By Ezra Pound.
THE APPEARANCE OF “The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore”1 is, to my mind, very important. I am by no means sure that I can convince the reader of this importance. For proof I must refer him to the text. He must read it quietly. He would do well to read it aloud, for this apparently simple English translation has been made by a great musician, by a great artist who is familiar with a music much subtler than our own.
It is a little over a month since I went to Mr. Yeats’ rooms and found him much excited over the advent of a great poet, someone “greater than any of us.”
It is hard to tell where to begin.
BENGAL IS A nation of fifty million people. Superficially it would seem to be beset with phonographs and railways. Beneath this there would seem to subsist a culture not wholly unlike that of twelfth-century Provençe.
Mr. Tagore is their great poet and their great musician as well. He has made them their national song, their Marseillaise, if an Oriental nation can be said to have an equivalent to such an anthem. I have heard his “Golden Bengal,” with its music, and it is wholly Eastern, yet it has a curious power, a power to move the crowd. It is “minor” and subjective, yet it has all the properties of action.
I name this only in passing, to show that he has sung of all the three things which Dante thought “fitting to be sung of, in the noblest possible manner,” to wit, love, war and holiness.
The next resemblance to mediaeval conditions is that “Mr. Tagore” teaches his songs and music to his jongleurs, who sing them throughout Bengal. He can boast with the best of the troubadours, “I made it, the words and the notes.” Also, he sings them himself, I know, for I have heard him.
The “forms” of this poetry as they stand in the original Bengali are somewhere between the forms of Provençal canzoni and the roundels and “odes” of the Pleiade. The rhythm arrangements are different, and they have rhymes in four syllables, something, that is, beyond the “leonine.”
Their metres are more comparable to the latest development of vers libre than to anything else Western.
The language itself is a daughter of Sanscrit. It sounds like good Greek than any language I know of.
It is an inflected language, and therefore easy to rhyme in. You may couple words together as you do in Greek or German. Mr. Tagore tells me that there is scarcely a poem where you do not make some word combination.
I write this to show that it is an ideal language for poets; it is fluid, and the order is flexible, and all this makes for precision. Thus, you may invert in an inflected language, for this will not cause any confusion as to your meaning.
It makes for precision, since you can have a specific word for everything. For example, one of Mr. Tagore’s friends was singing to me and translating informally, and he came to a word which a careless lexicographer might have translated simply “scarf,” but no! It seems they wear a certain kind of scarf in a certain manner, and there is a special name for the little tip that hangs back over the shoulder and catches in the wind. This is the word that was used.
Firstly, because it is unencumbered with a harmony.
Secondly, from the nature of ragini, which are something in the Greek modes.
And in these ragini there is a magic of association. For certain of these scales are used only for song in the evening, or for song in the rainy season, or at sunrise, so that a Bengali hearing any opening bar knows at once the place and the atmosphere of the poem.
For myself I should be apt to find a curious aptness in the correspondence of the raga with its own service. At least it lends a curious ritualistic strength to the art. And no separate poem or song can seem a scrap or a disconnected performance, but must seem a part of the whole order of the song and of life. It takes a man more quickly from the sense of himself, and brings him into the emotion of “the flowing,” of harmonic nature, of orderly calm and sequence.
“I do not know whether there is anything more in it. To us it means a great deal, perhaps it is only association.” I quote here the author himself. The evening before he had asked me: “What is it you find in these poems (translated)? I did not know that they would interest a European.”
And stripped of all the formal beauty of the original, of the tune, and of the rhythm, and of the subtle blendings of their rhyme, it is a small wonder that Mr. Tagore should be curious as to the effect of what remains in the prose of an alien speech.
I must, from his point of view, have wasted a certain amount of time in my answers, for I began to discuss his art and his manner of presentation, rather than his spirit and context.
The precision of his language remains.
THE MOVEMENT OF his language may escape you if you read it only from print, but read it aloud, a little tentatively, and the delicacy of its rhythm is at once apparent.
I think this good fortune is unconscious. I do not think it is an accident. It is the sort of prose rhythm a man would use after years of word arranging. He would shun kakophony almost unwittingly.
The next easiest things to note are the occasional brilliant phrases, now like some pure Hellenic, in “Morning with the golden basket in her right hand,” now like the last sophistication of De Gourmont or Baudelaire.
But beneath and about it all is this spirit of curious quiet. We have found our new Greece, suddenly. As the sense of balance came back upon Europe in the days before the Renaissance, so it seems to me does this sense of a saner stillness come now to us in the midst of our clangour of mechanisms.
The “mens sana in corpore sano,” the ethic of Odyssey, came then upon the tortured habits of mediaeval thought, and with no greater power for refreshment.
I am not saying this hastily, nor in an emotional flurry, not from a love of brandishing statement. I have had a month to think it over.
Hearing his first Greek professor, hearing for the first time the curious music of Theocritus, coming for the first time upon that classic composure which Dante had a little suggested in his description of limbo, Boccaccio must have felt, I think, little differently from what we have felt here, we few who have been privileged to receive the work of Mr. Tagore before the public have heard it.
This is my delight, to wait and watch at the wayside, where shadow chases light and the rain comes in the wake of the summer.”
“No more noisy, loud words from me… Henceforth I deal in whispers. … Full many an hour have I spent in the strife of the good and the evil, but now it is the pleasure of my playmate of the empty days to draw my heart of him, and I know not why is this sudden call to what useless inconsequence!”
“In this play house of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.”
“And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well.”
If quotation is an unsatisfactory method still these five passages from as many poems might show a little of the tone, and might certainly indicate the underlying unity of this whole series of spiritual lyrics.
IT IS NOT now the time to speak of Mr. Tagore’s other work which still awaits translation. To find fitting comparison for the content of [the] volume before us I am compelled to one sole book of my acquaintance, The Paradiso of Dante.
“Ecco qui crecerà li nostril amori.”
Dante hears “more than a thousand spirits” singing it as he comes into the fourth heaven. Yet the voice of the Brama Sumaj is different, the mysticism is calm rather than fervid. Such phrases as—
“Poi che furono giocondi della faccia di Dio”
would seem to break the stillness of this Oriental thought.
Perhaps the vision of the celestial bees “in-flowering themselves in the rose,” is nearest the key of Tagore.
THERE IS IN him the stillness of nature. The poems do not seem to have been produced by storm or by ignition, but seem to show the normal habit of his mind. He is at one with nature, and finds no contradiction. And this is in sharp contrast with the Western mode, where man must be shown attempting to master nature if we are to have “great drama.” It is in contrast to the Hellenic representation of man the sport of the gods, and both in the grip of destiny.
Oddly enough, I wrote some six months ago this passage, anent the introduction of humanism at the time of the Renaissance:—
Man is concerned with man and forgets the whole and the flowing. And we have in sequence, first the age of drama, and then the age of prose.”
And this sort of humanism, having pretty well run its course, it seems to me we have the balance and corrective presented to us in this writing from Bengal.
I cannot prove it. Every true criticism of an important work of art must be a personal confession rather than a demonstration.
In the deep shadows of the rainy July, with secret steps, thou walkest, silent as night, eluding all watchers.
“To-day the morning has closed its eyes, heedless of the insistent calls of the loud east wind, and a thick veil has been drawn over the ever-wakeful blue sky.
“The woodlands have hushed their songs and doors are all shut at every house. Thou art the solitary wayfarer in this deserted street. Oh my only friend, my best beloved, the gates are open in my house—do not pass by like a dream.”
This is one lyrics of the hundred as you may have it in English; remember also what is gone, the form, delicate as a rondel, the music tenuous, restive. Remember the feet of the scansion, the first note struck with an accent and three of four trailing after it, in a measure more than trochaic.
As fast as I select one poem for quotation, I am convinced, in reading the next one, that I have chosen wrongly, and that this next one would have more helped to convince you.
PERHAPS SIMPLE CONFESSION is the best criticism after all. I do not want to confuse Mr. Tagore’s personality with his work, and yet the relation between the two is so close that perhaps I may not offend by two statements, which I shall not attempt to explain.
When I leave Mr. Tagore I feel exactly as if I were a barbarian clothed in skins, and carrying a stone war-club, the kind, that is, where the stone is bound into a crotched stick with thongs.
Perhaps you will get some hint of the curious quality of happiness which pervades his poems from the following incident.
Mr. Tagore was seated on a sofa, and just beginning to read to me in Bengali, when our hostess’ little girl of three ran into the room, laughing and making a most infernal clatter. Immediately the poet burst into laughter exactly like a child’s.
It was startling and it was for a moment uncanny. I don’t attempt to explain it.
Was he in some sudden and intimate connect with the child’s gaiety, or was it merely some Oriental form of super-courtesy to prevent our hosts from guessing that he noticed an interruption? Was it a simple acknowledgement that the child’s mirth was quite as important in the general scheme of things as was our discussion of international aesthetics?
“Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full.” (Poem 27.)
If we take these poems as an expression of Bhuddistic [sic.] thought, it is quite certain that they will change the prevailing conception of Bhuddism among us. For we usually consider it a sort of ultimate negation, while these poems are full of light, they are full of positive statement. They are far closer in temperament to what we usually call Taoism.
Mr. Tagore has said that our greatest mistake in regard to Oriental religious thought is that we regard it as static, while it is, in reality, constantly changing and developing.
BRIEFLY, I FIND in these poems a sort of ultimate common sense, a reminder of one thing and of forty things of which we are over likely to lose sight in the confusion of our Western life, in the racket of our cities, in the jabber of manufactured literature, in the vortex advertisement.
There is the same sort of common sense in the first part of the New Testament, the same happiness in some of the psalms, but these are so apt to be spoiled for us by association; there are so many fools engaged in mispreaching them, that it is pleasant to find their poetic quality in some work which does not bring into the spectrum of our thought John Calvin, the Bishop of London, and the loathly images of cant.
If these poems have a flaw—I do not admit that they have—but if they have a quality that will put them at a disadvantage with the “general reader,” it is that they are too pious.
Yet I have nothing but pity for the reader who is unable to see that their piety is the poetic piety of Dante, and that it is very beautiful.
It is he who weaves the web of this maya in evanescent hues of gold and silver, blue and green, and lets peep out through its folds his feet, at whose touch I forget myself. (From Poem 86.)
“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.” (From Poem 38.)
“Now is the time to sit quiet face to face with thee and to sing dedication of life in this silent and overflowing leisure.” (From Poem 37.)
Or, again, as he contemplates his departure from this life, in the sequence of the poems 39 to 41, we find the same serenity: “Wish me good luck, my friends. … We were neighbours for long, but I received more than I could give.”
I do not think I have ever undertaken so difficult a problem of criticism, for one can praise most poetry in a series of antitheses. In the work of Mr. Tagore the source of the charm is in the subtle underflow. It is nothing else than his “sense of life.” The sort of profound apperception of it which leads Rodin to proclaim that “Energy is Beauty.” It is the sort of apperception of it that we find in Swinburne’s ballad beginning:—
I found in dreams a place of wind and flowers,”
where he says in allegory:—
Now assuredly I see my lady is perfect, and transfigureth all sin and sorrow and death, making them fair as her own eyelids be.”
We have forgotten Swinburne’s early work over much. The whole force and drive of his message is concentrated in two early poems, “The Triumph of Time” and in his “Ballad of Life,” which I have quoted. And I think many people have done this memory wrong in remembering his lesser work in place of his greater, in forgetting such strophes as that one where he says:—
Clear are these things; the grass and the sand.”
This seems a digression, but I am hard put to it to find comparisons for this new work before me. And, besides, it is not a bad place for saying that there is more in Swinburne’s work than luxury and decoration. Nothing would be more utterly different than the general atmosphere of Swinburne and the general atmosphere of Tagore, who can say with perfect truth:—
My song has put off all her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration.”
But upon this point, also, he is sound; he understands that a very strict form rigorously applied makes it possible for one to use the very plainest language. This is the greatest value of such complicated form, which is, on the other hand, a very dangerous trap for such authors as use it to hide their own vacuity.
Perhaps the reader is by now sufficiently interested in our author to endure a short and purely technical discussion, if not he may wall skip the next few paragraphs.
IF YOU HAVE not heard any of the Bengali singers in London, you must imagine the following measure sung in “high-piping Pehlevi,” or, rather, not in Pehlevi, for the Bengali is, as we have said, related to Sanskrit about as Italian is to Latin. And Mr. Tagore was rather distressed when I mentioned Omyr’s calm in connection with his own, although he brightened at the name of Whitman and seemed interested in my quotation from Dante. He would have, I think, little use for “Art for Art’s sake.”
His second song, then, is rhymed as follows:
a, a, (b+b), a, a,
for the first strophe and in the second.
c, c, (d+d), a, a.
The signs (b+b) and (d+d) indicate that the third and eighth lines have an inner rhyme. The rhymes are (a) kané kané, which is more than leonine and rhymes with gané gané, &c.
(b) is eché, (c) is more than leonine, iuria, and (d) is ète.
This form is, as you see, bound in cunningly as a roundel, and the rhyme-chords are beautifully modulated.
This is the song beginning, “No more noisy, loud words for me. Henceforth I deal in whispers; the speech of my heart will be carried on in murmurings of a song.” Kané kané is literally not “murmurings of a song,” it is a colloquial use meaning, “from ear to ear.” It is Bengali for “whisper,” but it is much more pictorial.
THE THIRD SONG is even more interesting in its construction, and is comparable to the first “pes” of the strophe in some very elaborate Tuscan canzoni. It is rhymed and measured as follows. We have no equivalent in Greek or English for these feet of five syllables, and the reader had better consider them purely as musical bars.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1
rhyme in cho
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1, 2
rhyme in tabo
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1
rhyme in cho
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1, 2
rhyme in tabo
This is followed by three lines of
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — 1, 2
rhyme in tee rè
(tee rè and phirè)
The third division is the same shape as the first, and rhymes
shé, kani, she, bani
The fourth division is three lines like those in the second division, and rhymes,
bhari, bari, dari
This metre is, as I have said, not quantitative of the Greek or Sanskrit measures, but the length of the syllables is considered, and the musical time of the bars is even. The measures are more interesting than any now being used in Europe except those of certain of the most advanced French writers, as, for instance, the arrangements of sound in Remy de Gourmont’s “Fleurs de Jadis” or his “Litanies de la Rose.”
In fact, this older language has already found that sort of metric which we awhile back predicted or hoped for in English, where all the sorts of recurrence shall be weighed and balanced and co-ordinated. I do not mean to say that the ultimate English metre will be in the least like the Bengali, but it will be equally fluid and equally able to rely on various properties. We will not rhyme in four syllables; we may scarcely rhyme at all; but there will be new melodies and new modulations.
IT IS INTERESTING for the few who are mad enough to seek fundamental laws in word music to find here a correspondence with Western result, for Sappho could discover nothing better than three lines of eleven syllables relieved by one of five, and Dante, after careful analysis, could recommend nothing more highly than certain lines of eleven syllables relieved by some of seven. Here in the Bengali the use of eleven or twelve is optional in the song last analysed.
For purely selfish reasons I want this book Gitanjali to be well received. Mr. Tagore’s work does not consist wholly of such songs as these. There are plays and love lyrics still hidden in the original. The task on which he has already set forth is the translation of his children’s songs, and I am anxious to see them.
When criticism fails one can do no more than go, personally, security for the value of the work one is announcing.
Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not. Thou hast given me seats in houses not my own. Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.”
Says Mr. Tagore (poem 6), and he might have said it most truly of his own writings, and, indeed, of all great art, for it is only by the arts that strange peoples can come together in any friendly intimacy. By such expression they learn a mutual respect, and there is more marrow in such expression than in much propaganda for economic peace.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE HAS done well for his nation in these poems. He has served her Foreign Office.
He has given us a beauty that is distinctly Oriental, and yet it is almost severe, it is free from that lusciousness, that over-profusion which, in so much South-Oriental work, repels us. His work is, above all things, quiet. It is sunny, Apricus, “fed with sun,” “delighting in sunlight.”
One has in reading it a sense of even air, where many Orientals only make us aware of abundant vegetation. I will quote only one more poem, and you then go to the book.
“’I have come to the river,’ she said, ‘to float my lamp on the stream when the daylight wanes in the west.’ I stood alone among the tall grasses and watched the timid flame of her lamp uselessly drifting in the tide.”
Ezra Pound’s essay was first published in the Fortnightly in March 1913, accompanied by a poem by Tagore (‘At the Fair’). It has been transcribed and appears here as part of the Tagore Dossier created to coincide with the centenary of the awarding of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature to Tagore. The pack-driven rush to promote Tagore seemed dramatic for the time, if familiar today. Ezra Pound’s comments here and, in December 1912, in Poetry – along with the endorsement of Yeats and others – were extremely effective in ultimately convincing the Nobel committee to give its prize to Tagore.
However, Pound’s estimation of Tagore’s work was as effervescent as it was hyperbolic. Only months after comparing Tagore to Dante, Pound quickly turned on his ‘discovery’, and, as Hurwitz notes, soon was ascribing Tagore’s popularity to ‘the cleverest boom of our day’. ‘After the fiat of the omnipotent literati of distinction’, Pound wrote, Tagore ‘relapsed into religion and optimism and was boomed by the pious non-conformists.’ Pound, who had just praised Tagore for possessing ‘the poetic piety of Dante’, ignored his own role in igniting the Tagore ‘boom’ in the first place. Perhaps not surprisingly, this essay is not included in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T.S. Eliot for Faber (1954). –Ed.
A TAGORE DOSSIER.
Published on the centenary of Tagore’s 1913 Nobel Prize. Ezra Pound: Rabindranath Tagore | W. B. Yeats: Introduction to Gitanjali | William Rothenstein: Tagore in London | Harold M. Hurwitz: Ezra Pound and Rabindranath Tagore | May Sinclair’s review of Gitanjali in the May 1913 North American Review | Tagore: At the Fair | Gitanjali, from Project Gutenberg.
- The volume to which Pound refers is Gitanjali. The etext version is available from Gutenberg here. Pabitra Sarkar, writing in The Week (India), explains the ’emotional ambivalence’ modern Bengalis feel toward the book. The Nobel Prize website provides a profile of Tagore by Amartya Sen, originally published in the New York Review of Books. –Ed. ↩