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Rabindranath Tagore in London.

 By WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN.

Tagore, by Rothenstein. 1912.I HAPPENED, IN The Modern Review, upon a translation of a story signed Rabindranath Tagore, which charmed me; I wrote to Jorasanko—were other such stories to be had? Some time afterwards came an exercise book containing translations of poems by Rabindranath, made by Ajit Chakravarty, a schoolmaster on the staff at Bolpur. The poems, of a highly mystical character, struck me as being still more remarkable than the story, though but rough translations. Meanwhile I met one of the Kooch Behar family, Promotto Loll Sen, a saintly man, and a Brahmo of course. He brought to our house Dr Brajendranath Seal, then on a visit to London, a philosopher with a brilliant mind and a child-like character. They both wrote Tagore, urging him to come to London; he would meet, they said, at our house and elsewhere, men after his heart. Then news came that Rabindranath was on his way. I eagerly awaited his visit. At last he arrived, accompanied by two friends, and by his son. As he entered the room he handed me a note-book in which, since I wished to know more of his poetry, he had made some translations during his passage from India. He begged that I would accept them.

That evening I read the poems. Here was poetry of a new order which seemed to me on a level with that of the great mystics. Andrew Bradley, to whom I showed them, agreed: ‘It looks as though we have at last fond a great poet among us again,’ he wrote.

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. Clicking an image will enlarge it.

I sent word to Yeats, who failed to reply; but when I wrote again he asked me to send him the poems, and when he had read them his enthusiasm equalled mine. He came to London and went carefully through the poems, making here and there a suggestion, but leaving the original little changed.

For a long time Yeats was occupied with Tagore: ‘I have been writing lyric poetry in Normandy. I wish I could have got down to you for I find Tagore and you are a great inspiration in my own art. Thank you for asking me,’ he said in a letter.

Tagore’s dignity and handsome presence, the ease of his manners and his quiet wisdom made a marked impression on all who met him. One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to know was Stopford Brooke; for Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Somaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, has heard so much of him and of Estlin Carpenter. Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘ that I am not a spiritual man’. I think the dear old man, with his love of beautiful surroundings and of the good things of life, was a little nervous of Tagore’s purity and asceticism, as it appeared to him; and when we sat down at the Brookes’ generous table, though the talk might be of angels, Stopford must be true to himself.  ‘You and I’, he said to my wife, ‘are going to drink champagne.’ But how could anyone not love Stopford Broke, with his delight in nature’s sumptuousness? Roses and peonies are hers, and the ripe beauty of women, as well as violets and daisies. It was in the high summer of the year that he gloried, above all in the rich landscape of Italy, among the olives and vines seen against the clear blue of the Carraras or Apennines. This world is so beautiful’, he said to Tagore, ‘and I have seen so little of it; when I go I feel that my spirit will haunt it. No, I do not want to be absorbed into the all before I have had much more of this tiny world.’ and Tagore told him how he, too, cared for beauty; how he had written: ‘When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.’

Of course, the two men became great friends. Now Tagore wanted to meet Hudson, for he had read Green Mansions; it was his favourite modern book, he said; and then to the Temple, to a party at the Woods’s—for Woods was now Master of the Temple, where Margaret Woods, with her gracious presence and lovely mind, was a centre of attraction.

THE YOUNG POETS came to sit at Tagore’s feet; Ezra Pound the most assiduously. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore, and Robert Bridges. Tagore, for his part, was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. ‘Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen,’ he said. ‘All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.’

George Calderon dramatised one of his stories, The Maharani of Arakan; the play was acted at the Albert Hall Theatre when it fell to me to introduce Tagore to his first English audience. Meanwhile Tagore was translating some of his own plays, one of which, The Post Office, was acted later in Dublin; a beautiful edition of this play was printed by Miss Yeats at the Cuala Press. I most admired Chitra, and next to this the King of the Dark Chamber, which one evening to a number of friends at our Hampstead house. We asked George Moore, among others, to hear Tagore. Moore was curious, but, except A. E., suspicious of idealists.

My dear Alice Rothenstein,

I owe you many apologies for not having answered your kind letter inviting me to Hampstead to hear some poems by the Indian poet. Yeats tells me they are very wonderful and that he is going to write a preface. I am sure I should enjoy the poems if ‘Slave’ were off my mind. But I am writing the last chapters, and there are bits that I find very difficult to arrange, and until all the… has gone to the printer I am not my own master. I should like to come to see you very much for you are one of the pleasantest talkers I know of, and I’ll try to get up to Hampstead Sunday week. Do not forget however that if you happen to be in town you will always be welcome either for lunch or tea.

Always sincerely yours,

GEORGE MOORE.

I don’t think Moore and Tagore ever met; I could not readily imagine them together; nor could Shaw come to hear the play read; he wrote:

10 Adelphi Terrace,
W. C.

18th September, 1912.

My dear Rothenstein,

My own mother (82) has just had a stroke; charlotte is blue and gasping for life in paroxysms of asthma and bronchitis; and I am rehearsing no less than three plays: therefore my reply to your letter is a hollow laugh. It will be a good solid month before I can fix an hour for lunch again, and I will come with the greatest pleasure.

The Rodin bust is getting devilishly young.

Yours ever,

G. BERNARD SHAW.

But they did meet, though I was away when the Shaws came to dinner. My wife told me that Shaw was rather outrageous, while his wife was all admiration—‘Old bluebeard,’ said Shaw to mine while he was leaving, ‘how many wives has he got, I wonder!’ Nearly 20 years later, at a reception given to Tagore by Evelyn Wrench and Yeats-Brown, the two met again, now white headed and white bearded, and sat and talked together, two noble looking elders.

My wife told me that Shaw was rather outrageous, while his wife was all admiration—‘Old bluebeard,’ said Shaw to mine while he was leaving, ‘how many wives has he got, I wonder!’

It was pleasant to see homage paid so readily to an Indian; nothing of the kind had happened before. I was concerned only lest Tagore’s saintly looks, and the mystical element in his poetry, should attract the Schwärmerei of the sentimentalists who abound in England and America, and who pursue idealists even more hungrily than ideals. Tagore had, indeed, all the qualities to attract such. It was easy to protect him at first, for he enjoyed the society of men whose books he had read but whom he never expected to meet. Then, when the summer came, we escaped to Gloucestershire, where Tagore joined us. It happened that the summer (1912) was one of the rainiest on record. ‘A traveller always meets with exceptional conditions,’ said Tagore, when I apologised for the cold and rain, and the absence of sun. When kept indoors, he busied himself with translations of more poems and plays.

Fox-Strangways wanted Oxford or Cambridge to give Tagore an honorary degree. Lord Curzon, when consulted, said that there were more distinguished men in India than Tagore. I wondered who they were; and I regretted that England had left it to a foreign country to make the first emphatic acknowledgment of his contribution to literature.

I now proposed to the India Society that they should print, for its members, a selection of Tagore’s translations of his own poems. Yeats, when the Committee agreed, generously offered to write an introduction; he had previously gone carefully through the translations, respecting Tagore’s expressive English too much to do more than make slight changes here and there. Indeed, Yeats was as keen over the issue of the book of poems as he would have been over a selection of his own lovely verses. He wrote to me:

Coole ark,
Gort,
Co. Galway.

Sept 7.

My dear Rothenstein,

Your letter of August 24 only reached me to-day—sent on from London. I sent the text and book to Tagore yesterday, and I expect my essay back from my typist on Monday. I think I had better send it to you. You will, I think, find it emphatic enough. If you like it you can say so when you send it on to Tagore. In the first little chapter I have given what Indians have said to me about Tagore—their praise of him and their description of his life. That I am anxious about—some fact may be given wrongly, and yet I don’t want anything crossed out by Tagore’s modesty. I think it might be well if somebody compiled a sort of ‘Who’s Who’ paragraph on Tagore, and put after the Introduction a string of dates, saying when he was born, when his chief works were published. My essay is an impression, I give no facts except those in the quoted conversation.

Yours,

W. B. YEATS.

I will talk over the question you raise when we meet. I am here, have been pike fishing and am tired.

The poems were published by the India Society with the title of Gitanjali. They were well received and were favourably reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement. Tagore was in America at the time:

508 W. High Street,
Urbana,
Illinois,
U. S. A.

19 Nov. 1912.

My dear Mr Rothenstein,

Your two letters of the same date amply made up for the long delay and eager waiting. They are delightful. I thought I had come to that age when doors to my inner theatre must be closed and no more new admission could be possible. But the impossible has happened and you have made my life larger by your friendship. I feel its truth and its preciousness  all the more because it came to me so unexpectedly in a surrounding not familiar to me at all. that I should, while travelling in a foreign land, meet with some experience of life which is not temporary and superficial fills me with wonder and gratitude. It is to me a gift from the divine source and I shall know how to value it.

I am so glad to learn from your letter that my book has been favourably criticised in The Times Literary Supplement. I hope the paper has been forwarded to me and I shall see it in a day or two. My happiness is all the more great because I know such appreciations will bring joy to your own heart. In fact, I feel that the success of my book is your own success. But for your assurance I never could have dreamt that my translations were worth anything, and up to the last moment I was fearful lest you should be mistaken in your estimation of them and all the pains you have taken over them should be thrown away. I am extremely glad that your choice has been vindicated and your will have the right to take pride in your friend, supported by the best judges in your literature. Remember me kindly to Mrs Rothenstein and give our love to the children.

Ever your affectionate friend,

RABINDRANATH TAGORE.

Since only a limited edition of Gitanjali had been printed I wrote to George Macmillan, with a view to his publishing a popular edition of Gitanjali, as well as other translations which Tagore had made; Macmillans, after some hesitation, finally published all Tagore’s books, to his profit, and their own.

The India Society deemed it fitting to touch on the much debated problem of the New Delhi, for which Lutyens and Herbert Baker were to be the architects. Was it to be European or Indian in character? Together with Rolleston, now secretary of the India Society, I drafted a litter to The Times. There was no reason why buildings which were to be occupied—so we then thought—by Englishmen should not be frankly European in plan, and in elevation too; while Indian Princes should employ Indian builders, masons and carvers for their Delhi residences. Neither Lutyens nor Baker cared, I think, for Hindu art; their sympathies were with the later Moghul builders. Indeed they had visited none of the great Hindu centres, neither Bhuveneshwar nor Khajraho. Yet Lutyens’s genius for striking effects combined with charm of detail was to serve him well. I asked Lutyens to meet Tagore, when he cracked jokes all the time. It was not easy to convince Tagore that Lutyens was the right man for Delhi.

BEFORE TAGORE LEFT for India, Yeats and I arranged a small dinner in his honour. After dinner we asked Tagore to sing Bande Mataram, the nationalist song. He hummed the tune but after the first words broke down; he could not remember the rest. Then Yeats began the Irish anthem—and his memory, again, was at fault; and Ernest Rhys could not for the life of him recollect the words of the Welsh national anthem. ‘What a crew!’ I said, when I too stumbled over God save the King. Re-reading some of Hudson’s letters I am reminded that previously a public dinner had been given to Tagore, to which many distinguished men and women came. Hudson had written:

40 St Luke’s Road,
W.

July 13, 1912.

            Forgive me my dear Rothenstein for not replying to the card about a dinner to Mr Tagore, for days past I have been so much troubled with palpitations I left letters unanswered. But you know I never dine out now—I can’t go to a dinner at the conventional hour and eat & come home at some late time without paying for it heavily. If I could stand being chloroformed I would go to some surgeon & ask him to cut me up in pieces & take out as much as he thought proper, then sew up the remnants, in order to see if that would give me a little more life. But these be idle thoughts. I should have liked to hear Yeats read the Tagore poems; I hope he has got a poet to translate them. Not many of our poets know Hindustani; but these things can be managed another way. For example, Blunt’s splendid translations of the Seven Golden Odes of Arabia were not done direct from the originals—he doesn’t know Arabic; but he took them from Lady Blunt’s literal translations into English and turned them into poetry.

With love to you all

Yours ever,
W. H. HUDSON.

Poor Hudson! he was continually worry about his health, about his heart especially; but this did not prevent his bicycling up hills as well as down, for he wrote to my wife:

Goits Moss Farm,
Nr. Buxton,
Derbyshire.

May 19th.

Dear Mrs Rothenstein,

Your letter has come to me in this remote place when a postman with letters arrives on Thursdays—that is to-day, but I don’t know how long ago you wrote it as it is undated. I’ve been staying some days at Buxton, then found this desolate spot in a hollow or cleaugh as they call it, in the Axe Edge Mountain and I think you would consider it a wretched place to be in—treeless, dark, stony, bitterly cold, always foggy or raining, or both; no cultivation, so that you can’t have a vegetable to eat, and of course the house is very very small. I am afraid of hurting my head when I stand up in my bedroom. There is no road leading to the place, only an ancient stony track, and the country is awful to cycle on, as we are about 1500 feet high at this point, though in other parts of the hill it rises to over 1800. Well, much as I like nature and solitude I don’t find it very satisfactory and don’t think I shall remain very long. The fact is I am here to watch a certain species of bird common in some parts of England, and nowhere nearer to London than the Peak district, so I’ve come 130 miles just to look at one little bird!

Yours affectionately,
W. H. HUDSON.

A man who could cycle 1500 feet up had a heart that would last him for many years, as indeed Hudson’s did.

Hudson’s books brought him but little. Even as late as 1916, the Ranee of Sarawak told us that, Hudsons’s wife being seriously ill, he was hard put to it to send her away to the sea-side. A sum of money—£200—was collected among his friends, and, through Edward Garnett, was discreetly placed to Hudson’s account without his ever discovering the secret. Sir Edward Grey was then Foreign Minister; when I wrote to him of Hudson’s difficulties, he replied in his own handwriting; a delicate precaution, I thought, on the part of a man so beset as he was.

TAGORE AND THE NOBEL PRIZE.

DURING THE SUMMER of 1913 came the news of the award of the Nobel Prize to Rabindranath on account of Gitanjali. The poet wrote from Shantiniketan:

18 Nov. 1913.

‘The very first moment I received the message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel prize my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude. I felt certain that of all my friends none would be more glad at this news than you. Honour’s crown of honour is to know that it will rejoice the hearts of those whom we hold the most dear. But, all the same, it is a very great trial for me. The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise to is frightful. It is almost as bad as tying a tin can at a dog’s tail making it impossible for him to move without creating noise and collecting crowds all along. I am being smothered with telegrams and letters for the last few days and the people who never had any friendly feelings towards me nor ever read a line of my works are loudest in their protestations of joy. I cannot tell you how tired I am of all this shouting, the stupendous amount of its unreality being something appalling. Really these people honour the honour in me and not myself.’

Tagore had the courage, at a ceremony given in his honour, to comment on the adulation which followed, not on his work, but on his success in Europe.

He was not often to escape the tumult and peace was to be his but at rare moments. Henceforward Tagore was to become a world-figure.

BUT GREAT FAME is a perilous thing, because it affects not indeed the whole man, but a part of him, and is apt to prove a tyrannous waster of time. Tagore, who has hitherto lived quietly in Bengal, devoting himself to poetry and to his school, would now grow restless. As a man longs for wine or tobacco, so Tagore could not resist the sympathy shown to a great idealist. He wanted to heal the wounds of the world. But a poet, shutting himself away from men to concentrate on his art, most helps his fellows; to leave his study is to run great risks. No man respected truth, strength of character, single-mindedness and selflessness more than Tagore; of these qualities he had his full share. But he got involved in contradictions. Too much flattery is as bad for a Commoner as for a King. Firm and frank advice was taken in good part by Tagore, but he could not always resist the sweet syrup offered him by injudicious worshippers.

Lowes Dickinson, who had lately been elected to the Kahn Fellowship, visited India on his way to China and Japan. He had, in fact, felt depressed in India; he was happier in China and Japan. After reading Dickinson’s report of his travels, Tagore wrote:

‘Lowes Dickinson’s Essay on the Civilisations of India, China and Japan has made me feel sad. Not only he is entirely out of sympathy with India, but he has tried to make out that there is something inherent in an Englishman which makes him incapable of appreciating India—and to him India by her nature will be a source of eternal irritation. Of all the countries in the world India is the East for him—that is to say an abstraction. Possibly he is right in his observations—but then it is a hopeless misery for India till the end of this chapter of her history and it is utterly bad for those who have come merely to govern her from across the sea. I only hope Dickinson is not right and that it was heat and hurry and dyspepsia that blotted out the human India from his sight leading him into the blank of a monotonous mist of classification.’

I agreed with Rabindranath; Dickinson was hardly fair to India, not on account of any prejudice, but because he was not at his ease there.

Just before the war I heard again from Rabindranath, who was now where he always wished to be—away from the crowd, sitting quietly, as he writes, under Father Himalaya. he was always at his happiest thus, and his letters show it.

Ramgarh,
Kumoon Hills,

June 2. 1914.

My dear Friend,

Your letter gave me great joy, because it is your letter and because I got it when I had regained my peace of mind under the kindly care of the Father Himalaya. I have been wishing every day since I came here that you were here. This is just the place in the world for you. My house here will wait for you even if it is in vain. I cannot imagine that you will never visit Shantiniketan and this little nest of ours among the hills. It seems perfectly absurd to think that you have never seen Shilida and never lived in boats with us in the lonely sandbanks of the Padma. But, my friend, if you fail to come to share with us this feast of colour and light and love you will have to pay for it in your next birth. I do not know what your punishment will be—possibly you will have the heart of a Yogi and yet be born again and again in London. I know you and your atmosphere—I have seen you alone and in crowds, I have sat with you at your dinner table and sat to you in your studio, I have walked with you in the unimaginable shady lanes of Hampstead and in the solitude of your Gloucestershire forest, I have drunk your words sparkling with wit and wisdom and I have shared with you the silence of the sunset sky in that beautiful terrace at Oakhill Park, but I came to you like an apparition blurred and out of focus—at best like a statue, somewhat unreal, because bereft of all atmosphere. Do you not think it is unfair to me and that you should bring me out of the casket where my fate carefully placed me while sending me oversea—that you should hold me in the light turning me round to have a fair valuation of my personality?

Very affectionately yours,
RABINDRANATH TAGORE.

I too was living far from the crowd, finding constant inspiration in the changing scene under the open sky….


William Rothenstein, by G.C. Beresford. 1902Sir William Rothenstein was an influential English critic and artist, known for his lithographic portraits, such as those in Oxford Characters (1893), and his paintings, a number of whch are held at the Tate. Rothenstein was a close friend of Walter Sickert and Max Beerbohm; his Hampstead home was a gathering place for famous writers and artists of the day.

This excerpt is chapters XXX and XXXII from the second volume of Men and Memories, his “recollections” (Faber, 1932). The work was manually transcribed by us and appears here as a part of the Fortnightly Review‘s Tagore dossier. Gitanjali, Tagore’s much-promoted debut English-language volume, was dedicated to Rothenstein.

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