Michael Madhusudan Dutt Essay - Critical Essays

Dutt, Michael Madhusudan


Michael Madhusudan Dutt 1824-1873

(Michael Madhusudan Datta, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Madhusudan, Michael, Timothy Penpoem) Bengali poet, playwright, and translator.

Dutt is considered a leading figure of the Bengali Renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century. He is credited with poetic and dramatic innovations best illustrated by his merging of Bengali stories and language with Western styles and forms such as those found in the works of Homer and John Milton. Dutt's most significant contributions are to poetry and they include the development of Bengali blank verse and the sonnet. His most famous poem, the Meghnādbadh Kābya (1861; The Slaying of Meghanada), is a blank-verse epic. Even Dutt's critics, many of whom were wary of his adoption of Western forms, acknowledge his work as influential. Today, Dutt is regarded with respect and his works are praised for content and language as well as for marking the beginning of Bengali modern literature.

Biographical Information

Dutt was born on January 25, 1824, to an aristocratic Bengali family in the village of Sagardari in Jessore; the family moved to Calcutta when Dutt was seven years old. He was educated at the Hindu College from 1833 to 1842, and it was during this period that he became interested both in writing poetry and in traveling to England. In 1843, Dutt converted to Christianity and adopted the name Michael. His conversion was a source of controversy among the members of his caste and appears to have been motivated less by faith than by his desire to avoid an arranged marriage. Dutt moved to England and attended Bishop's College from 1844 to 1847, where he studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. When his father stopped providing for his education, Dutt moved to Madras and became a journalist and teacher. In 1848, he married an Englishwoman, Rebecca McTavish, with whom he had four children. However, by 1856 Dutt had left his wife and children and apparently had no further contact with them. He returned to Calcutta in February of that year, accompanied by Amelia Henrietta Sophia, a Frenchwoman. Although it is unclear whether they were married, they lived together as husband and wife for the rest of their lives. Their first child was born in 1859 and was named Sermista after the heroine of one of his plays. Over the next three years Dutt wrote prolifically, producing, among other things, two farces, a five-act tragedy, the first Bengali epic poem, and a collection of eleven heroic epistles. It was during this period of creative activity that Dutt wrote his greatest work, The Slaying of Meghanada, in 1861, marking the peak of his career. In 1862 Dutt moved to England, where he was later joined by Henrietta and their children. He continued to study language and literature, and to write and publish more Bengali poetry. But his lifestyle and habits were expensive and extreme, and Dutt became as well known for his drinking and his financial difficulties as for his writing. Shortly after returning to Calcutta in 1867, he became a member of the Calcutta Bar, but his earnings were modest and did not improve his financial situation. Dutt's health began to fail and he died on June 29, 1873, three days after the death of Henrietta. Despite some questions about his faith, Dutt was given a Christian burial.

Major Works

Although Dutt worked as both a journalist and a translator, the bulk of his creative output consists of drama and poetry. His early works helped establish his reputation as a talented writer. In 1849 Dutt's first poems of note, Captive Lady and Visions of the Past, were written and published in English under the pseudonym Timothy Penpoem. He is much better known, though, for his work in Bengali. His first play, Sarmishthā (1859; Sermista), was followed by two farces: Buro Sāliker Ghāre Ro (1860; The Bristles of the Neck of the Aged Sparrow) and Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyatā (1860; Is This What You Call Civilizationq), and another drama, Padmā vati (1860). However, it is Dutt's poetry for which he is best known and remembered. Inspired by the writings of Homer, Tasso, and Milton, Dutt began writing poetry treating the stories and themes of Bengal utilizing a distinctly Western tone and style. He was particularly interested in blank verse, the sonnet, and the epic forms. Dutt published the first Bengali epic poem in blank verse, Tilottama Sambhav Kāvya (1860), which was met with both criticism and praise for its form. His The Slaying of Meghanada is not only considered his greatest work but also the finest blank verse epic ever written in Bengali. Dutt's other volumes demonstrate his continuing interest in lyrical and heroic poetry and include the Birangana Kāvya (1862; Poems Telling of Heroic Ladies), a collection of epistles in the voices of different women. After this period of intense creativity, primarily from 1859 to 1862, his output decreased. Dutt published one more major collection of Bengali sonnets entitled Chaturdaspadi Kavitāvali (1866) before his death in 1873. By the time of his death, Dutt's work was readily identifiable because of its trademark commingling of Western forms and Bengali content.

Critical Reception

Dutt is considered one of the most significant creative influences of the Bengal Renaissance. His ability to blend Westernized forms with Bengali subject matter brought about popular acceptance of both the sonnet and blank verse. Dutt is also credited with the first blank verse epic written in Bengali. Because of these contributions, many critics label Dutt the greatest poet of the modern Bengali period; regardless of the accuracy of that designation, all critics acknowledge the range and depth of his influence. Some scholars focus on his plays and their contributions to modern Bengali drama, primarily examining Dutt's work within its cultural and historical context. Most, though, concentrate on his poetry and in particular The Slaying of Meghanada. Here, many critics examine Dutt's emulation of Milton, his blank-verse compositions, or his use of the Indian epic Ramayana as his source. Other scholars focus on Dutt's influence on other writers, on the Bengal Renaissance, or on the modern period as a whole. Whatever approach or text scholars use to discuss Dutt, most confirm his status as a major Bengali literary figure, and many contemporary critics consider him a genius.

Principal Works

Captive Lady [as Timothy Penpoem] (poetry) 1849

Visions of the Past [as Timothy Penpoem] (poetry) 1849

Sarmishthā [Sermista] (play) 1859

Buro Sāliker Ghāre Ro [The Bristles of the Neck of the Aged Sparrow] (play) 1860

Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyatā [Is This What You Call Civilizationq] (play) 1860

Padmā vati (play) 1860

Ratnavali [translator] (play) 1860

Tilottama Sambhav Kāvya (poetry) 1860

Brajangana Kāvya [Odes] (poetry) 1861

Krishna Kumāri (play) 1861

Meghnādbadh Kābya [The Slaying of Meghanada] (poetry) 1861

Birangana Kāvya [Poems Telling of Heroic Ladies] (poetry) 1862

Chaturdaspadi Kavitāvali (poetry) 1866

Hector-Vadh (unfinished poetry) 1871

Māyā Kānan (play) 1874


Sisir Kumar Das (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Das, Sisir Kumar. “Michael Madhusudan Datta and the Sonnet in Bengal.” Mahfil: A Quarterly of South Asian Literature 3, no. 4 (1967): 102-05.

[In the following essay, Das considers Dutt's development of the sonnet form and its importance for Bengali lyric poetry.]

In May of 1865 Michael Madhusudan Datta sent a sonnet on Dante to Victor Emmanuel, the king of Italy, as tribute to the memory of the great European poet. In a letter addressed to the king, who received it very gracefully, the Bengali poet described his poem as “la petite fleur orientale.” The king was delighted to know that “the noble harmony of the Italian genius found an echo on...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)

Sibnarayan Ray (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Ray, Sibnarayan. “Ideologies and the Alienated Writer.” In Society and the Writer: Essays on Literature in Modern Asia, edited by Wang Gungwu, M. Guerrero, and D. Marr, pp. 221-37. Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Ray discusses Dutt's status as an alienated Bengali writer and his influence on later writers of the region.]


Generalizations on the literature and society of any country are always hazardous, much more so when the country is India where even the recognized major languages are far too many to be acquired by a single individual, and where...

(The entire section is 3006 words.)

Clinton B. Seely (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Seely, Clinton B. “Homeric Similes, Occidental and Oriental: Tasso, Milton, and Bengal's Michael Madhusudan Dutt.” Comparative Literature Studies 25, no. 1 (1988): 35-56.

[In the following essay, Seely analyzes The Slaying of Meghanada, focusing on the portrayal of Ravana and comparing it with Milton's sympathetic portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost.]

Based on an episode from the Ramayana, Michael Madhusudan Dutt's epic poem The Slaying of Meghanada (meghanadavadha kavya) recounts in nine cantos the death of the great Raksasa warrior and son of Ravana at the hands of Rama's younger brother Laksmana. An examination of Dutt's...

(The entire section is 7849 words.)

Sudipto Chatterjee (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Chatterjee, Sudipto. “Mise-En-(Colonial-)Scène: The Theatre of the Bengal Renaissance.” In Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre, Drama, and Performance, edited by J. Ellen Gainor, pp. 19-37. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following essay, Chatterjee discusses Dutt's contributions to Bengali theater.]

You see before you, as it were on a stage, two actors, the Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu—and believe me, it is a sublime, a solemn, a grand, a wondrous Drama they are destined to act.

Michael Madhusūdan Dutta1

On October 6, 1835 (some historians claim...

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William Radice (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Radice, William. “Milton and Madhusudan.” In Literature East and West: Essays Presented to R. K. DasGupta, edited by G. R. Taneja and Vinod Sena, pp. 177-94. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited, 1995.

[In the following essay, Radice compares Dutt's The Slaying of Meghanada with John Milton's Paradise Lost.]

Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-73) was not as great a poet as John Milton. As an Englishman, I can say this without fear of apparent condescension, for Madhusudan himself would have agreed. In his flamboyant English letters, we find that the only limit to his ambition and self-confidence was set by Milton. After the publication, in 1861, of the...

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Further Reading


Bose, Amalendu. Michael Madhusudan Dutta. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1981, 94 p.

Provides a short reading of the author's life and works.


Ahsan, Nazmul. “Sanskrit Plays in Bengal (1850-72): An Account of the Origin and Development of Modern Bengali Drama.” In Essays on Development of Modern Bengali Drama, pp. 8-19. Khulna, Bangladesh: LOSAUK, 1993.

Traces the presence of Sanskrit texts in Bengali plays and briefly mentions Dutt's Western influences and his contributions to Bengali drama.

Bandyopadhyay, Shyamal. Introduction to Michael...

(The entire section is 269 words.)