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Review: Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Poems

Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected Poems. Translated by William Radice. Penguin Modern Classics (India), 208 pages.

 

Some writers write different things the same way over and over again. All of Emily Dickinson’s poems, from the light pieces about dusk sweeping up the sky’s colors to the meditations on mortality, are of a piece. Even her letters feel appreciably part of her poetic oeuvre, as though she could generate language no other way, no matter what the occasion. Other writers write the same thing over and over again in different ways, forms, genres, styles. Goethe and Victor Hugo were examples of this kind of writer: The unity in each writer’s multivolume body of plays, stories, novels, essays, poems, and epics derives from a personality. Goethe himself sensed this about his oeuvre and called all his works “fragments of a great confession.”

Tagore is an example of the latter writer. He was, perhaps, the last of a certain endlessly prolific, 19th-century all-rounder. Kipling died in 1936; Tagore, in 1941. Of course, that kind of multifarious writer still emerged, though I notice a relative atrophy in Atwood’s poetry, or Dickey’s fiction; one muscle group is clearly more developed, the opposing group not so much. (And we tend to forget that those 19th century jacks-of-all-trades had some major nonfiction successes, too; they weren’t just “poet-novelists.”) There are probably other examples that slip my mind just now, but Tagore in Bengali, even more than Goethe in German, seems to show the extreme of what a single writer is capable of. By the time of his death, the first Indian Nobelist had also distinguished himself as a songwriter (he wrote what went on to become India’s national anthem) and even as a painter. Radice’s translation includes some illuminating prose excerpts, presented as appendices, from Tagore’s literary criticism and an introduction to a folktale compilation. The bearded sage so admired by W. B. Yeats really did stay busy. I doubt it is humanly possible for anyone to take in Tagore’s total output.

How has his stuff held up? I haven’t accessed Tagore’s fiction yet, but I note that several of his novels and story collections remain in print in English to this day, with new translations in some cases. As far as his poetry is concerned, GITANJALI is the most famous, but his own translations of his poetry haven’t aged all that well–not because he wasn’t good at translating himself, but rather because he did so into an idiom of O-thee-thou English language poetry that was subsequently outmoded. Also, he didn’t have a command of any specific, spoken idiom, which is a different thing than mere fluency in a language; the “Indian English” or “Hinglish” had not asserted itself as a viable literary lingo, and would not for another fifty years or so. The sea changes in Anglo-American poetry that we take for granted had, in 1913, not taken place yet; an entire traditional poetspeak was as doomed as pre-War Europe.

That was the England in which Tagore showed up with his beard and his poems, wowing the Indian-Independence-friendly literary types in London. Within a year, Yeats had facilitated his debut in English with Macmillan Publishers–Yeats was co-translating the Upanishads around this time, I believe, going through a India phase–and the Nobel happened immediately after. (You had to impress fewer influencers back then.) By 1915, the British had knighted Tagore, though he returned the knighthood a few years later in protest at the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh.

Radice, matching his subject, arranges his translations into a variety of shapes and line lengths and stanzaic arrangements. Occasionally, he utilizes rhyme, though the notes on the poems at the back only intermittently denote the exact form of the original. Sometimes, the Yeatsian refrain of a poem might come through; you realize that both Yeats and Tagore were, in their respective languages, working as song lyricists.

 

Who sits in the reeds by the river in pure green garments, green garments?

Her water pot drifts from the bank

As she scans the horizon,

Longing, distractedly chewing fresh jasmine, O who is it

Sitting in the reeds by the river in pure green garments?

 

The poem this is from, “New Rain,” is constructed entirely of stanzas in this form; the poem, I imagine, probably sounded better in Bengali rhyme, perhaps set to music. Tagore was working in a rhyme-rich language. “Jana gana mana,” begins Tagore’s lyrics for the Indian National Anthem, surely one of the few national anthems in the world, or poems in the world, to begin with three consecutive rhymes. Yet he stayed open to Western influence–like Goethe, who wrote free verse as early as the 1770’s and also wrote a West-Easterly Diwan based on Hafiz’s ghazals, Tagore was willing to try anything. He even refers, in one of his poems, to the distance that the Western form places between him and his people, and the delighting (both other- and self-delighting) use of traditional Bengali rhyme. Here, writing about his granddaughter, “In the Eyes of a Peacock”:

Suddenly I hear a voice–

“Grandfather, are you writing?”

Someone else has come–not a peacock this time

But Sunyanani….

She has the right to hear my poems before anyone else.

I reply, “This won’t appeal to your sensitive ears:

It’s vers libre.”

A wave of furrows plays across her forehead.

 

Some of the poems show a clear relationship to the short story writer, as they take the form of sustained narratives. Tagore seemed, no matter what he was writing, lyric, song, epic, autobiographical talk (several of the later poems in this volume are from a sequence written on his sickbed), equally at ease. The sense of a writer struggling with the medium of language itself–think Celan, Eliot, and soi-disant “avant-garde” poets generally–is missing here. A state of perpetual flow is the telltale sign of Tagore’s 19th century nature; it resembles, and accounts for, the monstrous multifarious productivity of Hugo, Goethe, Kipling. Writers like Tagore are not stung into art; they do not write through agonies. There is no sense of language offering him any resistance. Writer’s block, judging from his prodigious output (twenty-nine volumes of literary writing; over 2000 songs), was simply not a thing. Only the permanent silence of death was strong enough to quench Tagore. Goethe, too, put the finishing touches on the second Part of Faust in 1831; he died soon afterward, and it was published posthumously.

Goethe studied painting in Italy, but Victor Hugo had a whole secret life as a visual artist. He created some strikingly modern pieces, a century in advance of his time, that are impossible to forget once you see them; in fact, he feared that, if he pursued visual art too aggressively, it would overshadow his writing. Tagore, too, took up painting in later life, exhibiting his works in all the major capitals of Europe, as well as Moscow and New York. I leave you with a sample of them; they, too, like his Selected Poems, are worth a look.