A few days ago I said to a distinguished Bengali doctor of medicine, “I
know no German, yet if a translation of a German poet had moved me, I
would go to the British Museum and find books in English that would
tell me something of his life, and of the history of his thought.
“But though these prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have
stirred my blood as nothing has for years, I shall not know anything of
his life, and of the movements of thought that have made them possible,
if some Indian traveller will not tell me.
It seemed to him natural that I should be moved, for he said, “I read
Rabindranath every day, to read one line of his is to forget all the
troubles of the world.”
I said, “An Englishman living in London in the reign of Richard the
Second had he been shown translations from Petrarch or from Dante,
would have found no books to answer his questions, but would have
questioned some Florentine banker or Lombard merchant as I question
“For all I know, so abundant and simple is this poetry, the new
Renaissance has been born in your country and I shall never know of it
except by hearsay.”
He answered, “We have other poets, but none that are his equal; we call
this the epoch of Rabindranath.
“No poet seems to me as famous in Europe 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 wherever Bengali is spoken. He was already
famous at nineteen when he wrote his first novel; and his plays,
written when he was but a little older, are still played in Calcutta.
“I so much admire the completeness of his life: when he was very young
he wrote much of natural objects, he would sit all day in his garden;
from his twenty-fifth year or so to his thirty- fifth perhaps, when he
had a great sorrow, he wrote the most beautiful love poetry in our
language.” Then he said with deep emotion, “words can never express
what I owed at seventeen to his love poetry.
“After that his art grew deeper, it became religious and philosophical.
All the aspirations of mankind are in his hymns.
“He is the first among our saints who has not refused to live, but has
spoken out of Life itself, and that is why we give him our love.
“A little while ago he was to read divine service in one of our
churches—we of the Brahma Samaj use your word ‘church’ in English—it
was the largest in Calcutta and not only was it crowded, people even
standing in the windows, but the streets were all but impassable
because of the people.”
I may have changed his well-chosen words in my memory but not his
Other Indians came to see me and their reverence for this man sounded
strange in our world, where we hide great and little things under the
same veil of obvious comedy and half- serious depreciation.
When we were making the cathedrals had we a like reverence for our
“Every morning at three—I know, for 1 have seen it” — one said to me,
“Rabindrnath Tagore sits immovable in contemplation, and for two hours
does not awake from his reverie upon the nature of God.
“His father, the Maha Rishi, would sometimes sit there all through the
day. Once, upon a river, he fell into contemplation because of the
beauty of the landscape, and the rowers waited for eight hours before
they could continue their journey.”
He then told me of Mr. Tagore’s family and how for generations great
men have come out of its cradles.
“Today,” he said, “there are Gogonendranath and Abanindranath Tagore,
who are artists; and Dwijendranath Rabindranath’s brother, who is a
“The squirrels come from the boughs and climb on to his knees and the
birds alight upon his hands.”
I notice in these men’s thought a sense of visible beauty and meaning
as though they held that doctrine of Nietzsche that we must not believe
in the moral or intellectual beauty which does not sooner or later
impress itself upon physical things.
I said, “In the East you know how to keep a family illustrious.
“The other day the curator of a Museum pointed out to me a little
dark-skinned man who was arranging their Chinese prints and said, ‘That
is the hereditary connoisseur of the Mikado, he is the fourteenth of
his family to hold the post.”
He answered. “When Rabindranath was a boy he had all round him in his
home literature and music.”
I thought of the abundance, of the simplicity of the poems, and said,
“In your country is there much propagandist writing, much, criticism?
“We have to do so much, especially in my own country, that our minds
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 and readers.
Four-fifths of our energy is spent in the quarrel with bad taste,
whether in our own minds or in the minds of others.”
“I understand,” he replied, “we too have our propagandist writing. In
the villages they recite long mythological poems adapted from the
Sanskrit in the Middle Ages, and they often insert passages telling the
people that they must do their duties.”
I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for
days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in
restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would
see how much it moved me.
These lyrics—which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of
subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical
invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my
The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of
the common soil as the grass and the rushes.
A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed
through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor
and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the
scholar and of the noble.
If the civilization of Bengal remains unbroken, if that common mind
which—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 have come, in a few generations, to
the beggar on the roads.
When there was but one mind in England Chaucer wrote his Troilus and
Cressida, and though he had written to be read, or to be read
out—for our time was coming on apace—he was sung by minstrels for a
Rabindranath Tagore, like Chaucer’s forerunners, writes music for his
words, and one understands at every moment that he is so abundant, so
spontaneous, so daring in his passion, so full of surprise, because he
is doing something which has never seemed strange, unnatural, or in
need of defence.
These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’
tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over
a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be
carried about by students at the university to be laid aside when the
work of life begins, but as the generations pass, travellers will hum
them on the highway and men rowing upon rivers.
Lovers, while they await one another, shall find, in murmuring them,
this love of God a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may
bathe and renew its youth. At every moment the heart of this poet flows
outward to these without derogation or condescension, for it has known
that they will understand; and it has filled itself with the
circumstance of their lives.
The traveller in the red-brown clothes that he wears that dust may not
show upon him, the girl searching in her bed for the petals fallen from
the wreath of her royal lover, the servant or the bride awaiting the
master’s home-coming in the empty house, are images of the heart
turning to God.
Flowers and rivers, the blowing of conch shells, the heavy rain of the
Indian July, or the parching heat, are images of the moods of that
heart in union or in separation; and a man sitting in a boat upon a
river playing upon a lute, like one of those figures full of mysterious
meaning in a Chinese picture, is God Himself.
A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, seems
to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved
because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, as
though we had walked in Rossetti’s willow wood, or heard, perhaps for
the first time in literature, our voice as in a dream.
Since the Renaissance the writing of European saints— however familiar
their metaphor and the general structure of their thought—has ceased to
hold our attention.
We know that we must at last forsake the world, and we are accustomed
in moments of weariness or exaltation to consider a voluntary
forsaking; but how 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 cry of the soul seem one, forsake it harshly and rudely?
What have we in common with St Bernard covering his eyes that they may
not dwell upon the beauty of the lakes of Switzerland, or with the
violent rhetoric of the Book of Revelation? We would, if we might,
find, as in this book, words full of courtesy.
“I have got my leave. Bid me farewell, my brothers! I bow to you all
and take my departure. Here 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. We
were neighbours 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.”
And it is our own mood, when it is furthest from A Kempis or John of
the Cross, that cries, “And because I love this life, I know I shall
love death as well.”
Yet it is not only in our thoughts of the parting that this book
We had not known that we loved God, hardly it may be that we believed
in Him; yet looking backward upon our life we discover, in our
exploration of the pathways of woods, in our delight in the lonely
places of hills, in that mysterious claim that we have made,
unavailingly, on the women that we have loved, the emotion that created
this insidious sweetness.
“Entering my heart unbidden even as one of the common crowd, unknown to
me, my king, thou didst press the signet of eternity upon many a
fleeting moment.” This is no longer the sanctity of the cell and of the
scourge; being but a lifting up, as it were, into a greater intensity
of the mood of the painter, painting the dust and the sunlight, and we
go for a like voice to St Francis and to William Blake who have seemed
so alien in our violent history.
We write long books where no page perhaps has any quality to make
writing a pleasure, being confident in some general design, just as we
fight and make money and fill our heads with politics— all dull things
in the doing—while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself has
been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its
He often seems to contrast his life with that of those who have lived
more after our fashion, and have more seeming weight in the world, and
always humbly, as though he were only sure his way is best for him:
“Men going home glance at me and smile and fill me with shame.
I sit like a beggar 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.
At another time, remembering how his life had once a different
shape, he will say, “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 on to him; and I know not why is
this sudden call to what useless inconsequence.”
An innocence, a simplicity that one does not find elsewhere
in literature makes the birds and the leaves seem as near to him
as they are near to children, and the changes of the seasons great
events as before our thoughts had arisen between them and us.
At times I wonder if he has it from the literature of Bengal
or from religion, and at other times, remembering the birds
alighting on his brother’s hands, I find pleasure in thinking it
hereditary, a mystery that was growing through the centuries
like the courtesy of a Tristan or a Pelanore.
Indeed, when he is speaking of children, so much a part of
himself this quality seems, one is not certain that he is not also
speaking of the saints, “They build their houses with sand and
they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave
their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children
have their play on the seashore of worlds. They know not how
to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for
pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles
and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they
know not how to cast nets.”
Back of the Book
Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali is a sublime expression of the divine
in nature. Tagore was one of the greatest poets of modern India. He
drew upon a rich and varied tradition, ranging from Sanskrit writings
to Western literature, and enriched Bengali culture with his
compositions. He received the Noble Prize for literature in 1913.
Gitanjali is truly a treasured companion on life’s long
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