Imagery and Symbolism: of Rabindranath Tagore Poetry

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      Imagery is used to signify all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem or other work of literature, whether by literal description, by allusion, or in the analogues (the vehicles) used in its similes and metaphors. The imagery enhances the suggestiveness and beauty of poem. Sometimes the use of imagery is used to signify only descriptions of visible objects and scenes, especially if the description is vivid and particularized, as in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner".

"The rock shone bright, the kirk no less,
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness
The steady weathercock."


Most commonly, imagery is used to signify figurative language, especially the vehicles of metaphors and similes. Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify something else. A single symbol, a word, object or event manifests a lot of meanings. For e.g. "rose which in its literal meaning is a kind of flower but sometimes it expresses love, vitality, vigour freshness and sometimes the beauty, joy, colourfulness, sensuousness and devotion. In Burn's line, "O my love's like a red, red rose" the word "rose" is a simile; and in the lines by Winthrop Mackworth Praed.
Rabindranath Tagore

      Most commonly, imagery is used to signify figurative language, especially the vehicles of metaphors and similes. Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify something else. A single symbol, a word, object or event manifests a lot of meanings. For e.g. "rose which in its literal meaning is a kind of flower but sometimes it expresses love, vitality, vigour freshness and sometimes the beauty, joy, colourfulness, sensuousness and devotion. In Burn's line, "O my love's like a red, red rose" the word "rose" is a simile; and in the lines by Winthrop Mackworth Praed.

"She was our queen, our rose, our star
ant hen she danced - O Heaven, her dancing!"

the word "rose" is a metaphor.

      Tagore's use of images and various symbols increase the expressive range of his poetry. They convey highly abstract metaphysical truths. The early influence of Shelley on his mind, perhaps, shaped the abstract quality of his imagination. Just as Platonism runs as an undercurrent of Shelley's poetry, Vedantic philosophy forms the background of Tagore's poetry. The abstractness of his poetry implies no lack of value and a sharp intellectual analysis is required to analyse it subtleties. The poet's main pre occupation is the search arter truth and the imagery that expresses this is tantalizingly elusive.

Nature objects - Used as Symbols:

      The images of light, boat, cloud, pitcher, the flute, the palace, flowers, rivers, stars, sky symbolise the various aspects of God's creation, human life, spiritual illumination and Divine joy.

      The flower is a symbol of vitality, freshness, joy, love, devotion and affection. The power of love is expressed with the flower. The bride-groom is welcomed with the garland of flovwers, bride's love and affection for him. The flowers of feelings, devotion and true love are offered to God's feet. The flower on the other hand is a symbol of the rhythm of life and death.


"Light, my light, the world filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart - sweetening light!

      Another beautiful symbol of love, divine love for mankind is the light, the immortal gift of God, which 'dances at the centre of life of man'. Light dwells everywhere, scatters everywhere by His grace where there is His love. The light is the token of Almighty's love, the source of spiritual illumination. This is a symbol of elimination of darkness, pessimism and ignorance. The coming of light makes the whole atmosphere dance with joy and rejoicing spirit.

"the light strikes.., the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth."

      Light, morning, dawn all symbolises the freedom, renewal of life, rejuvenation and triumph. Cloud is used with romantic associations. It also stands for God's grace. The eternity, infinity, mystery of life and mystery of God all combine in one word cloud.

"The sky is overcast with clouds and the rain is ceaseless. I know not what this is that stirs within me, - I know now its meaning"


"Let the cloud of grace bend low above like the tearful look of the mother on the day of the father's wrath"

      The Birds symbolise the freedom. Their flight expresses the cease less flow of life, like that of river. The intense longing of the human soul for a home, nest of rest in the far away is described by one symbol of bird.

      Boat is a romantic and also a spiritual symbol for voyage: "I must launch out my boat," Again:

"Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail in a boat. only thou and I.."

      "There at the fording in the little boat the unknown man plays upon his lute." God is enchanter. He lures the soul to the mystic tryst by his music. "Journey" is the journey of life, the spiritual voyage to the sea or eternity, to heavenly abode and Divine glory. The poets self is the traveller and the companion of God.

      The sea is the symbol of eternity, the deep mysteries about Almighty. The sea symbolizes the endless life. The sea in tempest symbolises the eternal questioning. Its waves rise upto the sky to ask this question, and fathom the mysteries of the unknown. The sea rising upto the sky also symbolises the desire for union with the unknown.

      Few images or symbol, are related to the divine lover Krishna and Radha. They suggest incidents from the life of Krishna-like the Gopis rushing to the banks of Jamuna at the melody coming from the flute or Krishna who is of the colour of the sky and who represented the "perfection of beauty and love." All these images combine the abstract conception of the Vedantic Absolute and its concrete manifestation. The poet, through these mytho-musical symbols, creates the play of love and beauty and thus strives to express an absolute truth and beauty beyond the scope of imagery.

The Image of Jivan-Devata:

      Jivan-Devata is the main source of inspiration for Tagore. This deity is dwelling in his heart and is guiding his life, every activity and every achievement of him. Jivan-Devata, Tagore expresses, is not identical with (God of popular religious systems but, at the same time he is not completely different from the Absolute.

      This guide of the poet's life leads him towards union with the Infinite. Tagore feels that individual self is finite and limited, but there is some power or force within him which transcends the limitation of self and impels him towards union with the Universe beyond him. This inner self or guide is of him, and yet not of him. It is the lord of poet's self but also its lover, for love is the fundamental principle of life. This Jivan Devata is not merely the guide of Rabindranath's life, but also the Lord of the Universe and who is defined not only through his manifestation in the poet but also through all other things of the world.

      Symbol of Childhood The poem no 60 is about children meeting and playing on the sea-shore of endless world. Above them the "Infinite sky is motionless and the restless water of the sea is boisterous". Children enjoy themselves in their innocent games. They build houses of sand and play with empty shells. The sea plays with children. The most beautiful lines are:

"They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.".

      The lines have a symbolic undertone. The child is a symbol of innocence, honesty, purity, guileless heart and mind. The childhood is a symbol of denunciation of greed, money-mindedness, a life far away from the grown-ups. The joy of childhood and simplicity of child is depicted in a beautiful image in poem 8 where the child's play is hindered by his rich dress.

Imagery of Death and Life:

      The beautiful erotic imagery of death in poem 99 is again very alluring. The poet wants to give up the struggle and yield to death. Leaving the lamps enlightened the poet waits for the Lord to come and make love in dark. Here Death is not a source of fear but a sort of fulfilment. He urges for this fulfilment

"Whenever it is thy pleasure, my lord, come silently and take thy seat here."

      Death is an auspicious event that will unite the soul with the Supreme. The identification of death with marriage throughout, though ghastly, is very apt. Tagore embellishes his poem 91 with a beautiful image. He says that "the flower have been woven and the garland is ready for the bridegroom. After the wedding the bride shall leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of the night"'. Again:

"I shall put on my wedding garland. Mine is not the red brown dress of the traveller and though there are dangers on the way I have no fear in my mind. The evening star will come out when my voyage is done and the plaintive notes of the twilight melodies be struck up from the kings-gateway."
(Poem 94)

      The redbrown dress is a mark of renunciation. The poet will not have it He will go to the Lord in Wedding robes.

      An another beautiful image in poem 95 where the poet wishes to convey the idea that death must be a state as enjoyable as life. The idea is depicted in a striking image from child's experiences of being moved from one breast of the mother to the other, when the intervening period must have made the child cry with the apprehension that a painful cessation of the nourishment has taken place; but this fear would soon be dispelled when the mother shifts the child to the other breast.

"Even so, in death the same unknown will happen as ever known to me.
And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well. The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away, in the very next moment to find the left one its consolation".

      His most characteristic imagery is not solely an affair of the Bhagavat or the Upanishad. It is to a very large extent personal. It is expressive of his search for truth and it is sensuous as well as intellectual. It embodies an attempt to relate the finite with the Infinite. It transcenas particular time and space though without some idea of the Krishna legend it is difficult to comprehend its implications.

      The very first section is metaphorical. The human body is referred to as a 'frail-vessel'. The transmigration of soul and the succession of birth and rebirths is treated in a metaphorical way. In the next section the poet calls himself God's small flute of a reed out of which his melodies are sung. " She" or the "woman" represents the poet's self. He has preserved his self in pristine purity to make it an offering to God. "Many a man knocked at my door and asked for her and turned away in despair.. There was none in the world who ever say her face to face, and the she remained in her loneliness waiting for thy recognition." She is not tainted' even by ornaments: "Our ornaments will mar our union." Flowers are used as sexual and at once as spiritual symbols. "I shall ever try to derive all evils away from my heart and keep my love in flower, knowing that thou has thy seat in the inmost shrine of my heart." Again "The blossom has not opened; only the wind is sighing by. I have not seen his face nor have listened to his voice." At another place he says: "I surely know the hundred petals of a lotus will not remain closed for ever and the secret recess of its honey will be bared." The flower sweetens the air with perfume, yet "its last service is to offer itself to thee." At one place the flower symbolism is used to suggest poetic inspiration,

"In the morning I woke up and found my garden full with wonder of flowers."

      The symbols and beautiful images do not serve only the intellectual purposes of Tagore but also increases the charm , beauty and effective ness of his poems. The beauty of morning in a vivid description is fascinating.

"There comes the morning with the golden basket in her right hand bearing the wreath of beauty, silently to crown the earth"

      Similarly, the beautiful image of a sleeping child and his innocent smile is really innocent.

      The colourful images are highly sensuous and sometimes even voluptuous. They are drawn from the most common and ordinary objects and phenomena of Nature and yet they enable Tagore to communicate highly abstract truth to his readers. It is in this way that in his poetry the difficult is made easy, the abstract is made concrete, the unfamiliar, and the spiritual is made sensuous, These common-place images create a deceptive impression of simplicity, in this way Tagore achieves a rare union of simplicity and sublimity.

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