In this critical introduction to the Selected Poems an attempt will be made to identify major influences, themes, craftsmanship as well as changes in the themes and the style of the work of Patrick Fernando composed between 1948 and 1982. The Selected Poem, a collection of thirty-seven poems compiled by Fernando’s long-time friend Dennis Bartholemeusz, presents a cross-section of the thematic and stylistic preoccupations of and developments in the craft of Patrick Fernando. While the main focus will be the Selected Poems, wherever it is necessary and possible, examples from the work that has been excluded from the selection would be brought into the discussion in order to substantiate the analysis. An evaluation of where Patrick Fernando stands as a poet writing in English in Sri Lanka will also be attempted. The last point would include an exploration of the validity of the charge often levelled at Fernando that his poetry had failed to address pressing socio-political issues of the immediate postcolonial environment in which he lived in in comparison to other poets of his period like Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, Yasmine Gooneratne, and Jean Arsanayagam.
The corpus of Fernando’s poetry is small. Commenting on his colleague’s work, Bartholemeusz, in “‘Master of the Subtle Stylus’–the poetry of Patrick Fernando”, states, “[Fernando’s] poems were not produced in large quantities as in a factory – the quantitative heresy in any case, which has been a feature of the more barbaric of industrial societies, always amused him – but they stood out for their quality” (35). Seconding his friend’s evaluation of his work in “‘Unhelpful Isolation’: The Literary Correspondence of Patrick Fernando”, Fernando says, “Although I’ve not written a great many poems, the few I’ve produced have engaged me deeply” (ACLALS Bulletin 102). The reason for this, according to Yasmine Gooneratne, was the fact that, “[m]eticulous in the smallest details of diction and significance, … [Fernando] was always re-working, correcting and polishing his compositions” (ACLALS Bulletin 102).
Rajiva Wijesinha in “Ethnic Voice: Lakdasa Wikkramasinha and Patrick Fernando in Perspective” points out that, “[i]n discussion of the Sri Lankan poets in English, the first question that is generally asked is, to which extent is it distinctively Sri Lankan” (17). And if one is to apply this question in evaluating the Selected Poems, the answer would inevitably be that “though some of Patrick Fernando’s work is inspired by local factors, the bulk of it makes clear his Catholicism and/or his classical education” (Wijesinha 17). Not only that, it is indubitable that, despite occasional attempts at coinage and even more rare inclusions of terms that can be specifically classified as Sri Lankan English, Fernando is noted for his almost uniform use of Standard English in his work. However, the fact that Fernando’s poems are marked by his religious affiliations and educational background, instead of rendering them un-Sri Lankan, points to the need to consider them as representative samples of a particular milieu that is an inherent part of the socio-political landscape of the island nation. In the Journal of South Asian Literature, answering a question raised by Yasmine Gooneratne on the relevance of his work to his contemporary society, Fernando states:
My poems are mostly of a personal and lyrical nature, and they don’t express the concerns that our society articulates on a public level. However, the basic values and attitudes they contain, and which you might broadly describe as humanistic, are alive in our society now too. (Wadley 103)
In addition, as in the case of both Metaphysical and Romantic poets in the West before him, though Fernando does not directly refer to specific socio-political realities of his time, his work which is based largely on private experiences deals with a wide variety of themes. However, in considering his work, especially the satirical and the fabulist work, if one agreed with the view Plato had advanced in the second book of the Republic that society was in fact the individual written large, then the issues that Fernando deals with in his work could actually be taken as microscopic evaluations of the major socio-political issues such as individuation of society, aging, unequal division of resources, power hunger, capitalism, and exploitation. Ultimately, though often swept aside to the background by the sheer vitality of the poetic flare of his rather swashbuckling contemporary Wikkramasinha, Patrick Fernando, as many discerning readers have found to their profit, is a poet whose steady glow has its own patent charm.
Born in 1931 to a Catholic middleclass family on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, Patrick Fernando’s making had undeniably been influenced by the colonial heritage of Sri Lanka. The differences in the themes and craftsmanship of the poetry of Fernando (1931-1982) and his contemporary Lakdasa Wikkramasinha (1941-1978) illustrates two ways in which poets of the period to which they belonged had dealt with that often troublesome legacy. Unapologetic of his roots, Fernando’s selection of themes as well as craftsmanship had undoubtedly been shaped by two major factors: the English medium classics-based education he had received as a child of pre-Independence Sri Lanka that stressed the importance of classical values such as rationality, moderation, etc., and his religious affiliations –although his critical faculties were intact, he was a devout Catholic. While his contemporary Wikkramasiha’s work overtly dealt with socio-political issues such as exploitation, heritage, and identity, Fernando wrote about life in general or what these days one may with trepidation call universal issues such as growing up, love, aging, transience of life, religion, death, and the conflict between man and nature. Most of the time the subjects of his poems were people, things, and places the poet had been in close contact with. Significantly, Fernando’s work does not make overt references to milestones in socio-political histories of either Sri Lanka (the Independence, 1971 JVP uprising, rise of the LTTE, introduction of Free Market Policies, etc.) or abroad (the World War, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall). In explaining his universalism to Gooneratne, Fernando states:
A Ceylonese writing to be read by anybody anywhere cannot move into a field that is exclusively Ceylonese, or ‘oriental’. Perhaps this partly accounts for the fact that my own work is mostly of a personal and lyrical kind. I am taking a road where the problems inherent in my situation are least insurmountable. It also partly explains why my idiom, fields of reference, and even themes are not specifically Ceylonese. Biblical literature, Christian traditions, and Greek and Roman mythology offer a wider range of communication for my purpose, than that offered by specifically local fields. (Wadley 104)
Yet, given the socio-political context of the post-Independence Sri Lanka, his choice to write poetry on Biblical and classical themes/subject matter in Standard English, in itself, can be construed as a blatantly political act. Fernando’s preoccupation with “Ceylon’s Western classical heritage”, according to Gooneratne is due to the “resurgence of a national spirit based chiefly on the lines of narrow provincialism” (ACLALS Bulletin 97). Challenged by this sudden change in the socio-political conditions of the country, “Patrick”, his colleague Yasmine Gooneratne states, “felt himself one of a company of persons who had, by virtue of their education in English and the Western Classics, inherited the duty of passing into the wider society of the land the humane values of Western civilization” (ACLALS Bulletin 97). However, she is quick to point out:
Not that the same or similar values are absent in Ceylon’s indigenous oriental traditions. But lacking proficiency and training in Sinhala, Tamil, Pali, or Sanskrit literature, students such as Patrick who were Christian or Catholic, and intensely educated in English, had neither immediate access to such values nor any inclination to adopt them. (ACLALS Bulletin 97)
Fernando’s work, Gooneratne states, “can be read as the fruit of his desire to release into contemporary English-writing in Ceylon … his own sense of the richness of Western spiritual experience both classical and Christian” (ACLALS Bulletin 97). Hence, it is tragically ironic that it is the very “richness of Western spiritual experience both classical and Christian” that denies many post-1956 Swabhasha-educated Sri Lankan writers and readers of poetry written in the English language in-depth access to Fernando’s poetry.
In addition, Gooneratne believes that Fernando makes an attempt “to marry in art (as Yeats had done in Ireland) the myths of classical literature and the realities of contemporary life” (ACLALS Bulletin 98). Therefore, as M. I. Kuruvilla in “The Poetry of Patrick Fernando” points out, for a proper evaluation of Fernando's poetry, it is essential to consider both “the complex imaginative materials made use of by the poet and the complexities of thought and feeling communicated through the imaginative material, the objective framework of his poetry (47). As pointed out in the thesis, a closer reading of a few of his works alludes to some of the pressing concerns of his time. In “The Fire Dance” Peter the apostle to whom Jesus had entrusted his flock sees the “withered fingers” of the witch next-door unravel before his “startled eyes” the “illusion” he “wove” (28). Consequently, his “hopes of throne and power” are “split in the backyard of … [his] shame” (29-30). As in “Pictures for the Chapel of the Passion”, apostles in “The Fire Dance”, too, are depicted as being power hungry; this is a condition observable in many of the henchmen of modern politicians, too. Biblical Peter’s shame could very well be due to the fact that he had not stood up for Jesus when he was accused of impiety and hubris by the high priest of the Temple. Significantly, the reason for his shame could also be the fact that he had not been an ideal shepherd to the flock entrusted to him by his teacher. Then, if one reads Peter with what Gooneratne assumes to be the driving force behind Fernando’s poetic preoccupations in mind, one may interpret “The Fire Dance” as an implicit criticism on the socio-political situation of Ceylon in 1950s. Peter, in this light, can be read as metaphor for the politicians who took over from the British who let their masters down by giving into the nationalist movement. Commenting on the metaphoric implications of Fernando’s poems like “A Wise Bird” and “The Wise Owl”, Bartholomeusz, in “‘Master of the Subtle Stylus’ – the poetry of Patrick Fernando”, states:
As the world he has known and understood so well began to fall apart around him, his poetry became darker more sardonic, the pessimism more and more bleak. He became more aware of the murderousness behind the mask of the benevolence and wisdom of the politicians. (38)
A new stanza is added to and some words are changed in “A Wise Bird” in the creation of its darker successor “The Wise Owl”. In the new version the owl is more sharply focused on:
With rough, dun feathers, heavy shoulders,
Thick short legs and beak so curved
Inwards, he might eat himself for shame (5-7)
“The rhythms of the new stanza are clogged and harsh. The clashing stresses, the stumbling monosyllables and thick consonants, which slow the line down, enact the clumsy movements of the creature” (Bartholomeusz 40). In the light of Bartholomeusz’s earlier statement, it is not hard to imagine that Fernando might have used the murderous owl as a metaphor for a coarse and corpulent politician who in “the East” is an “abominable omen” (12).
Analyzing the development of Fernando’s work Bartholomeusz posits, “Though the habit of classical allusion, the overt classical presence, recedes in the later poetry, the dry, ironic classical light becomes stronger” (43).
The list of other possible influences on Fernando’s work include diverse sources such as poetry of Metaphysical poets, Neo-classicists, Romantics as well as of some 20th century Modernists. Specially, the influence of the poetry of W. B. Yeats on the themes and craftsmanship of the work of Patrick Fernando is undeniable. Some of Fernando’s explorations into the theme of love reflect the unabashed celebration of sensuousness inherent in the work of Donne and Marvell. Interestingly, similar to the work of Romantics like Wordsworth, many of Fernando’s poems are about unsung people and things in nature. In addition, his satirical poetry embraces the classical/neoclassical concept of the philosopher-poet as the gadfly of individual/ social consciousness.
Due to the much-felt scarcity of a detailed analysis of the work of Patrick Fernando, the greater part of this paper would be dedicated to a thematic exploration of the poetry of this remarkable Sri Lankan poet. The thematic evaluation would be immediately followed by a shorter section on Fernando’s craftsmanship. The length of the second part of the paper is simply an indication of the writer’s lack of expertise in doing justice to the topic under discussion and not in any way a reflection of a deficiency in the artistry of Fernando’s work.
As in all great literary work, past and present, the human lot in its labyrinthine complexity is one of the main themes of the work of Patrick Fernando. Looking at Fernando's poetry on the human condition in general, “For a Boy of Eight” is about the process of growing up. The boy has killed a honeysucker by accident and seeing his son’s bewilderment and pain at what has happened the father/narrator wants to rush to his rescue and comfort him by saying that the boy has meant “[o]nly to slightly maim it [the bird] so he could/ Catch and rear it for its own good” for the hedge where the bird had frequented was the hunting ground of both hawks and owls (9-10). He almost walks over to his son and suggests that the boy should throw the dead bird away and think of catching another the following day, but a memory from his own childhood tells him that his son “wished only to be left alone” in order to come to terms with the traumatic experience (25). In addition he realizes that through “instinctive lies/ And the-good-must-prosper fantasies/ With which … [adults] seek to simplify a child’s perplexity”, they, their “own childhood, / Tangled greenwood, / Mock, starving in the dry” (27-29, 31-33). Growing up, according to Fernando, is something one has to do on one’s own terms.
“Boat Song” that belongs to the 1948-1955 period, too, points to the fact that experiences look “vast” and “tempestuous” in one’s childhood. These exaggerated spatial and temporal perceptions, according to Fernando, add a magical quality to one’s childhood occurrences. Trying to analyze such experiences through adult reason is a futile act, for, as Fernando in “Songs for ‘R’” points out, reason itself is fickle; it often says “[y]es / And later No” (3-4). Reason, as young Fernando suggests in this poem, kills spontaneity, so what one has to do in order to enjoy life’s bounties is to follow the epicurean philosophy of carpe diem. (Fernando’s attitude towards the prominence given to reason in modern society will be dealt with more extensively towards the end of the first section of this analysis.)
“To Isabel”, in contrast, is a Yeatsean reaction to growing old. Aging, according to the narrator, cooled the turbulent streams of desire and love so that they end in a “still lake / Whence they can find no outward road” (7-8). Around this still lake trees grow “to the height of fear”; these tall trees of fear cut off light and drive away anything that is lively and colourful (10). Only “the wise reflective owl” remains and thrives in the gloomy wood of age. The wisdom the narrator and his Isabel have acquired in their old age allows them to understand their condition; however, that has not made it possible for them to forgive their bodies for their betrayal. So the narrator, wishes that he has “died at forty” and Isabel at thirty-five (1).
“Decline of Aspasia” which recalls Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Among School Children” strongly also deals with the transience of beauty and the trials and tribulations brought on by aging. Those who are young as in Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” are involved in satisfying their flesh: “First we dance, then we dine, then we go to bed” (13). Even a woman like Aspasia, the beautiful and intellectually-gifted mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles, if she is aged would have no place in such a community. With the onset of old age Aspasia is swept aside to the fringes of the social world she used to dominate, so she sits with only the pictures of people she used to know for company. Like many neglected masterpieces “on which / The paint had cracked in the galleries of Rome” she sits “alone, stretching her wrinkle-weathered feet / Quivering into loneliness” in her salon scanning “the tracks beaten on her empty palms, / Tracing a descent from Venus’ Mound down where it ends / In a Babel of prophetic lines” (37-38, 18-19, 23-25). The last line of the poem, “[p]oor Madonna of the falling eyelashes”, captures a deep sense of pathos the poet seems to have felt for the plight of this woman which is in fact a representation of the condition of the venerable aged in modern societies.
In “The Poetry of Patrick Fernando”, M. I. Kuruvilla commenting on Patrick Fernando’s poems on classical myths such as “The Return of the Ulysses”, “Aeneas and Dido”, “The Lament of Paris”, and “Oedipus: The Last Days” states:
Structurally he only retells the story, although through the retelling, the original story, very often plain and bare … springs into new life, often with an enlarged living fictive background and characters and with new meaning and significance.
[I]n many of his poems Patrick Fernando relates the ‘inherited past to the present’ and it would appear that the main aim in many such poems is to see a contemporary parallel in the ‘event’ or the story from the past. But the contemporaniety which the poet comes down to from the past – this juxtaposition of the past and the present is also a means for the poet to deal with what is unchanging, permanent in the human condition. (48)
“The Return of Ulysses,” an ironic anglicised interpretation of a Homeric myth on heroism and ideal manhood which belongs to the same period as “Decline of Aspasia,” presents a similar picture of aging. Far from being a joyous occasion, the return has stirred in Ulysses:
A conscience that war had kindly killed and camouflaged,
Memories arose beating full-stretched wings,
As ghosts of murdered men round murderers
Returning through long abandoned streets. (6-9)
Old age, as Fernando has depicted in this poem is a time of painful regrets. More importantly, upon returning, his queen’s loveliness “mocked his own disfigurement/ And Ulysses now longed for war he’d done so much to end” (41-42). His traumatic memories and age have robbed Ulysses of his cherished manhood; consequently, he loses his much-praised reason – both Iliad and Odyssey constantly refer to Ulysses as “nimble-witted Odysseus”, so he yearns to go back to war where he would be able to forget the worries that are debilitating his ability to function in civilian life. Penelope of Fernando’s poem who “in the evening, desiring a more artistic role / Fulfilled the day’s deeper design with its appointed visitors” is closer to Joyce’s Molly Bloom than Homer’s version (29-30). In fact, despite its classical subject matter, the entire poem has something of the world-weary tone of the Modernist in it. In the end those who witnessed the fall of the mighty hero “[w]hen grieving over their god fallen, they gently stooped, / Gathered the scattered bits and reconstructed out of these, / Secure against destruction, a figure less delicate, less divine ( ). There is no room for Homeric notion of heroism in today’s society. Yet, this realization does not lessen our desire for the heroic; therefore, we of the modern era make do with our action heroes, actors, and sportsmen who are “less delicate, less divine”.
Not only intellect, beauty, and brawn but revered justice (in the way Plato meant), too, suffers most terribly due to the unforgiving nature of passing time and fate as pointed out in “Oedipus Solitary”. As an aged man “[i]mpaled upon the tall unbending point of memory” Oedipus recalls his youth and realizes that he has achieved nothing in life – everything he has been proud of as his achievements have always been fated to happen to him (1). While he lay anguished due to this realization others find joy “rolled / Into a ball in the grip of a child’s pink palm” (8-9). Fernando in this poem also suggests that efforts to trace “a heritage / We did not leave behind” would invariably open a proverbial can of worms (20-21). What he challenges through Oedipus’ tragedy is the classical concepts of arête (excellence) and kleos (a name that lives after one’s death). In the end, those who engage in quests to achieve these qualities would most likely find that:
Of all experiences of the spirit in the flesh
Have left no trial, inspired no hope, not even fear,
Thrust beyond the world of things
That matter here. (23-27)
Ultimately, the world with all its ambitious inhabitants would come to a crashing end when the Boy Zeus became tired of play and tossed it aside. The poem echoes the pessimistic classical notion that man is nothing but a plaything in the hands of gods.
Significantly, at this early stage of his life, regular references to nihilistic experiences found in most of Fernando’s poems discussed so far can plausibly be taken as evidence of the young poet’s experimentations with Modernism rather than an innate nihilistic tendency in his psyche. At the same time, it may be equally true that Fernando’s modernist experimentations are born out of a sense of displacement generated by a society in transition.
Interestingly, in “Smiling at Grief” Fernando offers a somewhat problematic solution to the constant stream of upheavals faced by man. In it the poet posits that life’s experiences and their resultant joys and sorrows must be taken as the foundation of one’s life and actions. Once in a while one might crash into the museum of one’s mind where long forgotten memories are stored, but the associated joy or grief would once again lift one up and return one to the land of the living. This specific poem is based on the classical belief that once one is dead one loses the ability to feel and becomes a mere wreath of what one has been prior to death. So, through this poem Fernando points out that the very ability to feel grief and joy, no matter how fleeting and treacherous they are, is a cause for joy as it points to the fact that one is after all alive.
In contrast, nature seems to stand untainted by the human condition. “Hunting Hawk” (1956-1970), paints an awe-inspiring picture of a wheeling hawk, the very “[e]mbodiment of idleness”, that is immune to decay and sorrow in contrast to the men toiling on the ground to make ends meet. The hawk seems to be living a life untarnished by things earthly until he comes down to snatch a field mouse hidden in the straw. However, the moment of contact between the heavenly and the earthly is so fleeting, that it fails to register in the mind of the boy who has been observing the hawk. However, in “Life and Death of a Hawk”, composed much later in life, Fernando revises his view on nature as incorruptible and includes the hawk, too, in the cycle of corruption and death. Hawk, the very ambassador of majestic and mysterious nature, deigns to snatch a chicken from a lowly kitchen yard and is shot for that. The carcass of the lone lord of the sky is left hanging on a branch unceremoniously dripping from all his vents as a lesson to others of his kind. Nothing escapes the sway of the Three Sisters.
As he grew older Fernando seems to have become more and more reflective, and even pessimistic. “Meditation over Five Graves” is an extremely nihilistic poem that denies any lasting measure of happiness to mankind no matter what an individual does. In the first stanza the poet presents a pair of lovers who “[e]ach loved and well fulfilled the physical intent” (6). “But with the cruel change their bodies underwent / Their souls were hurt and love gave up and died” (7-8). Even the relationship between the seemingly happily-married pair in the third stanza was just a “formal matrimonial knot, a social breeding pact, / Which they by loving least, always maintained intact” (15-16). In the next grave lay three sisters “virgins all – laid out immaculate in lace” (18). While they were alive, they had “purity and prudence with charm and social grace” but they “scorned unquietness of the flesh with crude facility / to kill a hundred burning hearts” (22, 23-24). However, now that they are dead their “perseverance” seems nothing but pride (25). The marble angels standing over the graves of these three women are compared by Fernando in true Marvellean fashion to “their enlightened spirits, sad at the vacant marriage bed” (26). The fourth grave contained the earthly remains of a young man who had loved a girl that had “panicked in his sunshine” and left this “soul contained in flesh and blood for some untroubled god” (30, 33). People may criticise the young man for pining over “a silly girl who might have been at school” forgetting that even “great Solomon forgot his wisdom for a slave, / And lovely Venus lay entranced in the arms of a crippled knave” (35, 36-37). The last grave was of a poet who wrote much on the theme of love who “though versed in love … lacked the thing itself” (44). In death “his soul is restored in primal innocence, / And understands regretfully that love in the abstract sense / Brings little to a man by way of human tenderness” (45-47). Hence, he “yearns to walk on earth again and fill the emptiness” (48). Patrick Fernando in “Meditation over Five Graves” seems to illustrate the general hopelessness of the human condition. According to the vision propagated by the narrator of the poem, whatever a human being does, ultimately his/her fated lot is wretchedness. Incidentally, this is the very worldview promoted by all Greek tragedians from Aeschylus to Euripides, too.
A much mature Fernando revisits the theme of the conflict between freewill and predestination in “Oedipus: The Last Days”. In the earlier poem “Oedipus Solitary”, human beings do not have any agency. Influenced by the changes that seemed to be taking place in the position of the Catholic Church on the issue of human agency in the 1970s, Fernando in this poem portrays an Oedipus that seems to have a choice. Oedipus, according to the narrator, could have escaped with just the accusation of a “faithless lover” flung at him; however, his heroic disposition - which one may say was his by fate - would not allow him to take the coward’s way out. As his reward, irrational fate and blind law strings “[i]nto a ponderous biting garland for his continuous wear; / Impetuous innocence twisted into public wrong” (18, 19-20). However, in the end the fallen hero goes to Athens, the very seat of human reason and justice where “motive alone defined the deed” where he would be cleansed of his accidental sins (23). Yet, according to Fernando it is the gods who wish Oedipus to be cleansed of his sins; hence, one may once again argue that Oedipus’ decision too happens according to fate. In the end, what man may self-importantly project as human agency is in fact nothing other than divine will. God, according to Fernando is one step ahead of man every step of the way.
A close reading of Fernando’s use of the Biblical myth (“Adam and Eve”, “The Exile Ends”, etc.) and classical myths (“Oedipus Solitary”, “Oedipus: The Last Days”, etc.) shows that the poet sees parallels between the way the condition of mankind is depicted in the Bible and in the classical myths. Like Oedipus, the original man and woman had in them the tragic flaw (hamartia) that led to their fall and exile. They themselves and their descendents are tainted by a sin that has been intended from the very beginning to be their legacy. The damned in both myths had two options available to them. According to the Bible Adam and Eve could have chosen to be forever damned or find God/Jesus. In the case of Oedipus, he could have just killed himself or met Theseus, the legendary king of Athens to get his sins cleansed. Adam and Eve as well as Oedipus conform to the norms and values of the established order by going through a ritual of sin-cleansing and as a reward they are re-embraced into the folds of divine love.
Transience of life and inevitability of death is another theme that seemed to have fascinated Patrick Fernando throughout his relatively short career as a poet. In “Songs for ‘R’”, one of the earliest examples of Fernando’s work, the narrator, presumably in an outburst of youthful passion, proposes to the young woman the poem is addressed to to overlook the bleaker outcome of the passage of time in favour of satiating the immediate needs of the flesh. The woman in “A Symphony of Flowers” – a poem that belongs to the same group of poems as the above - has given into the demand of the lusty black bee and allowed it to wallow in her “yellow pollen womb”– the comparison of the sexually insatiable man to a wallowing pig that lacked the all-important classical quality of moderation is unmistakable (17). In the end, unlike her younger self she has no “time and desire for flowers” (19). Out of convention, she bids “the gardener cut the freshest blooms / For the marble bowl upon the mantelpiece” (22-23). She herself waits for “the paramour the evening would usher, / To drain her lovely florescence” (24-25). Like in Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, upon the woman’s death only the narrator seems to remain at her graveside recalling different stages of her life and contemplating the fact that her body is ultimately going to be food for worms and roots as he strew flowers on the coffin that is being lowered to its final resting place. Yet, cycles of nature continue despite the impact her death has on the narrator illustrating the triviality of a single life in the face of the entire cycle of life.
In “Meditation over Five Graves”, death is comfortingly compared to a female bird building a nest with the straws which are really the bodies of the dead. The dead find pre-eternal rest in the nest of death. The narrator contemplates the occupants of the five graves who had lived varied lives but shared a common interest in love. Still, death had struck each one of them down irrespective of whether they loved or not. In “Funeral Arrangement” (1956-1970) Fernando readily highlights the pervasive fear of death as a common human condition. Death involves a lot of euphemism and signs of death and decay are often hidden by makeup and flowers. Those who are old philosophize over the death of a much younger person in order to mask their own fear of impending death. No one is ready to accept the reality of the “winding sheet” being consumed by scavengers that roam about at night, so no one is willing to answer the child’s question about the whereabouts of the jackal that night (12). Instead, the narrator wishes that “some distant uncle would commence / To argue loud why must the tithes be fixed and paid” and distract them from their current disturbing thoughts (13-14). “A Fallen Tree”, another poem of Patrick Fernando on the theme of the unpredictability of life, reminds the reader that death may strike even the greatest at the prime of his/her life: “A great tree groans and falls, that overlorded all, / Being taken strangely ill and dead before the next season” (2-3). “The onomatopoeic word ‘groans’ … takes us to the mind of the great tree, makes us share its own dismay” (Bartholomeusz 35). “But soon the wood, perhaps in pity or pride, / Shrouds the corpse” and the memory of the great loss loses its sharp edges with the passage of time (5-6). The theme of transience of life is more poignantly discussed in “Fall and Winter (Vermont 1971)” composed by a Fernando who himself had been approaching middle age at that time. Autumn/ middle age is compared to a monarch who briefly reigns before the onset of winter/old age and death. Surrounded by the beauty of the season, the narrator feels that he and autumn have joined forces against the ravages of time – “we achieved / Unity – for so it then appeared” (14-15). But with the arrival of winter the narrator is made rudely aware of his self-deception; his companion who gloried in the autumnal bounties has lost much of her charm: “[i]n the ascetic rites of snow and ice/ … [her] eyes dim their flame … [and her] speech, controlled and slow, / Moves with deliberation in a quiet reflective voice” (33-35). Devoid of bodily strength and deprived of desire that warmed them in their middle age, the only thing that is left for the pair is to remain the rest of their earthly life like two wise owls reflecting on their past and present.
“The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife”, one of Fernando’s earlier poems, attempts to illustrate the impact of death on a different social stratum. The closeness the fisherman’s wife has felt towards her husband makes her incapable of “with simple grief / Assuage [the sudden] dismemberment” of their relationship(34-35). Still, like in his other poems on death, life goes on even after the death of a dearly loved husband. “Once more the flamboyante is torn, / The sky cracks like a shell again” (39-40). As stated earlier, Fernando’s understanding of the nature of life is shaped by both the Bible and Greco-Roman classics that stress accepting one’s lot and doing nothing in excess. His craftsmanship shaped by these perceptions has served Fernando quite well in his work dealing with the socio-political milieu to which he belonged. However, quite understandably the same resources fail to do full justice to Fernando’s gift in the context of “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife”. Taken as a statement on death in general, the poem has a matchless grace generated mainly through the careful use of language. However, when one reads the poem with one eye on the context, the august diction and the mater-of-fact tone customary of Fernando’s work make the fisherwoman’s grief feel unnaturally restrained. Lakdasa Wikkramasinha in “The Cobra”, on the other hand, allows a man similarly circumstanced a fervent outburst over the tragic death of his “woman Dunkiriniya, / the very lamp” of his heart (12-13). The use of the term “my woman” by Wikkramasinha instead of the institutionalized middleclass word “wife” brings out the depth of the union between a man and a woman bound by bonds that go beyond those sponsored by the anglicised institution of marriage.
However, Fernando regains his stature as a true and brilliant poet of the conservative upper middleclass in the way he deals with the death of his own son in the “Elegy for My Son” composed in 1982 just before his own death. According to Yasmine Goonaratne in her web article “Critical Insights into a Poetic Legacy”, in this poem, Patrick Fernando who was “a devout Roman Catholic in addition to being a classicist, seeks some meaning, some divine intention, in the death of his son.” A classical elegy, utterly suited for such a pursuit, is a metrical form that has three stages: the lament, the praise and the consolation. In this poignant elegy, Fernando compares his son to a tree and himself to a gardener and laments over the sudden inexplicable death of a young robust tree. Whenever he stood “in the empty place, thoughts/ Brandished wildly sigh and sing in memory” (15-16). However, the ultimate conclusion Fernando draws from his endeavor is that he was “the tree that’s gone, / That tree and … [him] being one” (21-22). Unlike in the case of “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife”, this time both the augustness of the diction in comparing his youthful son to a strong young tree and the suffering yet reflective and restrained tone unerringly match the context of the subject matter.
It is noteworthy that Fernando is not only about doom and gloom. He captures different aspects of love movingly in his poems on love. “Adam and Eve”, one of Fernando’s earliest poems, as the title suggests is on the first ever love story according to the Bible. Written by a young man yet untainted by bitter experiences of life, the theme of this poem is how youthful love between two people matures into a much meaningful understanding with the passage of time. “There was no call upon … [Adam’s] mind, / To twist in calculation and assess / Intrinsic worth, or strive to find / From beauty seen, unseen tenderness” (7-10). Adam’s mind at the beginning is untainted by calculating capitalism as well as irrational romantic tendencies. Love between Adam and Eve is not instantaneous; like in “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife” it takes time for love to grow between the two. In contrast to the beauty of Leda in Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”, Eve’s “rare momentous grace” is not the type that awoke “the brutes of blood / To take her in their hot embrace, / Ravish her in the foul flesh mud” (11, 12-14). Theirs is a sedate yet fulfilling relationship; hence, Adam unlike many of his descendents is “too filled with joy to cry aloud / Her praises in the public street, / describe her to a hungry crowd” or to engage in vulgar breast-beating (15-17).
The Adam and Eve that the reader encounters in the second part of the poem are much older:
Now seated with his wife in quite reminiscence,
He lives the original trance of beauty first beheld,
Till suddenly an aging man is hurt and strangely moved
To find it was her greying face that thrilled
His waking eyes with such magnificence,
And was all creation what he most truly loved. (21-26)
The use of language in this poem, as indicated by the above section, is strongly evocative of Yeats’ “Among School Children”. But unlike in Yeats’ narrator, a positive change occurs within the man and the woman in Fernando’s poem:
Now with the meeting of their eyes, pale in the westering light,
They feel in unison death’s serpentine advance
And with infinite gentleness a rich complexity
Bloomed in their souls, of love and pain and new insight,
As the last efflorescence is the loveliest on a tree,
Or as the final movement of a dying fire’s dance” (27-32).
“The Exile Ends” (1956-1970) is a reworking of the Biblical concept of felix culpa. According to the Biblical myth knowledge of one’s sexuality/sensuality destroys spontaneity and inculcates inhibitions. However, nature in the form of the wind cannot understand Adam and Eve’s shame in their nakedness; still it playfully lowers a branch of a fig tree so they could pluck leaves to cover themselves. Fernando, in this poem at least, seems to set nature and God as opponents; however, he could also be making an ironic comment about the way the Bible depicts the relationship between God and nature, too. According to the Bible God punishes the fig tree with fruitlessness for assisting Adam and Eve to hide their nakedness. The two miscreants flee towards the western darkness and behind them the gates of Eden “clang / Shut” (14-15). God, according to “Genesis”, stations creatures and a fiery sword that rotated menacingly at the gates of Eden to keep Adam and Eve out. Fernando adds a slight modification to the Biblical story; he banishes the creatures and appoints a “winged watchman” to wield the “sword of fire” and keep an eye on the banished pair (15). God intends the first pair to suffer. However, Patrick Fernando, in true Blake-like manner, claims that once Adam and Eve have developed a relationship based on love they would get over their inhibiting shame over their nakedness. (Blake laments the inhibitions imposed on its flock by the black-clad shepherds of the Christian church in his poem “The Garden of Love”.) According to the Fernando, at that moment of epiphany “the dew drenched gates” would swing open and the winged guard would vanish at the sight of the “naked tenderness/ Like a ghost dissolved by dawn” allowing the two to return to the garden from which they had been so callously exiled (32-33). However, by the time this happens Adam and Eve no longer need God’s Eden for they find that “the garden is” themselves (34)
At a more earthly level, “Elegy for December”, a translation from Medieval Latin, contrasts the season of winter with the fire in the narrator’s heart. The onset winter is depicted as an inexorable force that destroys everything that is green and alive and buries it beneath a thick layer of snow, but the memory of the girl the poet desires keeps his heart warm amidst the “universal cold” (13). In “Songs for ‘R’”, in Marvellean fashion the poet tries to persuade the reluctant girl to let go of her reason and give into his demands when he says:
Come close your eyes and kiss my love,
Do not consult that oracle
Of reason, for it will say Yes
And later No. (1-4)
“Folly and Wisdom” is a poem on two unsuitable people who fall in love and stay together out of love born out of their ignorance. The woman has a “voice of honey … [and she walks] as lightly as a bird”. These qualities offset the smallness of her mind and the absurdity of her thought in the mind of the man whose heart is “not too deep and … easy to be stirred” (2, 3). Even the passage of time has not been strong enough to make the lovers aware of the disparity of their characters. “But wiser men observing this” are “crazily disturbed” by the sight of this mismatched pair (10). These men being “[e]xalted eagles” are unable to understand the earthy bond shared by the couple (11). The eagles “are clumsy at this level, incongruous, absurd” and the “sparrows [the couple] hop and wink and chirp ‘But how could we have erred, / We who in spite of all you say are not yet embittered?’” (12, 13-14). Thus Fernando satirizes the inability of those who have their heads in philosophical clouds to understand matters closer to the flesh and the heart.
However, in most cases with the passage of time only regretful reminiscences of youthful love remains. The tone of “Boat Song” recalls one of Yeats’ poems “No Second Troy”. Memories of his youthful love are still fresh and its demise is “[r]gretted still, however late” in the mind of the much older narrator “[n]ow seated calmly aging in this room” (10, 7). He questions whether he could convince his aged soul which is marked by “scars … [of] … failures” that love is “but a paper twisted for youth’s dull weather” (13, 16).
“Aeneas and Dido” is a resolution between classical and Biblical myths as Aeneas is a product of both classical and Christian worlds. Upon Aeneas’ entrance with the magical branch in his hand the Underworld lights up like Gethsemane, a garden in Jerusalem in which Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his death. The comparison of the Underworld where the “lovely shade of Dido grieves/ Now unconcerned with wrong and right” to Gethsemane alludes strongly to the sense of betrayal Dido must have been feeling (11-12). While Virgil in Aeneid excuses Aeneas conduct on the grounds of his fate-appointed historical burden, Fernando’s depiction of the hero of the classical Roman romance is of an opportunistic scoundrel that has abandoned his lover in favour of greater prospects. Upon reaching Latium, Aeneas “takes a royal daughter’s hand” and Virgil’s epic enthrones him as the founder of Rome “throughout our centuries” (27, 28). Despite its brevity, the poem covers a variety of themes including guilt, death, and how history records human actions.
“Chorus on a Marriage”, a slightly later poem, compares marriage to a Greek tragedy. The theme of the poem is the importance of love and passion to be moderated by reason, ceremony, and courtesy in order to maintain a healthy relationship. The partners in this marriage are the main actors of the play and the chorus according to their traditional role as the mouthpiece of the poet describe the actions of the two and the reasons behind them. The man and the woman had fallen in love and got married. However, “their love sickened, and patiently, / Without a murmur, in a year or two, / [only] a faint awareness stood as a monument” (1-3). There is no clear reason for the death of their love except for the “world’s wild guess” (5). But while it lasted the union of the pair and the short duration of their reign of love was like the marriage of Peleus and Thetis whose wedding had been attended by gods themselves. However, not even the blessings of the happy gods could preserve the love between a mortal and a nereid beyond the first flush of pleasure; so the chances of the love between the ordinary pair surviving long were negligible. With the demise of their love, everything in the kingdom of their marriage would have been abandoned and fallen into disuse if not “passion, the hardier twin, agreed / To undertake the business of the throne” (16-17). “Sometimes so artful and so tender,” passion is “[m]istaken joyfully for love (25-26). And “at worst,” it is accepted as “a pathetic pretender/ Gesturing in some dynastic gap” (26, 27-28). At this point the chorus expect some form of reconciliation between love and passion. Of course such a union would not materialize under the tyrannical rule of Passion that does not want to share its throne with anyone. Hence, in the end Passion controls “the dark omnipotence of soul” so well that “witnessing this plain rebellious good, / Sang secretly the praise of flesh and blood” (42, 43-44). Despite the chorus’s wish for moderation in the rule of passion and reappearance of reason, ceremony and courtesy, the “federated souls” would have continued to flourish in passion alone if not for the intervention of “Time the Baptist” who has already killed love (64,69). Time kills passion, too, and with “this second blow” the kingdom becomes barren of all hopes (73). Now the hero “scans the share list chuckling now and then” and the heroine passes her time “knitting socks for charities” (80, 81). Both seem to be waiting for some god to descend in the dues ex machina and deliver the final verdict that would signal the end of this tragedy and give them peace in death.
“A Symphony of Love”, a poem strongly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems, deals with the theme of innocence and experience. Long ago, the narrator had met a girl child “romping in the garden, / Counting the bees and chasing butterflies / In wild simple mirth” (1-3). The picture Fernando creates is evocative of an Edenic state of innocence. However, with the passage of time both the narrator and the girl have lost their innocence:
Years later, I returned a man, fed strong upon desire,
And watched her tall and fair, moving/ Pensive in the garden, gazing deep
Into the flower tired and spent, feeling the maiden thrill
Of fulfilment and the ensuing chill of beauty doomed
Seeing it torn and bruised, where the black bee
Had wallowed in the yellow pollen womb. (11-17)
At the outset Fernando’s Catholic upbringing shaped by the Biblical myth of Fall seems be to be the root of the theme of the poem. Experiences – especially sensual/sexual experiences not sanctified by God - according to moralists, lead to disillusionment and unhappiness. Yet, the term “wallowed” which refers to excess, points to the much earlier classical concept of moderation to be the more likely source of the theme. Hence, it is not the sensuality of the young woman that is being held as negative by Fernando in the poem. In fact it is the excess of the “black bee” that makes the woman so jaded that she becomes distanced from her warm sensuous nature which at the beginning of the poem has allowed her to live in close proximity to nature. Once distanced from nature, the girl’s only contact with the garden is to get her gardener to cut some flowers to fulfil a social requirement, not for her own pleasure. She herself waits like a flower to be exploited by a series of wallowing black bees. Unlike a flower whose fruiting is an event for festivities, the female after pollination “lay in her room upstairs, / Burdened with the fruitation of the flesh” (20-21).
To conclude this section, evaluating the poems on the themes of love composed within a period of thirty-five years of his poetic career, one could say that Fernando’s position on love had not always remained sunny. His poetry presents a variety of interpretations of relationships between men and women. Nevertheless, as shown by “A Symphony of Love”, in general, Fernando’s treatment of women in love remains refreshingly sympathetic. As he grew older Fernando seemed to have gradually moved away from the theme of love in favour of exploring the themes of religion and the human condition in general. Kuruvilla in “The Poetry of Patrick Fernando” commenting on Fernando’s growing interest in what he called “fabulist” poetry states, “The poems that Patrick Fernando wrote towards the end of his career as a poet showed that he was growing in new directions as though he was not satisfied with the literary forms he had used till then or with technical skill and verbal dexterity of which he was a master” (52).
A theme that appears constantly in Patrick Fernando’s poetry, especially towards the end of his life, is religion. In exploring religious themes, Fernando makes heavy use of what Kuruvilla calls the genre of “Fabulist poetry”. The poems “Kingfisher”, “A Wise Bird”, and “The Wise Owl” follow the logic that everything has its pre-designated place in God’s grand design and/or the Great Chain of Being. “The contrast between the sheer speed of the bird ‘the streak of brown-white-blue’– the compound word compounds the flashes of colour – and the ‘water still as lead’”, in “Kingfisher”, according to Bartholomeusz, “awakens our sense of the miraculous within the ordinary” (41). The kingfisher and the owl may not be the most beautiful of birds but they have their own functions. To begin with, in “A Wise Bird”, the function of the owl which, according to the narrator, was just “an afterthought”, was “to extol/ Those splendid compositions by contrast” (3-4). In “A Wise Bird” Fernando effortlessly juxtaposes nature’s sweet and sunny side with its often hidden cruel side. Human beings are not comfortable with the balefully cruel side of nature and try to rationalize it in order to bring what they consider to be freaks of nature within the bounds of their realities. As the owl goes grotesquely against our notion of a bird “we have simplified him to an abstraction: / Wisdom in the west (Athena wears his eyes), / In the east a dreaded omen” (6-8). Conversely, the owl being a “pragmatist” is “happy to continue as symbol” (9). In contrast to man who is never satisfied with his lot, the owl is even thankful to God and man for “collaborating / from the start for his benefit” and goes on with his life – a wise bird indeed (17-18). Looking at these three poems through the coloured lenses of modern socio-political theories, I believe, one could accuse Fernando of conspiring to preserve the socio-political setting to which he belonged.
“Survivors” is another poem that deals with the mysterious design of nature/God/Fates. Out of the ten chicks only four survive into adulthood. Tragedy has struck but nature/God/Fates compensate by giving the remaining “four white beauties” “matchless grace” (9, 10). “Being beautiful and young / Their very thoughtlessness is capable of charm” (15-16). Once again, one might accuse Fernando of patriarchal chauvinistic mindset in the way he described the young female birds; yet, it is undeniable that the description has its own charm that invites the reader to set aside his/her ideological baggage and enjoy a thing of beauty for its own sake. Throughout the poem the poet effortlessly moves between the world of the bird and that of man. In the last line a prediction is made: the two children who are observing the scene too would “prove time’s wily husbandry” (24). Life is full of ups and downs. According to Fernando, our only salvation is in accepting this fact and learning to appreciate the ever-present beauty around us.
In “Hunting Hawk”, the boy wonders “how a far hawk could/ Espy” (23-24). The hawk being a Heavenly creature is a symbol for God whose omnipotence encompasses all of his creation; nothing escapes his eyes. And if man tries to bend God-created nature against the will of God the repercussions, according to Fernando, would be devastating. In “Ballad of a River” a man tries to tame and bend a river to his will, but it is not to be, at least not for long:
one windy night,
In deepest vigils of the owl,
The river rose and foaming white,
Descended like a murderer. (25-28)
“At dawn the waters shone restored” and “the burnished mirror showed / artistry of a wild brown hawk” (29, 31-32). The “artistry” of the “hawk” may be a reference to divine creation. God by destroying man’s creation that has gone against his will punishes hubris in man.
Hubris is unforgivable even in the loftiest of the links of creation, may it be in classics or in the Bible. The hawk in “Life and death of a Hawk” is the mysterious monarch of the Heavens. Like all the heroes of the classical Greek tragedies, the hawk is unaware of his tragic flaws - insatiable appetite and overweening pride; hence, he transgresses boundaries and as a punishment he is destroyed and his body is subjected to humiliation. Interestingly, some critics have seen the hawk in this poem as a metaphor for tyrannical politicians who receive their just retribution at the hands of those they exploit and terrorize.
Throughout his poetic career Fernando shows a continuing interest in exploring the often contentious relationship between faith and reason. In “‘Master of the Subtle Stylus’ – the poetry of Patrick Fernando”, Bartholomeusz commenting on how Fernando deals with reason in his work states:
From the beginning it is clear that Patrick Fernando’s poetry provides a continuing criticism of the mechanical reason in its varied manifestations, while at the same time as “A Chorus on a Marriage” shows, the poetry moves towards a higher and deeper contemplation of reason, a reason which could retain its contact with the poetic spontaneities and unconscious springs of creation; without it only the chaos of a sterile anarchy. (44)
Reason is playfully denounced as fickle in “Songs for ‘R’” by a narrator who advices a woman whom he is trying to bend to his reason not to “consult that oracle / Of reason, for it will say Yes / And later No” (2-4). In “The Fire Dance” the poet levels a serious accusation on the modern tendency of trying to rationalize whatever one comes across when he states, “But this is not the time for the mind to strive to understand what it cannot explain” (16). Hence, critical faith – a paradox of the highest kind – is the cause championed by Fernando in his poetry.
In “One Flock, One Shepherd”, Patrick Fernando himself attempts to rationalize the presence of evil among mankind even after the said sacrifice of the blood of the Lamb. The answer to the question is that once in a while God allows the “rank predator” that is circling the herd within the fold as “a practical joke” (19, 22). The Joke is on the predator, for upon his entrance it finds that the herd it has been salivating after transformed into “bloodless / Timid creatures gnawing stones and dust” (26-27). So it is reduced to lying beside the Lamb weeping in frustration.
Interestingly, despite being a devout Catholic Fernando is unafraid of questioning the most sacred traditions and beliefs in Christianity. “Many aspects of Roman Catholicism had,” according to Fernando in his interview with Gooneratne in the Journal of South Asian Literature, “undergone significant changes [and] the most important development – specially from the point of view of literary work – [was] wider humanism accompanied by a grater appreciation of personal freedom” (Wadley106). “Certain values and attitudes” in his work, according to Fernando, were “personal reactions against dogmatism and authority overstretching their proper limits, codified morality sapping spontaneity; reaction against a depreciation of the life of the senses and of temporal existence” (Wadley 106).
“Hymn for Good Friday” (1977-1982), adopted from the Latin, is a devotional hymn on Christ’s Passion that stresses human agency. The narrator, addressing Jesus says, “Alone. Death- slayer to death’s Lair / You go, to fall death’s prey” (1-2). The use of that one word – “Alone” - followed by a full stop intensifies the isolation of the Biblical Saviour from the rest of the world in his last hours. According to the Bible, it was Jesus Christ, the one who was sinless, that had to forfeit his life to pay for the sins of the sinful. However, according to Fernando, the burden of payment should not fall on Christ alone. Therefore, the hymn proposes to its reader that they too must atone for their own sins by facing the trials and tribulations given to man in “awareness of … [Christ’s] pain” (14). According to the hymn, one’s acceptance of one’s bitter lot gives the sufferer the right to celebrate Easter as a friend of Christ. In the long run s/he would earn the right to share the kingdom of Heaven with the Lamb, too. The poem ends with a request to Christ to rise after death and raise mankind back to their former Edenic state.
“The Exile Ends” (1956-1970) takes the rebellion against dogma to another level. According to Christian teaching it was Christ’s sacrifice of his life on the Cross that has re-opened the pearly gates of Heaven for mankind. However, in “The Exile Ends”, it is the agency of man that allows man passage back to Eden. God of the Old Testament is compared by Fernando to an unforgiving landlord who does not tolerate any change in the arrangement of his “furnishing” (19). However, to the rage of the sentinel angel, the banished pair “create their lost garden in each other’s arms” despite the triptych or the Holy Trinity as interpreted by the Church that threatens to shed gloom on their bed (23). Hence, Fernando in this poem seems to propose that man’s salvation and restoration are in the hands of man – only by shedding crippling inhibitions and accepting each other for what s/he is would mankind find salvation.
“Picture for a Chapel of the Passion” is another poem that is about human agency. In this poem Fernando looks at Christ’s story from a new angle. Jesus is portrayed as a young rebel out to make a name by going against the established church. Those who became his followers are “poor and young-imagining-/ High places in the king’s bejewelled court” (20-22). According to the narrator the washing of feet has been “made bearable/ Only by the brief rustic comedy” and Peter, has been unable to understand the symbolism of the act (75-76). Judas Iscariot’s relationship with Jesus has always been depicted in church preaching as one tainted by betrayal; Judas was to Jesus what Lucifer was to God. In contrast, Fernando recognizes the necessity of Judas, the traitor, for Jesus to be the savoir and in “Picture for a Chapel of the Passion” the poet celebrates Judas’ contribution to the self-appointed mission of Jesus Christ. In Fernando's version, contrary to the Biblical myth, when Judas finds out about his historically allocated role he chooses to commit suicide. In other words, Judas sacrifices his life to save the life of the Son of God. Ironically, Judas’ selfless act deprives Jesus Christ the opportunity to fulfil his ambition. The narrator asks Jesus whether he envied Judas the death he has been denied. In the end, Jesus is forced to accept “life’s total complexity” (131). Thus, he conforms and become just another common public figure “[i]nvited to dinners by prelates, / Mainstay of the confraternities, / And the delegations of the delegates” (137-39). According to the narrator Jesus wished that he could be his old self and say:
Child, beside this chapel
I see white lilies blooming laced in dew,
Fetch me some, this garland is too formal,
I used to love wild blossoms just like you! (145-48)
But in giving up the youthful passion for power, Christ, now an old man, craves for a death with some distinction, so he would not do anything that would deprive him of a “classical couplet hewn on polished stone, / And bronze memorial in both church and town” (152-53). This need for a “classical couplet”, as history shows, has been the main reason why many good people have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the atrocities that were taking place around them instead of taking constructive measures that would upset the abusive socio-political apple-carts of their societies.
As radical as the two poems “Picture for a Chapel of the Passion” and “The Exile Ends” are, these should not be taken as evidence for any atheistic tendencies in Fernando. In fact the poem “Picture for a Chapel of the Passion” could be read as a warning of what the situation could have been if not for the fulfilment of the prophecy and this realization should then instil gratitude in Christians for the second chance they have been offered. Fernando’s faith in God is so strong that it was unshaken even by the most personal of losses. In the prayer written for the memorial prayer card for his son quoted in Gooneratne’s article “‘Unhelpful Isolation’: The Literary Correspondence of Patrick Fernando” Fernando, in the voice of his departed son, gives voice to his own enduring faith:
Quickly, in the quiet, sapling day
You called me, Lord, and I leaving
All I loved have come, believing
Love prospers best in your will, and pray
Let me admission, like your summons,
Be a matter of love’s impatience.
As pointed out by Fernando in his interview with Gooneratne, his war is with tyranny and dogmatism, and not with Christianity as a faith itself. Finally, taken as a whole, Fernando’s poems do more to uphold Christian faith than abuse it. In fact, looking at the last section of Selected Poems one could say that Fernando’s work obtains a definite austerity shaped by an increasingly religious turn of mind towards the end of his life.
Nature is another theme that has held a great deal of appeal to Patrick Fernando. Poems like “Hunting Hawk”, “Life and Death of a Hawk”, “Kingfisher”, and “Ballad of a River” are examples for Fernando’s interest in things natural that spans the full stretch of his poetic career.
Moving on to another aspect of the poetry of Patrick Fernando, as good as he is in composing lyrics and elegies, one can be forgiven for stating that his expertise lie specifically in his ability to craft superb satire in the style of the Neoclassical School. “The Scholar”, “Death of an Old School Master”, “Severia”, “The way of the Adjutant Stork”, “The Late Sir Henry”, and “The Pompous Has A Place” are some of Fernando’s more well-known satires. As discussed earlier, it seems that as he matured in age as well as in craft, Fernando had moved away from the theme of love in favour of the themes of religion and the human condition. The fact that even these two themes had often been given a satirical twist points to a major ideological change in Fernando’s psyche. Whether this satirical bend Fernando displayed in his latter work was a response to the changes in the material realities of his socio-political milieu or an experiment with a particular genre is open to debate.
Fernando had written several satires on the theme of human follies. His subject matter includes both men and women. Some of his poems on this theme find their subject matter in nature; however, these creatures of nature can be read as metaphors for specific types of men and women. It must be noted that though Fernando’s satire is mostly about people from his immediate environment, he is not reluctant to compose a few satirical portrayals of social evils in true Augustan fashion either.
“Severia”, written between 1956 and 1977 is about the destructive effect of negative human qualities such as vanity. As the vicious nature of fire is hidden by the warmth and the light given off by it, intelligence, or more correctly self- justifying rationalizing, hides the appalling nature of the mental gothic edifices created by man’s vanity, ambition, suspicion, and stubbornness. In the end, generations of negligence of finer human feelings result in making un-human-like human beings. Under such conditions the very act of procreation itself is similar to the mechanical operation of a stone mason cutting blocks of stone to build a mansion. The present occupant of such a macabre mansion is Severia – probably a girl with a sharp-tongue and a gaze that could kill a person dead, as they say. “[H]ers the loyalty / Of improvement and good repair” of the traditions that has been passed down to her by her ancestors (19-20). She is trapped in the ancestral mansion of human follies like a princess in a fairytale. However, “[v]isitors find the gradient [of the stairs] steep, / They never reach the mansion’s tower”, so “[n]o man dare tenant this lady, paying / rent of passion and tenderness. / No children’s voices ring” (27-28, 30-32). Even death is uneasy about approaching the high-walled mansion: “The most death can is wait, lacking / Courage for a step as absolute” (35-36). The character Severia reminds one powerfully of Miss Emily Grierson in A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner.
“The Way of the Adjutant Stork” is a satirical elegy which, according to the narrator, was written upon the event of the long-awaited death of a great-aunt. The portrait is strongly reminiscent of similar portraits composed by Neoclassical poets such as Dryden and Pope. Interestingly, “adjutant” is an executive level position in the military and “adjutant stork” is a great ugly bird of the crane family. Together, the two references give the reader a very unflattering picture of an ugly domineering old woman. The great-aunt’s high-handed monologues are mockingly compare to the “stab, rattle and stab” of the mandibles of a powerful crane that had reduced the narratoer’s cowed mother into uttering “unmeant amens or [be] struck dumb/ At each ‘don’t you agree?’ aimed straight at her” (8,9-10). The family took the great-aunt’s “diamond will … as Heaven’s will: / Marriage forced or loosed and every niece/ Too poor and plain coaxed into a convent” (18-20). Such misery had the old woman inflicted on her kith and kin that everybody has been immensely relieved when she finally “flopped” (49). Though this is a private experience, if one is to apply this experience to society at large, this is the kind of relief the subjects of a tyranny might feel upon the death of a much hated tyrant. In that sense the poem is a warning to those who suffer from megalomaniacal tyrannical tendencies.
It is not only women that are satirized by Fernando as egotistical and power-hungry. “Death of an old School Master” which is not included in the Selected Poems is a satirical elegy which presents an unflattering picture of the fate that awaits male tyrants. The old schoolmaster who used to terrify the narrator and his schoolmates when they were young is at last dead. He no longer evokes fear in them. “Not even his maggot lips can eat into their calm” (10). It is only out of common human courtesy that “wreaths are laid” and a “moving hymn is sung” (13, 14). Upon one’s death “the slow, soft liquefaction” sets in and even its own ghost is unable to identify the body it sprang from and therefore maintains the same aloofness men maintain with their fellow men with the corpse (19). So the immense self-importance on which the tyrant’s ego is founded becomes a sham. How could one be sure of one’s ability to bend others to one’s will when one’s own ghost renounced the body it sprang from upon death?
“The Scholar”, similar to Yeats’ “The Scholars”, is a criticism of meaningless scholarly life cut off from nature and originality. Fernando’s scholar’s only claim to eminence is a pointless pompous eruditeness that qualified every experience with a footnote/quote. His is a second-hand living. This time, to its utter relief, with his death, the scholar’s body breaks away “from the mind’s imprisonment” and “bursts into a song of praise from silent humble clay” (11, 12). At last the body could do something original and worthwhile such as nurturing “with tenderness the buds to break in blossom” and by doing so ransom and redeem the scholar’s meaningless existence (13).
“The Late Sir Henry”, another satirical elegy, is about an aloof self-cantered man who fails to evoke any genuine sorrow in anyone upon his passing. As Sir Henry lies in his coffin “robbed of breath/ And reft of horses, mills and gilt-edge shares”, his daughters have to resort to the aid of eau-de-cologne to bring forth tears “wrung from memories of childhood joy” so that they could maintain an air of grieving (3-4,7). Distinguished guests “speculate / Beyond the meagre margin of mortality” while “[b]ankers, brokers, objective though distraught, / Assesses the impact of the sudden loss upon / Politics, trade, industry, Church and sport” (10-11, 13-15). Others attend the funeral just “to observe how well / Sir Henry had assumed his sudden shroud” (18-19). So majestic is the very appearance of late Sir Henry’s corpse, the narrator finds it is “[u]nthinkable that worm’s brief ministry” would have a hold on this august person (23). Yasmine Gooneratne in her web article “Critical Insights into a Poetic Legacy” states:
We can perceive poetic double-meanings in ‘self-possessed’ and ‘gilt/guilt-edged’. Alliteration … can be easily recognised here too, in ‘bankers, brokers’, ‘good manners for grief’, and ‘sudden shroud’… In every case, these poetic devices enhance the reader’s sense of Sir Henry’s funeral as social ritual, rather than religious rite.
According to Kuruvilla in “The Poetry of Patrick Fernando”, in Fernando’s poetry:
The framework for religious rites as ritualistic practices are set apart by the poet from the ideal standards of religion and morals and man is shown as cleverly mimicking the exterior aspects, the formal aspects of the religious and the social life in order to conceal his real nature directed towards self-centredness and egotism (50).
“Religious orthodoxy,” in Fernando’s poetry is depicted as a factor that “undermines genuine natural impulses” and “produces only conflicts, a sense of waste and unfulfillment” (Kuruvilla 51). Fernando employs irony as the main tool in exploring the “contradiction between inherent traits and acquired plausible manners which often makes us solemn, sanctimonious hypocrites” (Kuruvilla 51). “Obsequies of the Late Antonio Pompirelli, Bishop” is a mock elegy that satirizes the empty ceremonial nature of church rituals that goes against the all-important concept of simplicity behind Christ’s teachings. The narrator’s prized red Siamese fighter fish dies and contemplating his loss he falls into a semi-dream-like state in which he transforms the fish into a bishop and imagines an elaborate funeral being held to mark the occasion. The comparison of the dead fish to a bishop creates bathos. Fernando seems to imply that bishops are arrogant and ruthlessly territorial like fighter fish.
“The Pompous Has A Place” is an ironic contemplation on vanity that borders on hubris. Fernando pricks the inflated egos of the dictator and the archbishop by yoking them together with the neighbour’s turkey cock. The three “[b]ravely bearing the burdens of authority / Medals, cruciate and stellar, tassels, ribbons, hackles, wattle, / Tour with high ceremonial each his territory” (2-4). Coupling “[m]edals, cruciate and stellar, tassels, [and] ribbons” with “hackles” and “wattle” creates bathos. The corrupt dictator and the archbishop have “thick dreams” about “steel and gold” (6). When the turkey cock tours through the backyard in “booming progressions” it evokes fear and veneration in the chicken (9). Looking at the strutting of the turkey cock the narrator is amused but he is also a little sad for he knows that immoderate power surely leads to folly. The poem ends with a warning for those who are conceited: When the turkey, unaware of the limitations to his power, strutted in front of the tiger the same way he had strutted in front of the chicken he would meet with his inevitable destruction. The same idea is echoed in “Life and Death of a Hawk”, too.
“The Lament of Paris”, on the other hand, satirizes how the living give new interpretations to the actions of the dead; they either glorify or vilify the deeds of the dead to suit their own agendas. In the poem Paris, the Trojan prince, tells Helen that upon his death others would say “that it was … [not his] beauty / That rowed the whole of Hellas across the wine-dark sea / But Grecian chivalry” and Helen herself would “with woman’s skill, with flashing tender guile, / Shall in a lovely blanket of lies, weaves … [her] love into …. [Paris’] lust, / And therein lie protected in … [her] husband’s arms” (4, 9-11). The poem is an implied criticism on how facts get distorted due to the exigencies of the victors of a power struggle. It is the winner who decides how the story is going to be recorded. In addition, through Paris’ prediction of what Helen might do, Fernando also criticises turncoats who changed their stories in order to ensure their survival.
Moving on to focus more on craftsmanship, unlike his contemporaries such as the Peradeniya Poets who almost exclusively practiced free verse, Fernando maintains a strong sense of rhythm and rhyme in his work. According to Kuruvilla, Patrick Fernando “is very much like Yasmine Gooneratne in his preference for regular stanzaic forms and traditional verbal devices like rhymes and antithetical contrast” (Navasilu 54). This tendency is pronounced in Fernando’s early work such as “Adam and Eve”, “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife”, “Boat Song”, and “Folly and Wisdom”. His work between 1956 and 1970 is a mixture of free and rhymed verse. Once again, Fernando’s compositions between 1977 and 1982 become more conservative with almost old-fashioned rhyming schemes. During this period Fernando experiments with a variety of stanza forms from rhymed tercets to quatrains, septets, and octaves. A few poems such as “Fall and Winter” and “Meditation on Five Graves” have stanzas of varying number of lines. Still, even in these the poet maintains both internal and end rhyme in considerable portions of his work. For an example, the first stanza of “Fall and Winter” rhymes ababcc while the second and the third rhyme deffg and hihi.
According to scholars like Ashley Haple and Rajiva Wijesinha Sri Lankan writers in English in general explore situations that are unique to postcolonial countries like Sri Lanka in their effort to create in their reader a critical awareness of essentially Sri Lankan realities such as the JVP uprisings of 1971 and 1989 and the War. In representing realities that are innately Sri Lankan using the English language, setting off a clash between native and alien realities that materialize due to the very use of the English language, is unavoidable. However, in response, only a few poets like Lakdasa Wikkramasinha have been able to incorporate native terms and what is called Sri Lankan English in examining socio-political realities that are essentially Sri Lankan with any degree of success. Interestingly, Kavindi Gamage in her web article “Sri Lankan Writers in English” quotes Canagarajah stating that while “Wikkramasinha integrates the discourses effectively with a solid grounding in the native cultural traditions and social context” his contemporary Patrick Fernando who is seeped in anglicised traditions “ignores and overlooks the clash”. Gooneratne, paraphrasing Fernando, states:
[I]n the case of a Ceylonese writing in English in the country – the smallness of the reading public here and the consequent absence, virtually, of a serious critical climate deny him external conditions he needs for developing his own standard and disciplines. He has little incentive for experimentation. (Wadley104)
Both Ranjini Obeyesekere and Chitra Fernando support Patrick Fernando’s claim that in Sri Lanka, English literature, especially poetry, is an exclusive field that does very little to promote radical breakthroughs. Obeyesekere and Fernando in their preface to An Anthology of Modern Writing from Sri Lanka offers the following point as the reason for what they see as the relative dearth of English literary creativity in Sri Lanka:
Unlike in India … in Sri Lanka both the scope and the public for English writing are limited. Indian writers in English, partly because they cut across the linguistic barriers within India itself, do have a larger reading public and a much greater degree of significance as a unifying force in a land of diverse languages, religions and cultures. In Sri Lanka, English does not serve the same function. (16)
Hence the scope for a comparative study among writers who use English for literary activities with regard to their craftsmanship and use of language in order to set up schools is understandably limited. Nevertheless, in “Ethnic Voices” Rajiva Wijesinha states:
Patrick Fernando … is recognizably classical: his poems are carefully wrought artistic creations, his image[s] are highly stylized, the language most emphatically not that of ordinary conversation. Where Lakdasa Wikkramasiha is concerned with describing experience, Fernando is interested in analyzing it … Albeit the manner is classical, he is concerned with the psychological reactions of his protagonists … he is analyzing emotions rather than the principles and policies and mannerisms. (20)
In comparing Patrick Fernando with Lakdasa Wikkramasinha in the same article Wijesinha states:
They [Fernando and Wikkramasinha] hark back to recognizable ‘schools’ of poetry, but at the same time they have their own subtle twists to add, their own intrinsic flavour to disseminate. In no small measure, their success as Sri Lankan poets writing in English is due to their very individualistic manner in which they steer between the traditions that surround them, the varying literary ones of thee West, the varying social ones of the East, the varying linguistic ones found in such profusion in this land. (21)
The poems included in the Selected Poems as pointed out at the beginning are a representative sample of the consistent high quality of the craftsmanship of Patrick Fernando. Fernando, as discussed earlier, is capable of composing a variety of genres of poetry such as elegies, lyrics, hymns, and satires with a great deal of success within his chosen linguistic boundaries. Fernando, quoted by Goonetilake in “‘Unhelpful Isolation’: The Literary Correspondence of Patrick Fernando” says, “My own language is very often a slow footed creature” (95). According to the poet, careful handling of language or discipline “is something intrinsic, a kind of inner tension that holds the work together” (Wadley 103). He also adds that “unless it has discipline to authenticate it, a poem will not survive after its reflection of current taste, its topicality, its innovative significance and the like have subsided” (Wadley 103). However, the numerous and often contentious demands Fernando makes of his language, in my belief, would surely have crippled the creativity of most cotemporary poets writing in English who lack the artistry of this remarkable poet. Expanding his earlier comment on his diction, Fernando states:
I like the language of my verse to include the virtues of spoken language – spontaneity, freedom, rhetorical strength, suppleness and so on as well as virtues you don’t normally find in spoken language – evocative and reflective power, for instance, precision, compact ness and austerity, deliberate experimentation. Within this general aspiration each poem of mine makes its own specific demands its particular discipline. (Wadley 103)
Superlative use of language in “The Return of Ulysses” effortlessly evokes a potent mixture of pathos and bathos in the same breath: “Ulysses sailed home, older, honoured, and demobbed” (3). While “older” and “honoured” were suitable terms in describing the man who had put an end to a decade-long war, the term “demobbed”, a shorter version of the word demobilised, evokes a strong sense of uselessness.
Coinage/collocations introduced by Fernando such as “westering” (“Adam and Eve”), “empetalled” (“A Symphony of Flowers”), and “dispetals” (“Aeneas and Dido”) blend almost effortlessly with the rest of the text while helping to maintain the rhythm and enhancing the meaning of the context. For example, with the use of the coined verb “dispetals” in “Aeneas and Dido” Fernando evokes an image of a lovely flower – Dido – caught in a storm which destroys it. The only noteworthy use of what is called Sri Lankan English in academic circles occurs in “Hunting Hawk” when Fernando refers to an embankment as a “bund” (13).
However, once in a while Fernando’s grand diction handicaps him. As discussed earlier albeit briefly under a different theme, technically speaking, “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife” is a poem that is almost flawless; yet, as patronizing as it may sound, the mater-of-fact tone adopted by the fisherman’s widow in the opening sequence of her rhetorical monologue with her then-departed husband - “Now that, being dead, you are beyond detection, / And I need not be discrete” and her invitation for him to be frank with her – “let us confess / It was not love that married us nor affection, / But elders’ persuasion, not even loneliness” which might have suited a woman of Fernando’s background, sounds artificial coming from a young fisherwoman (9-10, 10-12). This sense of artificialness is further increased by the metaphorical language thrust on the young woman when she says:
At last when Pouring ceased and storm winds fell,
When gulls returned new-plumed and wild,
When our wind-torn flamoyante
New Buds broke, I was with child. (20-23)
However, Fernando partially redeems himself later by making the older and therefore arguably more mature widow describe the closeness that had developed between herself and her late husband in the following way: “You had grown so familiar as my hand” (33). Yet, immediately the poet gives into his background and makes the woman state that she could not “with simple grief/ Assuage dismemberment” of their relationship (34-35). All in all, this poem, despite its superior artistry, fails at capturing the full impact of the pathos generated by the horrifying loss the woman must have felt upon the sudden loss of the mainstay of her life.
Commenting on the highly metaphoric nature of Patrick Fernando’s language Kuruvilla states, “[H]e uses a kind of diction that is different, that is familiar and homely, yet delicately allusive and suggestive. Even when he uses an erudite, learned diction the tone of the verse is colloquial, conversational” (54). Further pursuing this line of thought, Dennis Bartholomeusz, the compiler of Selected Poems, presents a startling theory on the nature of Fernando’s language:
Fernando commanded a language containing the natural rhythms of the best educated international English speech of his day I can think of very few poets writing in the last fifty years who had at their beck and call such a richly natural store of metaphor. This linguistic phenomenon cannot be accounted for in terms of the historical development of English which has become rational, depersonalized, a means of communicating information. Live metaphor is no longer a part of spoken English as it was in Shakespeare’s day, or as it was in the Gaelic that gave Synge the dramatic poetry for his plays. Spoken Sinhalese on the other hand when Patrick Fernando was growing up at the edge of the British Empire was still a rich metaphoric language. The kind of spoken language Patrick Fernando knew as a child with its perfectly natural metaphoric vitality shaped his response to the world and remained a permanent resource when he began to write in modern educated English. (Phoenix 36)
However, Fernando himself in his interview with Gooneratne denies using what others call local idioms in his poetry:
I was born on the coast, I lived there most of my life in close touch with the sea. Those years are very much a part of my present. I’m still greatly moved by the se, it has such varied and irresistible eloquence. The sea and coast aren’t new in my poetry: for instance, “The Fire Dance” was written in the early fifties and “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife” a few yeas later. In “The Fire Dance,” however, I was using the sea mostly for a technical purpose. In “Sun and Rain on the West Coast” I was experimenting with dialogue, more than trying to workout a local idiom. Evolving a local idiom commensurate with one’s literary purpose is not at all easy. I have not come anywhere near it … My verse as a whole has no local idiom; yet I hope, it has personal style. My preoccupation is with the latter. (Wadley 105)
Fernando liberal use of metaphors – whether home-brewed, Biblical, or classical, add several layers of meanings to his poetry. This quality in Fernando makes reading his poetry an intellectual exercise which calls for a degree of sophistication in the reader.
In “The Fire Dance”, the poet works with three metaphors with a decidedly local flavour: the sea (doubt), flames (faith), and the fisherman (mankind). At the beginning of the poem, Peter, one of the apostles of Christ, is one of those seated around the “vast aristocratic fire” of the high priest the night before Christ was crucified (9). Space and time blur when one gazes into the hypnotic depth of a fire. The flames present Peter with a series of images. First, looking at the flames, Peter conjures up the anachronistic image of a dancer: a Barathnatyam performer with henna-reddened fingertips or a ballet dancer with red fingertips. Peter’s sense of dislocation is heightened by “the high-modernist technique of free association” that allows the poet, subject matter, and the reader to transcend spatial and temporal boundaries with ease (Bartholomeusz 36). Next, Peter sees the flames becoming a blossom, evoking nostalgic memories of pleasanter times in his past:
Have I not gazed endlessly at fire we light on shore
- Burning centres of night blossom petelled with crouching fishermen
And huddleing shadows? Have I not seen the cold fear in fire,
When it stepped aside to avoid the predatory wind? And its joy,
Have I not felt it at the hearth at home, where it leaped
And laughed like a child? (11-16)
Once again Peter is brought back to the present by the movements of the Roman soldiers silhouetted by the fire. He is weighed down by the knowledge imparted to him by the witch that his “hopes for throne and power” have been “split in the backyard of … [his] shame” – the collective shame born of betraying the Saviour (29, 30). By the 6th stanza, Christ had already risen from the dead – “The man is now alive who was dead, spiced and embalmed”, yet Peter like the flames still vacillates between faith and doubt for there are “[a]ll these [memories] and many more to mesmerise a dull restless mind / - The endowment to the weak and poor” (40, 43-44). Once again he goes back in time and anticipates being on the sideline witnessing the Passion. Deprived of his right to enter Heaven due to his part in the tragic end of Christ Peter sees that only two options are open to him: “join the crowd and cheer / Or hide my face, ask pardon of my wife and take to the sea once more” (46-47). Yet, Peter knows that with the passage of time the situation would become more conducive to light their “little fires in the shore” (50).The act of lighting fire on the shore is an act of faith and support that connects the fisherman with the shore and guides them home. At another level, the faithful guide those who are at sea ashore by shining the light of faith on them. The poem with its prominent metaphor of changeable shapes of flames elucidates the difficulty of maintaining unshakable faith at all times. Yet, as Peter points out the important thing is to keep lighting fires.
In “The Return of Ulysses” memories of the men Ulysses had killed in Troy arise “beating full-stretched wings” (7). Only someone with a background in classical studies might make the connection between the winged memories and the dreaded winged Furies and that association would help to understand the extreme mental torment Ulysses was undergoing upon returning from the battleground. In “Folly and Wisdom” the lovers are compared to sparrows; they being Aphrodite’s birds are depicted as naturally amorous. In “Survivors” the snatching of a chick by a crow is hyperbolically described as a “dark Plutonian rape” recalling the abduction of Persephone by Pluto which had led to a devastation of life on earth (7). Such was the impact of the snatching of the helpless chick by the raptor on the poet. Later in the same poem, the black rooster that pursues the young hens is compared to a lust-crazed centaur pursuing a group of nymphs.
Hawks are images frequently used by Fernando to suggest majesty and mystery in nature. In “Paul Claudel” the French dramatist Paul Claudel who constantly used his art to promote Catholicism is compared to “a hawk on steady wings, / Flying on and on and on” (3-4). The movement of the hawk in “Hunting Hawk” reminds one of Yeats’ wheeling falcon in “The Second Coming”. Fernando’s description of the bird that is moving so effortlessly up in the sky one moment and then in the next propelling itself towards the earth like a projectile with its “wings outstretched, almost hooked, / Calm as sculpted stone or bronze” recalls the eagle in Tennyson’s “The Eagle” (11-12). Close to earth the lofty bird acquires a decidedly satanic veneer as a “dark unfaltering stranger” (14). There is a paranormal quality in the movements of the great raptor:
Lightning, he crashed on
A heap of straw, wings
Flapped thrice [like magic], and he was gone,
Idling around the sun. (17-20)
In “Ballad of a River”, the restored surface of the pond, like a “burnished mirror showed / artistry of a wild brown hawk” (31-32).
Interestingly, Fernando is quite capable of using a single image to bring out a variety of meanings. The hawk that alludes to positive feelings such as awe in “Hunting Hawk” and “Paul Claudel” becomes a symbol for despair in “Life and Death of a Hawk”. The still body of water that shines and reflects the best of God’s creation in “Ballad of a River” is transformed into a placid lake surrounded by trees soaring to the “height of fear” inhabited by nothing colourful or lively except a wise but gloomy owl in “To Isabel” almost effortlessly by Fernando (10).
In conclusion, the poetry of Patrick Fernando marks an important milestone in the brief history of Sri Lankan poetry written in the English language which is primarily the legacy of an exclusive socioeconomic milieu. Fernando’s success lies in understanding this fact and working within his perimeters. If ever, as in the case of “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife”, he moves into unfamiliar territories, immediately Fernando’s poetry acquires a strained artificial quality. Fortunately, Fernando seems to have been aware of this danger and therefore chose to soar with his hawks up in the rarefied air of Standard English as well as classical and Biblical references in order to avoid being “shot” by critics for trespassing in unfamiliar grounds. Yet, as discussed in detail above, all in all Fernando’s work has touched a wide variety of poetic genres and themes with commendable success.
As a final point, the Selected Poems as the title suggests is a selected collection of the work of Patrick Fernando. As much as one admired the balance and blend of the choices, there are many important poems that this selection, for whatever reason, has not included. Hence, it is undeniable that there is a pressing need for a complete collection of the poetry of Patrick Fernando. Such an attempt while making Fernando’s work more accessible for scholars would also be a fitting tribute to an outstanding poet.
Bartholomeusz, D. “‘Master of the Subtle Stylus’– the Poetry of Patrick Fernando”. Phoenix 1.
Fernando, Patrick. Selected Poems. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.
---. The Return of Ulysses. Kent: Hand & Flower, 1955.
Gamage, Kavindi. “Sri Lankan Writers in English”. <http://kavindislavie.blogspot.com/2010/11/sri-lankan-writers-in-english.html>
Gooneratne, Yasmine. “‘Unhelpful Isolation’: The Literary Correspondence of Patrick Fernando”. ACLALC Bulletin. Seventh Series, No. 2 (1985).
---. “Critical insights into a poetic legacy” <http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/09/16/mon01.asp>
Kuruvilla, M. I. “The Poetry of Patrick Fernando”. Navasilu 5.
Obeyesekere, Ranjini and Citra Fernando. An Anthology of Modern Writing From Sri Lanka. Arizona: Arizona UP, 1981.
Wadley, Susan, ed. “Yasmine Gooneratne Interviews Patrick Fernando.” Journal of South Asian Literature. Vol. 12. No. 1-2. n.p.: Michigan State UP, 1976.
Wijesinha, Rajiva. “Ethnic Voice: Lakdasa Wickramasinha and Patrick Fernando in Perspective”
Wikkramasinha, Lakdasa. “The Cobra.” The Grasshopper Gleaming. Colombo: n.p., 1976.