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Ezra Pound and Rabindranath Tagore.

By HAROLD M. HURWITZ.

Ezra Pound and Rabindranath Tagore.EZRA POUND MET the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and heard his poetry for the first time at a “Tagore Evening” which Wil­liam Rothenstein, painter, founder of the India Society, and Tagore’s London host, gave for his distinguished guest at his home in Hamp­stead Heath on the evening of July 7, 1912.1 At Rothenstein’s, W. B. Yeats read aloud several poems that Tagore had translated into English from his Bengali works shortly before he left India and while he was en route to London in the spring of 1912. Pound, like many of the other guests gathered at Rothenstein’s that evening,2 was deeply moved by the poetry. In an essay published several months later he compared his response to Tagore with Boccaccio’s excitement in discovering the Greeks and Dante:

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 had heard it.3

After the Yeats reading, Pound became one of Tagore’s most fervent admirers. Rothenstein remarked in this connection that for several weeks following the program “the young poets came to sit at Tagore’s feet; Ezra Pound the most assiduously.”4

POUND’S ENTHUSIASM FOR Tagore was first revealed in a letter he sent Harriet Monroe, the editor of the new American magazine, Poetry. Acting as her foreign correspondent, he was anxious to get some of Tagore’s work before the other journals did. Writing Miss Monroe from London on September 24, 1912, he told her of his plans:

I’ve just written to Yeats. It’s rather hard to get anything out of him by mail and he won’t be back in London until November. Still I’ve done what I can, and as it’s the first favor or about the first that I’ve asked for three years, I may get something–”to set the tone.”

Also, I’ll try to get some of the poems of the very great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore. They are going to be the sensation of the winter…W. B. Y. is doing the introduction to them.5 They are translated by the author into very beautiful English prose, with mastery of cadence….6

A few weeks later, Pound again wrote to Miss Monroe, extremely excited because he had some Tagore poems for the next number of Poetry and because he felt the Indian poet was going to create a tremendous stir in England and America:

This is The Scoop. Reserve space in the next number for Tagore…. He has sung Bengal into a nation, and his English version of his poems is very wonderful. Yeats is doing the introduction. And we’re to hold down the American copyright. I’ve known for weeks that he was the event of the winter. Yeats greeted me with “someone greater than any of us – I read these things and wonder why one should go on trying to write.”

It’s the only real fever of excitement among the inner circle of liter­ature that I’ve ever seen here. And we – Poetry – have got six poems at the least; and nobody else will have any….7

Pound was successful in obtaining six of the poems for Poetry, and these were published in the issue of December 1912, along with an essay by him on Tagore. The six poems were from the Gitanjali, a volume of Tagore’s English translations published by the India Society in November 1912. Both Pound and Miss Monroe were further delighted by the fact that these were the first of Tagore’s poems to be published in the West, since the India Society’s edition was a private, subscribed one and was not distributed until early in 1913.
Potery, December 1912.

IN THE OPENING line of his essay, Pound emphasized the impor­tance of the occasion, remarking that “The appearance of the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, translated by himself from Bengali into English, is an event in the history of English poetry and of world poetry.’8 In the rest of his brief appreciation, he described the outstanding qualities of the poetry and explained why he thought it so significant.

As one might expect, Pound was fascinated with the verse form of the original Bengali, which he found to be fashioned “in metres perhaps the most finished and most subtle of any known to us.”9 He also felt that Tagore’s lines contained the harmonious complexity which characterized all great art. He described its form through a series of comparisons: “If you refine the art of the troubadours, com bine it with that of the Pleiade, and add to that the sound unit principle of the most advanced artists in vers libre, you would get something like the system of Bengali verse.’10

Pound was not only delighted with the versification but also highly pleased with the contents, which he hoped might have a spiritually regenerating effect on English readers. In this connection, he remarked that “the Bengali brings to us the pledge of a calm which we need evermuch in an age of steel and mechanics. It brings a quiet proclamation of the fellowship between man and the gods; between man and nature.’11

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 | Tagore: At the Fair.

In his conclusion, Pound stressed the moral value of the poems, especially his hope and belief that they would strengthen “world fellowship.” Knowing what we do about his later life, this early idealism seems strange, but it has the ring of sincerity to it. It is interesting to note, however, that in two later essays on Tagore, published in 1913, he omitted any reference to world fellowship and Tagore’s contribution to this noble cause.The American poet expressed his full appreciation of Tagore’s Gitanjali in a notice in the Fortnightly Review in March, 1913, shortly after the appearance of the Macmillan edition of this work.12 This essay is similar in many respects to the one he wrote for Poetry, but it is more detailed and even more extravagant, possibly because he was writing for a larger audience and because Tagore had achieved some prominence since the previous essay. For example, early in his remarks, Pound rated Tagore’s genius equal to Dante’s, an appraisal he probably later regretted: “To find fitting comparison for the content of volume [sic] before us,” he wrote, “I am com­pelled to one sole book of my acquaintance, the Paradiso of Dante.”13 Although Pound’s praise seems extravagant today, there are several logical reasons for his admiration of the Indian’s work in addition to those he discussed in print. In the first place, Tagore wrote in the colloquial, narrative style that Pound admired and used himself.  Number ninety-three, a poem about approaching death, is a good example of his idiom:

I have got my leave. Bid me farewell my brothers!
I bow to you all and take my departure.
xxxHere I give back the keys of my door –
and I give up all claims to my house. I only ask
for last kind words from you.
xxxWe were neighbors for long, but I received more
than I could give. Now the day has dawned and the
lamp that lit my dark corner is out. A summons has
come and I am ready for my journey

Secondly, one may assume that Pound would be sympathetic to the devotional nature of Tagore’s work, for many of his early poems also had religious overtones. In his early “Greek Epigram,” for example, Pound pictured God as the creator of all beauty – a senti­ment common to Tagore’s verse:

Day and night are never weary
Nor yet is God of creating
For day and night their
xxxxxxxxxtorch-bearers
The aube and the crepuscle.14

It is also likely that he admired the Indian’s independent spirit. Throughout his life, Tagore refused to submit to British tyranny or Indian chauvinism; and his broad and uncompromising nationalis­tic ideals were reflected in many of his poems.

BECA– USE HE ADMIRED Tagore’s poetry so greatly, the American poet was very unhappy about the kind of bogus reception that he was receiving personally in England. In an essay in the New Free­woman Pound took the English public to task for its failure to appreciate Tagore:

Why the good people of this island are unable to honour a fine poet as such, why they are incapable of …devising for his honour any better device than that of wrapping his life in cotton wool and parading about with the effigy of a sanctimonious moralist, remains and will remain for me an insoluble mystery…Rabindranath Tagore is not to be confused…with any Theosophist propaganda; nor with any of the various mis­sionaries of the seven and seventy isms of the mystical East. He is an artist pure and simple, an author whose voice has almost as many shades as one might have expected from Voltaire and whose sense of humor is as delicate as that of any writer in Paris.15

Pound’s enthusiasm for Tagore’s character possibly stems from the fact that for quite some time he had been anxious to meet a man who, like Tagore, would “stand for mankind.” He was tired of fearful, timid men. He wanted a man who was at once heroic and sensitive, one not afraid of dreaming great dreams, as he wrote in “Revolt”:

Let us be men that dream,
Not cowards, dabblers, waiters
For dead Time to reawaken and grant balm
For ills unnamed.

Great God, if we be damn’d to be not men but only dreams,
Then let us be such dreams the world shall tremble at
And know we be its rulers though but dreams!16

At the same time that Pound was praising Tagore publicly he was also making some private reservations about his work. In a letter to Harriet Monroe, written in April, 1913, he raised some questions about Tagore’s poetry, fearing that it would become overly mystical and exotic unless pruned very carefully. “It will be very difficult for his defenders in London if he takes to printing anything except his best work,” he wrote her, probably concerning Mac­millan’s plans to issue more of Tagore’s translations. And in an abrupt change from the opinions he expressed in his earlier articles, Pound sharply criticized Tagore’s philosophy in this letter:

As a religious teacher, he is superfluous….And his [Tagore’s] philosophy hasn’t much in it for a man who has “felt the pangs” or been pestered with Western civilization….So long as he sticks to poetry he can be defended on stylistic grounds against those who disagree with his con­tent….In his original Bengali he has the novelty of rime and rhythm and of expression, but in a prose translation it is just “more theosophy.”17

POUND’S CRITICISM IS accurate but surprising because in his two previous articles on Tagore he had made little distinction between the original and the translations. It is also startling to note that he criticized the contents of the poems in this letter, for he previously had found them significant. Although the letter was written only a month after his very laudatory review in the Fortnightly Review, there are, however, several valid explanations for his changed views.

In the first place, internal evidence indicates that much of Pound’s review was written several months before its publication. It is likely that after it was written, Pound re-read the Gitanjali and found it unsatisfactory. It is also likely that he saw some of the manuscripts of the translations that Tagore intended to publish after the Gitanjali and was disappointed in them. Rothenstein, Sturge Moore, and Yeats had copies of the manuscripts – the latter two because they were helping Tagore with his revisions – and Pound knew all three of them well. There is also a shade of personal animosity towards Tagore in the letter to Miss Monroe, and perhaps this might have been another reason for his criticism of the Indian’s work.

Pound’s growing antipathy towards the Indian poet was further revealed in a letter he wrote Iris Barry in January, 1917. In this he claimed that Tagore received the Nobel Prize, in 1913, “because, after the cleverest boom of our day, after the fiat of the omnipotent literati of distinction, he relapsed into religion and optimism and was boomed by the pious non-conformists.’18 Pound, however, certainly knew that much of the “boom” was genuine, since he him­self genuinely participated in it, and he knew many others – such as Yeats, May Sinclair, and Ernest Rhys – who were as sincere as he was in their initial praise of Tagore. As for the “omnipotent literati,” Pound doesn’t make clear who he means, but he certainly was part of the approving chorus; and if others were deceived, he should have been honest enough to admit that he was too. Instead, suggestive of his later paranoia, he hints to Miss Barry that the Nobel Prize was a conspiracy: “Also…it got the Swedish Academy out of the dif­ficulty of deciding between European writers whose claims appeared to conflict. Sic. Hardy or Henry James?…And then, the right people suggested him. And Sweeden [sic] is Sweeden.”

POUND’S ANIMOSITY TOWARDS Tagore achieved its fullest expression in a review published in the Little Review in August, 1917. Originally written as a comment on Fenollosa’s “Certain Noble Plays of Japan,” he could not resist the opportunity to use this essay as a bludgeon upon Tagore’s sinking reputation. “This Japanese stuff has not the solidity, the body, of Rihaku (Li Po),” he wrote. “It is not so important as the Chinese work left by Fenollosa, but on the other hand it is infinitely better than Tagore and the backwash from India….” And then he concluded this paragraph with a non-sequitur whose only purpose seemed to denigrate: “Fenollosa has given us more than Tagore has….Japan is not a Chinese deca­dence.”19 Thus, within five brief years, Pound’s extreme enthusiasm had changed into bitter and uncritical derogation.

It is also interesting to note that in his later essays on Tagore, Pound’s early idealism disappeared and was replaced by a rather ironic cynicism. This changed attitude was revealed in a satire he wrote on the hypocrisy of Eastern seers entitled “Jodindranath Mawhwor’s Occupation.”20 Adopting the ironic tone and cynical pose that became his familiar mask, Pound seems in this sketch to be poking fun at Indian holy men and suggesting that many of them are fakers. For example, Mawhwor has no occupation, other than philandering and giving advice to his disciples, while at the same time professing to use the Indian holy books as his source and guide.

It is doubtful that the hero of the story is intended to be Tagore, but there are enough similarities between the fictional and real to suggest that Pound was bemused by Tagore’s saintliness. The names are similar, for example. Mawhwor, like Tagore, is a Bengali. Moreover, the fictional character and the original are deeply “religious.” And Tagore also had a group of disciples who came to him for guidance. But Pound had a great deal of respect for Tagore’s in­tegrity, and his parody is so heavily drawn that it seems very unlikely he wanted anything but a superficial resemblance between Mawhwor and his friend.

An even profounder change in Pound’s views is reflected in his satire on the Indian religious works in this story. In his essay for Poetry, he had remarked that the poems of Tagore “will destroy the popular conception of Buddhism, for we in the occident are apt to regard it as a religion negative and anti-Christian.”21 But in “Jodindranath Mawhwor’s Occupation” he underscores the pettiness and the foolishness of the Hindu religious doctrines and shows that the worldly pre-occupations of the hypocrite Mawhwor partly arise from his study of the Indian holy works, which are likewise con­cerned with the most mundane and trivial matters. For example, in describing Mawhwor’s day, Pound remarks slyly that “Jodindranath rose in the morning and brushed his teeth, after having performed other unavoidable duties as prescribed in the sutra….”22

It is difficult to account fully for the change in Pound’s attitude. Although Tagore’s work did deteriorate somewhat, the rancor in Pound’s criticism and its severity are hardly warranted on a purely literary basis. It is more likely that between 1912 and 1917 he was becoming more and more embittered by the course of external events, and this change was reflected in his views on Tagore.

We know that Pound was deeply shocked by the war and angered by the slaughter. The deaths of his friends Gaudier-Brzeska and T. E. Hulme were particularly hard blows. Before Gaudier­-Brzeska was killed in action in June, 1915, Pound wrote that “if the Germans succeed in damaging Gaudier-Brzeska they will have done more harm to art than they have by the destruction of Rheims Cathedral, for a building once made and recorded can, with some care, be remade, but the uncreated forms of a man of genius cannot be set forth by another.”23 After the war, he became involved in social and economic questions partly because of his revulsion against battle and his desire to prevent further conflicts. In the autobiographical sketch he wrote for the New Directions volume of his Selected Poems (1949) he stated that “In 1918 began investigations of causes of war, to oppose same.”24

He also became discouraged by his failure to shock the English public or shake their apathy. Imagism and Vorticism created only a mild stir, and Blast had few readers outside of his own group. The change in Pound’s personality was noticed by Richard Aldington when he met him again shortly after he was demobilized. “For some reason Ezra had become violently hostile to England – ” Aldington wrote, “perhaps those ‘night dogs’ were biting him. At any rate he kept tapping his Adam’s apple and assuring me that the English stopped short there. I thought at first he meant that he had been menaced by returning troops as a slacker, but it eventually came out that he was implying that the English had no brains.”25 Pound’s bitter disappointment is further recorded in his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, the opening lines of which indicate his frustra­tion:

For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’
In the old sense. Wrong from the start –

Thus, Pound’s experiences in war-time England contributed greatly to his growing cynicism. And this alteration in his personality and ideals was reflected in and partly responsible for his bitter attacks on Tagore.

When the English public accepted the Indian and used Pound’s own words to praise him, Pound, apparently shocked to find him­self part of the herd, quickly denounced him.

His attitude also changed considerably after Tagore became a popular success. While the Indian poet was unknown, Pound was delighted to act as his defender and to use Tagore’s lack of recogni­tion as proof of the stupidity of the English and his own superiority. But when the English public accepted the Indian and used Pound’s own words to praise him, Pound, apparently shocked to find him­self part of the herd, quickly denounced him. Some quirk in his nature seemed to make it necessary for him to be always swimming upstream, more often from compulsion than conviction. Although Pound was impressed by Tagore’s work, it had little influence on his stylistically. Looking through the poems he wrote after meeting the Indian poet, one notices, of course, his growing skill, especially as reflected in the Cantos and in Mauberley, but there is little fundamental change from the themes and style of his early poems, except that his irony is a little more marked.

THERE IS ONE poem, however, that shows definite traces of Tagore’s exoticism. This is “Dance Figure,” which first appeared in Lustra (1915). In this piece, Pound used the luxuriant descriptions, the haunting repetitions, the idyllic setting, and the exotic figures that characterized the Indian’s work. Like many of the poems from Tagore’s Gardener, “Dance Figure” describes the poet’s search for a mysterious dark-eyed woman, a search that takes place in an Oriental atmosphere very much like Tagore’s Bengal. The second stanza emphasizes the Eastern setting:

I have not found thee in the tents,
In the broken darkness.
I have not found thee at the well-head
Among the women with pitchers.

“Dance Figure” also has several sensuous passages that are mindful of Tagore’s poems . For example, in looking for the young lady, the poet discovers that “Gilt turquoise and silver are in the place of thy rest/ A brown robe, with threads of gold woven in patterns, hast thou gathered about thee….”

Besides the similarity in tone and atmosphere, Pound’s short piece also has the archaic “thee’s” and “thou’s” that Tagore used; and, like the Indian poet, he repeats a significant line in the poem to add to the melancholy mood. Although the “thee” and “thou” and a generally archaic language had been a fairly common element in earlier poems of Pound’s, none of them had the luxurious atmos­phere and the exoticism of “Dance Figure.”

Even though Tagore’s impact is not evident in verbal felicities or stylistic parallels (except possibly for “Dance Figure”), there is little doubt that he was an important source of encouragement to the young American poet. Pound had long been an admirer of Asia and Asian philosophy, and in his criticism of the West he had frequently used the East as his model. Tagore’s fortuitous appearance in Lon­don and the quality of his work re-enforced these hopes and ideals, as we can see from the early essays and letters.

Tagore was also a stimulus to Pound, who was not only an admirer but a disciple as well. His early contacts with the Indian poet brought forth three essays, one review, and one short story, as well as a renewed interest in Indian poetry, manifested in the translations Pound made of several poems from the fifteenth century Indian poet Kabir, which he published in the Modern Review of Calcutta in June 1913.

Pound’s reactions to Tagore also give some insight into his temperament and character. His early praise was extremely uncritical; his later attacks equally emotional. In his initial response, he seems to have sympathized with the unknown and alien poet and defended his poetry as if it were his own. When Tagore’s work deteriorated, Pound took it as an insult and a betrayal.

Lastly, and most importantly, Pound’s comments on Tagore reveal that the American poet changed a great deal, both in attitude and sentiment, during these years in England. His earliest essays on Tagore showed a great deal of sympathy with the Indian spirit, and were suffused with the hopeful idealism of youth. His last essay and his short story disclose a cynicism and disillusionment in direct contrast with the optative mood of his earlier remarks. His relationship with Tagore illustrates, then, the nature and direction of, if not the reasons for, this transformation.


Harold M. Hurwitz was professor of English at Humboldt State College (now University). He is the author of Rabindranath Tagore and England (University of Illinois – Urbana, 1959).

Harold Hurwitz, “Ezra Pound and Rabindranath Tagore,” in American Literature, Volume 36, no. 1, pp. 53-63. Copyright, 1964, Duke University Press.  All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, Duke University Press. www.dukeupress.edu.

NOTES:

  1. The date for the “Tagore Evening” is given in the autobiography of Tagore’s son Rathindranath (Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time, Bombay, 1958, pp.116-117).
  2. Among those present were Ernest Rhys, Alice Meynell, May Sinclair, Charles Trevelyan, F. Andrews, H. W. Nevinson, and A. H. Fox-Strangways (ibid., p. 116).
  3. Ezra Pound, “Rabindranath Tagore,” Fortnightly Review, LXXXXIX, 573 (March,1913), and online here in the New Series.
  4. William Rothenstein, Men and Memories: 1900-1922 (London, 1932) p. 264.
  5. In August of 1912, Rothenstein proposed that the India Society publish a volume of Tagore’s poetry. The India Society accepted and asked Yeats to write the introduction. Pound must have recently learned about the projected edition.
  6. D. D. Paige, ed., The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941 (New York, 1950), p. 10.
  7. Harriet Monroe, A Poet’s Life (New York, 1938), p. 262.
  8. Ezra Pound, “Tagore’s Poems,” Poetry, I, 92 (Dec. 1912).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid. p. 93.
  12. The India Society’s edition was limited to 750 copies. After the book was distributed, Rothenstein wrote to George Macmillan urging him to publish a larger edition. In March 1913, Macmillan brought out the Gitanjali and had a tremendous success with it. Within two years, the book went through twenty reprintings (William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, pp. 266-267).
  13. “Rabindranath Tagore,” p. 574.
  14. Pound, Exultations (London, 1909), p. 34.
  15. “Rabindranath Tagore,” New Freewoman , I, 187 (Nov., 1913).
  16. Personae (London, 1909), p. 53.
  17. April 22, 1913 (Letters of Ezra Pound , p. 19).
  18. Ibid., p. 106.
  19. “‘Certain Noble Plays of Japan,’ and ‘Noh’ or ‘Accomplishment,'” p. 8.
  20. Published in the Little Review, IV, 12-18 (May 1917); reprinted in Pound ‘s Pavannes and Divisions (New York, 1918.), pp. 3-10.
  21. “Tagore’s Poems,” p. 93.
  22. Pavannes and Divisions, p. 4.
  23. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York, 1960), p. 110.
  24. For a more detailed discussion of this question see Eustace Mullins, This Difficult Individual, Ezra Pound (New York, 1961) , pp. 100-102; and Charles Norman, Ezra Pound (New York, 1960), Chap. XII.
  25. Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (New York, 1941), p. 216.
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One Comment

  1. Brynna hurwitz wrote:

    This is my father. Is there a hard copy I can give to him?? He will be surprised and thilled. At 85 he still loves to read and cares deeply about Rabindranath Tagore.

    Sunday, 15 June 2014 at 19:51 | Permalink

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