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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Walter Brooks Drayton Henderson (1887–1939)
 
TAGORE is the first poet of the Far East to command popular appreciation in the West. In 1912 when he was already known as the author of about forty works in Bengali, which is his native tongue, he translated his ‘Gitanjali’ or ‘Song Offerings’ into English. Fame was his at once. In 1913 this became yet more certain, for the Nobel prize of that year for literature was awarded to him, and he received a knighthood from the British government. Since that time a dozen volumes in English have appeared from his pen, of poems, dramas, short stories, philosophical essays, and reminiscences. Some of these are of earlier composition than ‘Gitanjali’ which is distinctly a product of his matured spirituality. Most of them, also, were first written in Bengali, and have been translated from this, usually by the author himself. It is only very recently that he has undertaken actual composition in English, though the facility and charm of his work, generally considered, might lead one to suppose that he had always done so.  1
  Joyfulness is perhaps his fundamental characteristic. He believes in it as a principle, holding that it is one with love (as important in his scheme as it is in Shelley’s). “Love, which is the ultimate meaning of everything around us, is the joy that is at the root of all creation.” He feels it also, and in a profoundly spiritual sense: for it is the color of his creative genius constantly renewed by the processes of creation, and these are, in his philosophy, so many contacts with God—“In art the person in us is sending its answers to the Supreme Person who reveals himself to us in a world of endless beauty.”  2
  The emphasis on joy seems to be his peculiar contribution. He believes with the whole East in the Universal Soul, a Central Personality which gives unity to the total scheme of things, and (through this) the only reality which this world possesses. But also he believes in the multiform manifestations of the Universal Soul. It is not an abstraction to be realized outside of normal life, in abstinence or asceticism. Its infinity is to be found in the bonds of form, its comfort in effort and labor, its eternal freedom in love.  3
  This is the essence of his doctrine, founded upon an intuitive knowledge, eventual and undebatable. And this realization is the goal of his poems. They divide themselves into groups according to their method of attaining to it.  4
  First, in order of development, come those on nature and love, a representative group of which is given in ‘The Gardener.’ Involved with natural beauty of tropical fulness, they record an insistent feeling that behind it all is something ultimate. “Looking back on childhood’s days,” he says in his ‘Reminiscences’, “the thing that recurs most often is the mystery which used to fill both life and the world. Something undreamt of was lurking everywhere and the uppermost question everyday was: ‘When, O when would we come across it?’” The same mood, grown a little older, expresses itself in these poems. Youth with its ardors and its uncertainties speaks through them. It desires the infinite, but it does not know the way. It says, “I am restless … I am athirst for far away things … O Great Beyond, O the keen call of thy flute.” It cries, “I lose my way and I wander, I seek what I cannot get, I get what I do not seek.”  5
  Then Love comes. It is a passionate, yet gentle love, rich with all the attendant circumstance of Canticles or the Idylls of Theocritus. Its setting is actual and its beauty the more real because shed abroad upon the tasks, the very vessels of village life. The lanes through which it walks are fragrant with mango flowers; when the linseed of her people is ripe for harvest, the hemp is in bloom in the field of his folk. Here she walked by the riverside with full pitcher at her hip, here came to tryst, ashamed of her anklets growing loud at every step. Here they meet in moonlit March, blowing with henna, and their love is without confusion: “This love between you and me is simple as a song.” He speaks of her as “the Beautiful End.” And it is so that the “Great Beyond” is attained.  6
  Not long after the composition of these pieces (which had their counterpart in the poet’s own domestic happiness) he suffered the loss of his young wife; and the world took on a new meaning for him. ‘Gitanjali’ is the outcome of this experience. His personal sorrow has direct voice in it, and indirect expression also in the wistful anticipation of his own death which comes again and again. It finds also other manifestations, most pathetic and most noble of all in that power, which grows in him, to discover his own vanished joy in the Joy of the Universe, at that “brink of Eternity from which nothing can vanish, no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.”  7
  The next volume, ‘Fruit Gathering’ is an extension of this same mood, or somewhat less personal derivatives of it. New themes appear, some of which are familiar in our own poetry. “Make me thy poet, Night, veiled Night,” for instance, has a distinctly Shelleyan accent. “I fled and fled behind my day’s work and my night’s dreams” might be an epitome of Thomson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Yet they have a distinct individuality. Slighter in workmanship, without the opulent dramatic circumstance of the two English poems, without Shelley’s sense of attainment (as in ‘The Ode to the West Wind’) they effect a more immediate pathos, which is not wholly the result of their transparent sincerity. They have art; and it has constrained them to present only the essential. Other poems in the collection are not always so fortunate, some being without fine definition; some, especially those of a political bearing, strained.  8
  Be that as it may, there seems at least nothing of the sort for Time to find out in his poems of ‘The Crescent Moon.’ They are woven of the fabric of children’s dreams which to stretch is to destroy. He makes no attempt to mingle any maturer mood with them,—except love, and this is of such an inspired sort that it is never obtrusive. It is guided by two principles, either one of which could have furnished out a lesser poet. One of these is a tender understanding of childhood, sustained by an intimate recollection of his own and its pathetic aspiration between the forbidden mystery of the zenana and the forbidden mystery of the out-of-doors. The other is an equally sympathetic understanding of womanhood.  9
  These twin sympathies also give exquisite color to other spheres of his work—especially the drama and the short story. The first of these, being for the most part untroubled with plot and of easy epical development, gives constant opportunity for it. The children are obsessed with the wonder of the world and come (like Browning’s Pippa) its messengers to those who have forgotten it. So Amal in ‘The Post Office’ in the midst of illness and inability to explore the world, draws the secret of infinite horizons into his little room; and the young girl in ‘The Ascetic’ wins back to the Universal Joy (manifest in herself) the hermit who would have lost himself in denial.  10
  His women sometimes show almost the same gift, being thoroughly Oriental and wise in elementals. Among them, however, is one of an antipodal type who seems to be the poet’s ideal, a modern among moderns. The sublime as well as the simple is articulate in her. Her delight in the beauty the gods lend is full of fragrant and fervent passages,—but so also is her desire for the life of mind and for equality in it with her mate. “I am Chitra,” she says, in the drama of the same name. “No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside like a moth with indifference. If you deign to keep me by your side in the path of danger and denial, if you allow me to share the great duties of your life, then you will know my true self.”  11
  In the stories the ideal types of the plays are of infrequent occurrence. Simple folk and village life is the rule; color (Arabian in opulence when it occurs) the exception. There is evident art of the highest order none the less, which out of particulars, deftly realized, and arrayed with certainty and swiftness, summons a vision of the universal. So, once at least, in ‘My Lord the Baby’—a simple tale of devotion and ingratitude, he calls up as it were a vision of “the flowing of all men’s tears”; and in instances far from single (though the best are yet to appear) in one joy he harvests the richness of many Springs.  12
 
 
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