Rabindranath Tagore sailed to England in May 1912 for the third time. At the residence of the British artist William Rothenstein, Yeats read out the translations from Gitanjali to the august audience that included some of the best-known names in the literary fraternity of the day. The chain of events, which has passed into legends, is too long to be narrated here. It made the West sit up and recognize, as Yeats put it, a poet who was “greater than any of us.”
Present on that evening was also a young American poet Ezra Pound, then a foreign correspondent for the new Chicago magazine Poetry. He hastened to write its editor Harriet Monroe, “This is THE Scoop. Reserve space in next number for Tagore...He has sung Bengal into a nation, and his English version of the poems is very wonderful.”[i] Harriet Monroe was quick to print six of Gitanjali translations rendered into English by Tagore in the December 1912 issue of Poetry. It opened up an opportunity for the West’s discovery of Tagore and marked the beginning of America’s renewed interest in Indian scholarship.
It may sound coincidental that between 1912 and 1913 while she developed an acquaintance with Tagore in the United States, Harriet Monroe had been advocating the poetic modes of Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She commented that Whitman created a mass audience and ‘released the essential humanity of man,’ and Dickinson wrote for a select, private audience and ‘created the essential humanity of man.’[ii]
Along with her friend Amy Lowell, Monroe hailed Emily Dickinson as “an original” and the first Imagist. She was for them a figure of audacity, of freedom, of daring and of rebellion. Monroe reviewed The Single Hound in the December 1914 issue of Poetry, describing Dickinson as “an unconscious and uncatalogued Imagist.”[iii] Her comments on Dickinson’s poetry may equally apply in theory to an evaluation of Tagore’s poetry:
They are sudden flashes into the deep well of a serene and impregnable human soul, sure of the truth in solitude. They celebrate the eternal theme – search for the mystery, the meaning of life, the relation of the human soul to the beloved of this world and of the world of vision beyond; and especially they illumine the soul’s quest of the infinite, of God.[iv]
This leads us to the obvious question whether Tagore had any knowledge about Emily Dickinson or whether he read any of her poems. During his five visits to the United States, Tagore must have familiarized himself with the contemporary American literature. He translated poems by Whitman, Amy Lowell and Eliot. Tagore made no mention of Dickinson though the period coincided with the resurrection of the Amherst poet. Tagore spent a considerable time in the companionship of Harriet Monroe. Did not Monroe tell the visiting Indian poet about “an original” poet of her country? Editing a book titled The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917), Monroe included nine poems “by the great Bengali poet and sage, Rabindranath Tagore, whose mastery of English makes him a poet in two languages,” and also mentioned in her introductory note about the poems by the “intensely modern, nobly impassioned, lyric poet” Emily Dickinson.[v] It can be safely guessed that Tagore was aware of the anthology. Tagore and Dickinson, the distinguished poets from the East and the West respectively, stayed almost in the same house but never met.
It is not the meeting in person, but the meeting of minds that attracts our attention to these apparently divergent personalities. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Emily Dickinson (1831-1886) represented different cultures and traditions. Tagore was a young poet at twenty-five when Dickinson breathed her last, unknown and uncelebrated as a poet, in the distant Amherst in the United States. Persons of extraordinary vision and broader outlook, they could however establish themselves as world citizens by transcending petty geographical barriers.
The copious volumes Tagore wrote and the successful ventures into almost all the genres of literature make him comparable only to the likes of Goethe. Dickinson can only be a poor match to that, having scribbled some 1700 poems and a large number of letters. But the idea of death enamored them both in different ways. Dickinson seems to be obsessed with the idea, unlike Tagore who forayed into varied branches though the focus was never ignored. We can see convergence of ideas in some of them that will be the subject of discussion in this article.
For about fifteen years the Dickinsons lived on Pleasant Street in Amherst near the village cemetery. The experience of observing the death rituals from close quarters heightened Dickinson’s awareness of the end of life. She had often been accused of morbidity and “graveyardism” but her fascination with death was nothing but an authentic response to a popular cultural genre that fed on its own dark romance. Tagore witnessed death in the family and even had to cope up with the loss of his son and daughters and wife. He maintained a stoic silence and reiterated his faith in his Jibandebata – the Lord of life. He imbibed the Upanisadic spirit of oneness in all the manifestations of Nature.
In complete contrast to the widely publicized life of Rabindranath Tagore, which I desist from describing for fear of duplication[vi], Emily Dickinson preferred a life beyond the reach of the prying eyes even in her native village of Amherst in Massachusetts. Her life was an enigma: only a miniscule part of her about seventeen hundred poems had been published during her lifetime anonymously. After her death was found the bulk of poetry stitched in separate packets or fascicles, mostly untitled and undated, some of which were incomplete and scribbled on pieces of paper. Emily Dickinson was known in the village as Squire Dickinson’s daughter and not as a poet: “the prophet had no fame in his immediate Town.”
By the time she reached the age of thirty, she consciously settled for a world of seclusion, far away from the crowd, and more significantly, from the Church, cloistered in her “Father’s ground” for the rest of the life. Theories abound regarding her unusual decision to stay away from the world around: her disenchantment with the prevalent practices of the Church, a failed love episode, her father’s stubbornness to accept her lover and other psychoanalytic reasons as well. Her love life has been thinly documented and thickly embroidered. Her spiritual waters were disturbed as she could not conform to the religious norms of the day: “Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered … and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless” (Letters#94). Always dressed in white gown, she lived a life that saw alternate emotions of ecstasy and depression. In solitude, she lived a life that was way ahead of her contemporaries.
Death is as old as earth itself. The simplest meaning of death is a total cessation of life process but it can be approached in different perspectives also. The popular perceptions of death have been depicted in poetry, literature, legend and pictorial art. The deeper insights seem to have appeared in literature, rather than in philosophy.
In the late Middle Ages in Europe, the danse macabre and Ars Moriendi traditions developed and flourished. The immense fear generated by the physical annihilation led to the clinical observation at the hour of death during this period. Villon records it for the benefit of his readers:
Death trembles him and bleeds him pale,
the nostrils pinch, the veins distend,
the neck is gorged, skin limp and frail.
Joints knot and sinews draw and rend.[vii]
During the twelfth century, the biography of individual life was closely associated with death. It was believed that “each person’s entire life flashed before his eyes at the moment of death” and “that his attitude at that moment would give his biography its final meaning, its conclusion.” During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the idea of the Last Judgment shifted from happening at the end of the world to the end of each life, to the precise moment of one’s death. The focus was now on the bedchamber, around the deathbed: “The dying man is lying in bed surrounded by his friends and relations... something is happening which disturbs the simplicity of the ceremony and which those present do not see. It is a spectacle reserved for the dying man alone and one which he contemplates with a bit of anxiety and a great deal of indifference.”[viii]
There is no such bedchamber observation by Tagore in any of his poems, save a portion of Mrityur pare (After Death, Chitra, 1896), but Dickinson followed her Puritan belief to enquire about a dying person’s physical condition. She believed that the dying person could be privy to some secret of a superior knowledge undisclosed to the living ones:
I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something – as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
’Twere blessed to have seen –
Beginning sixteenth century we encounter another major phenomenon linking the theme of death with eroticism. Bernini juxtaposed the images of the death agony and the orgasmic trance while portraying the mystic union of St. Theresa of Avila with God. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the idea of associating death with love, Thanatos with Eros gained momentum in art and in literature:
Like the sexual act, death was henceforth increasingly thought of as a transgression which tears man from his daily life, from rational society, from his monotonous work, in order to make him undergo a paroxysm, plunging him into an irrational, violent, and beautiful world… This idea of rupture is something completely new.[x]
There is a curious parallel between Tagore and Dickinson: they idealized death through various forms and figures. They tried to probe the unknown, and more than success, faced an uncomforting failure in the process. But the shared failure and ecstasy in finding the answers ensured that the sting of death be domesticated and tamed. Death as lover or death associated with brides, bridegrooms or weddings appear in several poems of Dickinson, as also of Tagore.
When the earthly love affair or marriage fails, the death-marriage takes place. In a dreamful expectancy of a union even after death, Dickinson writes:
Think of it Lover! I and Thee
Permitted - face to face to be -
After a Life - A Death - We’ll say -
For Death was that -
And this - is Thee -
Tagore also pines for the union:
O Death my dearest, my life, my Lord,
When shall we be united?
When shall we leave the deathbed of life?
(25th Canto, Bhagna-hriday, 1881)
and again writes elsewhere:
Love, my heart longs day and night for the meeting with you - for the meeting that is like all-devouring death … In that devastation, in the utter nakedness of spirit, let us become one in endless beauty.
(Purno Milan: Complete Union, Kadi o Komal, 1886)
The general idea of death is that of a dreadful, ghastly figure and a ruthless destroyer. What then brings forth the idea of death as lover? Rosemary Gordon examines the two differing ideas about death and her conclusion is an indicator to the creative ambivalence of Tagore and Dickinson:
It is possible that a person’s attitude to death depends upon what may tentatively be called his position on a wholeness-separateness axis. That is to say, a person who has invested his emotions in the experience of separateness and identity, that is, in the ego and its functions - such as sensations, reason, reality testing, and personal achievement - such a person will regard death as the enemy - the thief, the raper, the ruthless destroyer; for death will take from him all that he values. But the person whose needs are primarily directed towards lessening tensions may look on death as a liberator, a lover, a bringer of peace … Such might be the case of the artist and the mystic.[xi]
The tradition of viewing Christ as the heavenly Bridegroom with the fortunate Elect as His bride was available to Dickinson through the Book of Revelation and the Song of Solomon in the Bible. There has been a tradition in Western literature to view oneself as Christ’s bride and speak the language of love, for example, “For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits” (Tennyson, St. Augustine’s Eve) or, “The bridegroom of my soul I seek/ oh, when will he reappear!” (Cowper). In Interior Castle, St. Teresa says: “He has bound Himself to her as firmly as two human beings are joined in wedlock and will never separate Himself from her.” The medieval theologian Richard of Saint-Victor described and explained the “steep stairway of love” made of betrothal, marriage, wedlock, and fruitfulness.[xii] Referring to the Holy Trinity, Dickinson almost describes her marriage into death and immortality in biblical language:
Given in Marriage unto Thee
Oh thou Celestial Host -
Bride of the Father and the Son
Bride of the Holy Ghost.
In Indian literature, Tagore was the first ever to have distinctly employed the metaphor of marriage of life and death. Tagore obviously polished his idea of love through his reading of Sanskrit classics, the medieval Vaisnava literature and Western literature. Ajit Kumar Chakraborty claims that no other poet had ever attempted to present the life-death duo through a wedding imagery.[xiii]
The fear of death, Tagore says, is like the fear of the newly wed bride who, once acquainted with her husband, sheds away the fear for the sake of a union:
Now that I’ve witnessed your great presence so sweet,
The initial fear of union of the bride has vanished.
The ceremonial flute for wedding fills the sky,
Everywhere I see your lap ready to welcome me.
(Mrityu-madhuri: Tenderness of Death, Chaitali, 1896)
Dickinson anticipates the fear of the union and prepares the soul in such a fashion that the fear gives way to a nobler kind of relationship:
I made my soul familiar - with her extremity -
That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony -
But she, and Death, acquainted -
Meet tranquilly, as friends -
Salute, and pass, without a Hint -
And there, the Matter ends -
She talks of the wedding-night consummation with death in a language that is oblique in expression. Tagore too, as we know, stuck to the art of camouflaging while talking about love and lovemaking. Life as a bold bride invites death to her bedside to indulge in the eerie act:
At that auspicious hour, O Death,
come to my sequestered bedside
in your apparel of the bridegroom.
My soul, your spouse, in deep love
will extend her hand to hold yours,
and then in proper ritual you take her to yourself
and kiss her red lips tight enough to suck them pale.
(Pratiksha: Waiting, Sonar Tari, 1894)[xiv]
The poem ends here and the poet leaves the rest to anyone’s conjecture. But undoubtedly, by its virtue of the overt expression of lovemaking with death, and the quite suggestive silence about the natural culmination of the marriage-chamber meeting, the poem stands unique in the canon of world literature.
Dickinson twists the theme in a metaphysical way by weaving the piano imagery into the theme of an expectant waiting. Her protagonist could be either God, or death, or simply a human lover who transports the speaker beyond her known domain. It is an erotic state of transport united to a mystical beatitude, but should we give it a closer look, the lover fumbling at the soul who prepares her “brittle Nature/For the Ethereal Blow” can unmistakably be identified as death itself:
He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on -
He stuns you by degrees –
The final lines heighten the drama of the meeting between the lovers, cleverly camouflaged by the piano metaphor that helps in bringing sex and death together onto a common platform. The music initially moves slowly that numbs the brain and breath, but soon it takes on enormous form and strikes the “Ethereal Blow”. The final embrace is suggested through the phrase, “Winds take Forests in their Paws” which leaves the universe still (‘Paws’ is an intentional pun on ‘Pause’):
Deals - One - imperial - Thunderbolt -
That scalps your naked Soul -
When Winds take Forests in their Paws -
The Universe - is still -
Dickinson’s style of presenting the acts of sex and death metaphorically reflects the tradition of Victorian literature in which the characters were not allowed to speak of such experiences in direct terms. It had to be oblique, symbolical or camouflaged, more implicit than explicit to suit the taste of the readers. Nevertheless, both the acts of sex and death could be described through common expressions like ‘passion’, ‘consummation’, and ‘ecstasy’. Regina Barreca holds forth her analysis of the shifting of passion in Victorian literature in the following words:
Death involved high passion…. The passions of desire were shifted on to the passions of death through a metaphysical and metaphorical sleight of hand. Approaching death, a character could be described in detailed physical terms, could achieve a heightened bodily, even sensual, awareness, experience an ecstatic, profound and epiphanic transformation which, under other more favourable circumstances, would certainly appear orgasmic in nature.[xv]
Are there any points of intersection between the two? Sex and death have the audacious potential to break away from the order. Sex breaks the set rules of society that dictates moral restraint and death breaks into the cocoon of life unannounced with an intensity that is only comparable to the all-pervading, all-devouring sex-urge. Both experiences produce ecstatic, out-of-body feelings. In Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”, the protagonist says: “The body, love, death, these three are only one. For the body is sickness and voluptuousness and it is this that causes death, yes, they are carnal – both of them, love and death, and that is their terror and their great magic.” A sense of timelessness signifies both sex and death - the loss of self during the ‘eternity in a moment’ of orgasm is reflected in the loss of self in death.
The idea of Jibandebata or the Lord of Life was one of the leading philosophical concepts of Tagore. The language of submission to the Lord is explicit:
My lord, have you drunk enough of me? I have crushed my breast like vineyards, filling your cup with my joys and sorrows. With colors and odors I have woven your nuptial bed, and with many a tune and rhythm. Of the molten gold of desire I have made images for your momentary play.
(Jibandebata: The Lord of Life, Chitra, 1896)
It exhibits the conjunction of eroticism with spirituality. The speaker is a devoted wife out to please her lord. The poem includes erotic expressions like the ‘breast’, ‘vineyards’, ‘desire’ and the ‘nuptial bed’. Edward Thompson felt “more than a breath of miasma about all [this] zenana imagery, … [these] endless references to the first night of nuptials.”[xvi] Themes of marriage, marriage-chamber, midnight ordeal of the maiden and the like do appear in many of Tagore’s poems, and sometimes these themes are over-used to the extent of a dull reading. Much of these are found in the Chitra (1896) period till part of Kheya (1906) period, and also in Gitanjali (1913):
O thou the last fulfilment of life, Death, my death, come and whisper to me! Day after day have I kept watch for thee; for thee have I borne the joys and pangs of life…The flowers have been woven and the garland is ready for the bridegroom. After the wedding the bride shall leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.
(No.91, Gitanjali, 1913)
The last lines of Jibandebata shift the focus onto a new identity reachable only through marriage: “Make me new, my love, new once again, and bind me anew in your marriage-bond.” Dickinson’s God is, to some extent, also a product of her wish fulfilment for marriage. He is the lover and the groom who will ultimately lead her to the nuptial bed. She feels that “wifehood, complete with physical union, will be realized not in vision, but in actual immortality - Death.”[xvii] Her crisis of identity could only be resolved through the conferment of wifehood.
Of the many bridal poems specifically dealing with the theme of death, Dickinson’s “Death is the supple Suitor” (J#1445) bears a striking resemblance to Tagore’s “Death-wedding” (Maran-milan, Utsarga, 1914). Both these poems chart the symbolic journey of death in the guise of a suitor. Dickinson enumerated the inherent virtues of Death in an earlier poem:
Bold as a Brigand!
Stiller than a Fleet!
In the play of love, the terror of death is often put aside and life willingly drinks the nectar, if not the venom, churned out of such close encounter:
Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last -
It is a stealthy Wooing
By pallid innuendoes
And dim approach
At first, death comes as a gentle suitor because it is a “stealthy Wooing”, trying to attract the attention of the girl with “pallid innuendoes” and “dim approach” but it “wins at last”. The maiden is ready to accompany the suitor but the territory lies beyond her ken:
But brave at last with Bugles
And a bisected Coach
It bears away in triumph
To Troth unknown
The poem suggests stages in the life of the girl being wooed by death. With the advent of death she changes from a girl to a virgin with whom the ways of courtship should not cross the limit of societal traditions. She still belongs to this world with the group of known friends and people around. In the second stage, the ceremony of marriage is conducted in almost a royal fervor accompanied by the sound of “brave Bugles”. Now she is transformed as the bride. Death the bridegroom “bears [her] away in triumph/To Troth unknown” in “a bisected Coach”. The odd vehicle could be an indication to the dual personality of the bride, who as a virgin knew the inevitability of death and after being conferred the status of wifehood, was still unaware of the state after death. Charles Anderson ascribes the three stages of the poem to the transformation of “the suitor into bridegroom and prospective husband” which he says, “correspond to the awareness of death, the act of death and the state after death.”[xviii]
Tagore’s “The Aimless Voyage” (Niruddesh Jatra, Sonar Tari, 1894) highlights the confusion of ‘Troth unknown.’ The speaker is taken on a voyage with a mysterious lady at the helm of the boat. The journey has not been thrust upon the speaker: there is no compulsion or artificiality attached; the speaker willingly accompanies the lady because it is an unalterable, pre-destined course. The lady could be the Muse of the poet or the ideal Beauty. There are references to the “fragrance of her body” and her “hair fluttering in the wind”, but the lady in question does not speak a word till the end of the poem. There are only questions and possible suggestions that the poet makes at the end of the day: “Once again I ask you: is it death that this darkness holds, is it peace, is it slumber?” The suggestions speak for themselves – they are greeted with no direct answer about the Great Unknown.
Like Dickinson’s “Death is the supple Suitor”, Tagore’s “Death-wedding” is also marked by stealthy wooing at the initial stage:
Why do you speak so softly, Death, Death,
Creep upon me, watch me so stealthily?
This is not how a lover should behave.[xix]
The speaker wants death to be more forthcoming and bold to win her over:
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!
Life waits in all readiness for the arrival of death - there is not a single note of dissension, no quarrel and no qualms about the bridegroom. “This poem is so daring and triumphant. We see the two partners dissolving in each other in such a cosmic way,” says Buddhadeva Bose, “that I come to feel, ‘Gitanjali’ apart, this is the loftiest poem about death by Rabindranath.”[xx]
Tagore makes use of Hindu mythological elements to describe this unique ethereal wedding. According to Hindu mythology, the union between Siva, the non-Aryan destroyer-god belonging to the Hindu trio, and his consort Gauri or Parvati, is considered to be a balancing act of the opposites in nature. Siva, the rustic groom, has been ascribed the role of Death in this poem and Gauri, the bride, is Life waiting for the wedding with Death. The courtship and the love-death relationship are at the same time, gentle and wild. The symbols have been artistically engaged to bridge the two seemingly irreconcilable opposites in a union that transcend ordinary definitions. Terming these as ‘comprehensive’ or ‘Mythological ideas’, C. Kerenyi writes:
This kind of equivalence only exists in a given sphere, in an immediately recognizable spiritual connection that can combine very different things, such as marriage and death, in one comprehensive idea. Mythological ideas are like the compact buds of such connections. They always contain more than the non-mythological mind could conceive.[xxi]
Dickinson’s well-known poem “Because I could not stop for Death” (J#712) finds an almost parallel projection in Tagore’s “On the Edge of the Sea” (Sindhu-paare, Chitra, 1896). Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” is one of the best poems in world literature - discussed and debated variously and quoted generously. Allen Tate says, “If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language… The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition.”[xxii] Tagore makes use of horror and mystery to build up an eerie atmosphere for the poem “On the Edge of the Sea”, which is pregnant with the idea of an after-life or at best, the continuity of life.
Death the bridegroom or as bride is the central metaphor of both these poems. The main point of similarity between these two poems lies in the presentation of love-death symbolism through “subtly inter-fused erotic motive, which the idea of death has presented to every romantic poet, love being a symbol interchangeable with death.”[xxiii] Death eroticism developed into a complicated yet steady cult of emotions involving love, sex, and death. In the Romantic Age, death “was not only anthropomorphized but also eroticized and cast in the role of the bridegroom or the bridegroom of the soul”[xxiv] which is more true of Dickinson’s poem under discussion.
Dickinson’s poem starts with a simple statement about a buggy ride with death-the-lover that takes the speaker on a drive to Eternity:
Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
In New England, riding with young men was a socially accepted custom. However, it was not customary for the lady to ask for a ride, the initial invitation should be made by the gentleman. Contrary to the general notion of death as a ruthless destroyer, he has been presented as a genteel driver, marked by “Civility” and kindliness. The speaker, initially not ready to stop for death, is totally captivated by his silent courtship and decides to “put away/My labor and my leisure too, /For His Civility”. What could be the reason for life to abandon all its labor and leisure? Wasn’t it a chance acquaintance? There is suggestion in the poem that though the persona or the speaker seemed a little shy initially, this was in no way a chance acquaintance: Death was rather a known suitor to Life. She was ready to forsake everything so as to accept the honorable role of woman and a wife, as Dickinson writes in another poem:
She rose to His Requirement - dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife -
Death seems to be in complete command - he drives slowly showing no indication of haste. They pass through three stages of human life:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess - in the Ring -
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain -
We passed the Setting Sun –
These three stages of human life have been tactically described in the poem through the imagery of the children playing ring games at the school (Childhood), fields of grain (Maturity) and that of the setting sun (Old age). It also conforms to the image of the young lovers driving on a carriage to the open countryside characterized by the fields of grain and the sun setting down at the distant horizon. Now that all the paraphernalia of life have been left behind and even the setting sun’s warmth has been withdrawn, this unique couple breaks away from the time and space and enters the zone of timelessness. And Death, for the first time since the beginning of the poem, sheds away the gentle appearance and makes its real presence felt: “The Dews drew quivering and chill-/For only Gossamer, my Gown -/My Tippet - only Tulle”. The speaker is on her way for the last and final marriage. Henry W. Wells notes, “Long after she confined herself within her house, ceasing to travel in any actual coach, she took these imaginary rides with her mysterious friend… Death was her chariot of triumph. The horses were Pegasean; Death was Apollo; and this was the chariot of her song.”[xxv]
In Tagore’s poem, death takes the form of “a woman sitting on a black horse,/ Veiled, utterly motionless like an image in a picture.” It is a winter night and the speaker has been fast asleep when someone called out his name. Awake from the slumber, he sees the woman on the horse just in front of the door. Both the poems of Dickinson and Tagore seem to have derived this image of death from the Book of Revelation: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death” (Revelation 6:8). While Dickinson presents death as a smart beau in New England culture, Tagore draws up a model that is supernatural and shrouded in mystery. The atmosphere and the dramatis personae are intended to suggest an occult design. The speaker in the poem is totally captivated by the personality of the lady, but the intimacy which has been suggested by “held but just Ourselves” in Dickinson’s poem is so far missing. The horses whizzed past the familiar scenes but the rider could not precisely remember what he saw. He felt he saw clouds, he felt he saw birds, and tender green leaves. Description of these earthly possessions confirms the idea of leave-taking.
The long journey is made through “Road without end, night without end, places never seen before.” The travellers pass through a mysterious world until they reach the mouth of a cave on an empty sandy beach by the sea that has obvious reference to the grave:
The veiled woman alighted from her horse and I did the same -
I followed her through the darkly yawning entrance of the cave.
We passed through a succession of long dark halls that frightened me,
Suddenly I realized that a door had opened before us -
How can I describe the overwhelming room that we entered?[xxvi]
After an apparently smooth journey, the dandy lover escorts the enamored speaker to a rather weird place that resembles a grave by its physical description:
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground -
The Roof was scarcely visible -
The Cornice - in the Ground –
Long before Tagore and Dickinson painted the idea of a horse-ride with death towards eternity, it was popularized in Lenore (1773), a ballad by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger that transformed the Christian bridegroom of the soul into a personification of death. A good number of translations in English by the likes of D.G. Rossetti, Sir Walter Scott and others made it quite popular in the early nineteenth century England. Tagore might have read the ballad in translation long before his visits to Germany. Lenore, worried about her fiancé Wilhelm or Williams’ expected return from the war, curses God. At night she hears the sound of hoofs outside her door. A horseman “clattering his clanking armour loud” alights and invites her for a ride on the black horse:
Mount by thy true love’s guardian side;
We should ere this full far have sped;
Five hundred destined miles we ride
This night, to reach our nuptial bed...
Meanwhile of brides the flower and prime
I carry to our nuptial bed.
Sexton, thy sable minstrels bring!
Come, priest, the eternal bonds to bless! ...
Come all in festive dance to tread,
Ere on the bridal couch we lie.[xxvii]
Soon she realizes that her lover is not a living being but Death himself. The priests solemnize the marriage while the skeleton horseman reveals his identity and announces: “Our course is done! Our sand is run! / The nuptial bed the bride attend.” The nuptial bed, as we observed in Tagore’s poem, turns out to be the coffin or deathbed.
In Dickinson’s poem, death did make some kindly gesture but the whole journey was spent in silence. The veiled woman in Tagore’s poem is also a silent companion whose orders cannot be defied. Even the poet’s question in desperation - “Who are you, why are you cruel and silent, where have you brought me?” - is greeted with just a mysterious smile. In the cave at the stroke of a magic wand, there appears a wedding-party and the poet is married to the unknown lady, still veiled, in an uncanny ceremony:
My unknown bride pledged herself to me mutely and I shuddered,
My hand was turned to ice by the touch of her warm supple hand.
Death made its presence felt in Dickinson’s poem with the feeling of “quivering and chill.” In Tagore’s poem, it was made clear through the paradox of “her warm supple hand” and “my hand was turned to ice.” The veiled bride was none but Death - a chilling effect she carried along with her mysterious behavior. Life’s ceremonial wedding to death is thus completed.
From this point onwards, Tagore’s poem digresses from the original theme and the poet surrenders himself to a more humble notion. Some of Tagore’s poems which otherwise throb with romantic appeal and sensual depiction often change their course at the end. Tagore seems to have towed the line of puritanical attitude sustained in the English Protestant tradition that had an influence on the Brahmo Samaj. The young men of the Tagore family “were being given all the psycho-sexual stimuli of a vigorous arts education and being exposed to romantic Western literature”[xxviii] and Tagore had a string of love affair with women of beauty and talent to add to that. His early writings had the audacity of a young poet in celebrating the physical attributes of women and acts of physical union. But as he appeared on the world stage as gurudeb and rishi-kobi, “the unabashed romantic matured into a brooding philospher who combined in himself the premik (lover) and the pujari (worshiper). This erotic ascetic, ...awaited till his dying day, staking all his possessions, the advent of his surreal lover, Jibandebata, the darling deity of life.”[xxix]
After the wedding ceremony is over and as the poet approaches his unknown bride seated on the bed, “flower-strewn as in a dream”, the reader’s expectation is shattered. The erotic ring woven round the wedding ceremony and the marriage-chamber vanishes. At last the mysterious lady heeds to the repeated requests of the poet and she unveils:
When I saw her face I fell at her feet in astonishment -
Tearfully I cried, ‘You, even here, my jiban-debata!’
The daemon whose constant games are the pains and joys of my life
Had revealed its familiar face once again, in this unknown world.
I kissed the woman’s pure soft lotus-feet in grief and wonder -
I could no longer restrain what I suffered and my tears streamed.
The poet’s beloved Death was in a feminine form, but in the concluding lines it transforms into Jibandebata - the Lord of Life who is the incarnation of death and life entwined. This life-god weaves the whole life into one eternal chain, death being one of its numerous beads. Commenting on the poem, Tagore writes in a letter:
While living, we establish a kind of relationship with the life-goddess, which speaks volumes about our happiness and sorrow. At death, we feel someone might shatter that connection. The One who takes it away in the guise of death is the life-goddess herself. When she unveils in the life-after, we will be able to see that same ever-familiar face.
Dickinson’s poem concludes with an optimistic note that prophesizes Tagore’s philosophy of life ad infinitum:
Since then - ‘tis Centuries - and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity -
“In his personal trafficking with divinity,” suggests a critic, “Tagore too had surmised that the horses’ heads were toward eternity.”[xxx] Tagore anticipates the journey with Death toward Eternity in one of his later poems:
In the dim twilight of the day I suddenly saw
Death’s right-arm fastened around Life’s neck,
tied by blood-red thread.
I could recognize both at once -
The bride was accepting
the last, final gift from her groom, Death -
Taking her away on the right-arm toward Eternity.
(No. 37, Rogashajyay, 1940)
[i] Hay, Stephen N. 1962. “Rabindranath Tagore in America.” American Quarterly 14.3 (Fall): 443.
[ii] Keller, Karl. 1979. The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 253.
[iii] Monroe, Harriet. 1914. “Review of The Single Hound.” Poetry 5 (December): 138-140.
[iv] Cited in Karl Keller. 1979. The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 301.
[v] Monroe, Harriet and Alice Corbin Henderson. 1917. Eds. The New Poetry: An Anthology. New York: The Macmillan Company.
[vi] See Narasingha P. Sil. Devotio Humana: Rabindranath’s Love Poems Revisited. (Parabaas; Tagore Section; Feb. 15, 2005).
[vii] Cited in David E. Stannard. 1977. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-28.
[viii] Aries, Philippe. 1974. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 34.
[ix] The poems of Emily Dickinson have been indicated by Johnson numbers – J#1, J#2 and so on – as specified in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown and Company, 1960) and her letters are numbered L#1, L#2 and so on as they appear in The Letters of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958, 3 volumes), both edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
[x] Aries, Philippe. 1974. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 57-58.
[xi] Gordon, Rosemary. 1961. “The Death Instinct and its Relation to the Self.” The Journal of Analytic Psychology 2: 124-25.
[xii] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1974. Vol. 12. 15th edition. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., pp. 790-91.
[xiii] Chakraborty, Ajit Kumar. 1351 B.S. Kavyaparikrama. Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, p. 66.
[xiv] Translation by Debabrata Ganguly.
[xv] Barreca, Regina. 1990. “Introduction: Coming and Going in Victorian Literature.” in Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. Ed. Regina Barreca. London: Macmillan.
[xvi] Thompson, Edward. 1948. Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist. 2nd edition. London: Oxford University Press.
[xvii] “St. Teresa of Avila, Emily Dickinson and the Christian Mystical Vision” in Dickinson Studies, pp. 13-14.
[xviii] Anderson, Charles. 1960. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
[xx] Bose, Buddhadeva. 1980. Kavi Rabindranath. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing, p. 42.
[xxi] Jung, C.G. and C. Kerenyi. 1949. Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and Mysteries of Eleusis. Translated by RFC Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 109.
[xxii] Tate, Allen. 1955. “Emily Dickinson.” In The Man of Letters in the Modern World: Selected Essays, 1928-1955. New York: Meridian, pp. 211-226.
[xxiii] Ibid, pp. 211-226.
[xxiv] Guthke, Karl S. 1999. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, page 165.
[xxv] Wells, Henry W. 1959. Introduction to Emily Dickinson. New York: Hendricks House Inc, pp. 93-103.
[xxvi] Translation by William Radice. In William Radice. 1995. Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
[xxvii] Translation by William Robert Spencer. In Gottfried August Burger. 1797. Lenore. Gottingen: J.C. Dieterich.
[xxix] Sil, Narasingha P. Devotio Humana: Rabindranath’s Love Poems Revisited. (Parabaas; Tagore Section; Feb. 15, 2005).
[xxx] Mukherjee, Sujit. 1964. Passage to America: The Reception of Rabindranath Tagore in the United States, 1912-41. Calcutta: Bookland Private Limited.
Published in Parabaas August 7, 2009.