Jibanananda Das, Post-Rabindrian Bengali Poet

Debashish Banerji

Across the expanse of modern poetry in Bengal falls the tall shadow of Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath indeed could be said to have created the modern Bengali language, bridging its stiffer Sanskritized literary precedents with popular parlance, fashioning a tongue noble, exalted yet supple, sweet and finely nuanced. Sri Aurobindo pays tribute to Rabindranath’s literary achievement in The Future Poetry, noting his ability to express spiritual truths poetically and suggestively, embodying a world of psychic aspirations in his word-music. He points to the force of rhythm, chhanda, as a powerful carrier of the mantric experience, and Rabindranath’s Bengali poetry certainly intones its subtle and exalted wings of flight to the inner hearing.

However, if it is a single primary difference one was asked to identify between the poetry of the late 19th /early 20th century and our present times, the attenuated contemporary concern with rhythm would most definitely be a pre-eminent candidate. Apart from overt elements, such as rhyme, sonic symmetry seems to have discarded even the semblance of metrical regularity, be it that of blank verse or of experimental moulds such as Sri Aurobindo’s proposed stress or quantitative or mixed meters. What accounts for this transition and what, if anything, substitutes the power of rhythm in modern verse, would make an important and interesting study. The comparative flatness of the modern ear is experienced painfully by all readers who awaken to the heartbeat-altering mantric rhythms of Sri Aurobindo’s own poems. Partly of course, I believe, this has to do with the high levels of noise pollution to which urban existence exposes us, rendering the hearing insensitive. But historical reasons related to changes in poetic practice in the 20th century are its more intentional origins.

Modernism in the Arts is Humanism’s correlate of that peculiar 20th century techno-economic phenomenon, Internationalism. It traces the human concerns relating to the appearance of a common urban culture across the world, drastic reductions in the subjective awareness of space and time, an enormously accelerated and all-engrossing world-wide material production system, a rupture from the ideals and continuities of gradually developing traditions. The early 20th century marks the transition to this change, spreading swiftly across the world from the West. Nor are the articulations of these common concerns accidentally homologous; the same vectors of accelerated transport and communication carrying globally the voices and thoughts of dissent and anguish in hearsay and print, and making it possible for distant cultures to recognize the commonalities of the modern phenomenon and echo one another. It is thus that French Symbolism, originating in the late 19th century, can be seen as the founding paradigm of Modernism in Poetry. Sri Aurobindo, commenting on Mallarme, refers to him as the father of modern poetry and indeed, this is true not merely in an European but an international context. The very precision of the French language, its classical lucidity, became an obstacle in the way of writers like Baudelaire and Mallarme, in their articulations of a modern subjectivity. The modern era is characterized by a pervasive technological concentration on the objective and material domain and, as Sri Aurobindo points out, it is inevitable that human consciousness will develop a corresponding deeper and more complex subjectivity in its interpretive and oppositional Humanist stance.

This subjective need, combined with the rational precision of French, drove Mallarme to develop his esoteric symbolism, resting on the power of images and their related associations. But it was Mallrame’s student, Paul Valery, who can be credited with turning this principle into the modern poetic methodology, with his emphasis on conciseness and imagistic density predicated on his observation of modern reading bias. At the turn of the century, Valery noted that the demands of modern civilization would make it less and less possible for individuals to read long and continuous tracts of literature, accurately anticipating contemporary advertisational and televisual culture. The intense accelarated compression of productive time necessitated the presentation of information as tightly packed immediacy-Gestalts, capsules of subjective complexity mentally ingested in short durations, capable of long-term assimilation.
The visual orientation of this formulation is unmistakable and passing through the intellectual appropriations of English poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and circulating globally through their polemical writings in the world-hegemonic tongue, this orientation was to revolutionize modern poetic practice, heightening the imagary component of the word into the primary carrier of its subjective message, and spawning Imagism, Symbolism, Surrealism.

Another social factor playing into Modernism is the insignificance of the poet in the face of civilization’s inexorable material unifications. The poet’s self-image as prophet, as pioneer and leader of human consciousness, under the leveling action of a global and encompassing socio-industrial organization, gives way to a faceless anonymity, marked by a tragic consciousness of the loss of community and of human values that endure. The poet no more has the luxury of speaking from a pedestal. A discard in consumerism’s gigantic recyclings, his only strength is his word, to be exercised from an unprivileged position and his only concern the spiritual concern of humanity, the single destiny that unstoppably ties all individuals globally, without exception, to the wheels of the productivity machine. The exalted intonings of Rabindranath, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, Swinburne and the early Yeats are now seen as Victorian excesses, precarious imaginings of a feudal elite, not visited yet by the pressures of quotidian survival. Pound and Yeats, once admirers of Rabindranath, who popularized him in England and nominated him for the Nobel award, both later retracted their support, deriding the lack of semantic density in his work. Eliot systematically demolished the basis of Swinburne’s enormous Continental popularity, by demonstrating that the richness of his word-music concealed a vapid insubstantiality of meaning. The case of Yeats is particularly interesting. Hailed by Sri Aurobindo in the Future Poetry as one of the promising voices of the future, a master of rhythm, suggestive music and mythological symbolism, he nevertheless, later disowned his past manner of writing

I have lived in dreams
A marble-headed Triton among the streams…

and accepted the rupture from tradition that modernity implied:

Though the great song return no more
There’s been delight in what we have
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.

From the faery seas of sound of his early poems, he moves to new seas in his later work:

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Jibanananda Das (1899-1954) was a Bengali poet who marks the transition to Bengali Modernist poetry. Necessitated into the career most common to modern poets, he was a teacher of English in Barisal (Bangladesh) and Calcutta and was well-read in Mallarme, Rimbaud, Valery, Pound, Eliot and the like, whom he often references in his prose writings. Jibanananda relies largely on imagistic and symbolical means to express in his poems a complexity which grapples with the subjective realities of modern urban life. He was unhappy with the conditions of modern living, was hopelessly impecunious and often expresses a deeply tragic sensibility. Yet, through the poignancy of passing beauty, the “touch of tears in mortal things” and the hopelessness and discord of material exploitation, overpopulation and poverty, the poet’s awareness of an eternal Beauty and Love struggles to penetrate the veil of appearances, questioning, probing, finding significance in unlikely circumstances. In a tragic and untimely ending, Jibanananda died in a tramcar accident in 1954.

Existential angst may be the consequence of an awakening to finitude and transience. Our social bus(i/y)ness conceals this reality from us but the loneliness of isolation brings it to the front. Such occasions for isolation become the norm in the modern world, where the breakdown of community makes one alone even in the company of others. And yet such moments may be moments of wisdom, for they bring us face to face with truth. The poet seeks out such moments, seeing behind the transience the backdrop of eternity. In the poem Road-Walking, for instance, he stirs out at night when all things sleep and walks the streets of Calcutta:

No one errs – brick home signboard door window terrace
Becoming silent know the need for sleep under a sky.

The simple perfection of the sphere of repose unveils itself to him at night. Behind the eternity of sleep, is the eternity of rebirth. The poet remembers distant times when he has walked thus the night in long-forgotten cities, experiencing the deja-vu of continuous recurrence. The powerful transient circulation of the city by day is thus counterbalanced in his consciousness by the equally powerful eternal repose which he lives recurrently. And yet a complex combination of wearniess and mystery surrounds the entire phenomenon

In Babylon alone thus I have walked the night
For some reason. What, today after a thousand thousand tired years I am yet to understand.

Several poems by Jibanananda Das are set at night and the deja-vu recurs repeatedly. Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Bidisha, Tyre, Shanghai – the era of world-history marshalls its dead civilizations before his eyes hazing the all too-real present with the ghosts of glorious pasts that will live no more. Night becomes the symbol of subjective contemplation when unharried by the rush of the world, one might juxtapose the past and the present, time and eternity. In another poem, Night, a more restless and humming cityscape emerges, but the “realm of the forefathers” can distance itself from both the ignoble present and the glorious past and, from its eternity, laugh at their transience:

Glare of the drunken light kisses my cheek.
Pong of kerosene, wood, lac, hessian, leather
Merging with drone of the dynamo
Keeps taut the bow-string.
Taut keeps the dead and living world
Taut keeps the string of life’s bow.
When, in distant times, Maitreyi has uttered spells,
Has conquered kingdoms immortal Atilla.
Ever in personal tune still from the window above
Half-awake the Jewish maiden sings.
Laughing, the realm of the forefathers thinks – what is song,
And what mines of gold, oil, paper ?

This cosmopolitan night provides the poet not merely the space for reflecting on time and eternity but also on the secret intimacies of human and animal lives:

Some Phiringi young men smartly pass.
Leaning against a column a lax Negro smiles
The briar pipe in his hand cleans
With confidence of an old gorilla.
Vast night of the city seems to him
The forest of Libya.
Still the animals are regulated – extremely proper –
In fact out of shyness they clothe themselves.

In another striking poem, Night of the Wind, the night sky brings powerful reminders of the perennial human aspiration for Immortality and Love:

Those constellations that on the sky’s breast a thousand thousand years earlier had died,
They too have through the window a countless dead skies brought with them.
Those beauties whom I have in Assyria, Egypt, Bidisha seen dying
Last night they very far away in the limit of the sky in mist and mist tall spears in their hands holding have stood themselves in rows as if –
To oppress Death?
Deep victory of Life to express?
Fearsome profound column of Love to erect?

At such times, the poet feels within him the pressure of the continuous urge of consciousness and the empowerment of the past to confront the Falsehood of a mechanized Materialism. In rare and supreme instances, a Grace power acts and the veil is removed, revealing an inward glory. In the poem Blue, the sky becomes the living and conscious agent of this Grace. Here, the poet’s existential aloneness within the multitude becomes the occasion for the revelation:

O unblinking blue, of this prison-house of a hundred thousand rules
Your wizard-rod has broken the spell!
Solitary midst the multitude-rush I muse
In which distant magic kingdom’s enchantment wrapped
Into the blood-embankment of the mundane have you arrived, alone –
In crystal light outspread your robe of blue –
Voiceless dream-peacock wing!

An inner reality transforms his seeing and the earth reveals a new face:

Erased from my eye the hunter-pierced earth’s blood-calligraphy,
Awakens within the self-rapt sky’s golden flame!
Earth’s worm-like withered moult breaks
At your lightning-touch, O sleepless distant wish-world!

Like the Night, a number of images repeat in Jibanananda’s poems, working their way into a symbolic system. The vulture is one such symbol, its ambiguous associations serving very well the poet’s complex reflections. Usually an element in several of his poems, in one, the vulture becomes the principal subject of contemplation, giving its name to the poem. In this poem, the repulsive scavenger bird becomes the messenger of the romantic spirit, closely related to death, looting the works of civilization with its pitiless eternal gaze. And yet its appearances bring the atmosphere and beauty of other worlds, upsetting established norms, fertilizing with the spirit of adventure. On crossing back to its alien kingdom, the bird leaves nostalgic longing in the poet’s heart, with a special tang in the knowledge that modern civilization may have finally succeeded in banishing this incursion of the irrational once and for all. In a final stanza, the poet equates the bird with the Huns, barbarian invaders whose appearance out of the wilderness broke the proud and invincible Roman empire and ushered a new age in history:

Passing round the sad corner of a minaret many vultures
Forgetting the birds of earth disappear to some kingdom beyond Death.
As if some Boitirini or desolated earthly lagoon of Separation
Is moved to weeping – Look to see when in deep blue have merged all those Huns!

In the face of all the changes of the modern world, the poet finds final solace in the knowledge that the world of primordial images cannot be banished. Some hypnotic power of primitive silence holds these images. In the poem Horse, such Stone-Age horses still haunt the “weird dynamo” of this world, pressing the depths of their atmosphere of Silence upon the present:

Odour of the stable floats in in a crowd of night breeze;
The shedding of sad hay sounds from the steel machine;
The paraffin lantern is snuffed in the circular stable
Blown by Time’s repose –
Having touched the moonlight of these horses’ Neolithic Silence.

The range of Jibanananda’s poems far exceeds the scope I have outlined in this essay, but my purpose here was only to touch on some important repeating themes and concerns in his work. I believe that in work of this kind, new directions towards the Future Poetry announced by Sri Aurobindo were taken, directions that have added to the store of approaches that might be utilized in the climb to a higher utterance, which yet recognize the range and complexity of consciousness in its engagement with modern existence.

A Selection of Poems by Jibanananda Das (translated by Debashish Banerji)


From field to field and field – throughout the afternoon in sky and sky of Asia
Are grazing the vultures. Man sees market outpost settlement – soundless fields
Of the vulture. Where extreme silence of the field is beside the sky standing

Another sky as if, – there the vultures descend once in succession
From the stern hard clouds: As if distant light leaving, sleep-weary elephants of direction
Have fallen – Have fallen on earth in fields grounds wildernesses of Asia
All these discarded birds a few moments only: Then lift themselves to rise,

Huge wings of darkness on the palm tree. On the horns of the hills in sea’s margins
Once the beauty of earth survey: Ships of the Sea of Bombay when
In darkness of the harbour dock, that see : Once to peaceful Malabar
Go flying: Passing round the sad corner of a minaret many vultures

Forgetting the birds of earth disappear to some kingdom beyond Death:
As if some Boitirini or desolated earthly lagoon of Separation
Is moved to weeping – Look to see when in deep blue have merged all those Huns!



As though holding some gesture in my mind alone from city’s road to road
Much I have walked: much I have seen the correctness of moving trams and buses
Then leaving the road they know peace and withdraw into their worlds of sleep.

All night the gaslight knowing its duty burns in good conscience
No one errs – brick home signboard door window terrace
Becoming silent know the need for sleep under a sky.

Alone walking the road the deep peace of these in my heart I have known.
Was late at night: Many stars the heads of monuments and minarets
Have circled in silence. If anything more simple more perfect than this

I have seen I wonder: a cluster of stars and peopled-with-monuments Calcutta?
My eyes are lowered – quietly burns my cigar – much dust and straw in the wind.
Shutting my eyes I step aside – from the tree many brown dry leaves

Have flown. In Babylon alone thus I have walked through night
For some reason. What, today after a thousand thousand tired years I am yet to understand.



Unscrewing the hydrant the leper licks up water
Or that hydrant perhaps, was choked.
Now midnight descends in a rush upon the city
One motorcar, coughing like a donkey passes

Shaking off restless petrol. Though ever vigilant,
As though someone has horribly fallen into water.
Three rickshaws running merge into the last gaslamp
In a pull as of wizard magic.

I too, fleeing Phear Lane – in haste
Walking many miles – beside the wall
Have stood myself in Bentinck Street – in Teritibazar,
In a breeze dry as groundnuts.

Glare of the drunken light kisses my cheek
Pong of kerosene, wood, lac, hessian, leather
Merging with drone of the dynamo
Keeps taut the bow-string.

Taut keeps the dead and living world
Taut keeps the string of life’s bow.
When, in distant times, Maitreyi has uttered spells,
Has conquered kingdoms immortal Atilla.

Ever in personal tune still from the window above
Half-awake the Jewish maiden sings.
Laughing, the realm of the forefathers thinks – what is song,
And what mines of gold, oil, paper ?

Some Phiringi young men smartly pass
Leaning against a column a lax Negro smiles
The briar pipe in his hand cleans
With confidence of an old gorilla.

Vast night of the city seems to him
The forest of Libya.
Still the animals are regulated – very proper –
In fact out of shyness they clothe themselves.



Night of a dense wind last night – night of a countless constellations:
All night the wide wind has played in my mosquito-net.
Mosquito-net has swelled sometimes like the belly of the monsoonic sea.
Sometimes tearing from the bed
Has wanted to fly in the direction of the constellations.
Sometimes it seemed to me – perhaps in half-sleep – above my head there is no mosquito-net.
Cleaving to the lap of Arcturus in the ocean of the blue wind like a white swan it is flying.
Was such a wonderful night last night.

All the dead constellations had awoken last night – not a gap of one grain was there in the sky
Faces of all the faded dead loved ones of the earth I have seen in those constellations:
Like on the crest of the uswattha tree in the dark night dew-wetted eyes of the male eagle lover were glittering all the constellations.
Like on the shoulder of the Queen of Babylon on a moon-drenched night luminous skin of the cheetah was shining the vast sky.
Was such a strange night last night.

Those constellations that on the sky’s breast a thousand thousand years earlier had died,
They too have through the window a countless dead skies brought with them.
Those beauties whom I have in Assyria, Egypt, Bidisha seen dying
Last night they very far away in the limit of the sky in mist and mist tall spears in their hands holding have stood themselves in rows as if –
To oppress Death?
Deep victory of Life to express?
Fearsome profound column of Love to erect?

Immobile, overwhelmed I have become.
The mighty blue torment of last night has torn me apart as if.
Within the boundless outspread wings of the sky
Earth like an insect has been wiped out last night
And mad wind has from the breast of the sky descended
Into my window in tonnes
Like at the cry of the lion a countless zebras in the green upthrow of the field.

My breast has been filled full with scent of the green grass of the spread-out-wide veldt.
With pungency of the ten-directions-flooding protean sun.
Like roar of mad-for-mating tigress with the agitated vast living hairy joy of the Dark.
With the terrible blue madness of living.

My soul tearing from the earth flew off
In ocean of the blue wind like a mad bloated balloon went flying,
The mast of a distant constellation to star and star took flying,
Like a furious vulture.



Sun-spangled dawn sky, midnight blue
In infinite glory you disclose yourself repeatedly
Beside the helpless city’s prison walls.
Here licks dense smoke’s coil
The furnace’s angry blaze here incessantly burns
Bloody stones in desert’s fiery breath covered,
The lives of a countless travellers
Are snuffed searching interminably; find no clue of the path –
Domination’s cruel shackles coiled around their feet.
O unblinking blue, of this prison-house of a hundred thousand rules
Your wizard-rod has broken the spell!
Solitary midst the multitude-rush I muse
In which distant magic kingdom’s enchantment wrapped
Into the blood-embankment of the mundane have you arrived, alone –
In crystal light outspread your robe of blue –
Voiceless dream-peacock wing!
Erased from my eye the hunter-pierced earth’s blood-calligraphy,
Awakens within the self-rapt sky’s golden1 flame!
Earth’s tear-pale heated2 shore,
Tatter-clad, bare-headed beggar throng
This compassionless highway
Of innumerable terminally ill this prison
This dust – darkness pervaded smoke-womb
All drown in the blue – within an eyelid rapt in dream-expanse.
In conch-white cloud-masses, in a bright sky in constellation’s night
Earth’s worm-like withered moult breaks
At your lightning-touch, O sleepless distant wish-world!

1. fair

2. fevered



We are not yet dead – images incessantly yet are born:
Mohin’s horses graze in the wildernesses of autumn’s moonlight
Stone Age horses as if – still desirous of grass they graze
Upon the weird dynamo of this earth.
Odour of the stable floats in in a crowd of night breeze;
The shedding of sad hay sounds from the steel machine;
The teacup like a tawny kitten – in sleep – in the indistict grasp of a mangy dog –
Turning to ice rattles in yonder pice-restaurant;
The parrafin lantern is snuffed in the circular stable
Blown by Time’s repose –
Having touched the moonlight of these horses’ Neolithic Silence.



“Rather why not write a poem yourself – ”
I said with a wan smile; the shadow-mass gave no reply;
I gathered it is after all no poet – but a mounted narrator
On manuscript, commentary, notepad, ink and pen
Enthroned – no poet – unageing, undecaying
Professor; Toothless – helpless mucus-drip from eyes;
Pay a thousand rupees a month – another thousand and a half
Obtainable by picking dead poets’ flesh and worms,
Although these poets food, love, fire’s warmth
Had sought – had thrashed about in the shark’s wave.

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10 thoughts on “Jibanananda Das, Post-Rabindrian Bengali Poet

  1. abdul lateef says:

    part of the difficulty Tagore had in Europe was poor translation, no such problem here, Jibanananda’s poems do well in English here. No translator identified but work well done.


  2. abdul lateef says:

    Not so much related to Jibanananda as to Tagore but there also seems to be an Orientalist vibe morphing thru the phase-shifts of modernism and post WWI disillusionment in Yeats and Pound in their assessment of Tagore as the following course description demonstrates. In it Singh treats Tagore, Yeats and Eliot.

    Its interesting here in that it is up to the chasm between Yeats and Eliot where Sri Aurobindo’s Future Poetry leaves us (between Yeats and Eliot or even Yeats and Pound). While Sri Aurobindo treats Yeats in Future Poetry at some length the cultural significance of Eliot and Pound and the epistemic fracture – sometimes known as high modernism- seem not to have been as accessible to him in his exile in Pondicherry.

    But the differences are clearly draw. Yeats wrote about Eliot in his introduction to the Oxford book of modern verse something like “in the 3rd year of the War, that man came and set poetry back so many decades, he wrote the Wasteland “dry, gray, cold”.

    Pound who promoted Eliot, in turn would make jest of Yeat’s penchant for self-dramatic rhetorical flourishes such as “I declare the tower as my symbol” “I summon to the ancient stair” that sounded flat to the modern ear attuned to ideology and advertisement referring to him as Uncle William. Anyway I just found this course by Singh out there and it seemed relevant to bring up variations of the Orientalist theme as well.

    Fall 2001, Lehigh University Amardeep Singh

    Reflection or Prism:

    Yeats, Tagore, Eliot.

    W.B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore have a very strong historical and biographical relationship revolving around the fact that Tagore’s first champion in the west — the person most responsible for his initial success outside of India — was Yeats. After reading some of Tagore’s self-translated poems, Yeats was instrumental in getting the collection published, in spreading the word about Tagore in the literary circles in London. Perhaps most importantly, Yeats wrote the introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali, which first appeared in 1913.

    The introduction is notable for a number of reasons, one of which is of course its ecstatic enthusiasm for a writer that no one in England had ever heard of. The introductionmay also be problematic in certain ways, especially insofar as it represents Tagore as culturally other and, as outside of history.

    Before exploring how this is the case, however, it might be useful to look at the preface in some more detail. To begin with, Yeats performs a kind of cultural translation of Tagore, and locates him in a context that will be familiar to English readers. Yeats’ aim is to make Tagore seem respectable, and as such it is absolutely crucial that the Indian he speaks to about Tagore be modern in some way — and he is, “a distinguished Bengali doctor of medicine.” But the first voice in Yeats’ introduction is his own, and it is quite emphatically approving. Yeats never hesitated to dismiss writing he didn’t like, even if others around him approved of it, and yet he begins with Tagore as follows:

    Though these translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years, I shall not know anything of his life, and of the movements of thought that have made them possible, if some Indian traveller will not tell me.

    Note that Yeats’ attraction to Tagore’s poetry is directly linked to a desire to know more about Tagore the man. Is it simply a natural desire to know more about the poet, out of a sense of simple admiration, or is it something more — is it possible that the poems are only interesting insofar as they are attached to their author? [A general question about authorship, not limited to this particular pair of writers: does it matter who the author of a given text is? Or are we merely interested in the texts they’ve produced? Why does biography matter? …. Perhaps it matters because it can in fact help us to read.]

    Through the Bengali doctor, Yeats also puts Tagore in a religious context right away:

    A little while ago he [Tagore] was to read divine service in one of our churches — we of the Brahmo Samaj use your word “church” in English

    In part this is important because it names Tagore as a person who practices his religion in a “church,” a religious body that is specifically modeled after the Christian mold, even if its practitioners would not identify as Christian.

    It may seem like an incidental reference, but in a twenty page introduction Yeats is ver spare on the details of Tagore’s life as an Indian. In mentioning the Brahmo Samaj, Yeats is hitting on a major biographical point about Tagore. Tagore’s family helped to found a reformist sect of Hinduism in Bengal, known as the Brahmo Samaj, which by the late nineteenth century had several thousand followers, mainly from that region. The members of the Brahmo Samaj (or the Brahmoists) were the elites of the state. Many of them studied in English missionary schools, and worked closely with the British administration (by the early twentieth century the majority of administrative jobs in the vast English administrative apparatus in India were actually held by Indians).

    The Brahmo Samaj emerged as a response to the pressure of British unitarian missionaries, who attempted to prove to the Indians that Christianity was a more rational and coherent faith than the complex array of rituals, beliefs, and religious texts that made up Hinduism. The Brahmoists distilled Hindu pantheism with a more monotheistic emphasis on “Brahma”; they attempted to abolish the “irrational” social hierarchy of the caste system; and they designed a new kind of temple that strongly resembled protestant churches. A Christianizing of Hinduism — or an Indianizing of Christianity.

    By the time Tagore began to write (1880s-1930s), the Brahmo Samaj was also a hotbed for anti-British sentiments. The climate in Bengal was intensely political, and Tagore was for a time a leading figure in the emerging movement for Indian independence. By 1910 Tagore had, however, distanced himself from nationalist politics that was becoming more and more oriented towards the masses (and less an affair of the elite classes).

    Nevertheless, the fact that Tagore was in many ways a political person brings us to a question about the nature of Yeats’ representation of him.

    ‘In your country is there much propagandist writing, much criticism? We have to do so much, especially in my own country, that our minds gradually cease to be creative, and yet we cannot help it. If our life was not a continual warfare, we would not have taste, we would not find hearers and readers.

    Note that Yeats is here making two points: one about political rhetoric and propaganda, and another about the endless debates over aesthetics and literary value that circulated in Yeats’ circle. Yeats’ assumption throughout his introduction is that Tagore’s writing is apolitical and outside of the mundane realm of daily life, the product of a soul untarnished by mediocrity:

    These verses will not lie in little well-printed books with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried about by students at the university when the true work of life begins, but as the generations pass, traveller will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.

    Each of Yeats’ fantasies about the life of Tagore’s poems (which in many ways echoes the aspirations he had for the effect of his own work on his readers) attempts to move Tagore out of a given place and away from a given time. To be more specific, Yeats moves Tagore outside of and away from the present moment; all of the names of writers to whom Yeats compares Tagore are of the Renaissance, the medieval period, or antiquity. Yeats, we might say, wants to turn Tagore into a kind of medieval sage, playing a lute by a river.

    And yet it’s not that simple. Part of what Yeats finds so appealing is the accessibility of the writing, the sense of spiritual immediacy even as he continues to rely upon the assumption that the culture of the poet is in fact alien to the west:

    A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image

    For Yeats, Tagore’s writing is at once “immeasurably strange” and directly reflective of the western culture he himself seems so ambivalent about. Tagore is both in and out of the idea of the ideal poet Yeats is attempting to figure in this introduction; he is both a “reflection” of western aesthetic values [Yeats is looking in the mirror; all of the ecstatic praise he lavishes on Tagore he also means, therefore, to lavish on himself!], and a kind of prism through which we might perceive something other.

    Though Yeats does at moments reveal his desire to find in Tagore a reflection of the European self-image, in general it is clear that Yeats wants Tagore to be more mystical than Tagore the person is; he wants Tagore to be a kind of Oriental sage or saint, all spirit and no body. But this image of a saint, which was precisely what made Tagore so marketable throughout Europe and America in the 1910s, bore little resemblance to Tagore in his home environment. [Of course, we can’t forget the fact that to a large extent Tagore specifically chose and exploited this “Oriental” image of himself, downplaying his worldly investments in politics, in favor of the attributes of a saint. He did, after all, choose to translate the generally apolitical poems of Gitanjali to make his entrée onto the western scene — rather than one of the political novels he had written and published in Bengali in the previous decade.]

    Rather than rejecting modernity, Tagore was a person passionately committed to public debate and print culture. Most critics today think of him as first and foremost a novelist rather than a poet. Moreover, in his Bengali language writings, Tagore was a master stylist, who used many radical, expressly modernist methods, in his Bengali language texts. All of this, however, drops out in the translated Tagore that we have in Gitanjali.

    This brings us to the poems — what do we do with them? Many of them, in my opinion, do not carry much weight in English. Also, the fact that Tagore chooses to translate his pronouns using archaic forms (“thou” and “thy” instead of you and your), makes the language seem at times unpleasantly lofty. Still, there are some startling bits of language. For instance, take poem 96:

    When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.

    And there may be others? [Class?]

    But what I think is most striking, and perhaps most specifically modernist about the poems, is the ongoing theme of the rejection of institutional, ritualized religion that we find in a number of them. Most emphatically:

    Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

    He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in the sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

    Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

    Come out of thy meditations and leave aside the flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.

    In some ways, poem XI is simply arguing against asceticism, against the isolation of human experience from the everyday and natural world. It is a rhetoric familiar from Romanticism – one sees here traces of William Blake’s radicalism, for instance. But the details of the Hindu ritual (“chanting and singing and telling of beads”), and the spatial opposition between the “dark corner of a temple” and the open field are important because they particular to the Hindu context – something Yeats does not address. Interestingly, the opposition here is not that of a hard asceticism contrasted with a soft Romanticism. Rather, it is posed as the distinction between “flowers and incense” and the “hard ground,” the life of everyday toil. It is not nature that intoxicates and is “soft,” but the ascetic life, caged by mind-numbing ritual.

    Tagore, in other words, is inviting the addressee of the poem to come into the world, to experience life as she (?) or he knows it, rather than remain caged up in the hard world of beads and incense. If it’s an appeal to the reader/listener to come into a version of modernity, it’s a very different kind of image than the bleak modernism of Yeats or Eliot.

    It might be worth commenting for a moment on Eliot, specifically the final 30 lines or so of the Waste Land. Why, many people have asked, does Eliot turn at the climax of his poem to a seemingly obscure set of terms and images derived from Indian geography (the Ganges River [Ganga]), and Hindu scripture (the Upanishads)?

    Perhaps it is a gesture somewhat similar to the double-gesture Yeats is making in his introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali. That is to say, Eliot is using the example of Hindu religion and philosophy to articulate an idea both alien to the European landscape of his poem, and yet somehow natural to it. The emphasis on the river echoes other parts of the poem that figure the Thames (and this might also remind us of the two rivers in Heart of Darkness: the Thames and the Congo — connected waterways):

    Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves [note the reference to the jungle in


    Waited for rain, while the black clouds

    Gathered far distant, over Himavant. [Himalayas — obscure word]

    The jungle crouched, humped in silence [note the anthropomorphism of the



    In some ways the weaving of eastern and western ideas is embedded in etymology here. The root of the three Sanskrit words, echoed in all-caps several times in these final lines, is exactly the same Indo-European root as the word that produces the English word “data” and “mandatory.” [Latin: Do, Dare] “Give” in Sanskrit is also give in English. It may seem obscure of Eliot to go in this direction (is it any more obscure than Greek, German, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and French?), but the buried meaning in this particular language underscores interconnectedness and integration rather than disharmony or fragmentation.

    In terms of imagery, note the similarity to the image of the west: sunken, limp. Strangely sexualized… infertility.

    The larger arc of the passage: If the Ganga is waiting for rain, does the rain begin to fall?

    Perhaps the idea of shantih — peace (“the peace which passeth understanding” actually from Job 37:5) — is not so much an image of a redemptive rain, signifying completion, as it is a kind of stoppage or final renunciation.

    Perhaps the idea of “shantih,” which Eliot finds untranslatable, is one he means to apply or direct towards the western world he has been attempting to represent. An ancient, “other” term for modernity, and for Europe.

  3. debbanerji says:

    Interesting course description by Amardeep Singh. BTW, Sri Aurobindo was preparing to add a chapter on Modernism to The Future Poetry in his last years. He was reading Eliot, Pound. Auden, Day Lewis and others, but didn’t find time to write it. The Yeats he discusses in FP is also quite different from the later Yeats.

  4. abdul lateef says:

    The interesting thing in the the evolution of English Poetry in the 20th century regards Sri Aurobindo’s Future Poetry is that the most important Asian Influence that was to be brought to it was to be via Ezra Pound -the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry – in the visual form of the Chinese ideogram rather than the tight meter of the Indic Mantra – that was to have the most profound effect on subsequent English Poetry in the 20th century. It was the ideogrammic method that would open up ways to explore parataxis, collage, super imposition that would become central to the techniques of many of major 20th century poets, not the least of which would be the Beats.

    Its interesting regards the conversation on Orientalism also that Pound’s adapting of the Chinese character had not so much to do with its actual etymology than his own
    idiosyncratic understanding of its meaning of it based on the reading of Fenollosa’s imperfect translations.

    Here is a definition from Wiki:

    “The Ideogrammic Method was a technique expounded by Ezra Pound which allowed poetry to deal with abstract content through concrete images. The idea was based on Pound’s reading of the work of Ernest Fenollosa. Pound gives a brief account of it in his book The ABC of Reading (1934). He explains his understanding of the way Chinese characters were formed, with the example of the character ‘East’ (東) being essentially a superposition of the characters for ‘tree’ (木) and ‘sun’ (日); that is, a picture of the sun tangled in a tree’s branches, suggesting a sunrise (which occurs in the East). He then suggests how, with such a system where concepts are built up from concrete instances, the (abstract) concept of ‘red’ might be presented by putting together the (concrete) pictures of:


  5. debbanerji says:

    It is true and interesting that the ideogram and its dependance on the visual image enters prominently into the current of English poetry through Pound’s Orientalist adaptation from Fenollosa’s interpreted chinese. It certainly becomes one of the seminal influences determining the future of contemporary poetry. However, I wouldn’t see it as the only or even predominant influence. Continental symbolism and surrealism, whether in the work of the French symbolists or the Germans like Trakl and Rilke or Spanish surrealists like Lorca, out of whom the rich tradition of Latin American poetry has largely derived, also veer towards the primacy of the image, but from independant subjective resources. And, speaking of the Beats, American modernist poetry continues to maintain a concern with voice, arising from Whitman. This is clearly in evidence whether in Kerouac or Ginsberg. I’d say the prose poetry of Kerouac or the versification of Ginsberg (or even much of the songwriting of Dylan) modulates towards Whitman-inspired incantation and can be parsed as such using Sri Aurobindo’s looser description of quantative meter in his essay On Quantitative Meter where he combines stress, accent and quantity and varies the metrical length of lines, while maintaining a median meter.

  6. abdul lateef says:

    While there were many influences on the Beats including largely Whitman, Blake, Pound was a seminal influence on them and profoundly so on Ginsberg and Gary Synder. But one finds Pounds influence weighing also on the Objectivist, the Black Mountain School, New York School, Language Poetry etc as well.

    If you couple Pound’s application of ideogrammatic structure to Western poetry with his the idea of the “tone leading of vowels,” and his use of accentual meters and musical structures as a means of “breaking the pentameter,” they exert a a powerful influence on 20ths century poetry. (The influence extends to scholars such as Marshall McLuhan who used parataxis as a theorizing tool) In Of Grammatology Derrida praises Pound’s ideogrammatic method as for a major break through in Western writing for resisting phonocentrism. (although it must be said Derrida may not have really understood the similarity of logocentrism in both Chinese and Western metaphysics)

    Was the ideogrammatic method a predominant influence maybe a matter of which poetic lines of flight you are following, but the ideogrammatic method as it opens up to superimposition, collage and parataxis and the juxtaposition of images inscribes it in techniques that deeply infiltrate into modernist and post-modern verse. This approach justified the incorporation of foreign phrases, Chinese pictographs, and even musical scores in his writing to express a specific mood or concept. It also adds a dimension to modern poetry that largely falls outside the scope of analysis by reference to mere Quantitative focus on stress, accents and metrical length and it is not really anticipated in the Future Poetry and has to this point -if we limit our comparison between the two Asiatic sources of influence- had a much more profound impact on English language poetry after 1920 than the mantric utterance.

  7. debbanerji says:

    I agree regarding imagism’s challenge to the phonocentric, as referenced by Derrida. It is interesting here that a predominant metrical reduction to poetry remains restricted to a primarily Indo-European language practice (phonocentrism) while Imagism introduces the alternate liguistic tradition of the ideogram into the mix, which as you say is not anticipated or at least theorized in The Future Poetry. But, the insertion of the resources of “superposition, collage and parataxis” notwithstanding, where modernist (and postmodernist) poetry has been most successful, it is through the dialectic interpaly of image and sound. Sri Aurobndo does a quantitative reading of Eliot in his essay and Pound, if anything, lends himself, even more strongly to a quantitative reading. One may question whether such a reading has any legitimacy given the stated purposes of the technique, but to restrict Imagism to the resources opened up by the ideogrammatic, is an exaggeration which loses sight of at least half the effect of the poem.

    Again it is hardly the traditon of “English poetry” which exhausts the utilization of post-modern poetic resources. In this respect, it is interesting that Abanindranath Tagore, who is better known as an artist, was also a writer of stories and neo-folk eclectic theater in verse/song and refers to himself in a book as “Obin Thakur who writes images.” Very recently, one of his folk theater (jatra) manuscripts has been published. This is a work titled Khuddur Ramayan (Little Ramayan or Ramayan of the Little People) in which three commoners retell the Ramayana through comic songs which utilize a language which is both imagistic and verbally highly sophisticated with an almost Joycean syncretic language which splices a variety of written and oral dictions from various high and low cultures. The work is also interspersed with collaged news items and advertisements which function as contemporary supplemets (interpretations, commentaries, footnotes) to the text. The text itself is meant to be enacted and sung and the verse retains its metricity. The effect is multisensory. It is clear that a postmodern practice moves in this direction of the challenge to the tyranny of sensory specialization, which belongs to the larger episteme of academic classification stemming from post-Enlightenment modernity.

    In this drift, while I appreciate the innovations introduced by the insertion of ideogrammatic resources into the poem (which requires additional theoretical constructs to address), I see this as a factor expanding the sensory experience of the poem towards the synaesthesia of manas, “the sixth sense,” not as a restricting emphasis on a limiting medium. Of course, as I have tried to bring out in the article on Jibanananda, the techno-capitalstic over-determination of the optical does tend to exaggerate the importance of this sense, but challenging it is as much a part of postmodernity (through the shift towards multimedia) as the insertion of the optical into the phonocentric was a part of modernism.

  8. abdul lateef says:

    D: But, the insertion of the resources of “superposition, collage and parataxis” notwithstanding, where modernist (and postmodernist) poetry has been most successful, it is through the dialectic interplay of image and sound.

    A: -Although the role of the image and their juxtaposition has taken on extraordinary cultural significance in the information age- What you say about poetry is certainly true and no one should question the expertise of Eliot and Pound in writing meter or its importance to 20th century poetry but its also why I previously quoted from the Pound scholar Marjorie Perloff: “If you couple Pound’s application of ideogrammatic structure to Western poetry with his the idea of the “tone leading of vowels,” and his use of accentual meters and musical structures as a means of “breaking the pentameter,” they exert a a powerful influence on 20ths century poetry.”

    If there was an ethic that was the most important aspect of Modernism it was arguably Pound”s exclamation to: “Make It New.” the skillful use of images, experimental meter and free verse was all part of that. Anyway what follows is one of Pound’s Chinese translations, in which he breaks employs the tone leading of values as in: “u” (blue)
    If you read aloud the first verse in the poem you can see something very special is going on with regard to meter.

    The Beautiful Toilet
    by Ezra Pound

    Blue, blue is the grass about the river

    And the willows have overfilled the close garden.

    And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,

    White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.

    Slender, she puts forth a slender hand;

    And she was a courtezan in the old days,

    And she has married a sot,

    Who now goes drunkenly out
    And leaves her too much alone.

  9. debbanerji says:

    yes, the new metrical experiments taking from non-western often east asian modes of regularity (tone leading, syllabic meter, etc) are certainly part of the edge pushing the envelope of sound. i agree these forms need to be accounted into a new repertory of poetic resources in rethinking the future poetry.

  10. abdul lateef says:

    If 20/21th century poetry departed from the traditional rhyme schemes, the form has certianly not vanished and has even come back in popular culture ad nauseam
    in the form of the Rap song. In fact the repetitive machinic quality of this popular medium has almost turned this song form into the profane mantric utterance of human technological destining.

    On another point it is noteworthy that even with all the experimentation of modern poetry with new meters and free verse that perhaps one of the most essential of all modernist poems T.S. Elliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is largely a traditional rhyme poem. But rather than detracting from its modernist authenticity it actually enhances it.

    Another interesting note is that the opening lines of the poem from Dante’s Inferno is from the character Guido de Montefeltro (8th circle of Hell) -who is the one figure in all of The Divine Character- that speaks from an subjective interior space that is constitutive of the disassociatve modernist subject capable of what Satre calls “bad faith”, and this in a poem from the early fourteenth century:

    1. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

    S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
    A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
    Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
    Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
    Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
    Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

    LET us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherised upon a table;
    Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
    The muttering retreats 5
    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
    Of insidious intent
    To lead you to an overwhelming question … 10
    Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
    Let us go and make our visit.

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo.

    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 15
    The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
    Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
    Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
    Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
    Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, 20
    And seeing that it was a soft October night,
    Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

    And indeed there will be time
    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; 25
    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate; 30
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

    In the room the women come and go 35
    Talking of Michelangelo.

    And indeed there will be time
    To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
    Time to turn back and descend the stair,
    With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— 40
    [They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
    [They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
    Do I dare 45
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, known them all:—
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 50
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
    So how should I presume?

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all— 55
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? 60
    And how should I presume?

    And I have known the arms already, known them all—
    Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
    [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
    It is perfume from a dress 65
    That makes me so digress?
    Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
    And should I then presume?
    And how should I begin?
    . . . . .
    Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets 70
    And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
    Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
    . . . . .
    And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! 75
    Smoothed by long fingers,
    Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
    Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
    Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
    Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? 80
    But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
    Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
    I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
    I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
    And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, 85
    And in short, I was afraid.

    And would it have been worth it, after all,
    After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
    Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
    Would it have been worth while, 90
    To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
    To have squeezed the universe into a ball
    To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
    To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
    Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”— 95
    If one, settling a pillow by her head,
    Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
    That is not it, at all.”

    And would it have been worth it, after all,
    Would it have been worth while, 100
    After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
    After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
    And this, and so much more?—
    It is impossible to say just what I mean!
    But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: 105
    Would it have been worth while
    If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
    And turning toward the window, should say:
    “That is not it at all,
    That is not what I meant, at all.”
    . . . . . 110
    No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
    Am an attendant lord, one that will do
    To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
    Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
    Deferential, glad to be of use, 115
    Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
    Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
    At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
    Almost, at times, the Fool.

    I grow old … I grow old … 120
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    I do not think that they will sing to me. 125

    I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
    Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
    When the wind blows the water white and black.

    We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
    By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown 130
    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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