Sunday, 7 June 2015

Tagore’s Gitanjali: A Critical Appreciation:

Tagore’s Gitanjali: A  Critical Appreciation:

            Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali depicts the spiritual voyage of the poet towards the Supreme Being. It is a collection of devotional songs in which Tagore offers his prayer to God. But the religious fervour of these songs never mars the poetic beauty them. Instead what makes them appealing to the readers are its profoundness expressed with simplicity, optimism and spiritual affirmation, richness and variety, humanization of divine, use of domestic image and symbols, and mythopoeic elements.

            One of the most significant aspects of Tagore’s poetry is that profound thoughts are always presented with simplicity and clarity. For example, the relationship between the Supreme Being and human being is simply described with the metaphor of the “flute of reed.” The Eternal divine Singer breathes through it “melodies eternally new.” The poet says:

            “This little flute of a reed thou hast
            carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed
            through it melodies eternally new.”  (I)

Again the idea that material wealth is a barrier before spiritual progress is beautifully expressed in Song No VIII. Here the poet gives the example of a child clothed in highly ornate dress that prevents him from taking full pleasure in  his play. In the same way, material wealth becomes burden for a man journeying towards a spiritual realm. The poet says:

 “The child who is decked with princes robes
 …loses pleasure in play…it is of no gain
…if it keeps one shut off from the
healthful dust of the earth, if it
robs one of the right of entrance to the
great fair of common human life.” (VIII)

            In the modern days of nihilism and despair, the poems in Gitanjali offer a kind of faith and optimism. This optimism has its root in the belief in an all pervading omnipotent spirit. Man can get rid of all kind of despair and suffering, if he sacrifices himself to God. God will then carry his burden of life. The poet says in Song No IX:

            “Leave all thy burden on his
            hands who can bear all, and
            never look behind I regret.”

            Thus humanization of the divine is one of the significant aspects of Tagore’s poetry. In his poetry, God is presented as existing among the simple, poor and humble people. So to ignore them is to ignore God. In Song No. X, Tagore says:
“Here is thy foot stool and there rest
            thy feet where live the poorest, and
            lowliest and lost” (X)
Sometime God is presented as a profound singer whose songs engross the poet as he says:
            “I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen in silent amazement.” (III)

            The poems are characterized by immense variety and richness. Even a single theme is treated in a variety of ways. The relationship between God and man is treated in various way. Sometime he is father and man is His son. He is mother and man is the infant. If He is the lover, man is his beloved. He is musician and man is the flute.

            Tagore uses a wide range of vivid and picturesque image and symbols which are drawn from everyday life as well as from age old myths. Several symbols like light, boat, cloud, pitcher, flute, palace, flowers, river, star, sky recur in his songs. These natural objects are used to convey deeper spiritual truth. For example, in Song No I, human existence is compared to a flute through which God creates new melody:

            “This little flute of a reed thou hast
carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed
through eternally new.” (I)

Again in Song No VI, the frail human body is compared to a flower which withers away quickly. That’s why the poet makes his plea to God to pluck the flower quickly with His own hand lest it “droop and drop into the dust”:

            “Pluck this little flower and take it,
            delay not! I fear lest it droop and
drop into the dust.”

Ornaments and fine dresses are symbol of human ego that impedes man’s spiritual progress. In Song No. VII, the poet says that his poetry has shunned ornamentation so that there might be no bar between him and Him:

            “She (poetry) has no pride of dress
and decoration. Ornaments would
mar our union: they would come
between thee and me: their jingling
would drown thy whisper.” (VII)

The simplicity and effectiveness of diction in Gitanjali are beyond question. We can hardly point out a single uncommon or grandiose word or expression in the entire collection. But the simplicity of diction cannot hide the spontaneity and felicity of expression. A single and simple word is so brilliantly used as to make it profoundly significant and suggestive. Following words are the example of Tagore’s simple but brilliant expression:

            “Away from the sight of thy face
            my hearts knows no rest nor respite, and
            my work becomes endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil” (V)

Tagore takes utmost liberty in using free verse in the poems of Gitanjali. Rhythm and melody produced by free verse is not bound by the regular metrical feet. Instead the rhythm of free verse is determined by the requirement of thought and emotion. It is an "enchantable prose", as Ezra Pound called it,   the rhythm of which is a “subtle under flow.” The subtle under flow of Tagore’s poetic prose is, according to Thompson, “an impeccable metrical achievement.” A beautiful example of melody produced by the free verse is:

“Today the Summer has come at my window
with its sights and murmurs: and the
bees are playing their minstrelsy at the
court of the flowering grove.” (V)

Tagore often uses words from Indian languages which add a new dimension to his poetry. The names of Indian bird, trees  and flowers help to create an Indian ambience. Thus his poetry becomes essentially Indian.

            But Tagore's poetry is not free from drawbacks. Critics object that the poems contained in Gitanjali do not present a logical structure, succession of continuous theme. They are individual works. The poet begins his poems with adoration of God and then follows the various themes of love and devotion but in between he speaks about charity, repentance. Some critics have brought the charge of repetition and monotony against him. Often Tagore deals with the same themes in many poems. The same image recurs in poem after poem. There is something vagueness in his poetry. He has been charged for being “misty, dreamy and diffuse.” Edward Thomson has pointed out grammatical and syntactical mistakes in his poetry as he said”
“Examination of Rabindranath’s English soon shows that it is by no means perfect grammatically. It contains sentences which no educated Englishman would have written, sentences marked by little, subtle errors.” He mentioned Tagore's mistakes with regard to articles, preposition, “occasional misuse of idiom” etc. But he never forgets to write:

            “He writes English of extreme beauty
            and flexibility…it is one of the most
            surprising things in the world’s literature
            that such a mastery over an alien tongue
            ever came to any man.”

            Tagore’s pure, beautiful and profound poetry reached to such a sublime height that these trivial flaws can easily be overlooked. His fatal fluency often led to the repetition and verbosity, sentimentality and vacuity. But this should not eclipse the shining authenticity of Gitanjali. At his best, Tagore remains a poet with delicate sensibility deeply Indian in spirit.


  1. Gitanjali verses are not the best of Tagore's poetic creations. Gitanjali contains only 83 of original verses of Gitanjali and 20 from Naivedya, Kheya and Shishu. Tagore had stripped his poetry of all the richness as he considered them untranslatable. So the poems written in plain prose could not attain the poetic greatness as in its original Bengali. Secondly the poems were not sequentially arranged and the continuity of idea got affected due to such jigsaw of verses from different sources. If at some places it does appear to be repetitive it is due to the opulence of his creative genius. Well, one may score out the poem(s) seemingly repeating any earlier poem and filter all non-repeating poems and at the end he will be left with a considerable number of poems not monotonous. We have done the exercise. How many of the poems of, say, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Rilkey, Mallarme and so on can be quoted by any one not repeating or clashing with any other poem of theirs?. We have to bear in mind that good things are rare and that is why when a poet tries to write more and more some kind of repetitions are most likely to creep into. How can we demand that an Eastern poet shall have to stick to the same standard as a Western poet? Why will not the idioms, phrases and annecdotes of oriental origin not earn the appreciation from the Westerners? As pointed earlier Gitanjali poems are not his best ones. We can analytically show that a substantial number of poems of Soanr Tori, Kheya, Kalpana and Balaka can claim to be included among the eternal classic creations in the world. Tagore started translating, no other great poet of the world had to undertake this exercise, quite naturally so, that too at age of fifty two, in a plain and unornamented prose. We must credit him for that, pretty little, what Tagore had done. More so he wrote in a language which had no territorial expansion, reasons are well-known, (we did not set up colonies like European countries) and our language, and as such no non-European languages, had the fortune to spread in other parts of the world and in the process did not get wide acceptance beyond the frontiers of their land. If Tagore’s poems and other beautiful creations, his excellent short stories, his best novels, dramas and versified dramas could be translated by the joint venture of a Bengali who understood good literature and had command over both Bengali and English and as his counterpart an Englishman knowing Bengali at least of a workable standard and having sense of poetry in the same order as they appeared in original Bengali all these imputations would have been irrelevant. Why should we not claim non-Bengali people to learn Bengali and enjoy its literary wealth? Can anybody understand the beauty of Meghdutam of Kalidas without learning Sanskrit?
    posted by Sudip narayan Ghosh

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful and valuable comment. Expect you to read my other posts and keep commenting

    1. I am working on a book on Tagore to be published soon. Please keep in touch. Can you please give an idea how I can have the sales record of Tagore work translated into English by other than Tagore-post-1961 Sudip Narayan Ghosh

    2. It's a great a news. Please let me know when it is published. I think you can get the sales record during the copyrighted period by requesting Visva-Bharati. You can file an RTI request if they don't respond to you naturally.