Tagore's Poetic Greatness

William Radice 

A lecture delivered by invitation of Rabindra Bhavan, Ahmedabad, 24 February 2003.

In memory of Sujata Chaudhuri (1913-2003) and the victims of the Gujarat riots.

[ Note: About 500 people attended the function at which I gave this lecture. It was held on the terrace at the back of the Shahjahan’s palace at Shahibaug, where Tagore’s elder brother lived when he was District Judge in Ahmedabad. Rabindranath stayed for four months at the palace in 1878, when he was seventeen, and later recalled in Jibansmriti and Chelebela how it inspired his story Kshudita Pashan (‘The Hungry Stones’, 1895). The function was organised in collaboration with the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Rashtriya Smarak (which is based at the palace) and the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, and on 22 February a lecture was given at the Parishad by Professor Bholabhai Patel on Gujarat’s longstanding interest in Tagore and in Bengali literature generally, and the numerous translations from Bengali to Gujarati that have been done. I was present on that occasion too, and my entire five-day stay in Ahmedabad was rich in delightful new experiences. I was the guest of Mr Shailesh Parekh, who has translated Tagore into both Gujarati and English (two of his books, Naibedya and Shesh Lekha, are available from Writers Workshop, Kolkata), and I received equal kindness from Professor Niranjan Bhagat. Professor Bhagat is the editor of Tagore in Ahmedabad (Image Publications, Mumbai and Ahmedabad: see www.imagepublications.com), a bilingual publication that was released at the Shahibaug function. Other speakers included Professor Bhagat, Mr Parekh, Shri Prakash Shah (Secretary of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad) and the eminent Gujarati poet and translator of Tagore, Shri Ramanlal Soni, who presided. Two songs composed by Tagore during his stay in Ahmedabad - Golap Bala and Nirab Rajani - were sung by Ms Sucheta Roy. My lecture was followed by a screening of Tapan Sinha’s classic film of Kshudita Pashan.

Sujata Chaudhuri
(Courtesy: Ananda Bazar Patrika)
My thoughts and feelings as I write this lecture will be inevitably influenced by the death yesterday (11 February) at 9.15 a.m. of Sujata Chaudhuri, mother of my oldest Bengali friend Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri of Jadavpur University, Kolkata. I loved both her and her husband Kanti Prosad Chaudhuri (who died in 1983) dearly, and have stayed in their house in Salt Lake, Kolkata innumerable times. It was from them, more than anyone else, that I learnt to speak Bengali, as they were always prepared to spend unlimited time listening to my halting efforts, and made a point of never talking to me in English. They corrected a Bengali diary I wrote when I first stayed in their house in 1976, and checked many of my Tagore translations. Sujatadi, particularly, who loved flowers, animals and birds, helped me with the flowers in the glossary of my Penguin Selected Poems of Tagore (1985): the descriptions of them there are essentially hers. When I brought my wife and two young daughters to India in 1982, she would chat and play with the elder one (then aged two) and dandle the younger one (aged seven months) on her lap, just as she would later do with her own grandchildren. I have quite a few letters from her in my files, which I must dig out on my return to Britain. When I visited the subcontinent in March-April 2001, and stayed with the Chaudhuris for a few days, her memory for short-term things was becoming a bit shaky, but her long-term memory was as clear as ever. Encouraged by Sukanta and her daughter-in-law Supriya, she wrote a delightful short volume of memoirs, Mane ache (‘I remember’, published by Papyrus in Kolkata in 2000), in which I am proud to say I am mentioned. I talked a lot to her at that time about her career, which had been very distinguished, as a student at Cotton College in Guwahati, Scottish Church College and Presidency College in Kolkata, and then as a teacher at Ashutosh College, Lady Keane College (Shillong), Gokuldas College (Muradabad) and Aligarh Muslim University, where she stayed for five years. Gentle and unassuming though she always was, she must have had considerable courage and independence to have pursued so varied a career, and to have married Kanti Prosad Chaudhuri in 1944, when they were fellow graduate students - in the face of opposition both from his (orthodox Brahmin) family and from her (anglicised Brahmo) family. I think of her as rather dashing at that time: she told me that in Shillong she used to play tennis, and drive a car.

 After Partition she and her husband returned to Kolkata, and she soon went back to teaching (despite having two small children), first at Ashutosh College again, then from 1952 at Lady Brabourne and Bethune Colleges, where she remained for twenty years, becoming a full Professor, and finally Principal of Lady Brabourne College from 1969 to 1971.

 Sujatadi was such a modest, self-disciplined person, who wore her learning and brilliance so quietly, that she would certainly not have wanted me to devote this lecture to her memory. But her tastes and values, her sensibility and sensitivity, her kindness and humanity will be implicit in it, and closely related to its theme. For if Tagore by his poetic greatness represents Bengali culture at its best, so did Sujatadi, and her family too, from her father, the renowned Professor at Cotton College, Praphulla Chandra Ray, to her equally gifted son and daughter-in-law - and many other family members too.

 Because she died yesterday, quietly and at home, her family at her bedside, after a three month illness, a great poem by Rabindranath comes to my mind in which Death also comes quietly. Like all the poems I shall cite in this lecture, it is included in my Selected Poems of Tagore, which I have been looking at closely again for the first time in many years. I should like, if I may, to read the whole poem to you.

Maran-milan (‘Death-wedding’, 1902)

 Why do you speak so softly, Death, Death,
Creep upon me, watch me so stealthily?
This is not how a lover should behave.
When evening flowers droop upon their tired
Stems, when cattle are brought in from the fields
After a whole day’s grazing, you, Death,
Death, approach me with such gentle steps,
Settle yourself immovably by my side.
I cannot understand the things you say.

Alas, will this be how you will take me, Death,
Death? Like a thief, laying heavy sleep
On my eyes as you descend to my heart?
Will you thus let your tread be a slow beat
In my sleep-numbed blood, your jingling ankle-bells
A drowsy rumble in my ear? Will you, Death,
Death, wrap me, finally, in your cold
Arms and carry me away while I dream?
I do not know why you thus come and go.

Tell me, is this the way you wed, Death,
Death? Unceremonially, with no
Weight of sacrament or blessing or prayer?
Will you come with your massy tawny hair
Unkempt, unbound into a bright coil-crown?
Will no one bear your victory-flag before
Or after, will no torches glow like red
Eyes along the river, Death, Death?
Will earth not quake in terror at your step?

When fierce-eyed Siva came to take his bride,
Remember all the pomp and trappings, Death,
Death: the flapping tiger-skins he wore;
His roaring bull; the serpents hissing round
His hair; the bom-bom sound as he slapped his cheeks;
The necklace of skulls swinging round his neck;
The sudden raucous music as he blew
His horn to announce his coming - was this not
A better way of wedding, Death, Death?

And as that deathly wedding-party’s din
Grew nearer, Death, Death, tears of joy
Filled Gauri’s eyes and the garments at her breast
Quivered; her left eye fluttered and her heart
Pounded; her body quailed with thrilled delight
And her mind ran away with itself, Death, Death;
Her mother wailed and smote her head at the thought
Of receiving so wild a groom; and in his mind
Her father agreed calamity had struck.

Why must you always come like a thief, Death,
Death, always silently, at night’s end,
Leaving only tears? Come to me festively,
Make the whole night ring with your triumph, blow
Your victory-conch, dress me in blood-red robes,
Grasp me by the hand and sweep me away!
Pay no heed to what others may think, Death,
Death, for I shall of my own free will
Resort to you if you but take me gloriously.

If I am immersed in work in my room
When you arrive, Death, Death, then break
My work, thrust my unreadiness aside.
If I am sleeping, sinking all desires
In the dreamy pleasure of my bed, or I lie
With apathy gripping my heart and my eyes
Flickering between sleep and waking, fill
Your conch with your destructive breath and blow,
Death, Death, and I shall run to you.

I shall go to where your boat is moored,
Death, Death, to the sea where the wind rolls
Darkness towards me from infinity.
I may see black clouds massing in the far
North-east corner of the sky; fiery snakes
Of lightning may rear up with their hoods raised,
But I shall not flinch in unfounded fear -
I shall pass silently, unswervingly
Across that red storm-sea, Death, Death.

The translations I did for this book in the early 1980s are probably known to many of you. It is convenient for me to use them today, as I need to quote Tagore in English translation, and obviously my own translations are the ones I know best. But there is another, more important reason why I want to quote them. Above all, when I worked on this book, I wanted to convey in English what I felt to be Tagore’s true qualities of poetic greatness, in a way that I did not think had been satisfactorily conveyed before, whether in his own translations or in translations by others. In order to explain to you what I was trying to achieve, I need to go into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the translations more than I have done before in a lecture; which may also reveal the nuts and bolts of Tagore’s poems in the original more than has perhaps been done by any critic in English, and possibly not in Bengali either. 

‘Tagore’ and ‘greatness’ are very easily linked, because of his iconic status in Bengal and in India as a whole, not to mention other countries; because of his long life and vast influence; his central role in the formation of modern Indian nationhood; his noble appearance; his wide and human sympathies; and his profound spiritual insight. But I wonder if the prominence of his greatness in all these aspects has distracted us from his actual greatness as a poet. After all, it is possible to be wise, good, humane, brave and influential without being a poet. To be a great poet you need to write great poems, and that requires a number of purely literary gifts and qualities, some of which are quite technical.

 Let us consider some of the things in Maran-milan that makes it such a great poem. Firstly there is the astonishing technical control: the unerring use of metre, rhyme and verse structure to echo perfectly Death’s quiet footsteps. Listen to the first stanza in Bengali:

ata      cupi cupi kena katha kao 
           ogo       maran, he mor maran, 
ati       dhire ese kena ceye rao, 
           ogo       eki pranayer-i dharan! 
yabe    sandhyabelay phul-dal 
           pare     klanta brinte namiya, 
yabe    phire ase gothe gabhidal 
           sara     din-man mathe bhramiya, 
tumi     pase asi basa acapal 
           ogo      ati mridugati-caran. 
ami      bujhi na ye ki ye katha kao 
           ogo      maran, he mor maran. 
In translating a poem of such technical and formal virtuosity, my first objective is to find an equivalent form in English that will not be the same as the Bengali but which will immediately convince the reader of the poem’s craftsmanship. Tagore always attached great value to craftsmanship: many of his efforts at Santiniketan and Sriniketan aimed to support and develop it. As a poet myself, craftsmanship is immensely important to me too, for I believe no poet or artist, in the long run, will be credible unless he or she possesses it. We do not expect all artisans to be artists, but we do expect artists to be - among other things - artisans. 

In the Bengali, the regular (lines 2 and 12) placing of the refrain - ogo maran, he mor maran - is one of the most mesmeric things about this poem. I decided that this might not work so well in English: ‘O my Death’ is not a happy phrase, and doesn’t in itself have that quiet, creeping quality the poem requires. So instead I have the simple, quiet spondee ‘Death, Death’; and I let it move around in the stanza. I felt that this would express the steady, yet unpredictable footsteps of Death more effectively than keeping it in a fixed position. 

As regards metre, I did not follow Tagore’s six foot/four foot alternating pattern, but I did pick up the trochaic character of the six foot lines, and the fact that the four foot lines are more ‘accentual’, with four main stresses, but with variation in the number of light syllables between them: 

ati      dhire ese kena ceye rao,
     ogo     eki pranayer-i dharan!
I thus used a five foot blank verse line that is not too rigid in its syllable-count, and has a lot of trochaic feet, often with the light syllable omitted completely at the beginning of lines:
Make the whole night ring…
Grasp me by the hand
Pay no heed to what
What else makes this a great poem? Well, there is its overall structural power, the way in which it moves, by means of vivid phrasing and imagery, from its quiet beginning to the drama of the Siva/Gauri verses; the passion of the poet’s complaint against Death’s stealthiness; and the final, unflinching statement of courage. A translator has to feel the emotional sequence from beginning to end, grasp the poem as a structural and dramatic whole, before he can sit down and translate it well.

 Then there is its energy and vitality of language: Tagore’s vastness of vocabulary, from the classicism of compound phrases such as bijayoddhat dhvajapat (for Death’s victory-flag) to colloquial Bengali reduplicative and onomatopoeic expressions such as kinkini-ranrani (for his jingling ankle-bells) and babam-babam (for Siva’s cheek-slapping). (Tagore called such expressions dhvanatmak-sabda, ‘sound-soul-words’, and compiled a comprehensive list of them.)

 Then there is the poem’s moral depth and sincerity. Here is a poet who is prepared to tackle the deepest, most cosmic, most universal themes: in the case of this poem, the mysterious power of Death, whose edicts we cannot resist and can never fully understand. 

Yet there is in this poem, solemn though it is, wit as well: Gauri’s reactions to Siva as bridegroom and of her parents too are comically reminiscent of an ordinary Bengali domestic scene (‘…and in his mind/Her father agreed calamity had struck’). For me, wit is an essential ingredient of great poetry. It is always there, because the skilful use of language in poetry involves word-play, which is by definition witty. Wit, too, is the handmaid of wisdom: a great poem needs to be many-sided, to be open to different points of view. A wise man is always humorous; a narrow-minded fanatic never is.

 All in all, these elements working together in concert - verse-form, rhythm, structure, language, feeling, imagery, moral depth, wit - embody that power of poetic mind that makes a great poet, distinguishes him from the second-rate. It was that quality of mind that I felt was lacking in earlier translations of Tagore, including his own, and which I was so anxious to capture.

* * *

I should like now to consider these elements in more detail, looking for illustrations in other poems in my Selected Poems of Tagore. 

Although my translations have generally been well received over the years, especially in India, and I am very grateful for that, readers have not always been aware of the novel and intricate technical devices that went into their making.
In my latest book of Tagore translations, Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems (HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2000; Angel Books, London, 2001), my devices are as intricate and varied as ever - but because I have learnt to integrate them into language that seems easy, natural and inevitable, readers have probably scarcely noticed them at all. Maybe Tagore himself paid a similar price. His skills with metre and rhyme and verse-form are so subtle, varied and sophisticated, yet at the same time so natural and apparently effortless, that readers of the original may often forget what a virtuoso he was.

 So far as I know, no critic or reviewer of my translations has commented on their technical innovations. Yet for me, that is a particularly interesting aspect, because it demonstrates how in translating a great poet who possesses a whole range of techniques that are novel in English one can enhance English poetry’s technical resources.

 A few examples.

(a) Gaps
Tagore was fond of including gaps in his lines, to bring out the rhythm clearly. (Notice his use of them in Maran-milan above.) I followed this practice in a number of my translations, and have also used it quite a lot in poems of my own. A colleague of mine at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who does excellent translations of Somali poetry, showed me a draft that I gathered was based on a traditional Somali verse-form that also has gaps in the lines. ‘Why don’t you keep the gaps in your translation?’ I suggested. He tried it, and was delighted with the result. So here we have an example of a verse technique entering English poetry from Tagore (though we have a precedent for it in Ango-Saxon poetry) and being passed on to translations from another language. This is indeed how poetry can evolve and be cross-fertilised.

 A few lines from Badhu (‘Bride’, 1890) will display the technique to you:

               Pitcher at my hip, the winding path -
   Nothing but fields to the left                       stretching into haze,
              To the right the slanting bamboo-grove.
    The evening sunlight shines                       on the blackness of the pool,
              The woods round its edge are sunk in shade.
    I let myself idly float                                  in the pool’s deep calm,
              The koel on the bank has sweetness in its song.
    Returning, I suddenly see                          above the dark trees.
              Painted on the sky, the moon.

(b) Tabla-rhythms
Looking at many of my translations again after several years, I am convinced that rhythms have entered them - whether consciously or not - that are Indian rather than English, and have therefore added to my own poetic resources. This could in turn - if my own poems eventually have influence - feed into English poetry and translation more generally. Listen to the opening of my translation of Tapobhanga (‘The Wakening of Siva’, 1925), which I regard as one of my best translations: 
My past days bulging with the sap of the turbulence of youth - 
O master of cyclic Time, are you indifferent to them now,
           O tranced ascetic?
Have they with kimsuk blossoms on gusty Caitra nights
Blown away, have they floated uncared-for off into infinite sky?
Have they on rafts of slim white rainless post-monsoon cloud
Drifted at the whim of arbitrary winds to moor on oblivion 
           Through harsh neglect?

Those days that once so colourfully decked your matted yellow locks
With white and red and blue and yellow flowers -
           Are they all forgotten?
In the end they laughingly stole your beggar’s tabor and horn
And gave you flute and anklets; they filled your drinking-bowl
With potent distillations of the heavy scents of spring;
They drowned the dense inertia of your trance 
           In an upsurge of sweetness.

In a way it doesn’t matter what the form of the original is, as I never try to match it exactly. What matters is whether a rhythmic energy in the original somehow surfaces in the translation too. The long lines in my translation mostly have six stresses, though sometimes seven, sometimes five, and the number will also, of course, vary according to how exactly one reads them. But notice how many light syllables come between the stresses - frequently three syllables, which is quite unusual in English verse. One or two would be much more normal.
bulging with the...
turbulence of...
drifted at the...
distillations of the...
heavy scents of...
inertia of your...
The result of this is a racing, galloping effect that I call ‘tabla-rhythm’. It makes, I hope, my translations seem new: the last thing I want in translating a great foreign poet is that he should end up seeming like a familiar English poet.
(c) Stanzas
Because Tagore’s verses and stanzas are so endlessly varied, you will find in my book a great variety of stanza forms, some of which I think have never before been used in English. For example, the three line verses of Pakshi-manab (‘Flying Man’, 1940):
Satanic machine, you enable man to fly. 
     Land and sea had fallen to his power:
         All that was left was the sky.

God has given as a gift a bird’s two wings.
     From the flash of feathery line and colour
         Spiritual joy springs…

The ABA rhyme scheme I use is familiar to us from terza rima; but notice that my lines decrease in length - first five feet, then four, then three. There are plenty of tabla-rhythms too. 

Or listen to Bir-purush (‘The Hero’, 1903):

Say we made a journey, mother,
Roaming far and wide together -
      You would have a palanquin,
      Doors kept open just a chink,
      I would ride a red horse, clip 
Clop-clip along beside you, lifting 
      Clouds of red dust with my clatter.

The four-foot trochaic lines may not seem particularly novel, but in each verse there is a rhythmic twist in line 6, which starts with an iamb, not a trochee (‘Clop-clip’ in this verse). I’ve also used an elaborate rhyme scheme which, as often in my translations and in my own poems, uses half-rhymes rather than full rhymes. (I tend to use half-rhyme in translations as it leads to fewer distortions of meaning for the sake of form; but having learnt the technique essentially from translation I’ve enjoyed using it in my own poems too.) In verse 1 above, lines 1, 2 and 7 are half-rhymed on ‘feminine’ endings: ‘mother’, ‘together’, ‘clatter’. Line 6 doesn’t have a rhyme, but it also has a feminine ending. Lines 3, 4, and 5 are ‘masculine’, and are half-rhymed on the vowel, not the consonant: 

I remember working long and hard to achieve this novel form, which is sustained throughout the poem. The point of it is to convey the wit and precision of the original. But because the language I use is simple and childlike, most readers probably scarcely notice the form at all, beyond - I hope - enjoying it and feeling the poem is ‘right’ and inevitable.
(d) Sari-poems

You must immediately wonder what on earth I mean by sari-poems. Well, it’s a term I have used elsewhere for poems that ‘walk across the page’ to create a characteristic visual shape. I know of no poet in English who has set out lines in that way. To my eye, it has something of the wrap-around, asymmetrical grace of a sari, and I carefully tried to achieve it in my translations, spending many hours (before the days of word-processing) with scissors and paste, placing pages end to end on the floor so that the whole poem looked right. Some poems of this sort are rhymed in the original, some are unrhymed. So I have also sometimes used (half) rhyme, though not usually in couplets - I distribute the rhymes more widely than that, which means the reader may not notice them; yet the discipline they exert is real, because for every line-ending I need a partner for it somewhere - a line half-rhyming or even fully rhyming with it somewhere. 

I could go on and on, but nuts and bolts lose their interest after a while except to the person fixing them, so I shall restrain myself from offering you even more technicalities! The important point to stress is that Tagore would not be a great poet if he was not also such a brilliant technician; and a translator who wants to convey Tagore’s technical brilliance to the full has to command an equivalent range of techniques in his own language. 

Now for some of the other elements mentioned earlier. Of course all these elements overlap and interact; but for the purposes of analysis it is possible to distinguish them. 

1. Language 

Like all truly great poets, Tagore is able to incorporate into his diction the whole history of his language with its roots in Sanskrit, and also take the language forward with his many innovations. The translator of Tagore has to aspire to a similar depth and range in his own use of language.

 I am not myself a good classical linguist, whether in Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. But my mother Betty Radice was a distinguished classical scholar and translator, and I must have acquired from her an early awareness of levels in the English language, from the classical through the poetic and romantic to the modern and colloquial. When I sense that Tagore is using richly classical words - and I particularly like those poems where he does - I try to use an equivalently classical (Latinate) vocabulary in English. Listen, for example, to part of Briksha-bandana (‘In Praise of Trees’, 1931), first in Bengali, then in my English translation.

                     he nistabdha, he mahagambhir, 
biryere bandhiya dhairye santirup dekhale saktir.
tai asi tomar asraye santidiksha labhibare,
sunite mauner mahabani; duscintar gurubhare,
natasirsha bilunthite syam-saumyacchayatale taba -
praner udar rup, ras-rup nitya naba naba,
bisvajayi bir-rup, dharanir banirup tar
labhite apan prane.

                     O profound, 
Silent tree, by restraining valour
With patience, you revealed creative
Power in its peaceful form. Thus we come
To your shade to learn the art of peace,
To hear the word of silence; weighed down 
With anxiety, we come to rest
In your tranquil blue-green shade, to take
Into our souls life rich, life ever
Juvenescent, life true to earth, life

Even those who do not know Bengali will, I am sure, recognise words here that are part of the all-Indian classical Sanskrit heritage. My translation is thus full of Latin words: profound, restrain, patience, tranquil, juvenescent, omni-victorious. A compound such as ‘omni-victorious’ is there to capture the effect of Tagore’s Sanskrit compounds. To use too many would be artificial and unnatural in English; but one or two add flavour to the whole, like subtle dabs of colour in a painting.

 At the other end of the spectrum there is the use by Tagore, especially in his gadya-kabita (vers libre), of the vocabulary and idioms of ordinary Bengali speech. A translator has to be alert to these too. Recently I read my translation of Phanki (‘Deception’, 1918) to an audience in London, and was pleased to find how natural and easy it was to read. I did not find it difficult to inject the right tones of humour and rapture and pathos into the reading, because the inflexions of Bengali seemed to have entered my English - despite all the cultural differences. Here is the young wife Binu, who is incurably ill, responding with delight to everything she sees when her husband takes her away from the city by train for a change of air:

     At Bilaspur station we had to change trains;
                We got down hurriedly.
Six hours to fill in the waiting-room:
     They seemed an age to me.
           But Binu said, ‘Why? It’s good to wait.’
     There seemed no limit to her delight.
           The journey was a flute that made her want to dance:
                Waiting, moving were made one by her happiness.
                     She opened the door of the waiting-room and said,
           ‘Look, look at those horse-carts passing -
     And can you see? That calf over there, how shiny and plump it is,
                What deep love in its mother’s eyes!
          And next to that steep-sided pond over there,
    That little fenced-in house under sisu-trees,
                     Near the railway-line,
Is it the station-master’s? What a lovely place to live.’
You don’t need to know much Bengali to sense the same poignant delight in the original phrasing: 
                   … ‘dekho dekho, ekkagari keman cale.
ar dekhecho? - bachurti oi, a mare yai, cikan nadhar deha,
                mayer cokhe ki sugabhir sneha!…’
2. Feeling
That last example, so exquisite in its feeling, so perfectly articulated in the natural rhythms of its words, may cast doubt on whether it is possible to detach ‘feeling’ in a poem from the rhythms, sounds, words and images by which that feeling is expressed. But in a post-modern age in which art - or so-called art! - often seems utterly divorced from feeling, it is worth stressing that for Rabindranath as a poet, fiction-writer, dramatist, song-writer, even as a painter, the feeling behind a work, what he liked to call its rupa-bheda or ‘emotional idea’, was central and primary. No feeling, no art. It was as simple as that.

 Let us consider one of his simplest, most celebrated poems, one that even now most Bengali schoolchildren learn by heart: Tal-gach (‘Palm-tree’, 1922). Here it is in my translation.

Palm-tree:      single-legged giant,
                        topping the other trees,
                               peering at the firmament -
It longs            to pierce the black cloud-ceiling
                        and fly away, away,
                                if only it had wings.

The tree          seems to express its wish             
                         in the tossing of its head:
                                its fronds heave and swish -
It thinks,           Maybe my leaves are feathers, 
                         and nothing stops me now
                                from rising on their flutter.

All day              the fronds on the windblown tree
                         soar and flap and shudder
                                as though it thinks it can fly,
As though        it wanders in the skies,
                         travelling who knows where,
                                wheeling past the stars -

And then           as soon as the wind dies down,
                          the fronds subside, subside:
                                the mind of the tree returns 
To earth,           recalls that earth is its mother:
                          and then it likes once more
                                its earthly corner.

You may think that the poem originates essentially in a visual image, that of a palm-tree fluttering in the breeze. Yet Tagore’s imagery is never purely visual: indeed
The Post Office
tr. by William Radice, and
set as a play-within-a-play
by Jill Parvin (The Tagore Centre,
UK, 1996)
I do not think of him as a particularly visual poet. The fons et origo of this poem is the rupa-bheda or ‘emotional idea’ of a tree as a child, wanting to escape the earth, fly into the sky, into the realm of the imagination; but then wanting to stay with its earth-mother after all, for the love and security she offers. The feeling in the poem is the same as is found in Amal in The Post Office: the same poignancy too, as the palm-tree cannot actually leave the earth, any more than the mortally ill Amal can leave his home. The poem’s feeling is then uniquely expressed in its language, rhythm and structure. I always feel that in verses 2 and 3 the poem goes further and further - it’s hard to say where the exact climax is, because the palm-tree cannot reach what it aspires to. Sometimes an artist is at his greatest in his simplest productions, just as Schumann was at his greatest in the little piano piece called Träumerei (‘Dreaming’ - how ‘Palm-tree’ reminds me of that!), or Chopin could be at his greatest in a simple Mazurka. I love Tagore’s more elaborate poems, but I sense his greatness just as strongly in a poem like this, because its quality of feeling is so strong and true. 

3. Moral depth
I think imagery, as we have seen in the last example, is very hard to detach from feeling in Tagore, so I shall pass on to his qualities of moral depth and seriousness. One thing - perhaps the main thing - that makes a writer profound is the way in which his works continue to speak to subsequent generations. What Homer said in the Iliad, what Shakespeare said in Hamlet, still seems vitally important to us, despite huge differences between our societies and theirs. The sobriquet ‘prophet’ is often applied to Tagore, but as a rather slipshod synonym for ‘sage’ or ‘seer’ or ‘guru’. Personally, I am much more interested in the way he was a prophet in a more clear-cut sense: the way in which his poems are often deeply prophetic of preoccupations and anxieties today. 

Take Pakshi-manab, which I earlier quoted for its verse-form in my translation, and which now I should like to read to you complete.

Satanic machine, you enable man to fly.
       Land and sea had fallen to his power: 
              All that was left was the sky. 

God has given as gift a bird’s two wings.
       From the flash of feathery line and colour
              Spiritual joy springs.

Birds are companions to the clouds: blue space
      And great winds and brightly-coloured birds
              Are all of the same race.

The rhythms in the life and play of birds belong
      To the wind; from the sky’s music comes
              Their energy and song.

Thus each dawn throughout the forests of the earth
      Light, when it wakes, unites with birdsong
              In one harmonious birth.

In the great peace beneath the immense sky,
      The dancing waves of birds quiver
              Like wavelets rippling by.

Age after age through birds the life-spirit speaks:
      It is carried by birds along tracks of air
              To far-flung forests and peaks.

Today what do we see? And what is its meaning?
      The banner of arrogance has taken wing,
             Proud and overweening.

This thing has not been blessed by the life-divinity.
      The sun disowns it, neither does the moon
            Feel any affinity.

In the brutal roaring of an aeroplane we hear
      Incompatibility with sky,
           Destruction of atmosphere.

High among the clouds, in the heavens, its din
      Adds new blasphemous grating laughter
           To man’s catalogue of sin.

I feel the age we live in is drawing to a close -
      Upheavals threaten, gather the pace
            Of a storm that nothing slows.

Hatred and envy swell to violent conflagration:
      Panic spreads down from the skies,
            From their growing devastation.

If nowhere in the sky there is left a space
      For gods to be seated, then, Indra,
            Thunderer, may you place

At the end of this history your direst instruction:
      A last full stop written in the fire
            Of furious total destruction.

Hear the prayer of an earth that is stricken with pain:
      In the green woods, O may the birds
            Sing supreme again.

What could be more expressive than this of our deep-seated fears about the effect of our modern technological civilisation on the natural world? It could almost be adopted as an anthem by Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund. Tagore’s theme here is urgent, probing, deeply moral. It takes a great poet to capture such anxieties, and the articulation of them in this way can, I believe, have a powerfully activist influence: people can be inspired by a poem like this to take action against the dangers it describes. 

In a humbler way, I gave voice to the same anxieties in a little poem of my own, published in The Retreat (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1995). Quite possibly Tagore’s poem, which I had translated ten years earlier, lay behind it:

I’m painting a fence, 
Listening to a bird. 
Plane flies over: 
Bird can’t be heard. 

If all the planes in the world 
Shared the same space, 
And all the birds in the world 
Were in the same place, 

Which would be louder? 
The singing or the roar?
It should be the birds, 
But I’m not quite sure. 

4. Wit 

In the image of Rabindranath Tagore that both he and his admirers constructed outside Bengal - in India as well as in the rest of the world - wit did not really feature. And this was a loss, not only because wit is attractive in itself, but because it is, as I earlier argued, a vital constituent of what he called purnata, ‘wholeness’: a manifestation of humanity, tolerance and wisdom (as well as irony and barbed satire, which he could also employ sometimes). 

I myself have only gradually discovered the wit of Tagore’s writing, and it may show more in Particles, Jottings, Sparks - especially Particles (Kanika) - than in Selected Poems. But wit can be found in that volume too. Think of the sparrow in The Sick-bed 6 (1940):

O my day-break sparrow - 
In my last moments of sleepiness,
While there is still some darkness,
Here you are tapping on the window-pane,
Asking for news
And then dancing and twittering
Just as your whim takes you.
Your pluckily bobbing tail
Cocks a snook at all restrictions.
When magpie-robins chirrup at dawn,
Poets tip them.
When a hidden koel-bird hoots all day
Its same unvarying fifth,
So high is its rating
It gets the applause of Kalidasa
Ahead of all other birds.
You couldn’t care less -
You never keep to the scale -
To enter Kalidasa’s room
And chatter
And mess up his metres
Amuses you greatly….*
Or the touching exchange with the young Sunayani in Mayurer drishti (‘In the Eyes of a Peacock’, 1939), with its pun on her name, sunayanii’ meaning ‘lovely-eyed’, but shunayanii’ being based on the Bengali verb shonaa,’ ‘to hear’:
Suddenly I hear a voice - 
    ‘Grandfather, are you writing?’ 
       Someone else has come - not a peacock this time 
          But Sunayan?, as she is called in the house, 
       But whom I call ?un?yan? because she listens so well.
    She has the right to hear my poems before anyone else.
       I reply, ‘This won’t appeal to your sensitive ears:
          It’s vers libre.’
But even in a romantic poem of viraha such as Meghaduta (‘The Meghaduta’, 1890), there are touches of wit that are both in tune with - and an addition to - the courtly Kalidasa tradition:

  See how the Siddha women languishing on a cloud-blue rock 
  Revel in the cloud’s looming coolness; but at the sudden onset of its storm 
  Cower, rush back to their caves 
  Clutching their clothes and crying, ‘Help, 
  Help, it’ll blow the mountains down!’

Notice that in the Bengali the Siddha women can speak just like village women, despite the chaste and classical ornateness of the poem as a whole:

… ‘Ma go, giri-sringa uraila bujhi!’I could go on picking out favourite lines and passages for some time, but if these have been enough to make you smile, then my point has been made. It takes a great poet to write poetry that makes us smile, for second-rate poetry that tries to be funny is not witty at all - merely irritating.

* * *

By now you have evidence, I hope, for Tagore’s greatness as a poet, which may not be quite what people instantly think of when his greatness is mentioned, but which to my mind demonstrates his true poetic greatness, whatever his other attributes of greatness as a man.

 But the question remains, is there a connection between his purely poetic greatness and those other attributes? Could he have been a bad man, and still have been a great poet? 

We know very well from the history of art and literature that there have been many poets, novelists, painters or composers who have been pretty flawed as human beings, and there is no reason at all why a poet should be a saint. But I would, nonetheless, argue that Tagore’s poetic genius was special in character in a way that was closely connected to his qualities as a man. 

I am not so much thinking of what he was admired for in the West: a spiritual, sacramental quality in Gitanjali that was matched by his sacerdotal demeanour and appearance; a quality highlighted by W. B. Yeats in his famous - and perhaps dangerously influential - Introduction to that book, and which in Germany caused Count Hermann Keyserling and other somewhat hysterical admirers to liken Tagore to Jesus Christ.

 Rather, I am thinking of a lucidity in his writing that was intimately linked to his sincerity and moral depth; a goodness that was part and parcel with his compassionate intensity of feeling. Since all the elements I have discussed combined to form his power of poetic mind, one word that I have not thought of before - and which seems to have summative qualities appropriate to Rabindranath - occurs to me now: mindfulness. To be mindful is to have a wise and strong mind, to be sure; but it also implies consideration, tact, decorum, reverence and sympathy. Tagore was not perfect. I can think of occasions when he did lose his patience, speak out angrily against his better judgement, round bitterly on his critics. But he did always try to be mindful, to keep all points of view in mind, the whole complexity of an issue in mind, all people’s feelings in mind. And generally he succeeded.

 This brings me back to Sujata Chaudhuri, who also had an extraordinary, quiet, radiant quality of mindfulness. I never saw her show anything other than consideration and kindness. I never heard her utter anything petty or uncharitable. She had that reverence for children and animals that we find in the wisest souls. (I can hear her now, calling the birds to come each morning to be fed: ‘Ay pakhi ay, ay pakhi ay…’). Yet there was nothing piously goody-goody about her. She was witty. I can remember her laughing till tears streamed down her face.

 I have often said to people: ‘How lucky I am to have chosen Bengali to learn and study. Bengalis, at their best, are such nice people. They have never done any real harm in the world. And their culture, in modern times, has produced a number of outstanding geniuses.’ I have also wondered if the qualities I admire in Bengalis can in part be attributed to the influence of those geniuses, especially Tagore. Was Sujata Chaudhuri an example of someone who was moulded, in part, by Tagore’s genius?

 My Bengali friends might well point to injustices, inefficiency and squalor in much of Kolkata or Dhaka, and vehemently dismiss my theory. But Bengalis are proud as well as wittily self-mocking; in their hearts they know they have some virtues from which the world can learn.

 I have certainly learnt a lot from them, and especially from friends such as Sujata Chaudhuri. The day on which she died, her son Sukanta told me that she had left instructions that there should be no sraddha, no religious rituals after her death. When I asked her daughter-in-law Supriya whether this stemmed from her Brahmo upbringing, she said that she did not think this was so, as Brahmos go in for plenty of ritual of their own. Rather, it may have derived from the radical step she took by her marriage, which took both her and her (Brahmin) husband away from their respective religious backgrounds to a common ground of understanding that was completely inclusive of all good-hearted people, whatever their caste, religion or class. It was a ground on which I could certainly always feel completely at home.

 I think this common ground is what Tagore wanted. He wasn’t interested in any kind of narrow, exclusive religious goal:

pather prante amar tirtha nay,
    pather du dhare ache mor debalay.
For that reason, as well as my long acquaintance with the Chaudhuri family, it seemed appropriate for me to join the small group that accompanied her body to the smasan (the famous Nimtala Ghat where Rabindranath was cremated), and to touch her feet there with a simple gesture that has nothing to do with being a Hindu or Christian or of no religion at all. It is that spirit that I hope has guided this lecture: her spirit, Tagore’s spirit, and the spirit that was tragically abused during Gujarat’s recent riots, but which I am sure will also help Gujarat to emerge from that dark period. The simple spirit, in fact, of all people of kindness, intelligence and good will. 

The lecture was first published in pamphlet form on the day it was delivered by Rabindra Bhavan in Ahmedabad. Published in Parabaas May 7, 2003.

* I was saddened to read in a newspaper in Delhi that sparrows are disappearing from its streets, just as they have mysteriously disappeared from the streets and parks of London.

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