Donne, Tagore, and Love's Passing Moment

By Frontain, Raymond-Jean | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Donne, Tagore, and Love's Passing Moment


Frontain, Raymond-Jean, Papers on Language & Literature


On June 16, 1912, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore arrived in London with the manuscript in hand of what remains the most famous of his English-language texts, Gitanjali. He was shepherded onto the arts scene by painter and India Society founder William Rothenstein, at whose home on July 7 William Butler Yeats read aloud to the assembled guests from Tagore's poetry. (1) Although later in life Yeats would dismiss the Bengali poet's style, he initially enthused publicly that "these prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years" (7), and he quickly made a fellow convert of his Stone Cottage house mate, Ezra Pound. (2) It was largely as a result of Yeats's and Pound's efforts to promote his poetry that on November 13, 1913, the Swedish Academy announced that Tagore was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Asian writer to be so honored.

Tagore's immediate influence upon modernist poetics was significant. As Dutta and Robinson point out (167), Tagore's English-language translation of his Gitanjali, which contained a laudatory introduction by Yeats, was reprinted ten times in London between March and November 1913. Tagore's seeming possession of a mystical or ethereal quality allowed Pound, when promoting Tagore's verse, to position himself as the gatekeeper to what Pound presented as a rarified inner circle from which he felt licensed to exclude anyone who did not subscribe to his own poetic program. (3) More importantly, Tagore introduced to his English-language contemporaries the folk song traditions of his native Bengal, which use highly sensuous images to talk about love of God, often leaving the reader uncertain if the lover addressed is human or divine. Thus, while Yeats was clearly interested in Tagore's association with the Bengali literary renaissance and its promotion of Indian nationalism (Yeats was engaged by the parallels in circumstance between British-colonial India and his native Ireland), he was most intrigued by "the Indian aesthetic fusion of sensuous and spiritual love" in Tagore's work (qtd. in Foster, Apprentice 470-71). (4) Tagore incarnated a religious sensibility that was not in the least mawkish and that offered a welcome alternative to Protestant Christianity, whose mystical fervor had been on the wane since the Restoration.

While Tagore's mediation to the West of his native Bengali literary traditions has been noted, his equally important modeling of Western poetic traditions for his native Bengal has been almost entirely ignored by English-language literary scholarship. (5) Take, for example, Tagore's responsibility for popularizing in India the poetry of John Donne. Tagore arrived in London as Herbert J. C. Grierson's groundbreaking edition of The Poems of John Donne was circulating. (6) His subsequent returns to the city allowed him the opportunity to follow the movement of the "Donne Revival" generated by Grierson's edition of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1921) and further stimulated by T. S. Eliot's influential review of the same in which Eliot famously asserted that Donne's poetry manifests "a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling" and posited a subsequent "dissociation of sensibility" from which Eliot claimed that Western civilization has "never recovered" (126, 128).

Kaylan Chatterjee has made an initial identification of echoes of Donne's language in Tagore's poetry. In this note, however, I concentrate on Tagore's pivotal use of Donne's Songs and Sonets in the novel Shesher Kobita (1929), recently translated into English as The Last Ode. (7) The novel holds a pivotal place in Tagore's career in that his use of Donne to explore the tension between the private world of two lovers and the oppressive world of social convention unsettled the expectations of those critics "who had come to regard [the then-68 year old] Tagore as mid-Victorian in taste" (Chatterjee 34). …

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