The influence of English is important in Bengali literature. Modern Bengali language and literature have developed since 1800 following the works of the pundits of the Fort William College. Bengali literature before this was largely dominated by religious and rustic ideas of Bengal, such as Charyapada, Sri Krishnakirtan, Vaishnav Padabali, Shakta Padabali and Mangalkavyas.
From the first half of the nineteenth century, the influence of English language and literature proved to be revolutionary and far-reaching on Bengali literature. It started with the works of the British and Portuguese missionaries. The works of William Carey with Ramram Bose and Mrityunjay Vidyalankar proved extremely fruitful. But the development of style came more fluently with the use of prose for religious polemics and social propaganda by Rammohun Roy. The structure and idiom, on the whole, remained vernacular.
In the meantime, valuable pioneering work was done by the scholars of the Hindu College, particularly the disciples of Derozio. They wrote introductory books on science, biography, history, geography, etc. They added to the resources of the Bengali language and extended its expressive qualities and dimensions. They read Shakespeare and Milton, Pope and Dryden, Byron and Scott. Tentative efforts were made to translate or adapt to the plays of Shakespeare. An experiment in simpler forms of the lyrical measure was also done.
By this time the contributions of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar and Michael Madhusudan Dutta were of incalculable value. Vidyasagar laid the foundations of literary prose in a larger scale. In his hand, Bengali prose acquired something of the measured rhythm of Johnson’s style. Without Vidyasagar, it is difficult to conceive the prose of Bankimchandra and his school.
Bankimchandra had profoundly read Shakespeare, and the influence of the English dramatist was as great on him as that from the novels of Scott. Barham had genius and imagination and a knowledge of European literature. Whatever he touched, he enriched and made it his own. He opened the floodgates of Western literature into Bengali literature. Since then the stream of ideas and style has continued to flow in. Undoubtedly influenced by Walter Scott, Bankimchandra moulded the art of novels to delineate Bengali society and characters. He was followed by Ramesh Chandra Dutta whose narrative skill was also great.
The influence of Byron on the poetry of Hemchandra, Rangalal, and Nabinchandra was as great as that of Shakespeare and Milton on Michael Madhusudan in his dramas and Meghnadbadh Kavya. Augustan satire can also be seen in the works of Hemchandra. It is interesting to note that Madhusudan and Bankim started their literary career in English, and then they shifted their attention to Bengali literature. It is in the field of the lyric that the influence of English literature was most striking. It was most discernible in the poetry of Bihari Lal and the early poetry of Rabindranath Tagore with the concept of romantic love. Rabindranath’s nature poetry and love poetry undoubtedly owe to Shelley, Keats and William Wordsworth, but the catalytic agent was his own.
The influence of Western thought of Mill, Spencer and Comte in the colonial region of Bengal was also considerable. The ideas of liberty, equality and democracy gained widespread and entered into Bengali literature in various ways. A new concept of womanhood as envisaged by Victorian novelists came into the novels of Saratchandra and Rabindranath, though maintaining its root in Bengali society. The conflict between Western liberalism and Hindu orthodoxy created a new dimension in the writings of Dwijendralal Roy, Girishchandra, Troilakyanath and others. The Bengali dramas owe its origin and development to English theatre too. The distinct stamp of French comedians like Moliere was felt in the later phase of Bengali prose—with vigour and straight-cut quality. Promo to Choudhury and his disciples brought something of Gallic wits and Shavian paradox into Bengali prose.
Post-war Bengali literature has been much affected by passing fashions and moods. At one time the English ‘Metaphysicals’ twisted the imagination of younger poets to the point of obscurity. The influence of Eliot and Ezra Pound as also of Baudelaire of France was irresistible on modern poets like Bishnu Dey, Sudhin Dutta, Buddhadeb Bose and Amiya Chakrabarty, especially for an esoteric mannerism. Later on, the influence of Kafka was predominantly felt on the ultra-modern poet and novelist Sunil Ganguly, and in poems of Shakti Chattopadhyay, etc.
Thus the influence of Western literature had spread its great wing on Bengali literature and enlivened it with enriched thoughts and ideas and style too.