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Rabindranath Tagore – an Indian War Poet?

Rabindranath Tagore – an Indian war poet?

In 1920, some months after Wilfred Owen’s death, a letter travelled to
India.

Dear Sir Rabindranath:
I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you
were in London – but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into
this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to
address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient.
It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for
the last time and the day he said Goodbye to me – we were looking together across
the sun-glorified sea – looking towards France with breaking hearts – when he,
my poet son, said these wonderful words of yours – ‘jabar diney ei kawthati
boley jeno jai – ja dekhechi, ja peyechi tulona tar nai’ – ‘when I
leave, let these be my parting words: what my eyes have seen, what my life received,
are unsurpassable.’ And when his pocket book came back to me – I found
these words written in his dear writing – with your name beneath. Would I be
asking too much of you, to tell me what book I should find the whole poem in?

Picture of Tagore

The letter was written by Wilfred Owen’s mother, and reveals something
of the fame of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel prize winner for literature, perhaps
the world’s most famous poet in 1914, but now often forgotten in English
literature.

Rabindranath Tagore was born and brought up in India, and during the course
of his long life wrote plays, poems and novels, set up a school, an agricultural
improvement project, and toured the world giving lectures. He was awarded the
Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and was knighted by the Queen, before renouncing
his title due to his changing views on the presence of the British in India.
He wrote in Bengali, translating into English. His English writing was hugely
appreciated, though he was always conscious that it was not as good as his Bengali
originals. Indeed, it appears that as his Bengali poetry changed, developed
and grew over his long writing career, his English translations remained static,
in the style of the pre-war Georgian poets.

Tagore is in many ways the forgotten war poet. What made Tagore so popular?
Why did Wilfed Owen use his words as those last words to his mother, and why
were they so memorable for her? And why is Tagore almost forgotten today?

Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most famous of Tagore’s readers in the trenches,
but there were many others. Another example is a gunner’s (unpublished)
memoir of the war, which begins with a quotation from Tagore: ‘Death is
abroad and children play’ (p.412). A story told by the German playwright
Carl Zuckmayer, who fought in First World War, gives some idea of Tagore’s
astonishing popularity. He had heard the story told by a sergeant in the German
army’s medical corps:

‘An Indian soldier in a Gurkha regiment of the British army had been
taken prisoner and wounded in both legs. Only amputation of one of the legs
could save the soldier’s life – and the chief surgeon wanted the
man’s consent or at least some sign of trust. But neither the Indian soldier
nor the German medical officers had much command of English; and the soldier
of course spoke no German. The more they tried to talk to him, the more anxious
and scared he became – he had probably heard frightful stories about enemy
treatment of prisoners. At last, Zuckmayer’s friend thought of the only
Indian words he knew. Bending down to the sweating soldier he whispered: Rabindranath
Tagore! Rabindranath Tagore! Rabindranath Tagore! ‘After he had said it
three times the Indian seemed to understand. His face relaxed, a shy little
smile came into his eyes, then he closed them, his fear was gone, and he nodded
weakly his consent and confidence to the enemy doctors.’

Tagore’s writing was astonishingly popular. First published in Britain in March
1913, Gitanjali was reprinted ten times before the award of the Nobel
prize on 13 Nov. Tagore was a deeply spiritual writer, and offered a vision
of blessed peace. ‘Tagore brought back the ideal of the first beatitude
transfigured, that is to say, without any painful abnegation and asceticism,
and endowed with joyous peace’, Nirad Chaudhuri explained much later.
(pp169-170)

For many Europeans (Tagore was translated into almost all European languages),
before the war Tagore represented the exotic East. But when war began, Tagore’s
poetry became both poetry of war (ironically, given Tagore’s pacifism)
and an escape from war.

This review from The Times Literary Supplement by E.R. Bevan shows
both these elements clearly: for Bevan, Tagore is a strange, mystical figure
from the East – and that East represents an escape from the ‘shattering
tumult’ of war:

While the world is filled with the noise of war, there is still in far Bengal
a place which bears the name ‘abode of peace’ [the name of Tagore’s
school]. There the man, whom London knew two years ago as a quietly observant
stranger, a figure dignified and long-bearded, more like the ancient sages of
Greece, as the monuments show them, than anything we know in the modern world,
still presides over his little company of white-robed boys and makes new songs
for them to sing in the shadow of the garden trees or first light of an Indian
dawn. … And even now the name [Tagore] may come up in our minds as a memorial
of things that remain, quiet and lovely and eternal, throughout all the shattering
tumult.
(3 June 1916, TLS)

Sturge Moore saw production of Tagore’s play The Post Office in London
in July 1913 and wrote to Tagore, ‘the first act genuinely delighted all those
round me, the least rich and the most susceptible part of the audience, and
was loudly applauded… No doubt Rothenstein [Tagore’s publisher] who has seen
real Bengalee villagers felt the timid and vague easternness in which the actors
moved to be colourless, but for those who like myself have no previous knowledge
this faintness realized the remoteness which is necessarily part of the charm
for us.’

Tagore was never a war poet in the accepted meaning of the term. He did not
fight in the trenches, and his poetry neither glorifies nor condemns the war.
However, Tagore was a poet writing during the war, and his poetry reflects the
changing society in which he lived. Moreover, though he himself was a pacifist
(apparently he felt Ghandi was too violent!), those reading him during the first
world war picked up and used his poetry for their own ends. As Tagore himself
wrote ‘From the words of the poet, men take what meanings please them.’

This essay looks at four poems written and read in the context of war, and
considers to what extent they can therefore be considered ‘war poems’.

This complex poem, Summer’s Pioneers, was sent by Tagore to his publisher
Rothenstein (9 Feb 1915) requesting him to publish it and ‘out of its
proceeds buy something for our soldiers in the trenches’. The style is
clearly very different from the vast majority of war poetry that we know
today – particularly the poetry of realists such as Owen, Sassoon and
Rosenberg. Where they use the soldier’s own vocabulary, Tagore’s
language, though simple, is far more allegorical. As a man some 20 years older
than Owen, he is writing (in his English poetry) in a style of the turn of the
century. Despite the difference between Owen’s poetry and Tagore’s,
Owen’s interest in Tagore intensified during the course of the war, even
as his own poetry became more bitter.

Summmer’s Pioneers

Tired of waiting, you burst your bonds,
Impatient flowers, before the winter had gone

Glimpses of the unseen comer came into your wayside watch
And you rushed out running and panting,
O restless jasmines, O troop of riotous roses!

You were the first to march to the breach of death.
Your clamour of colour and perfume troubled the air.
You laughed and pressed and pushed each other,
Bared your breasts and dropped to the ground in heaps.

The summer will come in its time
Sailing in the flood tide of the South Wind
But you never counted slow moments to be sure of him.
You recklessly spent your all in the road in terrible joy of faith.

You heard his footsteps from afar
And flung your mantle of death for him to tread on.
Your bonds break even before the rescuer is seen,
You make him your own ere he can come and claim you.

I particularly appreciate the ambivalance of this poem. It’s impossible
to decide whether the poem describes soldiers through the metaphor of flowers,
or describes flowers through the metaphor of soldiers. You could argue for either
(or both) equally convincingly. It’s equally difficult to judge the poem’s
attitude to the flowers’ death.

With this level of ambiguity, it’s no wonder that Tagore was read and
quoted by so many people, from the pro-war Times to the anti-war Owen. It seems
to me that the ambivalence of the poem is reflected in the request to use the
money ‘to buy something for our soldiers’ – Tagore is responding
to an existing situation, rather than either condemning or praising it. This
ambivalance is at odds with the theories of many contemporary poets, who felt
that well-written poetry should evoke very definite sensations in each reader.
Their goal was to choose the ‘exact’ word, so that only one response
could be the result of the poem. ‘Summer’s Pioneers’ rejects
this certainty entirely.

This poem, ‘The Trumpet’, was published twice by the pro-war The
Times in both 1914 and 1915. This was probably the first poem of Tagore’s
that Owen read, and he remarked in a brief letter to his family that he found
it ‘interesting’.

The Trumpet

The trumpet lies in the dust.
The wind is weary, the light is dead. Ah, the evil day!
Come fighters, carrying your flags and singer with your songs!
Come pilgrims, hurrying on your journey!
The trumpet lies in the dust waiting for us.
I was on my way to the temple with my evening offerings.
Seeking for the heaven of rest after the day’s dusty toil;
Hoping my hurts would be healed and stains in my garments washed white,
When I found thy trumpet lying in the dust.

Has it not been the time for me to light my lamp?
Has my evening not come to bring me sleep?
O thou blood-red rose, where have my poppies faded?
I was certain my wanderings were over and my debts all paid
When suddenly I came upon thy trumpet lying in the dust.

Strike my drowsy heart with the spell of youth!
Let my joy in life blaze up in fire.
Let the shafts of awakening fly piercing the heart of night and a thrill of
dread shake the palsied blindness,
I have come to raise thy trumpet from the dust.

Sleep is no more for me – my walk shall be through showers of arrows.
Some shall run out of their houses and come to my side – some shall weep,
Some in their beds shall toss and groan in dire dreams:
For to-night thy trumpet shall be sounded.

From thee I had asked peace only to find shame.
Now I stand before thee – help me to don my armour!
Let hard blows of trouble strike fire into my life.
Let my heart beat in pain – beating the drum of thy victory.
My hands shall be utterly emptied to take up thy trumpet.

(Printed in The Times, 26 Oct 1914)

It’s clear how the journalists on the The Times expected the poem to
be read – the fallen trumpet is the sign for soldiers to join the war
effort. This is despite the fact that Tagore himself was an ardent pacifist.
For The Times, Tagore is a man embodying the ancient and superior wisdom of
the East – a brief prologue explains that Tagore is introducing the West to
‘the finest Indian thought’. By printing a poem that suggests that
Tagore is in favour of the war, The Times seeks to justify it. It’s also
worth remembering the importance given to images of Indian soldiers in works
such as ‘The War Illustrated’ – here, India is used to show
that the Empire is united against its foes. In turn, contemporary German propaganda
claimed that Indians were fighting with them to obtain independence from Britain.
Although many Indians were in favour of independence, this did not prevent
many Indian troops fighting in the British trenches.


Like ‘The Trumpet’, ‘The Oarsmen’ was published in The
Times, in January 1916. Read in the context of the First World War, Tagore’s
poem ‘The Oarsmen’ seems a call to arms. The ‘stagnant time
in the port’ is over, and men are called to action. The oarsmen rowing
towards the unnamed shore seem a metaphor for the soldiers – who equally,
do not know where they are heading.


The Oarsmen

Do you hear the roar of death through the listening hush of distance.
And that awful call midst fire-floods and poison clouds and the wrestling of
earth and sky in mortal combat.
– The Captain’s call to steer the ship towards a shore yet unnamed?
For that time is over – that stagnant time in the port –
Where the same old store is bought and sold in an endless round.
Where dead things gather in the exhaustion and emptiness of truth.
They wake up in sudden fear and ask ‘Comrades, what is the hour of the
night? When shall open the golden gate of the new dawn? The murky clouds have
blotted out all stars –
Who are there to see the beckoning finger of the day.
They rush out with oars in hand, the beds are emptied in the house,
the mother prays, the silent wife watches by the door.
The wail of separation sweeps the sky like rushing wings of night birds,
And there rings the Captain’s voice in the dark,
‘Come, sailors, for the time in the haven is over!’
All the black evils in the world have overflowed their banks,
Yet, oarsmen, take your places with the blessing of sorrow in your souls!
Whom do you blame, brothers! Bow your heads down!
The sin has been yours and ours.
The heat growing in the heart of God for ages –
The cowardice of the weak, the arrogance of the strong, the greed of fate prosperity,
the rancor of the deprived, pride of race, and insult to man –
Has burst God’s peace, raging in storm.
Like a ripe pod, let the tempest break its heart into pieces, scattering thunders,
Stop your bluster of abuse and self-praise, my friends,
And with the calm of silent prayer on your brows sail forward to the shore of
the new world.

We have known sins and evils every day and death we have met.
They pass over our world like clouds mocking us with their transient light night
laughter.
Suddenly they have stopped, growing stupendous,
And men must stand before them saying –
‘We do not fear you, O Monster! For we have lived every moment of our
life by conquering you,
‘And we die with the faith that peace is true, and God is true, and true
is the eternal One!’

If the deathless dwell not in the heart of death,
If glad wisdom bloom not bursting the sheath of sorrow,
If aim do not die of its own revealment,
If pride break not under its load of decoration,
Then whence comes the hope that drives these men from their homes in […]ars
rushing to their death in the morning light?
Shall the value of the martyrs’ blood and mothers’ tears be utterly
lost in the dust of the earth, not buying Heaven with their price?
And when Man bursts his moral bounds, is not the Boundless revealed that moment?

(printed in The Times, 28 Jan 1916)

The final piece I will quote is a brief extract from Tagore’s Gitanjali,
an extract which Owen carried in his pocket book during two years of war. The extract
was in the English translation here, but Owen had also learnt the lines in Bengali
and said the first line to his mother as his parting words.

When I leave from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen
is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the
ocean of light and thus am I blessed – let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play, and here have I caught
sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch;
and if the end comes here, let it come – let this be my parting word.

It’s often said that the reason Owen found these words so resonant was
the first line; that what he had seen in the trenches were unsurpassable, and
that this was all he could say. This may be the case, but it’s worth bearing
in mind that the second line, with its ‘hidden honey of the lotus’,
creates a far more positive atmosphere. How Owen really viewed these lines will
probably never be known.

I hope that these poems have given you some idea of the range of Tagore’s
writing, and a clearer sense of his influence on English readers and writers
of the First World War. Tagore may not have been in the trenches, but he still
has a strong claim to be considered as a war poet.