The contender

By Sharon Millar

Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet, by Anthony de Verteuil
Litho Press, ISBN 976-95008-8-7, 392 pp

Many of us secretly desire to be plucked from obscurity — perhaps to live again in time to come, through the pen of a meticulous researcher, someone willing to sift through the dust of lives gone by, restoring and presenting another era through time’s forgiving sepia filter.

Fr Anthony de Verteuil spends his days doing just that. An astonishingly prolific writer, since the early 1970s he has been publishing detailed historical volumes with a speed and tenacity that are truly admirable. His specialty is the history of French Creole families in Trinidad, but he has written extensively on diverse aspects of the formative nineteenth century. With a light and engaging prose style, de Verteuil is a delightful narrator, painstakingly presenting the minutiae of lives past in a way that is both entertaining and instructive. With a heavy reliance on oral history and a hearty sense of humour, his material is seldom pedantic, and it is testament to his indefatigable research that both Trinidadian historians and those of the wider region turn to his works as reliable references.

I picked up Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet with all this in mind. This is not the first time de Verteuil has turned his attention to Devenish (1819–1903); in 1986 he published Sylvester Devenish and the Irish in Nineteenth Century Trinidad. Despite his Irish heritage, Devenish’s social and familial history was strongly French. A prominent member of Trinidad’s French Creole community, he was closely linked by family to the de Gannes family, the Le Cadres, the Begorrats, and the D’Abadies. In this new book, however, de Verteuil’s main concern is Devenish’s poetry and his prowess in verse. Interestingly, de Verteuil recently released another book examining the writing of another prominent French Creole: Leon de Gannes: Trinidad’s Raconteur (2008). Structurally, both books are similar, beginning with a detailed family history then presenting the subject’s original writing. (Devenish’s verse is presented in both the original French and in English translation.) De Verteuil must be lauded for making these literary offerings available to the wider public, as they contain valuable insights into nineteenth-century life in Trinidad and provide additional reference points for the local literary tradition of that dynamic century.

But the subtitle of Sylvester Devenish begs further analysis. De Verteuil makes a brave leap into the literary gayelle, describing Devenish as “the most outstanding poet Trinidad has ever produced.” By throwing this hat into the arena, he opens Devenish’s work to a whole new level of analysis. The literary and cultural traditions of nineteenth-century Trinidad have been the subject of much animated discourse. This intellectual landscape cannot be examined without recognising emerging new literary voices of the era. Writers such as the black intellectual John Jacob Thomas (Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, 1869) and Michel Maxwell Philip (Emmanuel Appadoca, 1854) made their mark on the literary climate of post-emancipation society. Joining this clamour in the latter part of the century were oral and written accounts of the newly arrived East Indian indentured labourers, whose stories appeared in chronicles like Journal of a Voyage with Coolie Emigrants from Calcutta to Trinidad (1859), a documentary account by Captain and Mrs Swinton. It is only by acknowledging the changing literary paradigms, which reflected ongoing changes in the rapidly evolving society and the movement towards a dynamic national voice, that we can begin to pull the real worth from de Verteuil’s (and Devenish’s) work.

Devenish appears fully fleshed and bounding with energy in the book. This seemingly unstoppable man influenced Trinidad society in many ways. His work as Trinidad’s first surveyor general took him to every nook and cranny of the island, as he literally mapped the colony’s topography. Much of his poetry reflects this strong bond with the landscape. In the nineteenth century, poetry was a ubiquitous part of the French Creole social calendar. Landmark events such as births, weddings, and even funerals were marked by verse, which was often sung. When the price of cocoa was high and the French Creole planters were flush with the proceeds, their children were sent to France to be educated, the girls going to finishing schools and the boys to well-respected establishments where they received a solid education in the classics. Devenish was no different, and had the benefit of an excellent education in France. “While in Paris, Sylvester made the acquaintance of the authors Jules Janin and Honoré de Balzac,” de Verteuil tells us. Not only did he meet them, it would appear that they were happy to encourage his literary endeavours.

Balzac . . . and Janin procured for young Devenish — (who needed to earn money to help support himself at the university) — some journalistic work, particularly that of critical appreciation of the theatre; and this led to his introduction by intimate friends of both, to Chateaubriand . . . at Paris, and Beranger, songster, at Tours. Even up to old age Syl remained fascinated by Beranger’s simple catchy tunes.

Perhaps these eminent connections influenced de Verteuil in his assessment of Devenish’s poetry:

Indeed, so outstanding, even dominant, was he as a poet from 1850 to 1900 with no equivalent figure either then or in the present (if we are to except one or two of our calypsonians who might possibly be happy to be classified as poets) that I have had no hesitation in entitling this book as — Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet.

The sweeping range of this statement does a disservice to both Devenish and de Verteuil. Poor Devenish has a large claim to live up to; and de Verteuil runs the risk of appearing partisan by not giving a nod to the substantial literary legacy that Trinidad can lay claim to, a century after Devenish’s death. Derek Walcott hails from St Lucia, but much of his work was born in Trinidad. To ignore the Nobel laureate’s presence is akin to ignoring the elephant in the room. It also fails to acknowledge the literary voices that surrounded Devenish in his day.

“In the nineteenth century, poetry was a ubiquitous part of the Trinidadian French Creole social calendar. Landmark events such as births, weddings, and even funerals were marked by verse, which was often sung”

Despite his sweeping comments, de Verteuil is aware of Devenish’s obsession with rigidity of form, and the fact that he was criticised on occasion “as having the same boring rhythm.” Devenish was an acolyte of Nicolas Boileau, the seventeenth-century French poet, who was himself greatly influenced by Horace. Boileau was preoccupied with maintaining impeccable regularity of his verse. For Devenish to carry on in this mode almost two hundred years later was at odds with literary trends in France. De Verteuil acknowledges that “French poetry in Trinidad lagged behind the times. Even in the 1840s, there was the old adherence to the use of periphrasis and of cumbrous mythological allusions.” But Devenish was comfortable in his regular rhythmic patterns for many reasons, not least of which was his propensity to sing his verse. In fact, many of his poems have an early extempo feel, and Devenish’s sense of humour often takes the form of picong or mamaguy, uniquely Trinidadian varieties of teasing or heckling.

For much of Devenish’s lifetime, Trinidad’s French Creole community was under social, economic, and cultural assault from the anglicising influences of the British colonial government. The literary scholar Selwyn Cudjoe, in his book Beyond Boundaries (2002), notes that “in many ways the French Creoles used their poems/songs to attack the anglicising tendencies and other perceived threats that were rampant in the society from 1870 through the 1890s.” Cudjoe also takes a closer look at Devenish, or “Papa Bois”, as he was known throughout the country because of his surveying work, which took him deep into the interior of the island. Devenish’s great contribution, Cudjoe suggests, lies in the sheer volume of his work that remains to give insight into the society of the time, and not necessarily in the claim that he was a proficient poet. He was, Cudjoe argues, “neither a great nor a brilliant poet.”

Devenish’s verse offered a lot of platitudes and showed little originality. Even his political satires, which were more original and personal than his other poetry, turned out to be steeped in techniques that had been developed some two centuries previously. The more he looked to France for his inspiration, the more he became immersed in a past that had little relevance to Trinidad.

Despite this harsh assessment, Cudjoe is remarkably generous in his estimation of Devenish, and eloquently pinpoints the many conflicts that would have pulled at this loyal citizen and good man. While his Romantic contemporaries in Europe had the luxury of flexing and stretching the concept of verse to embrace nature and its powerful and exciting potential, Devenish was all too anchored in the prosaic by the limitations and commitments of his day-to-day life. And when he ran afoul of the Franco-phobic colonial regime and lost his job after decades of devoted service, he was treated shabbily, living the rest of his days on a pension far less than he was rightfully entitled to.

Devenish was a national figure, widely mourned on his death in 1903. Gregarious and popular, he comes back to life in de Verteuil’s biographical pages, which contain delightful anecdotes that the reader may suspect are made up of one part historical fact and two parts creative license. Describing the birth of Syl — as his young parents, en route from Europe to Trinidad to assume responsibility for the family estate, were forced to lay over in Nantes — de Verteuil writes:

James Sylvester obtained the leave of an Irish friend who was renting the chateau, to give a ball. Gertrude (who was in the family way) opened the proceedings with a minuet, dancing beautifully to the swell and fall of the music; but she had soon to leave the floor to other bounding beauties and was rushed to a bedroom, where in the middle of the ball, to the strains of the music, was born the subject of this story, Peter James Sylvester Devenish, the date being the 9th March 1819.

Anyone familiar with de Verteuil’s previous books will recognise his trademark narrative style, which assumes the reassuring timbre of oral tradition. He conjures up the feeling of sitting on any Caribbean verandah, listening to the elders recounting family lore. As a much-respected Catholic priest and a member of a prominent French Creole family, de Verteuil is privy to information that might otherwise be lost if not documented in his books. This privilege is a double-edged sword, as his narrative voice tends to slip into the rambling style of oral historians and, especially when he describes large French Creole clans, it is often difficult to keep the dates, names, and convoluted familial relationships straight. The reader is forced to go back and forth within the text to clarify and check accuracy. Minor errors that would have been picked up by a scrupulous editor are a reminder that most of de Verteuil’s books are self-published, and probably do not have the luxury of professional editing.

Which raises another key point: the print runs of most of his books are limited. Once out of print, they can be difficult to source. De Verteuil’s readers may find themselves willing to forgo criticism on the basis that the documentary value of his books far outweighs their flaws.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009

Sharon Millar is a Trinidadian writer.