Gitanjali – A Poet’s Prayer

[I had originally written this essay in 2005 for a class on ‘Indian Writing in English’ as an undergraduate student of English Literature at Madras Christian College. The essay is an attempt at an original interpretation of Tagore’s collection of poems ‘Gitanjali’, which fetched him the Nobel Prize in Literature. I am republishing this from my old blog here as a tribute to Tagore on his 159th birth anniversary.]

GITANJALI

There is a distinctly spiritual flavour to the verses of Gitanjali. Going through them, anyone is capable of getting transported into -what in poetic idiom is often referred to as- ‘poetic heaven’. As Yeats too had expressed, in his introduction to the Gitanjali, the verses depict a poetic world that can only be dreamt of by most of us. There is an other-worldly feel to it. These words can only be uttered by a person who has transcended the physical world to explore what lies beyond it. But isn’t that what every poet wishes to achieve? Gitanjali is labeled as ‘religious’ poetry by critics, but to Tagore, these verses were just poetry and it is these classic poetic qualities of Gitanjali that are dealt with presently.

Even a lay reader with no feel for poetry will be able to recognise, how these verses, though framed in the simplest of vocabulary, manage to articulate thoughts and feelings of the highest order. To comprehend them may not be possible for all. Such is the talent of Tagore and such is his inspiration. In Gitanjali, I see a poet’s gratitude finding expression. Every single utterance of the poet is soaked in this gratitude felt towards that Supreme Being without whose will, a poet would never have been born. The very fact that God has appointed him to accomplish a poet’s task is elevating. And when the recesses of a poet’s mind, impregnated with divine feelings, reach the state of maturity, it is but a moment’s labour for a poem to be born through the channel of language.

To a true poet, every poem comes as a blessing granted after numerous prayers have been offered at the altar of the Supreme Being. Gitanjali is an embodiment of these several prayers that the poet has offered at the feet of the divine giver of inspiration. While praying, we do not always plead for something, sometimes we praise our God and sometimes we just share our sorrows and joys as if talking to a friend. At other times, we simply meditate in order to compose our minds. Prayers are a means to achieve inner harmony. The quality of poetry depends upon the intensity of this prayer. Tagore’s Gitanjali is evidently a prayer, a poet’s prayer, and manifests in itself that harmony which the poet has experienced.

A proper prayer is that which involves direct communion with the Supreme Being. It is an extremely personal experience. Therefore, the poetic inspiration experienced by a poet is also a thoroughly personal experience, which one can consider as the benefit of prayer. In Ramayana, we do see how Ravana through the constant utterance of prayers wins the favour of Lord Shiva. We can consider a poet too to be like that, who constantly prays for inspiration, and when the Muses are convinced of his sincerity, the wish is granted. Since we are considering Gitanjali to be the poet’s prayer, we must understand that it is something that the poet has undergone singularly. The tapasya (spiritual endeavour) of the poet cannot, therefore, be understood by all. One must have experienced the same to be able to interpret exactly as to what the poet is saying. Yet an attempt is being made here to interpret the Gitanjali from the point of view of the poet’s various poetic experiences and the poetic qualities that the song exhibits.

The very opening line of Gitanjali reflects the inner harmony that the poet has experienced. The words are an outburst endeavouring to articulate the intense pleasure that the poetic experience has conferred upon him:

“Thou hast made me endless such is thy pleasure”

‘Thy’ here becomes poetic inspiration itself and ‘thou’, the one who inspires. Anyone is bound to be ecstatic if his prayers are answered. We see the poet here starting at the peak of inspiration. In the life of every genuine poet, such a moment does occur when he experiences endlessness.

One may wonder how endlessness can be experienced in a brief moment as it is seemingly contradictory. This can be explained by drawing a parallel. Coleridge in his Kubla Khan talks of ‘A sunny pleasure domes with caves of ice’. Here the opposites merge and all seemingly contradictory elements are resolved. When a poet touches this point he experiences eternity for in a state of eternity only a single entity exists. It is only when the poet attempts to articulate this oneness that he has experienced by means of language that the problem arises. Because language and words belong to the mortal world; their realm is the world of corporeal experience. There is no specialized vocabulary that can articulate abstract, extra-sensory experiences such as what a poet experiences when he is inspired. At the level of experience, everything is in a state of unity. But the moment a poet descends to the ordinary mode of existence and tries to express in a finite language his infinite experiences, the contradictions emerge.

In prayer, it is essential to keep in mind that we are insignificant against the Supreme Being. It is important, therefore, to develop a humble attitude. A humble being who is completely aware of the all-encompassing spirit of the divine being would always express a state of wonder, awe, and admiration at this. There can be no room for the poet’s vanity to exist when he is subject to the ‘grandeur of divine inspiration’. A true poet who experiences intense divine inspiration would sublimate to an egoless state and he will humbly follow the instructions of his Muses:

“My poet’s vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.”

rabindranath tagore
The poet here confesses how his own vanity or pride dies in shame when he realises that there is a poet more powerful than himself now before his sight. There is no way in which he can surpass the ‘master’ poet, and it is only within his capacity to surrender at his feet and endeavour to emulate him. The expression ‘master poet’ also needs some explanation here. The Supreme Being who bestows poetic inspiration upon man is a poet himself, his creation being the universe. We have earlier reflected upon eternity and oneness of experience. The same idea continues here. The master poet, who is the creator of the universe, is one single entity. The music that emerges from the master poet is responsible for the creation of this universe. The poet is only an instrument, like a flute, and it is the divine giver of inspiration who fills it with music. The poet knows that it is only as an instrument that he must ideally come before his master’s presence:
“I know that thou takest pleasure in my singing. I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.”
Also, note these lines:

“I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen in silent amazement.

The light of thy music illumines the world. The life-breath of thy music runs from sky to sky. The holy stream of thy music breaks through all stony obstacles and rushes on.

My heart longs to join in thy song but vainly struggles for a voice. I would speak, but speech breaks not into song, and I cry out baffled. Ah, thou hast made me captive in the endless meshes of thy music.”

The poet’s constant reference to music and singing must be commented upon. What possible connection could there be between poetry and music? Apart from both being forms of art, the aspect of metre, rhyme, and coherence of thought in poetry relates it to the rhythm found in music. Metre, rhyme, and coherence of thought in poetry bring in order and discipline, and to achieve this is no mean task; the poet will have to struggle. A poet will have to constantly endeavour for this and the task in hand cannot be finished so easily. Music suggests euphony as against cacophony which can be related to the assonance in poetry as against the dissonance of the world. Musicalisation of the poet’s thoughts would result in harmony in his poetry, which is an essential attribute. Tagore’s reference to the master poet’s music and his own music also relates to ‘musica mundana’, the harmony of the elements of the spheres and of the seasons, and ‘musica humana’, the harmony between body and soul in singing, respectively. As mentioned earlier the divine giver of inspiration is a creative being as well responsible for the creation of the universe and the harmony found in it. The poet, on the other hand, is also creative and creates art and gains inspiration from the master forever emulating him. A poet experiences meditative immersion in music always in the consciousness due to the fateful participation of the celestial sphere; his sensitivity is integral. In the universe, a mortal being always sees contradictory elements. The life-giving breath of the master poet is boundless and capable of inspiring all but only the ones gifted with the faculty for it can benefit from the inspiration. When the poet reflects upon how the master poet went about creating the universe from all the dissonant elements that were present he is awe-inspired, his own task of composing poetry from life seems insignificant and all that he can do is but to listen in silent amazement. And when a poet transcends his mortal being and merges with the divine, even if it is only for a brief moment, the apparent discordance dissolves, there is clarity of vision and he is able to see the ‘uni’verse as opposed to the ‘multi’verse.

Philip Sidney in his ‘Apology for Poetry’ echoes something similar when he says, “The world of nature is brazen but the poet always delivers the golden.” Due to the profound inspirational heights, a poet is able to universalize and make one what is otherwise harsh and separate.

“All that is harsh and dissonant in my life melts into one sweet harmony- and my adoration spreads wings like a glad bird on its flight across.”

As mentioned earlier, at the peak of inspiration, every poet experiences oneness. The poet when inspired is able to compose harmony out of dissonance and make soft what to a layman appears harsh. Only an artist is gifted with the faculty by which he can make dead stones come alive, and convert them into an idol for worship. We all do see stones lying on paths trodden upon day after day, but how many of us do recognize that these stones can become objects of worship when carved? That is exactly what a poet does. Even Shakespeare echoes this idea when he says “through indirections find directions out.” The raw material for poetry is the world and its life which is physical and short-lived but the poet composes life into poetry, casting it in the mould of inspirational experience and takes it to metaphysical heights and makes it everlasting. That is why when the poet is inspired all the harsh and dissonant elements in life melt into one sweet harmony and flow out as poetry. This also explains why all great poets harp on the significance of coherence, the wholeness of meaning, and the comprehensiveness of imagination in poetry.

In the line quoted above, the imagery of a bird in its flight suggests the idea of ‘poetic flight’. At the level of inspirational experience, a poet is glad and filled with adoration or respect for his Muses. His faculty of imagination is like the wings of a bird that helps him to soar above the ordinary plane of existence and see those aspects of life which others cannot. Keats expresses something similar in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ when he says that he would fly on the “viewless wings of poesy”. The authenticity of the poetic experience is established here as other poets have also felt the same way.

But the lack of inspiration or inability to write poetry, also referred to as poetic lull can be an extremely painful experience for the poet, which Tagore expresses in his prayer:

“Away from the sight of thy face my heart knows no rest or respite, and my work becomes an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil.”

The poet’s poetic endeavour constantly needs the inspiration of the master poet and away from him, the poet would never be able to accomplish his task. The poet’s work is no mean task, as already mentioned. Therefore, in a situation where there is nothing to inspire a poet has to struggle. In one of the lines previously quoted the poet expresses how when his speech breaks not into song, he cries out baffled. The poet has to communicate his feelings to the rest of the world in a meaningful fashion and this becomes an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil if no inspiration enlightens him. But the poet is ready to wait sincerely for the moment of inspiration to arrive:

“In the night of weariness let me give myself up to sleep without struggle, resting my trust upon thee.

Let me not force my flagging spirit into a poor preparation for thy worship.

It is thou who drawest the veil of night upon the tired eyes of the day to renew its sight in a fresher gladness of awakening.

A sudden understanding seems to dawn upon the poet that his master only wants him to rest for some time and get back to his task at a later time. The night of weariness can refer to the moments of poetic lull, in which case the poet must sleep or rest, reposing faith in his master that he would awaken the next day with fresh inspiration that would provide him gladness. A poet can never force poetry out of him. In fact, it is believed that it is not the poet who writes poetry but poetry that writes the poet. Tagore here echoes something of the same when he says that his own flagging or waning spirit should not make vain attempts. The poet’s poetry is the prayer that he offers for worship to his master and a devoted poet can never afford to compromise in his quality of offering. There are other verses in Gitanjali too which echo this idea. In fact, if we read the different lines of Gitanjali closely it is possible to relate to similar ideas; only the metaphor varies but the poet’s various experiences that find expression would be more or less similar. Take a note of this:

“On many an idle day have I grieved over lost time. But it is never lost, my lord. Thou hast taken every moment of my life in thine own hands.

Hidden in the heart of things thou art nourishing seeds into sprouts, buds into blossoms, and ripening flowers into fruitfulness.

I was tired and in my idle bed and imagined all work had ceased. In the morning I woke up and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.”

We can connect these lines to the ones quoted earlier. When the poet experiences a lull and is unable to carry forward his task any further; he faces a block. The poet knows that he is a mortal being and his life on earth is brief and the task in hand enormous. He values time and cannot afford to let even a single moment go waste. A poet experiences boundless joy in accomplishing his task but being idle is disheartening and he grieves over time lost when he was making futile attempts to compose poetry. But the poet realises that the moments were not really lost and his master had taken it up from him in order to let him prepare himself. This idea holds relevance because every time a poet experiences spells of lull it only means that his thoughts are undergoing a transformation or renewal of some sort and once they are fully prepared the poet regains his capacity to express them. It is the master that nourishes ‘seeds’ of thought in the poet’s mind and when the poet is able to fructify them into lovely poems he offers them to his master in all obeisance. The poet’s poetry is nothing but prayers dedicated to the master poet:

“From the words of the poet men take what meaning pleases them; yet their last meanings point to thee.”
tagore2
Tagore had always maintained that his religion was a poet’s religion. Most critics interpret Gitanjali from a solely religious point of view. This may be because he belonged to an Indian Hindu community generally considered to be pious and devotional. Tagore’s poetry cannot be confined to a particular creed or faith; it belongs to the universe. A poet’s religion knows no boundaries, it is all-inclusive. The religiousness of a poet arises not from the religion he belongs to but out of a respect for life which in him is an instinct. Can anyone ever point out exactly where from faith emerges? It is as impossible as to predict when exactly the heart began to beat or the universe was set in motion. When Wordsworth referred to poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility” he foregrounded the word ‘spontaneous’ only in order to stress the instinctive nature of poetry writing. The urge to write poetry is a call of the conscience, an intuitive pursuit which not everyone is capable of committing oneself to.

In the essay called ‘The Poet’s Religion,’ Tagore says: (excerpts from pg. 3-26)

“Through creation, man expresses his truth; through that expression, he gains back his truth in its fullness. But the poet in man knows that reality is a creation, and human reality has to be called forth from its obscure depth by man’s faith which is creative. The great world … has its call for us. The call has ever roused the creator in man, and urged him to reveal the truth, to reveal the Infinite in himself.”

There is a mystery in it, like the mystery about life and its depths can never be fathomed using language as a measure:

“At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to an utterance ineffable.”

Here the giving birth to an ‘utterance ineffable’ by the poet is akin to Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions’. When poetic inspiration touches the poet, his sensibility is stirred; the humble poet is elevated to unprecedented heights of imagination in his moments of tranquility and the poetry which overflows or is born out of him then is filled with emotions or joy; guided by his inspiration, he utters what would otherwise be ineffable or inexpressible.

This takes us to another level of understanding of the poet’s creed which requires him to utter what under ordinary circumstances is inexpressible. Every religion has its prescribed rites and rituals. A poet’s religion also requires him to follow certain methods. “When thou commandest me to sing…” says Tagore which we can relate to the commandments in the Bible that every believer will have to abide by. A poet- if he is a strong believer in his poetic creed- will have to obey the commandments of his Muse, the supreme being that inspires. It is a poet’s duty to articulate the truth without being misled into fallacies. That is why poets are believed to be the conduits through which God reaches the common man. In his essay, ‘Silent poet, untaught poet’, Tagore makes an important statement with regard to the poet’s rites that must be performed faultlessly:

“A powerful imagination does not by itself make a poet. It must be a trained and refined imagination of a high order. There should be the intellect and the taste to employ the imagination to good purpose.” He even goes on to say later, “The imagination too, like everything else, requires training. An imagination without proper training revels in the extravagant, the impossible, the preternatural.” He goes on to compare such imagination with a mirror of a curved surface that shows its image disproportionately and then accuses people with ill-trained imagination, “People of such imagination cobble together ill-sorted objects and produce a monster. They are incapable of seeing incorporeal dimensions in a corporeal object…”

Therefore, a poet has to develop a religious discipline in order to reach that state of perfection. Praying for inspiration, offering one’s songs to the ‘divine giver of inspiration’, and constantly training oneself for the complex art of poetry writing are the rites that a poet must faultlessly perform. It is not an easy path to pursue:

“It is the most distant course that comes closest to thyself, and that training is most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.”

CONCLUSION:

There is only a very thin line that separates poetry from spirituality or religion. In fact, the poetic experience is akin to spiritual/religious experience when the poet is genuine in his pursuit. In spirituality, great thoughts realised by enlightened beings gradually transformed themselves into religious doctrines, and the spiritualist came to be regarded as God incarnate. A true spiritualist never abandons the world but moves along with the world understanding the problems of humanity, redressing them. The poet who experiences true inspiration is also an enlightened soul. He does not shut his doors to the outside world but refines the world through his imaginative capacity and offers the world an antidote for its maladies through his works. A spiritualist conveys himself to the rest of the world by means of sermons and teachings whereas a poet leaves his thought behind in the form of his art. The poet’s soul is connected to the divine force, whereas his physical self is linked with the people in the rest of the world and for him, complete bondage/surrender to the Divine force means complete freedom where he becomes a tool in the hands of the divine forces. For both the spiritualist and the poet Deliverance lies not in the renunciation of the world but in such bondage:

“I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”

The medium of language has its own impact. In poetry, the spiritual aspects are subtly woven; the poet never preaches overtly. These lines of Tagore directly appeal to his master conveying what a struggle it is for a poet to be able to express satisfactorily in language what he has experienced at the spiritual level. A poet can never completely transfer his experiences into words and the relationship that he shares with the divine forces remains a mystery forever:

“I put my tales of you into lasting songs. The secret gushes out of my heart. They come and ask me, ‘Tell me their meanings.’ I know not how to answer them. I say, ‘Ah, who knows what they mean!’ They smile and go away in utter scorn and you sit there smiling.”

In fact, when spiritual truths are written down they become literature automatically. Take the Bible for instance; today its popularity in the world is more as a literary account of the Christian civilization and its beliefs than as a holy or religious text. Literature, especially poetry, is, therefore, a viable medium for communicating truths that people realise through heavenly inspiration at various points of time in their life. A poet too is a spiritualist who undergoes a grand transformation in his lifetime due to the various inspirational experiences and becomes sublime. A poet is like the legendary white swan which is believed to take only the milky portion from the milk leaving behind the water in it; he offers to the world pure truth which is soiled by the world otherwise.

Through Tagore’s Gitanjali we can get a glimpse of the poet’s true nature and his spiritual feelings. Embodied in this work is his very soul; it will continue to give out sparks of truth to the world. This pious poet’s prayer will continue to kindle in generations of poets the desire to lead a life of humility and self-oblivion and accomplish their task of telling this world what it would not realise otherwise with utmost sincerity. Tagore’s own reflection upon his poetry, I suppose, would be the best way to conclude this essay that is all about the poet’s prayers leading to divine inspiration and complete surrender to the ‘master’ poet:

“When I look back and consider the long, uninterrupted period of my work as a poet, one thing appears clear to me that it was a matter over which I had hardly any authority. Whenever I wrote a poem, I thought it was I who was responsible for it, but I know well today that this was far from the truth. For in none of those small individual poems was the real purport of my whole poetical work wholly significant. What the real purport is I had no knowledge of previously. Thus, without being aware, of the Ultimate, I have continued adding one poem to another. Whatever limited idea I may have ascribed to each of them, today, with the cumulative aid of all my poems I have come to realise, surpassing each of their individual meanings, one supreme and the unbroken idea had flowed steadily through them all, so that years afterward I wrote:

“What is this game ever-new
You play with me in your jesting mood?
Whatever I may want to say
You do not allow me to express.

Residing in the innermost me
You snatch words from my lips
With my words, you utter your own speech,
Mixing your own melody.

What I wish to say I seem to forget;
I only say what you want me to say.

In the stream of songs

I lose sight of the shores.”

 

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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