A few days ago I said to a distinguished Bengali doctor ofmedicine, ‘I know no German, yet if a translation of a Germanpoet had moved me, I would go to the British Museum and findbooks in English that would tell me something of his life, and ofthe history of his thought. But though these prose translationsfrom Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has foryears, I shall not know anything of his life, and of themovements of thought that have made them possible, if some Indiantraveller will not tell me.’ It seemed to him natural that Ishould be moved, for he said, ‘I read Rabindranath every day, toread one line of his is to forget all the troubles of the world.’I said, ‘An Englishman living in London in the reign of Richardthe Second had he been shown translations from Petrarch or fromDante, would have found no books to answer his questions, butwould have questioned some Florentine banker or Lombard merchantas I question you. For all I know, so abundant and simple isthis poetry, the new renaissance has been born in your countryand I shall never know of it except by hearsay.’ He answered,‘We have other poets, but none that are his equal; we call thisthe epoch of Rabindranath. No poet seems to me as famous inEurope as he is among us. He is as great in music as in poetry,and his songs are sung from the west of India into Burma whereverBengali is spoken. He was already famous at nineteen when hewrote his first novel; and plays when he was but little older,are still played in Calcutta. I so much admire the completenessof his life; when he was very young he wrote much of naturalobjects, he would sit all day in his garden; from his twenty-fifthyear or so to his thirty-fifth perhaps, when he had a greatsorrow, he wrote the most beautiful love poetry in our language’;and then he said with deep emotion, ‘words can never express whatI owed at seventeen to his love poetry. After that his art grewdeeper, it became religious and philosophical; all theinspiration of mankind are in his hymns. He is the first amongour saints who has not refused to live, but has spoken out ofLife itself, and that is why we give him our love.’ I may havechanged his well-chosen words in my memory but not his thought.‘A little while ago he was to read divine service in one of ourchurches — we of the Brahma Samaj use your word ‘church’ inEnglish — it was the largest in Calcutta and not only was itcrowded, but the streets were all but impassable because of thepeople.’
Other Indians came to see me and their reverence for this mansounded strange in our world, where we hide great and littlethings under the same veil of obvious comedy and half-seriousdepreciation. When we were making the cathedrals had we a likereverence for our great men? ‘Every morning at three — I know,for I have seen it’ — one said to me, ‘he sits immovable incontemplation, and for two hours does not awake from his reverieupon the nature of God. His father, the Maha Rishi, wouldsometimes sit there all through the next day; once, upon a river,he fell into contemplation because of the beauty of thelandscape, and the rowers waited for eight hours before theycould continue their journey.’ He then told me of Mr. Tagore’sfamily and how for generations great men have come out of itscradles. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘there are Gogonendranath andAbanindranath Tagore, who are artists; and Dwijendranath,Rabindranath’s brother, who is a great philosopher. Thesquirrels come from the boughs and climb on to his knees and thebirds alight upon his hands.’ I notice in these men’s thought asense of visible beauty and meaning as though they held thatdoctrine of Nietzsche that we must not believe in the moral orintellectual beauty which does not sooner or later impress itselfupon physical things. I said, ‘In the East you know how to keepa family illustrious. The other day the curator of a museumpointed out to me a little dark-skinned man who was arrangingtheir Chinese prints and said, “That is the hereditaryconnoisseur of the Mikado, he is the fourteenth of his family tohold the post.” ‘He answered, ‘When Rabindranath was a boy hehad all round him in his home literature and music.’ I thoughtof the abundance, of the simplicity of the poems, and said, ‘Inyour country is there much propagandist writing, much criticism?We have to do so much, especially in my own country, that ourminds 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 know what is good, we would not find hearers andreaders. Four-fifths of our energy is spent in the quarrel withbad taste, whether in our own minds or in the minds of others.’‘I understand,’ he replied, ‘we too have our propagandistwriting. In the villages they recite long mythological poemsadapted from the Sanskrit in the Middle Ages, and they ofteninsert passages telling the people that they must do theirduties.’
I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with mefor days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top ofomnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close itlest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics —which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtletyof rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metricalinvention — display in their thought a world I have dreamed of allmy live long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear asmuch the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes.A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, haspassed through the centuries, gathering from learned andunlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to themultitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble. If thecivilization of Bengal remains unbroken, if that common mindwhich — as one divines — runs through all, is not, as with us,broken into a dozen minds that know nothing of each other,something even of what is most subtle in these verses will havecome, in a few generations, to the beggar on the roads. Whenthere was but one mind in England, Chaucer wrote his Troilusand Cressida, and thought he had written to be read, or to beread out — for our time was coming on apace — he was sung byminstrels for a while. Rabindranath Tagore, like Chaucer’sforerunners, writes music for his words, and one understands atevery moment that he is so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring inhis passion, so full of surprise, because he is doing somethingwhich has never seemed strange, unnatural, or in need of defence.These verses will not lie in little well-printed books uponladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that theymay sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they canknow of life, or be carried by students at the university to belaid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generationspass, travellers will hum them on the highway and men rowing uponthe rivers. Lovers, while they await one another, shall find, inmurmuring them, this love of God a magic gulf wherein their ownmore bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth. At everymoment the heart of this poet flows outward to these withoutderogation or condescension, for it has known that they willunderstand; and it has filled itself with the circumstance oftheir lives. The traveller in the read-brown clothes that hewears that dust may not show upon him, the girl searching in herbed for the petals fallen from the wreath of her royal lover, theservant or the bride awaiting the master’s home-coming in theempty house, are images of the heart turning to God. Flowers andrivers, the blowing of conch shells, the heavy rain of the IndianJuly, or the moods of that heart in union or in separation; and aman sitting in a boat upon a river playing lute, like one ofthose figures full of mysterious meaning in a Chinese picture, isGod Himself. A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurablystrange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination;and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but becausewe have met our own image, as though we had walked in Rossetti’swillow wood, or heard, perhaps for the first time in literature,our voice as in a dream.
Since the Renaissance the writing of European saints — howeverfamiliar their metaphor and the general structure of theirthought — has ceased to hold our attention. We know that we mustat last forsake the world, and we are accustomed in moments ofweariness or exaltation to consider a voluntary forsaking; buthow can we, who have read so much poetry, seen so many paintings,listened to so much music, where the cry of the flesh and the cryof the soul seems one, forsake it harshly and rudely? What havewe in common with St. Bernard covering his eyes that they maynot dwell upon the beauty of the lakes of Switzerland, or withthe violent rhetoric of the Book of Revelations? We would, if wemight, find, as in this book, words full of courtesy. ‘I havegot my leave. Bid me farewell, my brothers! I bow to you alland take my departure. Here I give back the keys of my door — andI give up all claims to my house. I only ask for last kind wordsfrom you. We were neighbours for long, but I received more thanI could give. Now the day has dawned and the lamp that lit mydark corner is out. A summons has come and I am ready for myjourney.’ And it is our own mood, when it is furthest from ‘aKempis or John of the Cross, that cries, ‘And because I love thislife, I know I shall love death as well.’ Yet it is not only inour thoughts of the parting that this book fathoms all. We hadnot known that we loved God, hardly it may be that we believed inHim; yet looking backward upon our life we discover, in ourexploration of the pathways of woods, in our delight in thelonely places of hills, in that mysterious claim that we havemade, unavailingly on the woman that we have loved, the emotionthat created this insidious sweetness. ‘Entering my heartunbidden even as one of the common crowd, unknown to me, my king,thou didst press the signet of eternity upon many a fleetingmoment.’ This is no longer the sanctity of the cell and of thescourge; being but a lifting up, as it were, into a greaterintensity of the mood of the painter, painting the dust and thesunlight, and we go for a like voice to St. Francis and toWilliam Blake who have seemed so alien in our violent history.
We write long books where no page perhaps has any quality to makewriting a pleasure, being confident in some general design, justas we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics — alldull things in the doing — while Mr. Tagore, like the Indiancivilization itself, has been content to discover the soul andsurrender himself to its spontaneity. He often seems to contrastlife with that of those who have loved more after our fashion,and have more seeming weight in the world, and always humbly asthough he were only sure his way is best for him: ‘Men going homeglance at me and smile and fill me with shame. I sit like abeggar maid, drawing my skirt over my face, and when they ask me,what it is I want, I drop my eyes and answer them not.’ Atanother time, remembering how his life had once a differentshape, he will say, ‘Many an hour I have spent in the strife ofthe good and the evil, but now it is the pleasure of my playmateof the empty days to draw my heart on to him; and I know not whythis sudden call to what useless inconsequence.’ An innocence, asimplicity that one does not find elsewhere in literature makesthe birds and the leaves seem as near to him as they are near tochildren, and the changes of the seasons great events as beforeour thoughts had arisen between them and us. At times I wonderif he has it from the literature of Bengal or from religion, andat other times, remembering the birds alighting on his brother’shands, I find pleasure in thinking it hereditary, a mystery thatwas growing through the centuries like the courtesy of a Tristanor a Pelanore. Indeed, when he is speaking of children, so mucha part of himself this quality seems, one is not certain that heis not also speaking of the saints, ‘They build their houses withsand and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves theyweave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep.Children have their play on the seashore of worlds. They knownot how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishersdive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while childrengather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hiddentreasures, they know not how to cast nets.’
W.B. YEATS September 1912
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.
When thou commandest me to sing it seems that my heart would break with pride; and I look to thy face, and tears come to my eyes.
All that is harsh and dissonant in my life melts into one sweet harmony — and my adoration spreads wings like a glad bird on its flight across the sea.
I know thou takest pleasure in my singing. I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.
I touch by the edge of the far-spreading wing of my song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach.
Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call thee friend who art my lord.
I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen in silent amazement.
The light of thy music illumines the world. The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky. The holy stream of thy music breaks through all stony obstacles and rushes on.
My heart longs to join in thy song, but vainly struggles for a voice. I would speak, but speech breaks not into song, and I cry out baffled. Ah, thou hast made my heart captive in the endless meshes of thy music, my master!
Life of my life, I shall ever try to keep my body pure, knowing that thy living touch is upon all my limbs.
I shall ever try to keep all untruths out from my thoughts, knowing that thou art that truth which has kindled the light of reason in my mind.
I shall ever try to drive all evils away from my heart and keep my love in flower, knowing that thou hast thy seat in the inmost shrine of my heart.
And it shall be my endeavour to reveal thee in my actions, knowing it is thy power gives me strength to act.
I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side. The works that I have in hand I will finish afterwards.
Away from the sight of thy face my heart knows no rest nor respite, and my work becomes an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil.
Today the summer has come at my window with its sighs and murmurs; and the bees are plying their minstrelsy at the court of the flowering grove.
Now it is time to sit quite, face to face with thee, and to sing dedication of life in this silent and overflowing leisure.
Pluck this little flower and take it, delay not! I fear lest it droop and drop into the dust.
I may not find a place in thy garland, but honour it with a touch of pain from thy hand and pluck it. I fear lest the day end before I am aware, and the time of offering go by.
Though its colour be not deep and its smell be faint, use this flower in thy service and pluck it while there is time.
My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.
My poet’s vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.