English 385 -- British Modernism

Fall 2001, Lehigh University

Amardeep Singh

September 18, 2001


Reflection or Prism:

Yeats, Tagore, Eliot.


W.B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore have a very strong historical and biographical relationship revolving around the fact that Tagore's first champion in the west -- the person most responsible for his initial success outside of India -- was Yeats. After reading some of Tagore's self-translated poems, Yeats was instrumental in getting the collection published, in spreading the word about Tagore in the literary circles in London. Perhaps most importantly, Yeats wrote the introduction to Tagore's Gitanjali, which first appeared in 1913.


The introduction is notable for a number of reasons, one of which is of course its ecstatic enthusiasm for a writer that no one in England had ever heard of. The introductionmay also be problematic in certain ways, especially insofar as it represents Tagore as culturally other and, as outside of history. 


Before exploring how this is the case, however, it might be useful to look at the preface in some more detail. To begin with, Yeats performs a kind of cultural translation of Tagore, and locates him in a context that will be familiar to English readers. Yeats' aim is to make Tagore seem respectable, and as such it is absolutely crucial that the Indian he speaks to about Tagore be modern in some way -- and he is, "a distinguished Bengali doctor of medicine." But the first voice in Yeats' introduction is his own, and it is quite emphatically approving. Yeats never hesitated to dismiss writing he didn't like, even if others around him approved of it, and yet he begins with Tagore as follows:


Though these 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.


Note that Yeats' attraction to Tagore's poetry is directly linked to a desire to know more about Tagore the man. Is it simply a natural desire to know more about the poet, out of a sense of simple admiration, or is it something more -- is it possible that the poems are only interesting insofar as they are attached to their author? [A general question about authorship, not limited to this particular pair of writers: does it matter who the author of a given text is? Or are we merely interested in the texts they've produced? Why does biography matter?  …. Perhaps it matters because it can in fact help us to read.]


Through the Bengali doctor, Yeats also puts Tagore in a religious context right away:


A little while ago he [Tagore] was to read divine service in one of our churches -- we of the Brahmo Samaj use your word "church" in English


In part this is important because it names Tagore as a person who practices his religion in a "church," a religious body that is specifically modeled after the Christian mold, even if its practitioners would not identify as Christian.


It may seem like an incidental reference, but in a twenty page introduction Yeats is ver spare on the details of Tagore's life as an Indian. In mentioning the Brahmo Samaj, Yeats is hitting on a major biographical point about Tagore. Tagore's family helped to found a reformist sect of Hinduism in Bengal, known as the Brahmo Samaj, which by the late nineteenth century had several thousand followers, mainly from that region. The members of the Brahmo Samaj (or the Brahmoists) were the elites of the state. Many of them studied in English missionary schools, and worked closely with the British administration (by the early twentieth century the majority of administrative jobs in the vast English administrative apparatus in India were actually held by Indians).

            The Brahmo Samaj emerged as a response to the pressure of British unitarian missionaries, who attempted to prove to the Indians that Christianity was a more rational and coherent faith than the complex array of rituals, beliefs, and religious texts that made up Hinduism. The Brahmoists distilled Hindu pantheism with a more monotheistic emphasis on "Brahma"; they attempted to abolish the "irrational" social hierarchy of the caste system; and they designed a new kind of temple that strongly resembled protestant churches. A Christianizing of Hinduism -- or an Indianizing of Christianity.

            By the time Tagore began to write (1880s-1930s), the Brahmo Samaj was also a hotbed for anti-British sentiments. The climate in Bengal was intensely political, and Tagore was for a time a leading figure in the emerging movement for Indian independence. By 1910 Tagore had, however, distanced himself from nationalist politics that was becoming more and more oriented towards the masses (and less an affair of the elite classes).

            Nevertheless, the fact that Tagore was in many ways a political person brings us to a question about the nature of Yeats' representation of him.


'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 find hearers and readers.


Note that Yeats is here making two points: one about political rhetoric and propaganda, and another about the endless debates over aesthetics and literary value that circulated in Yeats' circle. Yeats' assumption throughout his introduction is that Tagore's writing is apolitical and outside of the mundane realm of daily life, the product of a soul untarnished by mediocrity:


These verses will not lie in little well-printed books 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 when the true work of life begins, but as the generations pass, traveller will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.


Each of Yeats' fantasies about the life of Tagore's poems (which in many ways echoes the aspirations he had for the effect of his own work on his readers) attempts to move Tagore out of a given place and away from a given time. To be more specific, Yeats moves Tagore outside of and away from the present moment; all of the names of writers to whom Yeats compares Tagore are of the Renaissance, the medieval period, or antiquity. Yeats, we might say, wants to turn Tagore into a kind of medieval sage, playing a lute by a river.

            And yet it's not that simple. Part of what Yeats finds so appealing is the accessibility of the writing, the sense of spiritual immediacy even as he continues to rely upon the assumption that the culture of the poet is in fact alien to the west:


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


For Yeats, Tagore's writing is at once "immeasurably strange" and directly reflective of the western culture he himself seems so ambivalent about. Tagore is both in and out of the idea of the ideal poet Yeats is attempting to figure in this introduction; he is both a "reflection" of western aesthetic values [Yeats is looking in the mirror; all of the ecstatic praise he lavishes on Tagore he also means, therefore, to lavish on himself!], and a kind of prism through which we might perceive something other.


Though Yeats does at moments reveal his desire to find in Tagore a reflection of the European self-image, in general it is clear that Yeats wants Tagore to be more mystical than Tagore the person is; he wants Tagore to be a kind of Oriental sage or saint, all spirit and no body. But this image of a saint, which was precisely what made Tagore so marketable throughout Europe and America in the 1910s, bore little resemblance to Tagore in his home environment. [Of course, we can't forget the fact that to a large extent Tagore specifically chose and exploited this "Oriental" image of himself, downplaying his worldly investments in politics, in favor of the attributes of a saint. He did, after all, choose to translate the generally apolitical poems of Gitanjali to make his entrée onto the western scene -- rather than one of the political novels he had written and published in Bengali in the previous decade.]

Rather than rejecting modernity, Tagore was a person passionately committed to public debate and print culture. Most critics today think of him as first and foremost a novelist rather than a poet. Moreover, in his Bengali language writings, Tagore was a master stylist, who used many radical, expressly modernist methods, in his Bengali language texts. All of this, however, drops out in the translated Tagore that we have in Gitanjali.

This brings us to the poems -- what do we do with them? Many of them, in my opinion, do not carry much weight in English. Also, the fact that Tagore chooses to translate his pronouns using archaic forms ("thou" and "thy" instead of you and your), makes the language seem at times unpleasantly lofty. Still, there are some startling bits of language. For instance, take poem 96:


When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.


And there may be others? [Class?]


But what I think is most striking, and perhaps most specifically modernist about the poems, is the ongoing theme of the rejection of institutional, ritualized religion that we find in a number of them. Most emphatically:


Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in the sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

Come out of thy meditations and leave aside the flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.


In some ways, poem XI is simply arguing against asceticism, against the isolation of human experience from the everyday and natural world. It is a rhetoric familiar from Romanticism – one sees here traces of William Blake’s radicalism, for instance. But the details of the Hindu ritual (“chanting and singing and telling of beads”), and the spatial opposition between the “dark corner of a temple” and the open field are important because they particular to the Hindu context – something Yeats does not address. Interestingly, the opposition here is not that of a hard asceticism contrasted with a soft Romanticism. Rather, it is posed as the distinction between “flowers and incense” and the “hard ground,” the life of everyday toil. It is not nature that intoxicates and is “soft,” but the ascetic life, caged by mind-numbing ritual.

Tagore, in other words, is inviting the addressee of the poem to come into the world, to experience life as she (?) or he knows it, rather than remain caged up in the hard world of beads and incense. If it's an appeal to the reader/listener to come into a version of modernity, it's a very different kind of image than the bleak modernism of Yeats or Eliot.


It might be worth commenting for a moment on Eliot, specifically the final 30 lines or so of the Waste Land. Why, many people have asked, does Eliot turn at the climax of his poem to a seemingly obscure set of terms and images derived from Indian geography (the Ganges River [Ganga]), and Hindu scripture (the Upanishads)?

Perhaps it is a gesture somewhat similar to the double-gesture Yeats is making in his introduction to Tagore's Gitanjali. That is to say, Eliot is using the example of Hindu religion and philosophy to articulate an idea both alien to the European landscape of his poem, and yet somehow natural to it. The emphasis on the river echoes other parts of the poem that figure the Thames (and this might also remind us of the two rivers in Heart of Darkness: the Thames and the Congo -- connected waterways):


Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves  [note the reference to the jungle in


Waited for rain, while the black clouds

Gathered far distant, over Himavant.             [Himalayas -- obscure word]

The jungle crouched, humped in silence [note the anthropomorphism of the




In some ways the weaving of eastern and western ideas is embedded in etymology here. The root of the three Sanskrit words, echoed in all-caps several times in these final lines, is exactly the same Indo-European root as the word that produces the English word "data" and "mandatory." [Latin: Do, Dare] "Give" in Sanskrit is also give in English. It may seem obscure of Eliot to go in this direction (is it any more obscure than Greek, German, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and French?), but the buried meaning in this particular language underscores interconnectedness and integration rather than disharmony or fragmentation.


In terms of imagery, note the similarity to the image of the west: sunken, limp. Strangely sexualized… infertility.


The larger arc of the passage: If the Ganga is waiting for rain, does the rain begin to fall?


Perhaps the idea of shantih -- peace ("the peace which passeth understanding" actually from Job 37:5) -- is not so much an image of a redemptive rain, signifying completion, as it is a kind of stoppage or final renunciation.

            Perhaps the idea of "shantih," which Eliot finds untranslatable, is one he means to apply or direct towards the western world he has been attempting to represent. An ancient, "other" term for modernity, and for Europe.