and in Narendra Modi now.

Who can be the unchallenged leader in the non-BJP camp at present? Although the leaders in a federal front are highly influential in their home provinces, none of them measures up to the popular image of a Prime Minister who is a sober, sophisticated, well-educated, widely respected, trustworthy and unbiased person with a clearly identifiable vision.

To start with Sharad Pawar, who is among those who have shown an interest in leading the charge against the BJP, there has been a question mark over his reliability ever since his party was seemingly regarded by the BJP as a prop against the Shiv Sena’s machinations in Maharashtra. He is generally seen as too clever by half and too much of a deal-maker to be trusted as the guiding light for the nation.

His age — Pawar is 78 — is also against him. India appears to be coming around to accepting Modi’s view, as articulated by senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, that a politician is “brain dead” after 75.

Rahul Gandhi at 48 is safe in this regard as is Mamata Banerjee (63), whose case is being energetically pushed by one of her lieutenants in Delhi. But while the Congress president is still considered not “grown-up” enough, the West Bengal Chief Minister is too immersed in her own province to be seen as a national leader.

Akhilesh Yadav (45) and Mayawati (62) have the same disadvantage of being rooted in the Hindi belt with its concomitant of casteism. Though also from the same region, 67-year-old Nitish Kumar was once considered a possible Prime Minister “material” before he shot himself in the foot with his politics of perambulation, forever looking for green pastures.

The bare cupboard of PM hopefuls leaves only 72-year-old Sonia Gandhi, who has been engaged in dinner diplomacy to cobble together an anti-BJP formation, as a possible candidate. But her minus points are obvious.

For one, she does not appear to be in the pink of health. For another, any whiff about her aspirations will make the Hindu Right revive the “foreigner” debate with great gusto with Sushma Swaraj perhaps once again threatening to shave her head as in 2004. For a third, she may not be interested as she is seemingly intent on paving the way for her son’s elevation.

Yet, the former Congress president is possibly the only one with a much wider acceptability in the non-BJP camp than anyone else and also among the Dalits, backward castes and minorities as well as a section of the traditional Congress supporters in the upper caste though not among the middle class. In a way, she offers the best of a bad bargain with the resultant turmoil proving to be one of the worst in recent years.

By : Amulya Ganguli

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])

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The strange trio of Sex, Science and the State — and its consequences

Though her thesis is not brought out very exhaustively, she makes a fair enough case and that is enough to make this a must read — especially for ministers.



Sex and Gender

An Indian minister has made himself notorious all over social media for his comments questioning Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but can we take this to show that the two worlds — of politics and science — are exclusive or even antagonistic? Not at all, and scientific disciplines that apparently seem farthest placed from human affairs may be the most influential.

For science has done more for setting the course of nations and their governance and economy than we can suspect — beyond its part in helping develop powerful weapons or technologies.

While this alliance of politics and science is a far more recent development than we think, it owes its genesis to botany, and two 18th century natural scientists who furthered this combination, as Patricia Fara shows in this book, part of a special set chronicling key turning points in science.

And this — in the last three decades or so of the 18th century — qualifies well enough for it shows how science progressed beyond the pastime or patronage of rich, idle noblemen to become institutionalised with government support.

And as Fara, from the History and Philosophy of Science department at Cambridge University, shows it not only saw the rather incongruous trio of the “Three Ss” — sex, science and the state — coming together with so many consequences, but also brought the subject of sex out into the public discourse, though against much opposition.

It also set in train a process — in Britain initially — that would lead a few decades later to Darwin boarding HMS Beagle to make the observations that enabled him to formulate his theory of man’s origin and development — a theory which has stood the test of time despite what some misguided or willfully ignorant politicians may think.

At the heart of this development, shows Fara’s account, were two naturalists, not as famous as Issac Newton or Darwin but contributing to science’s progress at a time “science started to become established and gain prestige”.

And both of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks, along with the other Enlightenment contemporaries, “fought hard to establish that scientific knowledge was valid and valuable”.

Linnaeus was a gifted but eccentric and self-propagandising Swede whose classification system for all living organism still rules today, but raised hackles of his conservative society by using sexual parts to order flowers and using human terminology for the purpose.

Banks was his British “disciple” -turned-science administrator — and no less self-propagandising — but also managed to make “science work for the state — and the state to pay for science”. A key cameo is played by that intrepid explorer, Captain James Cook.

And in telling their story, Fara ranges over small Swedish towns and the country’s unforgiving terrain, the mansions and the seats of power of Georgian England as well as its lush countryside, hazardous voyages over uncharted oceans, encounters with uninhibited, pre-industrial societies in South Pacific islands, ambition and professional jealousy, to show how the underlying root was something more heartlessly mercenary.

For, as she contends, “scientific exploration in the Age of Reason was driven by an imperialist agenda to own, to conquer and to exploit”. But apart from the above spin-offs, there were some other positive benefits too, as she brings out. Say the way, men, especially white Europeans, began to see rest of humanity and themselves in the world, or what women could be allowed to study or not — though it would still take time before all these would be tangibly realised for all.

Along with her lucid and telling discourse on the birth of modern botany with Linnaeus and Banks — almost concurrently with its economic uses, Fara also enlivens it with a colourful account of their explorations in various climes and encounters with exotic races and, above all, the contemporary public reactions to their discoveries and doings. And this could have a thing or two to teach protesters today.

Though her thesis is not brought out very exhaustively, she makes a fair enough case and that is enough to make this a must read — especially for ministers.

By : Vikas Datta

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected]

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Poem on Pollution

For a change we had Pollution for last 42 months of diff kinds




We faced #Pollution of air for last 20 years

But that isn’t necessarily the only Pollution

For a change we had Pollution for last 42 months of diff kinds

We have #Pollution of thought

We also have #Pollution of speech

And what about #Pollution of conduct

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