Tagore was a born singer and a poet endowed with an extraordinary imaginative faculty. He was at the same time a very well-read man and a most noble example of what is called culture. A knowledge, therefore, of the formative influences of his life and the part they played in his poetry will be of great interest to us. When the poet tells us that “The Master Workman, who made me, fashioned his first model from the Native clay of Bengal,” 1 the statement has a lot of meaning in it. In the first place he was deeply attached to his mother-tongue and all his works, except one, were originally composed in the Bengali language. In 1937, when he was invited by the Calcutta University to deliver the University Convocation Address, he spoke in Bengali, the language of his home and that of his hearers, though evince the inauguration of that great institution in 1857 English had occupied that lofty place on such distinguished occasions. Tagore's enthusiasm for the place of his birth was so great that to him that province was Sonar Bangia (Golden Bengal). Though he never for a moment forgot Bengal as a part of India, his affection for that beautiful land was such that he once exclaimed:


Where is there another such country for the eye to look on, the mind to take in?  2


The poet owed another debt to Bengal and that was that he was “born and bred up in an atmosphere of the confluence of three movements, all of which were revolutionary.” One was the reform of Hindu religion, an attempt to do away with superstitions, introduced by Raja Ramamohan Roy, founder of what is called the Brahmo Samaj. The second was the change in the spirit and form of Literature, an endeavour to free it from “a rhetoric rigid as death,” and “lift the dead-weight of ponderous forms from our language,” for which the illustrious writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was responsible. The third was the rising political consciousness of India and the revolt against foreign rule and oppression. Strangely enough, all the three movements, though they affected the whole of India, had their origin in Bengal and in all three the members of the poet’s family took an active part. It is but natural, therefore, that young Tagore’s outlook on life and literature should receive its colour from the temper of the times and that the poet should develop into a lover of freedom in social, religious, political and literary matters.


Rabindranath had a close acquaintance with English literature and from the poet’s account of his early education we learn that at one time Shakespeare, Milton and Byron were his literary gods, though he and his friends “had gained more of stimulation than of nourishment out of English literature” at the time. A translation of Macbeth was one of his first literary ventures and it was “the frenzy of Romeo’s and Juliet’s love, the fury of King Lear’s impotent lamentation, the all-consuming fire of Othello’s jealousy” that, more than anything else in Shakespeare, appealed to him then. We are also told that his friends and admirers styled him the Bengal Shelley, a title which, Rabindranath adds with a sly humour characteristic of him, was of course “insulting to Shelley and only likely to get me laughed at!” As we look through his works, we come across numerous references to English poets and occasional echoes of English poems and his essay, The Poet’s Religion, gives ample proof of his very careful reading of the poems of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. In one 3 of his stories, we find that when the author and his kinsman, in tile course of their talk with a train friend, expressed surprise at the news of the Russians advancing close to us, the train friend who was a great spinner of yarns silenced them by remarking,


There happen more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are reported in your newspapers. 4


In The Home and the World, Nikhil and his old teacher are discussing Sandip whom Nikhil trusted but who betrayed the confidence reposed in him by his friend. Nikhil, whose wife was getting farther and farther away from him on account of Sandip’s influence, said, “I have always had an affection for him, though we have never been able to agree. I cannot contemn him, even now: though he has hurt me sorely, and may yet hurt me more.” His master, after expressing wonder as to how he could put up with him for so long, said, “I now see that though you two do not rhyme, your rhythm is the same.” And to it the unfortunate husband replied:


Fate seems bent on writing Paradise Lost in blank verse, in my case, and so has no use for a rhyming friend!


It is true Tagore shows his appreciation of Paradise Lost by alluding to it in more than one place in his writings but from this reference we can gather that he read with interest not only the famous poem but the Preface in which Milton had given his reasons for rejecting rhyme and choosing blank verse for his great epic. The words,


If I pledge my word to you in tunes now, and am too much in earnest to keep it when music is silent, you must forgive me; for the law laid down in May is best broken in December

-Lover’s Gift And Crossing


remind us of


Men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.

-As you like it


Again, the following from The Crescent Moon,5


On the seashore of endless worlds children meet...

on the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances...

On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children


is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Intimations of Immorality from Recollections of Early Childhood:


Our souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither;

can in a moment travel thither–

And see the children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.


And both Wordsworth and Tagore are alike in their enthusiasm for Nature, love of humanity and interest in childhood. And the Indian poet and philosopher is only paying a tribute to his illustrious English predecessor when elsewhere, by way of impressing upon his hearers that men–men not tigers or snakes–are ever the greatest enemy of man, he says:


I had signed with the great poet Wordsworth who became sad when he saw what man had done to man 6


a sentence which looks back to Wordsworth’s lines,


And much it grieved my heart to think

What man had made of man. 7


If Rabindranath possessed an intimate knowledge of English poets, he was equally well read in Samskrit literature and the Upanishads were a great source of inspiration to him. He knew also very well the poets of devotion of medieval India like Kabir and the Vaishnav 8 lyrists of Bengal, some of whose beautiful songs originally composed in Hindi or Bengali he translated into English. When he was twenty years old he wrote Balmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki 9) a musical drama in Bengali, the poet himself taking the part of the hero Valmiki when the play was put on boards. He was also a most enthusiastic admirer of Kalidasa and his essay on Sakuntalam, and the dramatist’s “matchless art” in elevating love from the sphere of physical beauty to the eternal heaven of moral beauty, is simply beautiful. Jayadeva the 11th century Samskrit poet and author of Gita-Govinda is also one of his favourites and we learn from Reminiscenes how the Gita-Govinda lyrics captured his imagination when the poet was hardly twelve years old:


I cannot tell how often I read that Gita-Govinda. I can well remember this line:


The night that was passed in the lonely forest cottage. It spread an atmosphere of vague beauty over my mind. That one Samskrit word Nibhrita-nikunja-griham, meaning “the lonely forest cottage”, was quite enough for me.


He admits he did not fully understand, in those boyish days, Jayadeva’s meaning and the verses were not printed in separate lines in the old copy he accidentally stumbled upon among his father’s books, but that did not matter. “The sound of the words and the lilt of the metre” made him such a captive that he copied out the whole book for his own use. Rabindranath’s admiration for the lyrical excellence of the Ashtapadis 10 was so great that he was never tired of singing their author’s praises. Contrasting men and women in their relation to poetry, he once said:


But you women are so akin to poesy. The Creator Himself is a lyric poet, and Jayadeva must have practiced that divine art seated at His feet. 11


How strong was Rabindranath’s reverential affection for India’s classical language can be illustrated from a little, but very interesting, episode in his life. In August 1940 there was a Special Convocation held at Santiniketan on behalf of the Oxford University in honour of the Poet who, already a Nobel Prizeman, was to “receive the laurel wreath of Oxford also.” It was a function attended by eminent men from all over India including Professor Radhakrishnan, Dr. S. Krishnan, Babu Ramananda Chatterjee and Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The Hon’ble Mr. A. G. R. Henderson in proposing that Rabindranath Tagore he admitted to the Degree of Doctor of Literature honoris causa delivered his address in Latin, the language of scholarship and culture in medieval Europe, to which the Indian poet replied, by way of accepting the degree, in Samskrit, the language of Ancient Aryavarta. And Sir Maurice Gwyer, Chief Justice of India, who, in the absence of the Vice-Chancellor, presided over the Special Convocation, in saluting Oxford’s “youngest Doctor” not only expressed a great appreciation of the Poet’s reply but also referred with great warmth to the exalted place Samskrit occupies among the languages of the world:


I shall not fail to convey to the University your gracious words of acceptance, spoken in that ancient tongue, the venerable mother, from whom the language of the University’s address and the language which I now speak trace alike their origin. 12


Readers of Tagore’s poetry have a feeling that the sentiments contained in his songs and lyrics are often similar to ideas expressed by some of our ancient poets and it is as it should be, for Tagore is an Indian. We also meet now and then a line or two which stimulate memories of an old Samskrit poem. In The Crescent Moon, in disapproving of those who call the little child dirty for staining its fingers and face with ink, he wonders:


O, fie! Would they dare to call the full moon dirty because it has smudged its face with ink?


It may be asked whether the poet, when he wrote this, had not in mind


Malinamapi himamsorlakshma laksheem tanoti? 13


(Though dark, does not the spot in the moon add to its beauty?)


Again, let us compare the following,


If thou showest me not thy face, if thou leavest me wholly aside, I know not how I am to pass these long, rainy hours. 14




Amoonyadhanyani dinantarani Hare


Anatha Bandho Karunaika sindho

hahanta hahanta kattham nayami. 15


(How, without seeing thy face, am I to spend, Friend of the helpless, Ocean of kindness, these many fruitless days. Alas! Alas! What a pity!)


It is possible these are simply coincidences but even supposing you feel that once in a way, Rabindranath remembered, while composing his lyric, an earlier Samskrit, Bengali, Hindi or English poet, that does not, in the least, take away from his greatness or prejudice his originality. It only proves that he had a wonderful receptiveness and that, like Shakespeare, he had the knack of transmuting everything he touched into “something rich and strange.”


Two other factors which had no small share in the shaping of Tagore’s poetry were his ardent love of music and deep attachment to Nature. “You see in him”, says one of his admirers, “a musician who seems to obey no rules and yet has invented a thousand new melodies.” 16 He was particularly fond of the music of the Vina 17 and many people in the Andhra country know that, when he visited Pithapuram on the Maharaja’s invitation, he enjoyed the late Pandit T. Sangameswara Sastry’s music so much that he asked the Vainika to accompany him on his next. European tour and help him in giving his western friends an idea of the Vina music for which India had been famous for centuries. If Tagore loved sweetness in word or sound, he was a lover also of sweetness in Nature. “From my earliest years”, says the poet, “I enjoyed a simple and intimate communion with Nature.” Generally, we are indifferent to objects of Nature. We have eyes and see not. It was, however, otherwise with young Tagore who was very responsive. He tells us how in those days,


Earth, water, foliage and sky, they all spoke to us and would not be disregarded.


When at the age of twelve he visited the Himalayas along with his father, that King of Mountains, the gorges, the forest trees and the waterfalls had such a hold on him that he was sorry he could not make it his permanent abode in life:


My eyes had no rest the livelong day, so great was my fear lest anything should escape them.


Why, oh why, had we to leave such spots behind, cried my thirsting heart, why could we not stay on there for ever?


Tagore is a great Poet of Nature and points out, with a little disappointment, that in English poetry–not excluding Shakespeare’s and Milton’s–before the time of Wordsworth and Shelley, Nature occupies only a secondary place. In his opinion, “Nature occasionally peeps out, but she is almost always a trespasser, who has to offer excuses, or bow apologetically and depart.” On the other hand, in our best plays like Shakuntalam and Uttara Ramacharitam, she is not a mere background. Her role is higher, for she “stands on her own right, proving that she has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to human emotions” 18 ‘Philosophy’ apart, the very sight of lovely objects gives him joy. Here is a description of a beautiful Indian scene and the young poet’s reaction to it on his return from his voyage to England:


The Ganges again! Again those ineffable days and nights, languid with joy, sad with longing, attuned to the plaintive babbling of the river along the cool shade of its wooded banks. This Bengal sky full of light, this south breeze, this flow of the river, this right royal laziness, this broad leisure stretching from horizon to horizon and from green earth to blue sky, all these were as food and drink to the hungry and thirsty. Here it felt indeed like home, and in these I recognised the ministrations of a Mother. 19


Be it verse or prose, natural objects or phenomena on which the eye can feast are never missed by him. The Vakul, Sirish and Malati, 20 the pomegranate flower, the mango blossoms, the moon-beams of the summer evening, the sumptuous splendour of sunset, the first cool rain of the season, the beautiful Padma 21, all come in to make his descriptions sweet. What a profound influence Nature exercised on Poet Rabindranath can be gathered from the following account of an evening scene in his native Bengal:


There is a depth of feeling and breadth of peace in a Bengal sunset behind the trees which fringe the endless solitary fields, spreading away to the horizon.


As I gaze on in rapt motionlessness, I fall to wondering.


With a little steadfast concentration of effort we can, for ourselves, translate the grand harmony of light and colour which permeates the universe into music. We have only to close our eyes and receive with the ear of the mind the vibration of this ever flowing panorama.


But how often shall I write of these sunsets and sunrises? I feel their renewed freshness every time, yet how am I to attain such renewed freshness in my attempts at expression? 22


1 My Boyhood Days

2 Glimpses of Bengal

3 ‘The Hungry Stones.’ ‘Kshudhita Pashan’, the original Bengali version was first published in 1895.

4 Cp. ‘Hamlet’ I-V.

5 It had appeared in ‘Gitanjali’ a few months earlier.

6 ‘The Voice of Humanity,’.

7 ‘Lines written in Early Spring.’

8 Those who composed songs in honour of Rama or Krishna, two of the incarnations of Vishnu, the Ruler of the Universe.

9 The author of the ‘Ramayana.’

10 ‘Ashtapadi’: A song of eight lines. There are twenty four of such songs in the Gita-Govinda and in them is described the love of Radha the Milkmaid and Krishna the Cowherd.

11 ‘The Home And The World.’

12 From ‘The Hindu’, August 7, 1940.

13 Kalidasa: ‘Sakuntalam’

14 ‘Gitanjali’

15 ‘Sri Krishna Karnamrutam’.

16 Justice A. G. R. Henderson’s words spoken at the ‘Special Oxford Convocation’ held at Santiniketan on August 7, 1940.

17 A famous Indian musical instrument. In Hindu mythology, the ‘Vina’ and Saraswati, Goddess of Poetry and Music, are inseparable.

18 ‘The Religion of The Forest.’

19 ‘Reminiscences.’

20 Some varieties of Indian flowers.

21 A name of the Ganges as it flows through central Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra.

22 ‘Glimpses of Bengal’