John Still’s ‘Poems in Captivity’


By Tissa Devendra

France never commemorates its defeat at Waterloo but for some strange reason, Australia and New Zealand honour as 'Anzac Day' the occasion of their bloodiest defeat by the Turkish Army at Gallipoli in WW I. Last year 2015, marked the centenary of this defeat. It then struck me that the little Crown Colony of Ceylon, too, played a part in this debacle. As a loyal Colony Ceylon sent a contingent to join the British Army. This consisted of British planters and cadets from missionary public schools. As they were too few to constitute a regiment, they were combined with the Anzac forces and fought alongside them in Gallipoli. After their defeat some were taken prisoner by the victorious Turks. Among these POWs was John Still, who, some years later, achieved fame as the author of the incomparable Jungle Tide. It was during his long imprisonment ["eleven hundred and seventy-nine days"] that he sought solace in writing his "Poems in Captivity".

These moving poems, published by The Bodley Head in London in 1919, were never as well known in Ceylon as his Jungle Tide. However, as a schoolboy in Colonial Kandy a copy came my way and left a lasting impression. I never saw it again. When the Anzac Day centenary came along in 2015, I wrote a brief Letter to the Editor about John Still's imprisonment in Turkey and his "Poems in Captivity" now lost beyond recall. But, I was mistaken. My friend W. Panditharatne wrote from Kandy that he had a copy. And so did K. L. F. Wijedasa. Best of all, was a totally unexpected visit from Kumara Semage, who gifted me a spanking new reprint of these poems that he had ordered from London, after reading my Letter! Thanks to Kumara's generosity I am now able to savour John Still's poems. And write about them.

Although a contemporary of the War Poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfrid Owen, John Still's Poems in Captivity never earned the fame they richly deserve. This may be because both Brooke and Owen died in battle and in nearby France. Unlike these precocious geniuses John Still survived the war and the battle where he fell was a defeat by a 'lesser breed' in a strange and distant land. Furthermore, only some of his poems deal with battle as such. They also speak of captivity, hope, nostalgia for the jungles and Ceylon's fabled history.

His poem 'Christmas Day' is a poignant expression of his lonely captivity -

"Christmas day, Christmas day,

Across the yard with footsteps slow

The sentries pace the mud below :

The wind is cold, the sky is grey :

Christmas day in a prison camp,

With freedom dead as a burnt-out lamp.

The lions eat and the lions rage,

Three steps and a turn in a narrow cage,

And I am as free as they "

Physical confinement cannot shackle his spirit

" Yet freedom is and ever will remain

Moral, not physical, and those are free

Who can rise morally above their pain,

Their minds uncrippled by their captivity.

More free by far than any bird that flies,

My mind is free to climb among the stars,

My soul is free is free to wander o'er the skies,

Only my body lies behind the bars."

The captive's dreams recall the jungles he loved

"Could I hear the monkeys calling

In the forest, all alone:

Could I see the torrent falling,

Mist and thunder, on the stone:

Could I hear the jungle calling,

Where storm-torn boughs are tossed,

I would soon forget the galling

Of the years that I have lost."

He writes with sharp observation of his many places of confinement - old forts, abandoned churches, ruined castles - and the poppy fields and free flying birds he envies.

Although Still's poetry evokes the metre, rhythm and emotions that characterize early 20th century English poetry, these poems are not conventional in any sense. No English poet wrote with such brilliant evocation of the sights, scents and sounds of the pristine Vanni jungles the poet had wandered in the kingdom of the jungle god Ayanar:

"Low grumbling thunder grumbles all the morn

The trees by fitful circling gusts are torn

A grey wet veil of shadow

And all at once the miracle is done.

Sweet fragrance rises steaming from the grass.

Down all the tree trunks little trickles run ...."

"Out in the glade the grass is waving high,

All lined by lanes where elephants have trod ;

The fragrance of ehala fills the air,

Its blossoms glowing golden in the glare,

Down from a flowering tree-top in the sky..."

"All was silent save for the rustling breeze

And the cicadas faint eternal buzz,

Noises so endless in monotony

As to remain unnoticed till they stop.."

His emotions flow from lived experience - "

"Alone upon a wooded hill I lay

Beneath a pale blue sky where swifts did fly,

And listened while the voices of the day

Rose from the rustling woods and mounted high.

The talk of monkeys, and a whistling bird,

The tireless tolling of the barbet's call,

The singing of the insects that I heard..."

He sees a leopard -

"down the shady tunnel of the trees

A thirsty leopard came on silent tread,

The monkeys hooted, and the squirrels shrilled,

The spotted deer were belling in the glade:

But in the sand beneath that marbled shade

He dug a hole and waited while it filled


This lovely terror of the jungle ways

Stood waiting there without a single sound

Until the water filtered through at last

Then, still in silence, to the shades he passed."

The recent news about vandals robbing tunnels for swallow's nests for Chinese gourmets, reminds me of Still's poem of these birds swirling out of their cliff side caves


"O! Fly swift swallows!

Speed on the wings of light !

Swift your wings and the feathers roar,

As down from the upper caves you pour

Scream! Scream in your wild delight !...."

Many are the jungle birds he recalls such as the hornbill, the long-tailed robin but I am pretty sure no other poet has written of jackals

"I can hear the jackals crying.

Full misery in their haunting tone


A dreary, melancholy long-drawn moan,

Growing in volume while it swells,

In wild cacophony of yells,

Burst from a hundred hells,

Calling, howling, clamouring ..."

Nor has any poet written so hauntingly about the elusive Loris from personal experience -

"In the forest in the moonlight,

When the boughs are lacing black against the sky,

And all the stirrings of a tropic night

Encompass me with magic out of sight,

I hear your thin weird cry:

I sense you passing by,

Softly and silently your tiny palms

Cleave to the bosses of your secret way

On where bearded moss hangs thick and grey,

Up where the silver moonlight glints and charms,

You slowly creep ...

Good night, my little kinsman. I must sleep."

It never ceases to amaze me that John Still who first come to Ceylon in 1897 had not only explored our wilderness, but also acquired a deep knowledge of our ancient myths and history in the short fifteen years or so before he answered the call to fight for King and Country. His poems have a section 'Tales of the Mahavansa' where he lets his imagination roam without, in any way, straying too far from the great chronicle of the Sinhalese. They also show the surprising depth of his understanding of Buddhist thought. This is shown in his long narrative poem The Unveiling of Dhatusena:

"Long meditation in a lonely cave

Had shaken off the shackles of the world,

And freed old Mahanama from the wheel,

Certain that Karma's bonds were loosed at last,

Men called him Rahat, meaning one whose lives,

Lived in the form of beasts or god or man,

Had been so selfless, so sincere and pure,

That all desire had been purged right out

Until rebirth no longer claimed his soul ;

So that when this life ended he would merge

One with the infinite for evermore."

In the climax of the poem Kasyapa condemns his father, the great Dhatusena, to death:

'Take this man out, and build him in a wall,

Standing him there to face the rising sun

Which he shall wait to see for evermore'.

Then to Migara turned King Dhatusen,

And to him said 'Friend, I forgive you all.'

And Prince Migara uttered not a word,

But turned his head and left that place in shame.

The soldiers led King Dhatusen away;

But Kasyapa sat on immovable,

While horror harboured in his haunted eyes,

To leave them never more."

The heroic poem 'Kasyapa' ends in truly dramatic style:

"His elephant was wounded, and his shield

Was dented over with the stabs of spears

Then from his weary hand there fell his sword

From out his belt he drew a dagger forth

And plunged it fiercely deep into his throat,

Slowly he sank upon the elephant,

Bowing his head upon its reeking neck.

And so he died: unconquered to the end.

They took the diadem from off the dead

And placed it on his brother's living brow,

Who gazed upon his corpse, and turned and said,

'His death was worthy of his royal blood.

Carry him out with honour to the place

Where the kings of Lanka from the mists of time

Have all been burned upon their funeral pyres,

And there perform the rites of ancient days."

Quite apart from his nostalgia for the forests of Ceylon and the island's dramatic legends, Still gave frequent expression to deeper thoughts and the meaning of life. One group of poems he calls Paths.

I quote from one -

"He saw that all was one great soul

And that a man when he was dead

Became united to the whole,

Whatever path he chose to tread;

Just as the lightning flash is Is reabsorbed into the earth, Just as the waters as they crash

Flow to the sea that gave them birth,

Just as the trees that dry and rot

Make soil where others are begot."

The war ended and John Still was freed - free to see his baby Eileen of whom he wrote while a prisoner:

"O Baby, my baby I have never seen

Don't grow too fast till I come home.

When the birds make love and the hedges are green,

My ship will race through the roaring foam

So wait a while till I come home."

John Still came back to Ceylon, to wander our jungles, delve into our storied past and write that wonderful prose poem "Jungle Tide." He had also written of his experiences in captivity in "A Prisoner in Turkey" also published by The Bodley Head.

He died in Port Alfred, South Africa in 1941.

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