Gitanjali Poem: Songs Offering - Critical Analysis

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      Rabindranath Tagore, one of the greatest writers of the century and indisputably the most towering figure in modern Bengali literature, achieved world renown when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for the English Gitanjali. "The wave of Gitanjali took the Western World by storm. Its universal popularity brought it into a number of languages of the world and great poets and critics have spoken of it in encouraging and glowing terms. The sentiments expressed in Gitanjali find an endearing quality in it is perhaps the sense of acceptance of life and the feeling that life is full of glorious possibilities.

Tagore's Gitanjali is a perfect example of the view that the best poetry aspires to condition of prayer. In Gitanjali the tradition of Indian bhakti poetry of Mira, Kabir and others, takes a new birth. Yet, Tagore expresses himself in such a way that the poems have a universal appeal. The philosophy of universal love and acceptance harmonises very well with Christian also. There are various things which have made Gitanjali an appealing work.
Rabindranath Tagore

      Tagore's Gitanjali is a perfect example of the view that the best poetry aspires to condition of prayer. In Gitanjali, the tradition of Indian bhakti poetry of Mira, Kabir and others, takes a new birth. Yet, Tagore expresses himself in such a way that the poems have a universal appeal. The philosophy of universal love and acceptance harmonizes very well with Christianity also. There are various things which have made Gitanjali an appealing work.


      The poems are organized architecturally aesthetic. The book is divided in two major parts. 'The first one is the quest of God and second one is the realization of God. These two parts are further arranged logically. Each succeeding poem throws light on the previous one. The first seven poems sings the immensity of God's love. It deals with the intimate, mystic relationship of man and God and expresses the feeling of gratitude for the Supremo, God for his immortal gifts to mortals. The next six poems feel the presence of the Almighty among the low and humble. Poem no 14 starts singing the pangs of separation for great father. The intense yearning for union with God is emphasized. 'The feeling of joy takes place from poem no 37. The joy of union is boundless. The intensity of joy is emphasized in various ways. The joy in union 18 is not one-sided, God also enjoys it. Then comes the phenomenon of Maya which is here till poem no 70. The latter part deals with the truth or Immanent Will, the realization of Almighty. The ultimate truth of death then dominates the end part of Gitanjali. Tagore welcomes Death in poem no 89 and sings of its might till poem no 100. Last three poems are the offering of his own self in the feet of all-caring, affectionate insertable spirit. Thus the whole structure of the poem is binded with the thread of continuation.

Simplicity and Sublimity:

      The Bhakti theme of Gitanjali makes it more familiar with the Indian readers. The devotional tone accounts for its popularity among Indian readers everywhere. The theme of Gitanjali goes with the Vaishnav tradition of Bhakti but Tagore gave it a new and original treatment.

Sri Aurobindo says:

"One of the most remarkable peculiarities of Rabindranath's genius is the happiness and originality with which he has absorbed the whole spirit of Vaishnava poetry and turned it into something essentially the same and yet new and modern."

      He has given the old sweet spirit of emotional and passionate religion an expression of more delicate and richness voiceful of subtler and penetratingly spiritual shades of feeling. The bhava of these poems is not translatable in any other language than that the poet has used. Gitanjali aspires to the condition of prayer. The theme is mystical and thought is deep and profound. But this profundity is combined with the simplicity of treatment which is fascinating and charming. The diction is very simple and melodious. The simple language is the vehicle for highly abstract and mystical truths. There is no grandiose words, on the other hand the simple, easy and familiar vocabulary enhances its popularity. There are no complications, no inversions, no long, involved sentences. Shortest words, mostly mono-syllables, have been used, and the words are selected both with reference to their sense and their sound. It is incantatory, it has the lilt of folk-song, the close references from Nature and rustic life. He is a mystic who never refuses the sensual life. The simplicity of words and sublimity of feelings, thoughts and themes make it as grand as Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost is also very lucid and easy in words and more striking and sublime in its treatment of theme - The God's revenge upon Satan, the evil and his affection and love for His son, man.

Variety and Richness:

      The richness of themes and immense variety of ways in which single theme is treated gives Gitanjali a attractive quality. There are individual themes in this collection of poems. The theme of mysticism, humanism, love of Nature, spiritual liberation, charity, separation from the Almighty, the ultimate aim of union, the theme of perfection, detachment and the dominating theme of death appeals fantastically. The other attractive feature is that single theme is treated in different ways. Death is represented as a servant, traveler, boatsman as a helsman and a bridegroom. The soul of poet is sometimes a woman lover, Gopi of Krishna, bride and sometimes a musical harp. God, too, comes in various guises - as a master musician who fills the soul of man with the music of spiritual, sometimes He is a beloved, many a times a king, He is a father, He is an affectionate, caring mother. The theme of humanism is in richness. The love for society, mankind, Nature and the world is treated in various poems. A critic Charles A Moore says:

"Tagore is universally considered a humanist par excellence. He says that humanity is the dharma of human beings. He speaks of religion as the development or fulfillment of personality. Man's developed consciousness inspires these creations of his that reveal the divinity in him, - which is his humanity - in the varied manifestations of truth, goodness and beauty, in the form of activity which is not far his use but for his ultimate expression."

      Similarly the Death - is deathlessness, renewal of life, fulfillment of life, errand of God, the diving into the ocean of form, for the pearl of the formless. These various guises of one single theme is unsurpassable.

The Treatment of Imagery and Myths:

      Gitanjali is flourished with concrete sensuous myths and images. In this sensuousness, he differs from other mystics who also use symbols and images to increase the expressive range of their poetry and to convey highly abstract metaphysical truths. The images from Nature and common life give it a universal appeal. The flowers symbolize the fulfillment of human longing for the unknown, and the far-off. It is an embodiment of joy, vigor freshness, beauty of life, self-sacrificing nature. Similarly, stars symbolize freedom, love and joy. The clouds express the love of infinite for finite man. Light is an embodiment of God's love for humans. Nature in itself is a manifestation of Almighty. The sea is a symbol of eternity. The beautiful image where the children are playing on the seashore of life is a wonderful example of imagery. The boat is a romantic and also a spiritual symbol for voyage: "I must launch out my boat "Barly in the day it was whispered that we should sail in a boat.. only thou and I.. Sword is another effective symbol of detachment.

"Thy sword is with me to cut asunder My bonds, and there shall be no fear left for me in the world."

      The next beautiful image where soul is the bride and the Death is the bridegroom and the bride craves for the consumption in the union with Death in the disguise of bridegroom is remarkable. The wedding image is inevitable. Similarly, the use of popular Indian legends that of Krishna and Radha gives Gitanjali an attractive quality. The yearning of Radha for Krishna symbolizes the yearning of the human soul for union with God. His flute symbolizes the message which the infinite is constantly sending to the finite. The love of God and His devotee is depicted in the beautiful image of love of Radha Krishna. The myth of loss of one star is also interesting. The myth of Krishna and his poor friend Sudama where the theme of giving is highlighted again enhances the interest of the readers. Such is the might of Tagore's art that readers feel the same feelings as his mythopoeic character. The feeling of joy rushes when a maiden feels gratified when she is asked to give water to a thirsty traveler in Poem no 54. She feels a thrill of joy at this unexpected call which transforms her whole existence. When she pours out water, the leaves rustle overhead, the cuckoo sings from the unseen dark and the perfume of babla flowers comes from the end of the road. The rustling of leaves shows the pervasiveness of the thrill, the unseen dark in the cuckoo image suggests mystery, and there is the touch of unconventionality in the reference to the scent of babla flowers, which shows the uniqueness of the girl's emotion. When the traveler goes away, the sense of languor which overpowers the girl is thus rendered:

"The morning hour is late, the bird sings in weary notes, neem leaves, rustle overhead and I sit and think and think."

      Such picturesque imagery and his mythopoeic imagination transform old legends and makes them vehicles of his ideas of peace, joy, beauty, love and harmony.

      Another secret of peculiar charm and fascination of the Gitanjali lies in its treatment with the Infinite, Immanent, Inscrutable and Omnipresent will. He is not an abstraction, nor incarnated in some idol But He is Omnipresent. Tagore feels his presence everywhere. He is all-pervasive. He comes to man in the guise of Nature. With Tagore, we feel Him in golden light of sun, in the chirping of birds. We feel the joy of His Omnipresence beside us. He is there in leaves, flowers, He is there in the sweet perfume of lotus. He is the beloved of man, the king of His subject, man. He is the mighty rich prince of a poor beggar. He is poet's poet, master magician. He is so humble, who comes to man Himself, to his cottage doorsteps. He comes to meet His beloved at night. He is a caring father who refuses the worldly, hollow, tempted desires of His child. He is an affectionate mother whose lullaby makes his child calm and peaceful. He is the guide of man who guides him to spiritual illumination leads his boat from the sea of eternity to the gates of His palace. He is among, low, humble, poor and needy. He is not in temples to be worshipped. He is the musician who fulfills the human soul with the spiritual music. The light of whose music illumines the world. He is the life of life. He is such a companion, comrade, friend and well-wisher of man that the sight of His face gives him the endless rejoicing spirit. He is with them

"in shower and in sun, and his garment is covered with dust."

      He is away from the avarice

"Pride can never approach to where thou walkest in the clothes of the humble among the poorest and lowliest, and lost."

      Sometimes he is a stranger coming to the poet's house, at other times He is the bridegroom. The all-pervasive presence of God is suggested through various images. Many a images create the vastness and majesty of God, as the image of a giant bird spreading its wings on its flight across the sea and sometimes He is a caring, loving affectionate friend, whom poet looks at without fear and asks:

"Art thou abroad in this stormy night on thy journey of love, my friend?"
"I have no sleep tonight. Ever and again I open my door and look out on the darkness, my friend!"

Nearness to Common Life and Nature:

      Tagore was a lover of Nature and common life. He seems to be the first among saints who has not refused to live. Tagore uses to illustrate his ideas and thinking through the eye of Nature. Similarly he uses facts of human life to depict the aspects of Nature. He has a positive view of the kinship of spirit to Nature. Nature and God are, in the Vedantic terminology Prakriti and Purusha, the two aspects of Absolute. His love for Nature is one of the appealing qualities of Tagore's Gitanjali which brings it in the praise of his readers. Meditation on Nature or an aspect of Nature leads to realization of God. For him He is there in everything He creates-earth, sky and stars and at the same time. He irradiates our life with the light of consciousness and love. That is why he sings:

"Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart sweetening light! Ah the light dances my darling, at the centre of my life."
"Yes, I know, this is nothing but thy love, O beloved of my heart - this golden light that dances upon the leaves, these idle clouds sailing across the sky."

      Just as the Nature is the manifestation of God's love and cares for man, the Nature illustrates his concepts or facts of human life. Thus the morning coming out of East is likened to a maiden going out to collect flowers, and evening coming out of West represents the maiden going out to fill a pitcher. Nature, according to Tagore, is the melody of God. It ennobles man. Man is ultimately bound up with Nature. That is why in his metaphysic body does not become a tomb from which the soul has to be liberated. The body is the sign and utterance of the human soul. Nature, man and God all three entities have kinship, this is Tagore's view. That is why his poems are painted with the color of Nature by the brush of rustic common life.

      W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys trace the uniqueness of these poems partly to the peculiarity of Bengali civilization in which the poetry is ultimately connected with the daily existence; that is why this poem is so closely in contact with the fundamental things of common life - the leaves, flowers, rivers, sun, moon, stars, streams, morning, evening breeze, music, coming of traveler, stranger, boat, wedding life and death. Yeats and other critics find the poems of Gitanjali another signal characteristic which is the result of the wedding of poetry of life; in these poems, there is harmony between emotion and idea, between religion and philosophy. Says Yeats, "A tradition where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble." Rabindranath is in this view a great poet partly because he is the poet of a poetical race.

Subjectivity in Gitanjali:

      Perhaps there is no other collection of lyrics in the language in which the element of subjectivity is presented so constantly and so intensely as in Gitanjali. This is a spiritual voyage where poet speaks to himself, a kind of spiritual autobiography of the poet, like that of Eliot's The Love Song of Prufrock or Tennyson's In Memoriam. The 'I' that occurs in many of the poems is the poet himself or rather, the poet's soul.

"I move aside to avoid his presence but I escape him not" "I stood and watched the light uselessly burning in the void."

      In many of the poems in Gitanjali, 'Tagore comes out in various disguises. At a time he is a beggar, another time a beloved or a bride. He is a musician or a poet in few poems and somewhere he is a traveler, who is aiming at his ultimate destination of union with God, wishes to cross that sea of eternity.

The Use of Parables - Another Interesting Feature:

      The poems in Gitanjali are wonderful and maintain interest of the reader. But the use of parables in few poems enhanced the interest and appealing quality of the poems. The beautiful parable where the poor beggar waits for the rich prince to come down to his way from his glorious chariot to give him some alms and the prince himself opens his palm in front of the beggar, is quite interesting. Another parable in poem no 48 where the poet along with his friends come out in search of the mighty God. The seekers, unaware of the omnipresent God carry on their journey while the poet, the lover of Nature stays under the tree, in order to repose in the sun-embroidered gloom of the forest. The friends of poet mock him for his lack of courage to carry on his spiritual journey and is the poet only, who is successful in his spiritual quest:

"At last when I woke from my slumber and opened my eyes, I saw thee standing by me, flooding my sleep with thy smile. How I had feared that the path was long and wearisome, and the struggle to reach thee was hard!"

      These hidden messages under the heart of interesting parables gives Gitanjali an eye of appreciation.

Language and Versification:

      Edward Thompson gives a balanced estimate of Tagore's use of the English language. He writes, "Examination of Rabindranath's English soon shows that it is by no means perfect grammatically. It contains sentences which no educated English man would have written, sentences marked by little subtler errors. There are others who could bear testimony that his English is absolutely his own, but I will speak out of that 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 occasions misuse of idiom, as I took my shelter', where English says, I took shelter,' and you have the whole of his slips. These things are but the tacks and nails of the English language. The beauty and music is all of his own. It is one of the most surprising thing in the world's literature that such a mastery over an alien tongue would ever come to any man. Conrad conquered our language more completely; but he began to attack it in his teens, whereas Rabindranath was over fifty "before I began my courtship of your tongue.

      Gitanjali is a translation from its Bengali original. And translation however is perfect, the beauty, charm and originality is always lost to some extent. Moreover Tagore was obliged to use only those words which were familiar to English speaking world, and carefully eschew such expressions however apt and suggestive, as were likely to create difficulties in the way of his foreign readers. Hence there were constant omissions, alternations and selections. This is his genius that, working under such limitations, he could transcreate a work of art which took all Europe by storm. As for verification, Tagore himself says 'this is a verse libre free verse, free from the bondage of meter. Free verse has no foundation with the length of lines. Here for example the shortest line in Gitanjali.

'where knowledge is free.'

'whereas the longest line differ from it to a great extent.'

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

      In this concern Ezra Pound says:

"The hundred poems in the present volume are all songs to sing. The tunes and the words are knit together, are made together, and Oriental music would seem to fit this purpose better than our own. Firstly, because it is unencumbered with a harmony. Secondly, from the nature of the Ragini's, which are something in the nature of Greek Modes. And in these Raginis there is the magic of association. For certain of these scales are used only for song in the evening or for song in the rainy season, or at sunrise, so that a Bengali hearing any opening bar knows at once the place and atmosphere of the poem."

      Ezra Pound is fascinated by his poems and says.

"The next thing to note is the occasional brilliant phrases, now like some pure Hellenic, in "Morning with the golden basket in her right hand,' now like the last sophistication of De Gour or Bandelaire."

      Gitanjali is unique blend of romantic longing devotion to God and simple love of created things. As a collection of impression of personal religious moods, free from all dogmatism, free from even ethical over-tones, Gitanjali is a splendid success. All the poetry is in the feeling and tone, in the prose-poetry which is simple fluid, with enough formal organization to hold a poem together. H.M. William says.

"Tagore was wise to avoid metre and rhyme. The imagery, pervasive but not startling is taken from Nature and from Indian classical mythology especially the Krishna-Radha. The poems are unified in a search for God, for happiness, in love of the spirit that lies within Nature and man; and the season is expressed with wistful melancholy - a sustained minor key."

      The first edition of the poems was a private one, for the members of the Indian society in London. Although it bears the date 1912, it became available to the public in 1913. The poems fascinated European readers. However, Tagore had been introduced to the West even earlier than the publication of this edition, for six of the poems from Gitanjali has appeared in Chicago Poetry in December 1912.

"The West received Tagore poems with enthusiasm, for they sounded a new note. The mystery of India, the charm of his ideas captured the fancy of the European readers when the oppressive pre-war atmosphere at home predisposed in their favor. The friendly words of the critics brought him a growing number of readers. The English Gitanjali ran into several editions before the first Bengali edition was sold."


      The deep sincerity, quiet and calm atmosphere, the intensity of passions, yearning for union, the tone of devotion, simplicity of language or words, the familiar music of folksongs, richness of ideas, messages and variety of picturesque imagery and ways to depict the might and love of the inevitable, inscrutable, immanent, affectionate and caring divine spirit, all gathers together to impress the readers with the magic of writing and ecstasy of heavenly theme.

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