Diction and Versification in The Poems of Gitanjali

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The Uniqueness in Tagore's Art:

      The simplicity of Tagore's words creates magic over his readers. The vocabulary of simple words, the individuality in style and the use of free verse marks the craft of Tagore with uniqueness. Though his diction and versification have come in for a good deal of criticism and few suggest that there is no uniqueness in him as far as style is concerned, still there are those who applauded his command over English language and technicalities of English prosody. There are critics who go to the extent of saying that in Gitanjali "there are no poems, but only beautiful prose pieces," and that his language abounds in inexcusable faults of grammar. A dispassionate study, both of his diction and versification, is therefore necessary. Gitanjali is a transcription from its Bengali original. The omissions, alternations and selections certainly blemish the charm of original but still Tagore has efforted a lot to maintain the charm of his English version, Gitanjali. Edward Thompson gives a balanced estimate of Tagore's creativity. He writes, Examination of Rabindranath English soon show that it is by no means perfect grammatically. It contains sentences which no educated Englishman would have written, sentences marked by little, subtle errors, there are others who could bear testimony that his English is absolutely his own, but I will speak out of what I know, having seen some hundreds of his translated poems before publication. He writes English of extreme beauty and flexibility but with mistakes that can be brought under two or three heads. First, he is not quite at home with the articles. Secondly, he does not use prepositions as an Englishman would. Thirdly, he sometimes has an unnecessary word where clauses meet, which makes the rhythm sag, like cloth with a stone in it. Add to this an occasional misuse of idiom, as "I took my shelter', where the English says, "I took shelter, and you have the whole of his slips. These things are but the tacks and nails of language. The beauty and music are all his own. 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. Conrad conquered our language more completely; but he began to attack in his teens, whereas Rabindranath was over fifty before I began my courtship of your tongue".

The simplicity and effectiveness of the diction in Gitanjali are beyond question, we can hardly point out a single uncommon or grandiose word in the entire collection.
Rabindranath Tagore

The Diction:

      The simplicity and effectiveness of the diction in Gitanjali are beyond question, we can hardly point out a single uncommon or grandiose word in the entire collection. A typical instance of Tagore's favorite diction may be seen in the following extract:

"The day is no more, the shadow is upon the earth, it is time what I go to the stream to fill my pitcher."

"The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water. Ah it calls me into the dusk. In the lonely lane there is no passerby the wind is up, the ripples are rampant in the river." (Poem 74)

      There is not a single word in the lines which a common man can't understand. There are no deliberate poeticism, and the language is not very far removed from that of everyday speech. In fact, the diction of Gitanjali shows Tagore at his best for both before and after this work the diction he used is not equally successful. It is only during this phase that Tagore could often combine simplicity with sublimity. What may be specially noticed is the preponderance of words of one or two syllables in the diction of Gitanjali. Another feature of Tagore's style is his free use of words from Indian languages. Such words are highly appropriate where he attempts to build the Indian background through the use of Indian names for birds, flowers, and trees which are peculiar to India. The same may also be said for his use of words like maya, which are now in fact a part of English vocabulary. Here and there, of course, one may rightly have the feeling that the use of Indian words is over-done, or that there is not enough justification for their use.

The Wealth of Expression:

      The simplicity of diction can't hide the mastery of expression of Tagore, Sometimes, a single and simple word is so used as to make it profoundly significant and suggestive. In a well-known lyric of Gitanjali, the poet contrasts the smallness of his desires with the greatness of God's gifts. "Day by day thou art making me worthy of the simple, great gifts that thou gavest me unsaked - this sky and the light, this body and the life, and the mind - saving me from the perils of overmuch desire. "The contrast between 'simple' and 'great' and the word 'unsaked' show the mysteriously beautiful ways of God and enable us to read a new significance into the things we take for granted. Similarly Tagore succeeded in creating a subtle and deep effect through the use of deliberately restricted vocabulary. This is often apparent in his use of images in short phrases, for example, his verbal felicity has been specialy praised in lines:

"In the crests of the corn the sprits of earth tremble."


"I will never shut the door of my senses".

      The use of graphic and vivid images is an important characteristic of Tagore's diction and contributes much to the open air charm of his poetry. No other poet displays such a wealth of natural illustration. Similes and metaphors drawn from the commonplace and ordinary objects and phenomena of nature are used abundantly and profusely. It also contributes to the Indianness of his poetry. It is because of the use of such concrete imagery that God does not remain an abstraction in Tagore's poetry, but becomes a living, breathing reality. Sometimes He is a bride or a traveler, another time He is the sailor or the guest or the king who comes unexpectedly. The human soul yearning for the eternal and likened to a "flock of homesick cranes" and Life and Death are said to be the the two breasts of the divine mother. The fresh, startling and original images mark a beauty to his style of writing.

The Flaw in the Diction:

      Some of the commonplace images acquire a symbolic significance by constant repetition. 'Flower, 'river, 'star, "the cloud', 'sky, "the wind, 'spring, 'rain', boat', are all important symbols in his Gitanjali. But this quality of Tagore is somewhat criticized by few to the effect of monotony because of the repetition of these symbols again and again in his poems. As Edward Thompson, in this context, writes, "There is a recurrence of a certain vocabulary, of flowers, south wind, spring, autumn, tears, laughter, separation, tunes bees and the rest, which sometimes is positively maddening. This sort of thing is least inspired, but it is by no means absent from his best work. 'In Rabindranath', said a Bengali to me, flowers are always opening, and the south wind is always blowing. Even in much of the noblest work of his later years, his incorrigible playfulness, the way in which, often when most serious, he will fondle and toss with fancies, spoils some splendid things. In his lectures and addresses, he can never resist the temptation of a glittering smile. Of ten he dazzles the beholder with beauty when he wishes most to convince. When he should run a straight course, he turns aside. Never was such an Atlanta. From all this comes sometimes a sense of monotony which hides from the reader the richness and versatility of his work." Though these faults are rare in Gitanjali than in other works, they are certainly there.

The Best and Noble Poetic-prose:

      There is hardly any poet who can excel the beauty and loveliness of the prose poems of Gitanjali. Tagore was a tireless experimenter in verse forms, He experimented with a number of metrical forms but his English lyrics are all prose poems. He himself writes: "There is a weight and restraint in the language of poetry. That is what is called meter. Prose is not squeamish. It goes about everywhere with its head erect". He compared the movement of a prose-poem to the "steps of a young women, controlled by the natural desire for the balances." He mentions his own experience: "I have written a number of prose poems, the subject matter of which could not be expressed in any other way than in thought form. There is an easy everyday manner about them. Perhaps they don't have the usual trappings of poetry; they nevertheless have their beauty. For this reason I consider them as rightfully belonging to the family of poetry. It may be asked: what is a prose poem? I will say I don't know what it is, nor how it is formed. I know this much that is has beauty which cannot be demonstrated by argument."

Verse Libre - A Remarkable Beauty:

      This recent development of artists or craftsmen in poetry aims at freeing poetry from mechanical restrictions as that of rhyme and meter. The essence of free verse consists in the heightened moment of poetic expression forging out a music of its own - not the music associated with verse forms based on the rhythm of metrical feet, but cadence which was bound to no counted syllables or even lines that rose and fell with the emotions and the flow of words. Free verse in other words is an attempt at aesthetic organization. The rhythm and verse-movement are determined by the requirements of thought emotion, and not by the laws of meter. It is a charitable 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 Edward Thompson, "an impeccable metrical achievement."

      Free verse takes the utmost liberties with the length of the lines. Here is an example from one of the lyrics in Gitanjali where the shortest line and the longest line differ from each other to an extent which would be unthinkable in conventional poetry. The shortest line in the particular lyric is

"Where knowledge is free."

whereas the longest is -

"Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert and sand of dead habit."

Music and Melody:

      The rhythm and music of Tagore's poetry, especially in Gitanjali is a haunting one. They have an incantatory or mantric quality of their own. They have the lilt of folk-songs and bhajans of Bengal, especially the song sung by the bauls. They have the charm of mantras of the Vedas. The poems seem to sing themselves as if by some natural magic of their own. They have an exquisite rhythm and charm which attracts even the casual reader. The freedom from the bondage of meter brought the freedom of movement beyond the scope of verse. The diction and imagery is poetic, it is prose with poetic idiom, and there is a division in word-groups similar to that in poetry, only instead of groups of two or three syllables, there are groups of four or five syllables. Thus he has acquired greater freedom and flexibility, and has still retained the rhythm of poetry, its music and melody." The poems are works of art of a high order of perfection, an art the greatness of which lies in the fact that it conceals art. "It has the rhythm of the Authorised Version of the Bible in its most passionate passages, a rhythm which changes according to the needs of thought and emotion."

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