The Mystical Poetry of Rabindranath Tagore

An Essay by
Eleanore Kosydar

September, 2002

Listen, my heart, to the whispers of the world
with which it makes love to you.
		-from Stray Birds (XIII)

I first encountered Sri Rabindranath Tagore on the pages of Art and Nature, a beautifully illustrated anthology of nature poetry edited by Kate Farrell in 1992. His sublime "Light, my light, the world-filling light” instantly entered my heart, where it lives among my all-time favourite poems:

Light, my light, the world-filling light,
the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!
Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life;
the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love;
the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.
The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. 
Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.
The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling,
and it scatters gems in profusion.
Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without measure.
The heaven’s river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.
		-from Gitanjali (LVII)

These spell-binding, joyous words drew me to discover something of their author. I learned among other things that Tagore’s literary output was prodigious. Over a span of roughly 60 years, he wrote more than one thousand poems, eight volumes of short stories, two dozen plays (including musical dramas), eight novels, and numerous essays on social, religious, political and other themes. He composed music and words to over two thousand songs. His paintings - a mixture of representation and abstraction - were yet another expression of his artistic temperament. Of his varied work he said, “The world speaks to me in colours, my soul answers in music.”

The poet wind is out over the sea and the forest to seek his own voice.
		-from Stray Birds (LXXVI)

Born in Calcutta in 1861 AD, Tagore was raised in an atmosphere of religion and the arts (literature, music and painting). His father was a Sanskrit scholar and a leader of a religious sect aiming to revive the monistic basis of Hinduism laid down in the Upanishads. Rabindranath was educated primarily at home, growing up with three languages: Sanskrit, Bengali and English. He wrote his first poem when eight years old. Sent to England in his late teens for formal schooling and training as a barrister, he returned instead to Bengal where he experienced early success as a writer.

The raindrops kissed the earth and whispered,-
“We are thy homesick children, mother, come back to thee from the heaven.”
		-from Stray Birds (XIII)

His translations of some of his poems into English made him known as a writer in the West as well. Yet in time he would become active in the world as an educator and social reformer. At the age of 30, Tagore undertook the management of his father’s country estates. Plying his houseboat up and down the broad reaches of a tributary of the great Ganges, living among the rural poor, he grew acutely sensitive to their hardships.

“Why is there such a deep note of mourning in the fields, ghats, sky and sunshine of our country? I think perhaps the reason is that nature is constantly before our eyes. The wide open sky, flat and endless land, shimmering sunshine-and in the midst of this men come and go, crossing to and fro like a ferryboat. The little noises that they make, the ups and downs of their happy or sad efforts, seem in the context of this endlessly reaching, huge, aloof nature so small, so fleeting, so futile and full of suffering. We feel in nature’s effortless stillness and serenity a vast, beautiful, undistorted generous peace; and compared to that, such an agonised, tormented, petty, unstable lack of peace inside ourselves, that when we look at the distant blue line of the shady woods on the river bank, we are strangely unsettled.”

Troubled by the poor standard of education in British India, the blossoming social activist established a school in 1901 based upon Upanishadic ideals of education. Shantineketan (“Abode of Peace”) employed open air classrooms and blended Indian and Western methods of teaching. The school was a great success. A university was added in 1921 which thrives to this day, placing emphasis on art, music, dance and the humanities. Tagore himself used Shantineketan as a base from which to participate in India’s social, political and cultural movements. Nearby Sriniketan focuses on rural development (agriculture, adult education, village welfare, cottage industries and handicrafts).

I slept and I dreamed that life was all joy.
I woke and saw that life was but service.
I served and understood that service was joy.

The broad expanse of Bengal’s flat deltaic landscape, dominated by huge, dangerous, unpredictable rivers, with its dramatic monsoons and floods, insistently provokes a heightened awareness of the power of nature. From his extensive, intimate experiences of this landscape and its climate, Tagore absorbed a tremendous sense of the power of nature and of forces lying beyond us-forces that yet shape and govern us. He was simultaneously imbued with a strong sense of his own creative energy coming from some higher creative force running through nature and the universe.

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs 
     through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
     in numberless blades of grass
     and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-
     cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my 
     pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
		-from Gitanjali (LXIX)

Nature thus had a profound effect on Rabindranath Tagore’s spiritual life. It fed his soul. He saw the earth and nature in Hindu terms, as a mother goddess. His spirituality, while non-sectarian, was drawn partly from ancient Hindu texts and influenced in part by modern science. It also drew on his sense of the strange force guiding, controlling and influencing all of his creative activities. His poetry, songs and plays became an integral expression of what he preferred to call his “poet’s religion” and this “life god.”

The joy ran from all the world to build my body.
The lights of the skies kissed and kissed her till she woke.
Flowers of hurrying summers sighed in her breath and
     voices of winds and water sang in her movements.
The passion of the tide of colours in clouds
     and in forests flowed into her life,
     and the music of all things caressed her limbs into shape.
She is my bride, she has lighted her lamp in my house.
		-from Fruit Gathering (LXII)

The brilliant Gitanjali - a collection of philosophical and mystical devotional poetry (publ. 1910) - was the blessed outcome of a deeply sad period of his life. In close succession Tagore lost his young wife, his son and his beloved daughter. The inspired poetry which grew from these painful losses is a revelation of the human spirit attaining, through a journey of pain and despair, the heights of peace and joy:

The morning sea of silence broke into ripples of bird songs;
     and the flowers were all merry by the roadside;
     and the wealth of gold was scattered through the rift of the clouds
     while we busily went on our way and paid no heed. . .
I gave myself up for lost in the depth of a glad humiliation . . .
At last, when I woke from my slumber and opened my eyes,
     I saw thee standing by me, flooding my sleep with thy smile.
     How I had feared that the path was long and wearisome,
     and the struggle to reach thee was hard!
		-from Gitanjali (XLVIII)

On a voyage to Britain the following year, Tagore translated these poems into English. Gitanjali: Song Offerings (published under the auspices of W. B. Yeats) was received with great enthusiasm, and its author quickly became a sensation. To the British, the 50-year-old Tagore - tall, with aquiline nose and long, flowing hair and beard, dressed in long brown robes - had an air of romantic spirituality and mystery.

Find your beauty, my heart, from the world’s movement,
like the boat that has the grace of the wind and the water.
		-from Stray Birds (CCLV)

In 1913, one year after the publication of his English translation of Gitanjali, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the first time the award had been given to an Asiatic; in the words of the Nobel committee, “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”

The smell of the wet earth in the rain rises
like a great chant of praise from
the voiceless multitude of the insignificant.
		-from Stray Birds (CCCX)

The last quarter century of Tagore’s life was richly filled with his literary and artistic endeavours (he wrote 21 collections of songs and poems in these years alone), cultural and societal involvements, and frequent lecture tours around the globe. He died in 1941 at the age of 80, having lived an exceptionally full, productive and rewarding life.

We live in this world when we love it.
		-from Stray Birds (XIII)

Rabindranath Tagore is seen in modern Bangladesh and India as a deeply relevant and many-sided thinker. This remarkable man of many and varied accomplishments was, however, first and foremost a poet. His mystical sensibilities - much revered and admired by the West in the early 20th century to the exclusion of other aspects of his life and writings - have since gone out of favour. Yet it is precisely this which so deeply touches my own soul. To my mind, his timeless mystical poetry still speaks directly to us, as vivid and alive today as when it was freshly penned.

Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring,
     one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories
     of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy
     that sang one spring morning,
     sending its glad voice across an hundred years.
		-from The Gardener (LXXXV)


Essay by Eleanore Kosydar
Dundas, Ontario

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