Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rabindranath Tagore (translated by William Radice)

From a deep appreciation of the varied imperfections of earth, Tagore's poems yearn for the single, perfect ineffable. The narrative poems tell the stories of ordinary people, but tell them in such a manner as to evoke that deep yearning, so that the ordinary matter is suffused with immense dignity. The allegorical poems are dream-like and imaginative, at once passive and active. The lyrics are his supreme achievement, to my mind. Ardent, yet harmonious, they map human love onto the love of God.

According to Radice, the ideas in "Yaksha" lead right into the heart of Tagore's religious and artistic thought. In Creative Unity (p. 35), in the chapter on the Creative Ideal, Tagore writes: "this world is a creation . . . in its center there is a living idea which reveals itself in an eternal symphony, played on innumerable instruments, all keeping perfect time." Radice identifies this 'living idea' with the Yaksa's ideal, with his Beloved. However, the revelation of this idea through time and space involves separation from that ideal, and thus the pain of yearning for it. Joy and pain are thus an inextricable reflection of the creative khela (play) of the universe.

That ideal is not the unalloyed joy of Christian heaven nor the dissolution of self of nirvana. That ideal is perfection but a perfection lacks the power to express itself through pain and yearning, just like the Beloved trapped in the permanent perfection of "eternal moonlight." Perfection would indeed be a torment if it is unable to enter into a relationship with imperfection. The Yaksa, beating at the door of his Beloved, is advantaged by his mortality: "his freedom to yearn is a gift from God," as Radice puts it.

A more personal poem than "Yaksa," but with some of the same ideas is one written for the Argentinian feminist and writer Victoria Ocampo who found a villa for Tagore to rest in when he fell ill in Buenos Aires. In "Guest," by linking the music of the stars to human love, Tagore puts a Personality at the heart of the universe. Radice's translation makes an alluring music.


Lady, you have filled these exile days of mine
With sweetness, made a foreign traveller your own
As easily as these unfamiliar stars, quietly,
Coolly smiling from heaven, have likewise given me
Welcome. When I stood at this window and stared
At the southern sky, a message seemed to slide
Into my soul from the harmony of the stars,
A solemn music that said, 'We know you are ours--
Guest of our light from the day you passed
From darkness into the world, always our guest.'
Lady, your kindness is a star, the same solemn tune
In your glance seems to say, 'I know you are mine.'
I do not know your language, but I hear your melody:
'Poet, guest of my love, my guest eternally.'

Is the original written in fourteen lines, in rhyming couplets? Radice's notes are useful on Tagore's ideas and diction, but I wish they give more information about his versification. The sonnet form is certainly appropriate here, shaping the matter of human and divine love. Grateful and considerate, the guest gives the Host-God the last line of the poem. The poem's courtesy reminds me of Herbert's "Love (III)" but it has none of that Anglican's consciousness of unworthiness. The universal drama, here, is not one of redemption, but of homecoming; more, of self-realization.

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