Prolific writer - vastly unknown
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness in the desert air."
Thomas Gray (1716 - 1771)
The haunting lines of Thomas Gray's ever-fresh poetry, swim into my
memory, when I focus on the individual I want to talk about.
His astonishing plethora of writings, is a hoard of gems, that
remains still undiscovered, by and large. And, his philosophy - tinged
thoughts and reflections, waste their sweetness in those large volumes
of unpublished manuscripts, which still await incarnation in the public
domain as printed works.
Amidst all these, there is an inescapable truth.
His writings are more voluminous, than those of any poet in Sri
Lanka, I know. Even in the field of English fiction of Sri Lanka, he can
leave many a novelist far behind.
The poetry he specializes in, is a brand of his own. Reviewing a
volume of his English poetry, about 15 years ago, this is what I had to
"The prevailing view is that a volume of poetry should be as slim as
a super model. In the world of literature such a volume should have the
looks and the appeal of a Naomi Campbell or a Cynthia Crawford.
"But, the present collection of poetry, goes counter to that
conventional notion. As volumes of poetry go, the work under review is
bulky. I must immediately add - it is so both in quality and quantity.
Its lines fill the pages from end to end, unlike some poetry of our
day, which leaves the page starved."
It is high time, that I introduced the central personality of our
His name is P. L. Newton de Silva. The name may not ring an extensive
bell, as he has always shunned the limelight.
In order to trace his creative evolution adequately, it is essential
to note keenly the academic and intellectual atmosphere of the late 40s
and the early 50s, that dominated the university circle of that day.
Relatively free from the anxieties imposed by imperatives of time, the
budding 'intellectuals' of that era were in liberal pursuit of issues
and themes, that may not have been strictly subject - specific, in terms
of the chosen academic studies. Debates, discussions, arguments,
controversies, polemics formed the element, in which this coterie
P. L. Newton de Silva ("Newton" to his associates and "Newta" to his
intimate friends) was very much a part of this group. As members and
officials of the All-Ceylon Buddhist Students' Union (ACBSU), these
young intellectuals acquired the opportunity to burnish their wisdom
further. They came under the spell of such "spiritual revolutionaries"
as Bhikkhu Dhammapala, Dr. E. W. Adikaram, Prof. G. P. Malalasekera and
Ananda Meevanapalane. These young people formed a formidable group, who
were eventually to contribute substantially to national life in a
variety of ways, through widely differing disciplines. This coterie
included, P. L. Newton de Silva, Siri Gunasinghe, Edwin Ariyadasa,
Ananda P. Guruge, W.M. Tilakaratne, S.P. Kularatne, H.S.S. Nissanka,
Devendra Brothers, K.P.G. Wijesurendra - among many others.
P.L. Newton de Silva, was keen on poetry over a long period of time.
In his book "Foot prints on the Sands of Time" published way back in
1979, he quotes a review of his poetry, that I wrote as an
undergraduate, in 1948. In the same work, he makes an interesting
reference to a discussion we have had. I thought, I must quote it
briefly as it quite deftly captures the "mood" that pervaded this
coterie of emerging untellectuals:
"I remember the argument that continued for weeks over a work of much
ment - " Hiroshima" by John Hersey.... Finally my friends decided to
consult the best authority - the author himself. Ariyadasa addressed a
letter to Hersey in America. But, the best result was the later
discovery that the most vociferous advocate B.A.S. Gunasinghe... had not
even read the book!
This incident is indicative of the simmering intellectuality of that
P.L. Newton de Silva, eventually became an officer of the Sri Lankan
Administrative Service. He held many prestigious positions and for a
while, he was Counsellor of the Sri Lanka Embassy in Islamabad.
While functioning in the capacities assigned to him, he never ceased
writing. That accounts for the extensive array of volumes, he has been
able to produce.
The generally accepted view is, bureaucracy and poetry, do not mix.
The prevailing notion is, that a bureaucrat is so thoroughly hardened
that, it is beyond him to melt into the poetic mood, however much he
P.L. Newton Silva's poetry is irrefutable proof. That even the
English muse inspires, on occasion, a favoured member of the higher
echelons of Sri Lankan bureaucracy, into singing in.
"The Language Shakespeare spoke" If one were to delve deep into his
anthology titled "Questing Intellectual", one will find that the quality
of his poetry itself holds tantalizing surprises for the reader. My
considered view is that he has introduced a variety of poetry that could
very well be described as a "poetic diary". His poetry in "Questing
Intellectual", chronicles a deep and continuing philosophic discussion.
Here he admirably balances profound thoughts with a narration of the
story of a sustained, intimate friendship.
While communicating hard-core esoteric perceptions, he can utilize
his poetry to produce soothing lyrical sentiments as well. He has these
lines in his "Questing Intellectual"!
"Recently on a night when the mild majesty of the moon
Shone in a perfect orb, the sky was very clear",
He has composed Sinhala lyrics, with notes provided by him.
After achieving so much as a writer, he has not been able to bring
out even a limited segment of that output for the benefit of readers, in
But, he has no regrets; nor is he given to frustration. To quote
Thomas Gray, he passes his days in quiet contemplation, along the cool
sequestered vale of life."
Those State organisations, that are concerned with the welfare of art
and literature, we hope, will one day discover these "gems" relegated
the dark unfathomed ocean caves of neglect and will enable the sweetness
of these desert flowers to be experienced by cultural men and women, who
could fully relish their soothing aroma.