August 05, 2021
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Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet And His Poetry

Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet And His Poetry
Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet And His Poetry

Rabindranath Tagore would have turned 154 today. 

Much has been said and written about the poet. The Nobel Laureate himself wrote and published three autobiographical works — Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences), Chhelebela (My Boyhood Days) and Atmaparichay (Knowing Oneself). There is also a collection of letters that he wrote to his brother's daughter Indira between September 1887 and December 1895, which were put together in Indira's own hardbound exercise books in which she copied them out. A selection of these letters were revised and edited by Tagore himself before he published them as Chinnapatra in 1912. 

40% of Tagore's writings are in English, even though he is essentially a Bengali poet and he oversaw the translation of most of his own Bengali works into English. 

Fascimile of the original manuscript of Tagore's 'Gitanjali' that won him the Nobel Prize.

We put together snippets from Tagore's life written by Tagore himself on Calcutta, on his childhood and how he came to love poetry and literature:

When I was born, the family's special puja building was no longer in use. I had no knowledge about the rituals and practices of my ancestors. In my upbringing, there was not even a shadow of the recent aberrations in religious behaviour affecting our communities, nor of the conflict among peoples and races which has spread hatred and enmity throughout the world. I have no memory of such things from my years of growing up. The point of saying this is to assert that my childhood was n ot regulated by any ancient sacramental laws, that my young creativity was not subjected to the accusing finger of ancient norms. 

In my mind, the world has always been full wonder, full of the inexpressible. No ancient myth nor icon nor ritual has ever broken into my world of wonder. My instinctive response to this world was an intimate part of my childhood. That was my very own puja, for which I constructed my own mantra and composed my own hymn.


Calcutta is an upstart town with no depth of sentiment in her face and in her manners. It may truly be said about her genesis: In the beginning there was the spirit of the Shop, which uttered through its megaphone, 'Let there be the Office!' and there was Calcutta. She brought with her no dower of distinction, no majesty of noble or romantic origin; she never gathered around her any great historical associations, any annals of brave sufferings, or memory of mighty deeds. The only thing that gave her the sacred baptism of beauty was the river. I was fortunate to be born before the smoke-belching iron dragon had devoured the greater part of the life of its banks; when the landing-stairs descending into its waters, caressed by its tides, appeared to me like the loving arms of the villages clinging to it; when Calcutta, with her up-tilted nose and stony stare, had not completely disowned her foster-mother, rural Bengal, and had not surrendered body and soul to her wealthy paramour, the spirit of the ledger bound in dead leather. 


So long as I was forced to attend school, I felt an unbearable torture. I often counted the years before I would have my freedom. My elder brothers had finished their academic career and were engaged in life, each in his own way. How I envied them when, after a hurried meal in the morning, I found the inevitable carriage that took us to school, ready at the gate. How I wished that, by some magic spell, I could cross the intervening fifteen or twenty years and suddenly become a grown-up man. I afterwards realised that what then weighed on my mind was the unnatural pressure of a system of education that prevailed everywhere.


I rebelled, young as I was. Of course this was an awful thing for a child to do — the child of a respectable family! My elders did not know how to deal with this phenomenon. They tried all kinds of persuasion, vigorous and gentle, until at last I was despaired of and set free. Through the joy of my freedom, I felt a real urging to teach myself. I undertook the task of playing schoolmaster to myself, and found it to be a delightful game. I poured over any book that came my way, not school-selected text books that I did not understand, and I filled up the gaps of understanding out of my own imagination. The result may have been quite different from the author's meaning but the activity itself had its own special value. 


Absconding from school, never taking a test, never passing one, I was not sure where I stood. My mind wandered everywhere. I discovered then that verses and rhymes were made by ordinary men and women. With the joy of this discovery, I myself began to write. I made and unmade my rhymes sometimes with eight letters, sometimes with six letters or even with ten. Gradually and shamelessly I published them. 

Thus began my broken rhymes. They were the products of an immature mind and cavalier thoughts. Like wild rain out of an autumn sky, typical of my wayward mind at the time. All this could have gone wrong. But I was saved because fame and infamy were not as plentiful and oppressive at the time. I could therefore gather the confidence to slowly go forth into the world with my literary creations. 


But does one write poetry to explain something? Something felt within the heart tries to find outside shape as a poem. So when, after listening to a poem, anyone says he has not understood, I am not nonplussed. If someone smells a flower and says he does not understand, the reply to him is: there is nothing to understand, it is only a scent. If he persists, saying: 'that I know, but what does it all mean?' Then one either has to change the subject, or make it more abstruse by telling him that the scent is the shape which the universal joy takes in the flower...

That words have meanings is just the difficulty. That is why the poet has to turn ad twist then in metre and verse, so that the meaning maybe held somewhat in check, and the feeling allowed a chance to express itself. 

The utterance of feeling is not the statement of a fundamental truth, or a scientific fact, or a useful moral precept. Like a tear or a smile a poem is but a picture of what is taking place within. If Science or Philosophy may gain anything from it they are welcome, but that is not the reason of its being.


Poetry is a very old love of mine — I must have been engaged to her when I was only Rathi's age (Rathi is Rathindranath Tagore, Rabindranath's elder son who was five years old in 1893 when this letter was written). Long ago, the recesses under the old Banyan tree beside our tank, the inner gardens, the unknown regions on the ground floor of the house, the whole outside world, the nursery rhymes and tales told by the maids, created a wonderful fairy land within me. It is difficult to give a clear idea of all the vague and mysterious happenings of that period, but this much is certain, that my exchange of garlands with Poetic Fancy was already duly celebrated. 

I must admit however that my betrothed is not an auspicious maiden — whatever else she may bring one, it is not good fortune. I cannot say she has never give me happiness, but peace of mind with her is out of question. The lover whom she favours may get his fill of bliss but his heart's blood is wrung out under her relentless embrace. It is not for the unfortunate creature of her choice ever to become staid and sober householder, comfortably settled down on a social foundation. 

Consciously or unconsciously, I may have done may things that were untrue, but I have never uttered anything false in my poetry — that is the sanctuary where the deepest truths of my life find refuge.

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