Rabindranath Tagore as a nature poet
Last week an important conference was held at the Indian Cultural
Centre on the work of Rabindranath Tagore. It was organised by the ever
energetic Director of the Cultural Centre along with a number of
co-sponsoring organisations. I myself presented a paper on 'The Poetic
Humanism of Rabindranath Tagore'.
In today’s column, I wish to examine an aspect of his poetry that I
did not broach in my talk and one that has a deep relevance for us in
Sri Lanka- his nature poetry. This is indeed a facet of Tagore’s work
that the Colombo poets found appealing, although their understanding of
this nature poetry was less than adequate and the way they made use of
that influence left much to be desired.Diverse spheres
Rabindranath distinguished himself as a poet, short story writer,
novelist, playwright, lyricist, musician, painter, educationist, social
thinker and activist. He excelled in all these diverse spheres of
activity. A deep poetic sensibility unites these pluralities of pursuit.
And a profound engagement with nature and its manifold manifestations is
at the center of his poetic understanding of the world and human beings.
What I propose to do briefly in this column is to examine Tagore's
vision of nature poetry; this is crucial, in my judgment, to
understanding his strengths and preoccupations as a writer and artist.
Before we explore the complex relationship between Tagore’s nature
poetry and his philosophical vision, let us first consider some
representative examples of his nature poetry. The first passage is from
a poem titled Unyielding
When I called you in your garden
Mango blooms were much in fragrance-
Why did you remain so distant,
Keep your doors so tightly fastened?
Blossoms grew to ripe fruit-clusters-
You rejected my cupped handfuls,
Closed your eyes to perfectness..
Sad birds twittered sleeplessly
Calling, calling lost companions
Gone the right time for our union-
Low the moon while still you brooded,
Sunk in lonely pensiveness.
Moon fell at the feet of morning
Loosened from the night’s fading necklace.
While you slept, O did my vina
Lull you with its heartache. Did you
Dream at least of happiness?
The mysteriousness and the questioning mind that are manifest find in
this poem are characteristic of many of Tagore’s poems. The complex
blending of nature, God and the usually female spirit that he termed
‘jiban-devata’ finds powerful expression in this poem. The divine spirit
remains unresponsive to, and detached from, the poet’s queries.
This not only gives urgency to the poetic utterance but also serves
to define the role of poet with his desire for recognition and
appreciation. So in these poetic passages dealing with nature we see how
Tagore is simultaneously addressing a plurality of other issues.
Let us consider some passages from another poem; it is titled Earth
and displays some other important features of Tagore’s nature poetry.
Accept my homage Earth as I make my last obeisance of the day,
Bowed at the altar of the setting sun.
You are mighty, and knowable only by the mighty,
You counterpoise charm and severity;
Compounded of male and female
You sway human life with unbearable conflict.
The cup that your right hand fills with nectar
Is smashed by your left;
Your playground rings with your mocking laughter.
Earth, clamped into rock or flitting into the clouds;
Rapt in meditation in the silence of a ring of mountains
Or noisy with the roar of sleepless sea-waves;
You are beauty and abundance, terror and famine,
On the one hand, acres of crops, bent with ripeness,
Brushed of dew each morning by delicate sunbeams –
With sunset, too, sending through their rippling greenness
On the other, in your dry, barren, sickly deserts
The dance of ghosts amid strewn animal-bones
In these passages, we see how Tagore characteristically approached
nature and its attractions. This poem introduces a sense of unease to
the reader; this is because the unity, coherence and harmony that Tagore
believed were endemic to the world of nature can also, at times, assume
This tension, one can argue, propels the poetic discourse. Here one
observes a religious dimension to the poem; although it is about the
earth, the presence of Brahman or ultimate reality is clearly evident.
Let us consider some other passages from another poem called In
Praise of Trees. It instent and tone is very different from the passages
O tree, life-founder, you heard the sun
Summon you from the dark womb of earth
As your life’s first wakening; your height
Raised from the rhythmless rock the first
Hymn to the light, you brought feeling to harsh,
Thus in the sky,
By mixed magic, blue with green, you flung
The sing of the world’s spirit at heaven
And the tribe of stars. Facing the unknown,
You flew with fearless pride the victory
Banner of the life-force that passes
Again and again through death’s gateway
To follow an endless pilgrim-road
Through time, through changing resting-places,
In ever new mortal vehicles.
This poem is in the form of a meditation. It is important to keep in
mind the fact that very often in Tagore’s poetry trees are connected to
the act of meditation. In the classical Indian tradition, as thinkers
were largely forest-dwellers, trees assumed this meditative
significance. What is noteworthy about the poem is that it is not an
example of God speaking through nature. Rather, the intent of the poem
is to underscore the vital bond that exists between humanity and nature,
action and meditation.
Commenting on this poem, as William Radice accurately pointed out,
‘what Tagore is after, as so often, is a balance between these two
impulses – the European and the Indian, the active and the meditative;
he is showing us that trees can show us that the two can be reconciled,
valor can be restrained with patience, creative power can be peaceful.’
The examples illustrate the fact that Tagore’s nature poems are full
of complex religious and philosophical ideas. Very often Western critics
and Western-oriented critics are quick to dismiss his poetry as vague,
unfocused, sentimental and betraying a kind of romantic idealism; They
also point to the influence of English romantics such as Shelley and
Keats on Tagore’s sensibility.
To be sure, there is some truth to these criticisms. Tagore can, at
times be wooly and effusive. However, the situation is far more complex
than such a simplistic dismissal would have us believe. In order to
understand the true nature and significance of Tagore’s poetry we need
to locate it in the Indian religious and literary traditions – the Rig
Veda, Upanishads and poetry of Kalidasa. The Western response to
Tagore’s poetry has been unstable and perplexing.
At one time Yeats called Tagore the greatest living poet whose lyrics
displayed in their thoughts a world he had dreamed of all his life, only
to take back these comments later; similarly Ezra Pound who initially
greatly admired Tagore’s poetry later lost interest in it. And Graham
Greene remarked, ‘As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that
anyone but Yeats still takes his poetry very seriously.’
Tagore, to be sure, was surprised by the instant international
adulation he received and even more by the rapid denunciations that
When we examine Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, it is important to bear
in mid the fact that in his writings the poetic sensibility and the
religious sensibility are inextricably linked, one constantly feeding
the other. As he once remarked, ‘my religious life has followed the same
mysterious line of growth as my poetical life. Somehow they are wedded
to each other and though their betrothal had a long period of ceremony
it was kept a secret to me.’ and his love of nature had much to do with
this conjunction. As he admitted it was his ‘feeling of intimacy with
nature’ that precipitated this meeting of religious and poetic
Tagore saw nature as a way of securing a freedom that he ardently
desired. That freedom is closely associated with the activation of his
poetic imagination. In one of his poems, Tagore says
I shall break the stone prison
I shall meander about the world
Like an intoxicated man
I shall spread out my hair, pick flowers on the way,
Spread my swings variegated like the rainbow
And pour out my heart in laughter under the sun
As I stated earlier a useful way of enframing Tagore’s poetry is
through the lens of classical Indian poetic and religious traditions.
They enable us to shed light on certain areas of interest that otherwise
would be ignored, mostly by Western critics, much to the detriment of
his poetry. For example, Tagore’s nature poetry can be productively
understood in terms of the transition of thought and feeling from the
Rig Veda to the Upanishads.
The Vedas focuses on ritualistic aspects while the Upanishads
underline speculative aspects; the Upanishads represent a high water
mark of Indian speculative thinking. This transition finds eloquent
expression in Tagore’s nature poetry. In his earlier nature poetry the
beauty of the sun, the moon, stars, trees, flowers and rivers was
described in their individual specificity and there was no attempt to
bring them under an overarching vision. However, as he ripened as a
poet, he began to see the interconnections between the diverse objects
of nature. This transition parallels the transition from the poetry in
the Rig Veda to the speculative thought in the Upanishads.
Tagore once made the following observation. ‘The wonder of the
gathering clouds hanging heavy with unshed rain, the sudden sweep of
storms arousing vehement gestures along the line of coconut trees, the
fierce loveliness of the blazing summer noon, the silent sunrise behind
the dewy veil of autumn morning, kept my mind with the intimacy of a
pervasive companionship.’ This perceived intimacy paved the way towards
the understanding of a universal spirit behind nature. He termed it
universal god or ‘vishwa deva’. As the well-known Bengali critic
Hiranmay Banerjee remarked, ‘thus through his poems of nature is
discernible the phased growth of an awareness of a pervading principle.
Strangely enough, the phases through which the idea developed in his
mind bear a striking similarity to the growth of similar ideas as
traceable in the Vedas which became subsequently transmitted to the
Upanishads for fuller treatment. The thought process traceable in his
poems of nature thus followed the line of growth as traceable in the
Vedas.’ Tagore asserted, ‘it seems to me I followed the path of my Vedic
ancestors and was inspired by the tropical sky with the suggestion of an
utter most beyond.’
Some would argue that the unity he saw behind diverse objects and
phenomena in nature can be seen in Western Romantic poets as well. For
example, William Wordsworth in his 'The Recluse' says
On Man, on Nature, on Human Life
Musing in solitude, I oft perceive
Fair trains of imagery before me rise,
Accompanied by feelings of delight
Pure, or with no unpleasing sadness mixed.’
Here what we discern is a form of nostalgia for a lost wholeness with
nature along with the divine presence, an unfettered justice. However,
despite certain superficial affinities of interest it has to be conceded
that that there are important cultural and epistemological differences
between Tagore and the English Romantics on this score.
My own feeling is that if we are to compare Tagore with a Western
poet, the great eighteenth century German poet Holderlin (who
incidentally was the favourite of Heidegger) would be far more
appropriate. Even a relatively simple passage of poetry of Holderlin
such as the following points to certain affinities of interest.
Trees were my teachers
And I learned to love
It is against this background that I wish to identify seven
significant points about Rabindranath’s nature poetry. These points are
inseparably linked to religious and philosophical and aesthetic issues.
First, very often literary critics discuss Tagore’s poetry in terms of
its symbolic value. This is a perfect valid approach. In his writings
the sun, moon, stars, hills and rivers take on a symbolic valence and
fit into a large cosmological scheme. However this is not to suggest
that his poetry is also replete with sensuous details that need to be
appreciated and celebrated in their own right. In fact one aspect of his
poetry, very often overlooked, is how by focusing on everyday
occurrences of nature he is able to confer dignity on them.
Let us consider two representative passages. The first in its very
generality and propositional energy underscores the symbolic importance
of his nature poetry
Oh great river
The unseen and silent waters
Continuous and compact, flow eternally
With the furious formless speed, empty speed
Shivers into convulsions
The second is much more specific and concrete and appreciated fo what
it literally is.
A hide and seek game is on today
Between sunlight and shadow
Flitting across the paddy field
Who is he that has floated rafts of
White clouds in the blue sky?
Second, Tagore’s nature poetry represents the convergence of
aesthetic beauty and spiritual joy. What this means is that in his
writings nature is highly mediated. There is no unmediated approach to
the understanding and appreciation of nature. Consequently, the cultural
frames we bring to the writing and reading of nature are extremely
important. Tagore’s poetry admirably exemplifies this. Third, the trope
of music dominates Tagore’s nature poetry. This is because he was
primarily interested in the idea of harmony. Indeed it functioned as a
master concept that unified his writing. He underscored the importance
of harmony in social relations a well as engagements with nature. He saw
harmony as a means of rising above the restrictive ego-centered
experiences and modes of feeling. Statements such as the following
illustrate the centrality of music.
The evening air is eager with the sad music of water. Ah, it calls me
out into the dusk.
My songs share their seats in the heart of the world with music of
the clouds and forests.
Tagore once remarked that, ‘there is a bond of harmony between our
two eyes which make them work in unison. Likewise there is an
unbreakable continuity of relations in the physical world between heat
and cold, light and darkness, motion and rest, as between the bass and
treble notes of a piano. That is why opposition does not bring confusion
in the universe but harmony.’
Fourth, Tagore in his nature poetry was after poetic truth. For him
poetic truth was larger than facts or scientifically validated
propositions. There is a glow around it which is absent on facts and
propositions. Facts and propositions have to be activated by the power
and energy of feeling. It is through this joint exploration of fact and
emotion that Tagore sought to arrive at poetic truth. A careful reading
of his nature poetry brings this out clearly. Fifth, it is important to
recognise that there is a certain tension in his poetry that serves to
invest it with an invigorating dynamism. Tagore as a poet desires to be
at one with the universe, and this a line of thinking that is sanctioned
by the Upanishads. However, as a poet he is also intensely self-aware
and the interplay between these two lends power to his nature poetry.
Critics with a deconstructive turn of mind will find this appealing.
Sixth, closely related to the above point is another binary that we
should examine carefully. In Tagore’s nature poetry one discerns a
tension between dream and reflection. Rousseau once remarked that, ‘man
is a god when he dreams, a beggar when he reflects.’ Tagore would have
concurred with this judgment. Here dreaming refers to the human capacity
and state of mind that encourages pantheistic communion. This aspect is
clearly present in Tagore’s poetry. Reflection refers to the
self-consciousness that permits inward analysis and processes of
Clearly, Tagore saw himself as a seer, a dreamer in the best sense of
the term. However, it is evident that in his poetry this capacity for
dreaming or imagining is vitally connected to an unrecognised desire for
reflectivity. A representative passage like the following illustrates
Rain-clouds wet my eyes with their blue collyrium, collyrium.
I spread out my joy on the shaded
New woodland grass,
My soul and kadamba-tree blossom together, o coolly
Rain-clouds wet my eyes with their blue collyrium.
Seventh, the idea of union is pivotal to Tagore’s nature poetry. The
aesthetic beauty, the spiritual joy generated by his poetry arises
largely from this sense of union – the idea of being at one with the
universe which as we saw is the privileged experience advocated by the
However, union as a concept makes no sense unless there is the
possibility and challenge of separation. In Tagore’s nature poetry, as
indeed in the ghazals of the thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi,
separation and union are two sides of the same coin.
Let us consider a passage like the following
Carry me into the infinite night
Beyond all earthly limit;
Let it make me one
With the not known.
The power of this statement comes from the interplay between union
and separation. For Tagore, nature can house our deepest feeling because
of this antithesis between separation and union. As he sees it, the
ecstasy of union can be usefully understood in relation to the agonies
of separation. Interestingly, in classical Sanskrit poetics, love was
divided into two categories: love in separation and love in union.
When we assess Rabindranath Tagore’s nature poetry it is very
important that we judge it in terms of the author’s own terms. There is
an attempt, misplaced in my judgment, by certain critics to evaluate his
poetry by forcing them into ready-made Western categories such as
romanticism and idealism; to discover the full force of Tagore’s poetry
we need to situate it in the classical Indian religious and aesthetic
traditions. This is, of course, not to suggest that his poetry is not
without its faults; it is only to indicate a more fruitful way of
approaching his writing.
To understand the true strength of Tagore’s poetry we need to keep in
mind an animating duality present in his writings; to use a technical
term it is a relationship determined by chiasmus. He is interested in
both poetry of mysticism and mysticism of poetry.
The poetry of mysticism, for the most part, is outward looking. The
mysticism of poetry tends towards inwardness by focusing in the very
being of poetry.
This interplay fuels Tagore’s poetic credo. What this credo
underscores is the fact that Tagore is too much engrossed in the wonders
of nature to highlight himself as the most salient being in it. In his
poetry through a combination of his resonant poetic sensibility and
desire for intellectual order, he is gesturing towards a point of ideal
synthesis, a point of perfection. However, this is only an enabling
ideal. The human connectedness that he promotes and the disconnectedness
that invariably arises result in making this point of perfection