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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?

Mysteriousness

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
Joy, joy
On the other, in your dry, barren, sickly deserts
The dance of ghosts amid strewn animal-bones

Attractions

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 inhuman forms.

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 quoted above.

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,
Impassive desert.

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.’

Examples

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 followed,

Poetry

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 sensibilities.

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.

Gestures

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.’

Unity

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
Melodious trees
And I learned to love
Among flowers.

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?

Nature poetry

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.

Harmony

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 thinking.

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 this.

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 Upanishads.

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 elusive.

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