‘Cast a Cold Eye’: Re-visiting Tagore-Yeats Relationship

Soumik Banerjee, University of Calcutta

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The relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and W. B. Yeats, with its varying shades and complex character, is perhaps the most important instant of literary comradeship in the last century. Their interaction, respect and admiration for each other, and the final mysterious breach between them have immense cultural, historical and political significance.

 Yeats was almost forty-seven when he came in contact with Tagore, then an obscure figure from Far East under western eyes. In spite of being an Irishman, Yeats had migrated to London with his family when he was only two years old; and was therefore accustomed to the social, political and literary life of London since his childhood. As Yeats had an inclination to supernaturalism, mysticism and spiritualism, he was easily moved by the simple and spiritually submissive tone of the poems of Gitanjali. On 10th July, 1912, presiding over the a private dinner arranged by India Society in England in honour of Tagore, Yeats solemnly declared that one of the greatest events of his artistic life was taking a major part to make the world familiar with this great poet from India. Three days ago (7th July) Yeats had heard Tagore’s recitation from Gitanjali for the first time in his life (Sengupta 85). On 10th September, 1912, he sent the much celebrated ‘Introduction’ to the Gitanjali to Rothenstein, where he fabulously chronicled his admiration for those poems written in simple English prose-style. Yeats was enthusiastic about Tagore: he made an unsuccessful attempt to give him membership of the Royal Society of Literature, he wanted to stage The Post Office in Dublin Theatre, he was so possessive of Gitanjali that slight changes in those poems suggested by Andrews enraged him, and after reading Tagore’s poems he finally he declared:

“I know of no man in my time who has done anything in the English language to equal these lyrics. Even as I read them in these literal prose translations, they are as exquisite in style as in thought.” (Mitra 31)

Spending his time in England and America, Tagore returned to India on 27th September, 1913; and the news of conferring of the Nobel Prize on him was spread all over the world on 14th November that year.  Instantly a rumor spread that Yeats had translated those poems of Gitanjali on behalf of Tagore, for which Tagore was being credited. One of the justifications of this rumor was that Tagore always unequivocally flaunted his inadequacy of writing in English: “I worked with Yeats and I am sure the magic of his pen helped my English to attain some quality of permanence…” (Bhattacharya 117). Secondly, an English journalist named Valentine Chirol, with pure imperialistic mould of mind, endorsed this rumour perhaps to flame the fire of communalism. Actually the undermining of Tagore’s reputation was intended only to encourage the so-called ‘Muslim’ sentiment (Mitra 35).

    Tagore was annoyed; Yeats remained silent.

In 1914 Yeats requested Tagore to give the right of translating from his collection of poems The Gardener into French to Iseult Gonne, the daughter of Maud Gonne—the lady of Yeats’s desire. Tagore, uncertain about Iseult’s linguistic ability, left the decision for Yeats’s consideration.  However, as time passed, Yeats started being gradually disappointed with the standard of Tagore’s English poems; but he was charmed by My Reminiscences—the translation of Tagore’s Jibansmriti from Bengali to English by Surendranath Tagore. A letter written by Yeats to Macmillan reveals that in spite of his utter disappointment with Tagore’s English poems, he never lost faith in his poetic abilities which, according to him, found perfect expression in his Bengali poems (Mitra 23). Being requested by Rothenstein to write about Tagore for The Golden Book of Tagore, Yeats wrote a letter to Tagore confessing that he was still his obedient student and admirer (Sengupta 95).  On that occasion, he also described his admiration for Tagore’s recent prose works: Reminiscences and The Home and the World. But, interestingly, Yeats continued to criticize Tagore’s English poems; he even blamed Macmillan for publishing them, except Gitanjali, The Gardener, Crescent Moon, some of his plays and Sadhana. In his controversial letter to Macmillan in 1917 he also claimed that he had thoroughly revised the poems of Gitanjali before publication, though this claim has later been discarded by Sourindra Mitra in his Khyati Akhyatir Nepothye (1977).

Yeats, a poet with a special interest in supernaturalism and spiritualism, perhaps found Tagore’s poems appealing; but after the conferring of the prestigious Nobel Prize on Tagore, the latter’s fame spread all over the world and his books started selling without any parallel. Sourindra Mitra guesses that this fact made Yeats jealous and prevented him from judging Tagore’s works objectively. Though this explanation might seem to be too judgmental and personal, one cannot deny the fact that Yeats had radically changed his perception about Tagore’s creative outputs: he did not hesitate to declare “Damn Tagore” (Mitra 262) who was once considered as the “greatest” by himself. But he never ceased to love his novels, reminiscences and his early poems; he even chose to publish some of them in Oxford Book of Modern Verses (1936), an anthology of poems he edited.

On the other hand, Tagore kept his faith on Yeats whom he considered to be one of the fittest men to edit his volume of collected poems in English. In 1934 he requested Amiya Chakraborty to consult him before publishing that volume (Tagore 117). Tagore himself was of the view that the English poems published by him after getting the Nobel Prize suffered from lack of vigour and artistic vitality. His evaluation of his own poems was not far from that of Yeats.

The relationship between these two great poets of the last century is shrouded with mystery with some questions still remaining unanswered. What was Tagore’s perception about Yeats’s poetic enterprise? He wrote about Yeats as the man of imagination, but remained silent about Yeats the poet (Tagore, RR: 670). Was there any influence of Tagore on Yeats’s poetry? In a letter written to Rothenstein Yeats confessed about Tagore’s influence on him: “I find Tagore and you are a great inspiration in my own art” (Mitra 67). Even, some of his poems had distant references to the poems of Gitanjali in their images, symbols and simplicity of language. Sourindra Mitra considers “A Coat”, a poem written by Yeats, to be modeled on Tagore’s poem no. 7 in Gitanjali (Mitra 67). It is also interesting to note that Yeats’s poems took a radical turn from ornamentation to simplicity, both in form and content, just after his historical meeting with Tagore.

When Tagore and Yeats met each other, their motherlands—India and Ireland—were struggling against British colonial force and both of them were involved—actively or intellectually—with this struggle. Tagore’s engagement with anti-colonial struggle of India is a much debated issue as he never remained consistent in his ideological support for it: at first, he participated in direct political activism against the British rule, but gradually, being disappointed with the violent outcome of nationalist activities, he withdrew himself from this movement and concentrated in “a constructive programme for self-empowerment” (Bhattacharya 94). His attempt to form a different cultural identity for India perhaps impressed Yeats who himself was in search of cultural consolidation of Ireland, which was only possible through a vigorous cultural revival. Yeats’s impassionate involvement with ancient Irish myths and folklores gave a tremendous impetus to it. Tagore noticed it admirably. Establishing Irish National Theatre, writing poetic plays with highly nationalist fervor (Cathleen ni Houlihan), collecting and editing Irish folklores were Yeats’s quintessential attempts for reviving cultural identity of Ireland. In this context, Tagore’s poems, as collected in Gitanjali, suddenly opened up a new space for meditative attempt for spiritual emancipation which broadened the frame of so-called mainstream English poetic practice. In a way, Tagore’s poems were an unintended departure from contemporary English poetic conventions; and the freshness of poetic idioms, simple images, almost Biblical and sermon-like expressions drew Yeats’s attention. The poems of Gitanjali and their world-wide recognition were seen as cultural resistance against the British colonial constructivism by Yeats who hailed Tagore as greater than any of the contemporary English poet.

Yeats gradually stopped praising Tagore after the conferring of Nobel Prize on him in 1913. Surprisingly, he remained silent after this unexpected achievement of this collection of poems, the much celebrated ‘Introduction’ of which he himself had penned. The reason behind this silence is purely a subject of speculation as no clear evidence is left with us. Yeats started articulating his aversion for the later poems of Tagore published in English. Apart from the personal accusation of jealousy, we think that this unexpected and yet unexplained breach between these two friends can be seen as an inevitable phenomenon, forced to take place by the changing political and social scenario of India, Ireland and over the entire world. Though Yeats was a nationalist at heart, he distanced himself from direct political activism because of the violence and extremism involved with it. Though his political engagement reminds us of Tagore’s deliberate rejection of extreme nationalism, we should remember their differences, too, when Tagore never returned to direct politics, Yeats was appointed as a Senator in Free Irish State in 1922. He believed in state and never criticized nationalism like Tagore. Michael North briefly traces Yeats’s ideological transformation thus: “…from the socialism he briefly embraced under Morris’ influence to the cultural nationalism of the Irish Literary Revival and then to militant aristocratic conservatism and finally fascism.” (North 73). On the other hand, Tagore was a staunch critic of nationalism—the ideology is severely rejected by him in his lectures collected in the book Nationalism (1917). Tagore unequivocal rejection of this essentially western ideology failed to gain ideological support from many of the intellectuals with western origin. Perhaps Yeats was among them.

Yeats needed Tagore to strengthen his project of glorifying the indigenous and pre-colonial culture, and most importantly, projecting what is not essentially British. Tagore’s poems helped him to shape his own poetical idioms, too. Critics are of the view that the simple and direct linguistic treatment of Gitanjali had left some definite impression of Yeats’s later poems (Mitra 67). A detailed intertextual study can prove how Tagore offered Yeats a model to resist the claim of Western Modernism, as, according to Michael North, “Being Modern was not part of Yeats’s program in poetry or in politics.” (North 21). But after two or three years Tagore’s poems failed to draw his appreciation as he no more needed them. Moreover, Tagore’s political stance failed to gain his ideological support. After a long period of ten or fifteen years Yeats again praised Tagore—not his poems, but prose. The situation changed; and Yeats also had overcome his excitement of discovering alternative voice in Tagore. Now what he needed was not poetical explorations of the Unknown, but logical observation of this mundane and prosaic world. When Yeats died in 1939 Tagore wrote in Hindusthan Standard (31st January, 1939) that Yeats, with his classical height, has successfully gained a permanent place in history of literature (Sengupta 101). From Tagore’s famous essay Kobi Yeats (Yeats—the Poet) written in 1912, it is not clear whether Tagore loved Yeats’s poems, but undoubtedly Tagore’s poems were at first praised by Yeats, and then were attacked by him because of their alleged lack of vitality and technical finesse. What I have tried to say is that this sudden change of taste was not a matter of purely literary concern but rather had some cultural and political overtones.

Works cited:

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi. Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation. New Delhi: Penguin  Viking, 2011. Print.

Mitra, Sourindra. Khyati Akhyatir Nepothye. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1977. Print.

North, Michael. The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.

Sengupta, Samir. Rabindrasutrey Bideshira. Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 2011. Print.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Chithipatra. Vol. 11. Kolkata: Bisva-bharatai, 1974. Print.

— . Rabindra-Rachanabali. Vol. 13. Kolkata: Bisva-bharati, 1991. Print.

Soumik Banerjee has done M. Phil. (2012) from the University of Calcutta and is now engaged in research as a Ph. D. scholar in the same institution.

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