How literature shapes nations and peoples?
The immediate provocation for writing this piece, however, came my way unexpectedly. First, the latest issue of The Economist magazine carried a page in the “Books and Arts” section a brief writeup on The Abbey Theatre, Dublin. For those who may not know anything about this historic institution , noots the readers of my journal unlikely to know, it is Ireland’s national theatre which is in existence now, which on December 27 celebrated its centenary. For me it was more than jst news. Wasn’t it founded by W.B.Yeats, the great Irish-born English poet? Yes it was.Abbey Theatre symbolised the revival of Irish nationalism and Irish culture and Yeats lived and made his reputation by not just writing poetry and plays but playing a crucial role in giving Ireland a nationalst identity and also playing a great role in awakening the nationalist spirit in giving the Irish people their cultural identity which was their own. There are so many small details about how Yeats came to write it raised some curiosities about Yeats’ own life and his works.
A country’s or a peoples’ strengths are derived more from their culture than from their politics or economics. Cultures are a very distinctive character of a people. For Indians,our cultural strengths, specially in modern India, are given by our great writers and poets. Max Weber:” a nation is a community of language and literature”. Tagore’s poetry and songs give modern Indian literature and culture a distintive uniqueness and strength.
Likewsie, W.B.Yeats, the great Irish poet symbolises all that was characteristic of Ireland and the Irish people and their culture. Here are some reflections on the two poets and their contributions to their respective peoples. Any great people or a nation is often identified with its great writers. A Shakespeare in England, Moliere in France, Goethe in Germany and Michealangelo in Italy, as Tolstoy in Russia completes our mental picture of great nations or great cultures.
What have we in India for our writers today? Still, only Tagore sums up Indian literature as no other writer does. So too writers and artists for every culture. In a totally distant land, Ireland, we have a rare coincidence or a rare similarity in W.B.Yeats for his range of imagination and his ability, like Tagore to rouse the national sentiments to the heights of great art and literature and in the process to shape a nation that suffered much at the hands of Britain, very much like India at the hands of Britain. An unexpected thought process gripped me. Here is what I have got to say on how literature as I saw shapes a nation and a people.
W.B.Yeats and Tagore
By chance I happened to read Tagore and the Irish poet W.B.Yeats for various reasons. Tagore’s biography by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson was my favourite for many days. After a gap of a few months I once again dipped into it and was fascinated by some of the details till then I haven’t noticed. Like Tagore-Gandhi relationships and their differences. India is now a mature nation and we as mature people must now be in a position to read about our great leaders in a much more dispassionate manner and know their shortcomings if any So that we can now look at our own current crop of men and women and learn to see our country’s many aspects in new light. A country is not shaped by just men, political leaders alone. A country gets its identity and strength by its culture,its arts and literature. India has great literary traditions and our ancient as well as modern literature as exemplified by Tagore are world class. And yet even today,we in India seem to be dominated by American and English writers. Our mental shape, so to say, is conditioned by what is written by the Western people, by whitemen, not by any others. It is high time we in India shoud learn to see the world from the Indian, Asian, Third world point of view. India is now becoming an economic power. But that will be sustainable only when we the people of India become culturally strong, culturally, mentally and intellectually independent people. Only literature can give us this foundation.
Tagore’s discovery in England by his English acquaintances, notably the praise Yeats gave to Gitanjali and how it went on to win the Nobel award. Also how Tagore, in my eyes, seemed now a far more a strong personality, a multi-faceted genius than Gandhi was first and last was a supreme leader of the Indian masses and he was not interested in many areas of life in Tagore was interested. Also Gandhi’s apparent non-interest in Tagore’s art or his education and rural reconstruction work. There was surprisingly no references to these things even in Gandhi’s autobiography. So I started seeing Tagore in a more different light than I was accustomed to as a Santiniketan insider.
And my thoughts wandered far and wide. Yeats of course I have been reading for a very, very long time. I can’t claim I am a literary person nor am I an expert in Yeats poetry. And like Tagore he lived a long life, almost near 80 years. What first attracted me first to Yeats was his evolution as a patriot, an Irish patriot and how Irish nation suffered much at the hands of British occupation and exploitation similar to what India had undergone under the British occupation. Yeats articulated a vision and visions that dreamt of Ireland as separated from England, a thought that was not liked by his own countrymen. A cursory biographoical reading of his life would bring in the similarities in the lives of Tagore and Yeats.
It is not widely appreciated even within India that Tagore was much more a patriot, patriotism ran in the family of Tagore, patriots arising out of several socio-religious and artistic movements from the days of Rajarammohan Roy. Much before Gandhi came on the scene in South Africa and then in India Tagore was already a patriot, he was associated with the Indian National Congress meeting in 1889 and also during the Swadeshi movement in 1905 and he was already a doer of sorts, founding a school and a rural development project and had done much rural land reforms as a zamindar and otherwise.
Tagore, in short, had profound vision for his country, for his people. Yeats too was a greater personality. His personality found expression in aesthetic, mystic and nationalistic terms. He sought an Irish identity through founding a national theatre and giving expression to political participation that saw some historic upheavels in Ireland as Gandhi’s civil disobedience movements. In Ireland it was violence, bloodshed and much more brutal encounters. One of the heroes of Ireland was the one I much admired President of Ireland, namely Emonn de Valera Yeats was much more than a poet for me. Much more than anything else it was Yeats who also discovered Tagore’s genius. There is much to write about Yeats’ social vision, uniting the aristocrats with the peasants. Yeats hated the middle class which was only interested in conventional existence. Yeats work for Free Ireland also needs to be told.
I haven’t written much on literature and it doesn’t mean I have no interest. In fact, I had deliberately restrained myself for the fear that there is too much of it in India. And yet, in my view, there is also much ignorance among the educated Indians about what is being written in the Indian languages. There is a new breed of writers in English to write on the Indian literature in English on Indian language literature. There are now new departments in universities to this subject. Also, unfortunately, all these developments hadn’t made any impact on the English knowing Indian society about any knowledge, let alone any appreciation of the many beautiful writings in the rich Indian language literatures.
Stephen Spender Translation Prize
As for the Indian language writings, poetry, in particular, it was Tagore whose poetry that was got noticed thanks to his Nobel Prize. As for other poets who came after him, it is a sad history of neglect and also the barriers of translations from Indian languages into foreign languages, more so importantly into English. That’s why I was very interested to read a recent article in the Financial Times about a translation project promoted by Stephen Spender Foundation. It makes a very interested reading for it throw slight on the intricacies of translations as an art and craft. The Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation is awarded for two categories of translators. One for those 18 and under and another for those who are 30 and under. Translation is, as the writer, says, is one of the most demanding of all literary undertakings. It is notoriously difficult and desparately unrewarding in terms of fame and money. But the point he mentions is that some of the great poets themselves some of the great are translators of poetry! Pope, Dryden,Chapman and others. The most interesting example he provides is translations from other translations!
Bible first into Latin and then into other languages! Shakespeare took not just the plots but whole chunks of dialogues for his Roman plays from North’s translation of Plutarch which happened to be an English translation of a French translation of a Latin version of the Greek original!
W.B.Yeats and Tagore
For I myself had visited Ireland when I was a student at Oxford and I was very particular to meet the then Irish President, Eamonn de Valera (1882-1975) and I was lucky to have had that chance to have such a long , nearly one hour meeting with that legendary leader and former revolutionary. That meeting had kindled in me an outrage for the British brutalities which had no parallel even with what the British did in India. Typical of them, as I suspected Ireland was divided and it is the Irish division that keeps the flames of violence alive! Any allusion to India-Pakistan problems? Yes, I thought of then and also now!
Now, another shock that came to me when I was in Ireland was the discovery that some of the greatest writers in the English tongue were in fact Irish geniuses, not the mainland writers! Though I was in England and reading much of poetry and literature in English never for once I was given to know that some of these great writers were strictly Irish!
George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Goldsmith, Swift, James Joyce,Yeats and the many others including the latest 1995 Nobel Laureate for literature from Ireland , the poet laureate Seamus Heaney. So Yeats has to be read for a lifetime to understand his mind and his poetical craft. Also the number of editions of his poems and plays! There are far too many! Also the number of biographies of Yeats!
I have to leave Yeats and must turn to Tagore!
The point I came to mention here was that Tagore was not so lucky and much of Tagore’s life and work is not yet fully known to Indians themselves! Tagore’s genius is no less. It is no coincidence that Yeats found in Tagore’s Gitanjali some of his own mysticism, symbolisms of various myths and legends. So was the prose of the Yeats introduction reads even today afresh and still touching. The introduction gives, even to Indians a new sense of discovery of the Bengal heritage. But Yeats himself got the Nobel Prize many years laterin 1923, almost after 10 years after Tagore won it. His politics and poetry are inseparable and needs a detailed study. The two, it is said was an “astonishing success” (Brenda Maddox:A new Life of Yeats). It is also said that Yeats, also like Tagore, was productive throughout his old age. Tagore was always evolving , also from one medium to another, from poetry to painting to songs. Yeats it was a rare case, like Verdi and Milton, he achieved his prime in old age. The Nobel Prize came to Yeats, as it was the practice with the Nobel committee, because of his nation’s new prominence. His nationality got its recognition as much his literary worth. There is a poem in his collection, why there are so many, about thispartiotism, the Irish friends of his fighting and dying for the cause and he celebrates all those friends in grateful remembrance Let us give the devil the due. Yeats is treated as their own treasure. There are so many editions of his poetry, so many detailed studies of his poetry,its themes, its style, its images etc. I read the chapter in one book on Yeats’style and was simply fascinated by the finer points. For instance, there are such detailed information: Yeats uses ‘the’ 8436 times! And so on!
What needs to be said of Tagore’s Gitanjali is that when Tagore presented his poems before the English audience in UK and then in USA, there were many in the audience listening to the poet.T.S.Eliot was one.He who was to emerge as the greatest of the twentieth century English poetry, we now learn,first got his inspiration for his much celebrated “Wasteland” from Tagore!One of Eliot’s fellow student at Harvard where Eliot attended Tagore’s lecture, looked after Tagore in 1913 wrote to Tagore in a 1940 letter in Santiniketan:”it may be that it was impressions of you that worked into (Eliot’s) poem The Wasteland:Shanti! Shanti!Shanti! “(page 173). Tagore wrote back:” I am interested to read what you say about Mr.T.S.Eliot.Some of his poetry by its evocative power and consummate craftmanship moved me. I have translated one of his lyrics called”The Journey of the Magi”. The point is that Eliot was the one who kept his opinion of the poet to himself. So too Rudyard Kipling who also kept quiet. How can an outright imperialist who was so infatuated with the brutal imperial power and all that it produced, such prejudices, could reconcile himself with an anti-thesis of jaundiced view of India! It is also interesting to know that Eliot, after long time tried to rehabilitate Kipling when the writer was almost forgotten and much of his poetry remained as soldiers/sailors’s army mess ballads. Also, as I see Eliot now,after nearly fifty years of gap (I read him once for the old time sake recently) Eliot seems to me very limited a poet (when compared to Yeats or even I dare say Tagore) circumscribed by the first world war mood. Only the Nobel Prize silenced these fellows.
As fellow Indians who were all having their own jealousies because of Tagore’s daring innovations and an air of superior wisdom, all had to surrender once the Nobel Prize closed the world for them!In the USA also Tagore was lucky to have the real break when the Chicago-based “Poetry” magazine published, thanks to Ezra Pound who was its foreign correspondent and who spoke to Yeats and not yet met Tagore in person and had already become an early supporter of the poet got the publication made. “Poetry” editor was one lady, Harriet Monroe and she earns our gratitude for her foresight! She wrote Tagore’s poems are going to be the sensation of the winter”!.Ezra Pound :”This is The Scoop”! Such was the enthusiasm,much before the Nobel Prize. Thanks to the Americans and the Irishmen and some well-intentioned British acquaintances Tagore made the grade, so to say! As I read through the book,I was much saddened by several incidents dealt with in the book.Inside India itself,Tagore din’t get the understandings of his own countrymen. Among those who came closer to him later were both Gandhi and Nehru. Gandhi and Tagore got on famously well,as per the public perceptuions.
Yet,the book makes clear how Gandhi felt at Tagore’s constant begging for funds for his institutions and at one point the two got to a point of much shaped exchanges.
Tagore defended his institution and his literature and had to take pains to explain to an unlistening Gandhi! So too his swadeshi fight,his founding the school and also his rural reconstruction work.Tagore was a genius, in the sense in whom we see India’s so many gifts personified.Gandhi couldn’t understand these dimensions of the Tagore personality, as Gandhi also didn’t understand the greatness of Raja Rammohun Roy by calling
him a ‘pigmy’ and had to struggle hard to wriggle himself out. May be, the thought of Gandhi-Bose misunderstandings also must have been in the way.
Anyhow, we, as the successors to Tagore and Gandhi legacies have to take a more mature and historical stand about how the modern India and its great many strengths had been contributed to these remarkable men.