Preserving our literary heritage
“Every little achieved is a landmark established,” wrote N. E. Cameron in 1931, describing the contributions of those pioneers in the field of poetry. It is distressing that so little is known about the early versifiers who initiated a written Guyanese poetic tradition, a practice that laid the foundation for others to build on, producing internationally recognised poets, winners of such awards as the T. S. Elliot Poetry Prize, the Casa de las Americas Prize for poetry and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
When you think Guyanese poetry, the name Martin Carter readily comes to mind. But our written poetry did not start with Carter, in fact, that tradition started more than one hundred years before Carter wrote his first verse.
The first recorded verses of this country surfaced in 1832. That was the year someone calling himself the ‘Colonist’ published his ‘MIDNIGHT MUSINGS IN DEMERARA’. Significantly, this first effort was printed locally in the Courier Office in Georgetown not long after the counties of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo were merged to form British Guiana. However, that was the only local feature about the book; all of the verses therein were coloured by inspiration from England.
SIMON CHRISTIAN OLIVER
Following the musings of the ‘Colonist’ were the ruminations of Simon Christian Oliver, a Black schoolmaster stationed at St. Augustine’s in Buxton. Oliver was born in Grenada, successfully settling in British Guiana where he died in 1848, grieving to return to his birthplace. Oliver is reported to have written some poems in 1838 and his verse, ‘1st August, 1838’ may be the only surviving piece to mark the occasion of freeing of slaves in this country. Despite the subject of that poem, it is abounding in archaic English phrases and in praise of the monarchy, ‘oh! Ye first of August freed men who liberty enjoy,/salute the day and shout hurrah to Queen Victoria’. Poetry then and for a long while after was written in similar vain.
DR. HENRY G. DALTON
It took a doctor to inject local flavour to Guyanese poetry; the names of two of his poems, ‘Essequibo and its Tributaries’ and ‘The Carib’s Complaint’, bear out this fact. That honour went to Dr. Henry G. Dalton who was ‘born in a British colony, but educated in England’. In 1858, Dalton published his poems in London.
WILLIAM E. ROBERTS & FRED A. BELGRAVE
As if to follow Dalton’s lead, William Eaton Roberts and Fred A. Belgrave produced in 1867 a book of eight poems entitled ‘LOCAL POETRY’. Although the regular religious theme runs through the poems, others subjects as kindness, retirement and matrimony were explored.
But no sooner, it was back to the religious theme which was a reflection of the times. After emancipation, the Bible was the main text in the teaching/learning process. This next contribution to local literature came from Thomas Don who in 1873 published a book of 43 pieces entitled, ‘PIOUS EFFUSIONS’. Incidentally this was another locally produced book, this time printed at the Royal Gazette Office, New Amsterdam, Berbice!
The subject matter of the early poets cannot be argued away but there was much to be desired in their craft. Of course, there were exceptional pieces like the long poems, ‘Agnes de Clifford’ by the ‘Colonist’ and ‘Essequibo and its Tributaries’ by Dalton, but for the most part, the early verses were bad.
EGBERT MARTIN ‘LEO’
So it was, lo and behold, that almost to the end of the period under examination came along the best, Egbert Martin better known by his nom de plume, ‘Leo’. He approached his craft in words of one of his poems, ‘The poet is a magician./The philosopher’s stone is his;/It turns all baser metals/To priceless rarities’. Egbert Martin (1862-1890), described as a ‘fair mulatto’, was invalid when very young and died at the age of 28. His first book of poems, ‘POETICAL WORKS’ was published in 1883, running into 224 pages. That was quite an achievement! ‘LOCAL LYRICS’ came out in 1886.
After ‘Leo’, there was a lull, nay a wide gap, in poetic expression until a revival in 20th century that led to what is termed modern Guyanese Poetry.
* Cameron, N. E. editor, GUIANESE POETRY, Georgetown 1931
* McDonald, Ian. ‘Guyanese Poetry before Independence’, THE GUYANA CHRISTMAS ANNUAL 1999.
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Literature Update: More than half of The Guyana Annual 2005-2006 is devoted to emerging writers, writers whose efforts like those of the early versifiers will be important landmarks in time to come.