Pabitra Kumar Rana, Dantan-II Govt. College, Paschim Medinipur
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W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was a poet who found himself in a peculiar situation. He was an Irish who lived in England and wrote in English; he was a mystic who engaged himself in anti-colonial movement; a man who heavily borrowed from other notable visionaries yet developed his own ‘system’ and a modernist who, despite being well aware of the fragmented nature of experience in contemporary times, sought to achieve ‘unity of being’. His lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment and his excessive interest in the occult ultimately had drawn him to the Theosophic Society and then to Rabindranath Tagore. It is well known that he was enchanted in his youth by Mohini Mohan Chatterjee, a representative of the Theosophic Society and later by Tagore and is believed to have played a pivotal role in Tagore’s winning of the Noble Prize in 1913 by writing the introduction to Gitanjali. But despite his early fascination, Yeats was bored with Tagore in the later phase of his life. So one may ask why was Yeats fascinated by Chatterji and Tagore and why had he drifted away from them? Is there any connection between Yeats’ overall philosophy and the Eastern spiritualism? What has Yeats’ position as a colonized but European writer got to do with his connection with India?
In his youth Yeats was attracted to a number of spiritual organizations such as Dublin Hermetic Order, the Golden Dawn etc. In 1888 he joined the Theosophic Society whose mysticism appealed to him because it was a form of imaginative life far removed from the mundane daily life. Yeats was a visionary and he insisted upon surrounding himself with poetic images. The esoteric philosophy of the society provided him a world in which he could feed on his own fascination for occultism as well as develop his theory of the ‘Mask’. In his early youth Yeats was taught by his father that personal utterance is egoism and hence, even for a lyric poet, the experiences should be rendered in poetry in objective and dramatic manner. This realization led Yeats to formulate that we make poetry out of conflict with ourselves . This personal conflict was manifested in Yeats very early, as he was a shy, solitary and timid dreamer by nature, but desired to be a man of action to fulfill his nationalistic ambition and to prove himself worthy of his lady-love Maud Gonne. Yeats was continually excited by dramatic qualities of great men and certain philosophies and attempted to incorporate them into his personality a kind of psychological compensation to reinforce his success or justify his failure. Hence was his need to construct a second self. He wrote in his Per Amica Silentia Lunae – “If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are, and try to assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves though we may accept one from others. Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask…”
- R. Henn’s observation on this duality in Yeats is relevant here:
“His personality thus oscillated, as it were, between the poles of opposing aspects of personality; one the seeming, the present, the other the wished for, which could , at moments, appear to be justified in action … He could exploit the image of the swordsman, and take fencing lessons, and justify the opposition, in himself, of the swordsman and the saint.” (The Lonely Tower, 36-7)
As a result of this, Yeats sought ‘the last knowledge’ , a kind of mystic receptiveness in which all knowledge comes from God. His acquaintance with Mohini Chatterjee ignited his imagination towards Hinduism which seemed to him to be a guide for the peace of soul in the age of materialistic pursuit of the West. Dissatisfied as he was with the Western madness for power and material comfort, and identifying himself as colonized by the British as the Indians were, he developed a romantic idea of India and its practices. Unconsciously perhaps, he became an orientalist. In his poems such as “The Indian to His Love” and “The Indian upon God” his depiction of India as a land of perfect peace and tranquility is the reproduction of his orientalist fantasy. “The Indian upon God” presents India such a land where everybody conceives God in his own image; to the moorfowl God is an undying moorfowl, to the lotus God is a huge lotus with ‘His petals wide’. In “The Indian to His Love” the generic Indian lover invites his ladylove to live with him in an exotic island paradise where “great boughs drop tranquility”:
Here we will moor our only ship
And wander ever with woven hands,
Murmuring softly lip to lip
Along the grass, along the sands,
Murmuring how far away the unquiet lands:
This is not real India, but a romanticized account of a Westerner who looked upon the East as place of magic and occult, where the Pre-Raphaelitic simplicity of life was accompanied by all-peace-to-be-had mysticism. This is the Westerner’s fantasy of the Orient, a fabricated construct, a series of images that come to stand as the orient’s reality for those in the West. One is reminded of Edward Said:
“…the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” (Orientalism, 5)
It is true that Mohini Chatterjee’s lectures on The Bhagwat Geeta and Vedantism of Samkara influenced him so deeply in his early youth that he tried to find solutions of the metaphysical questions of life through the ancient Indian Philosophy as is demonstrated in the poems like “The Song of the Happy Shepherd”, “Kanva on himself”, “Ephemera”, “Mogan Thinks of His Past Greatness” etc. Yeats learnt from Chatterjee the multi-dimensionality of human personality and realized that “Men dance on deathless feet” as he says in the poem “Mohini Chatterjee”. But gradually Yeats’ infatuation with India is replaced by his concern for Irish nationalism. He accepted the words of Mohini Chatterjee and The Bhagwat Geeta but not the spirit. While tracing the resemblance between Yeats’ lyrical drama Anashuya and Vijaya and Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, Dr. Suman Sing contends:.
“However, Yeats is unable to create the Indian atmosphere. The reason for this is that Yeats’ characters in the play do not act or think according to Indian values. There are several instances in the play where the behavior of Anashuya or Vijaya does not conform to Indian values. The reason for this is the fact that Yeats learnt about Indian Culture from a far distance. He never visited India.” ( ‘Mohini Mohan Chatterji’s Influence on W. B. Yeats’,7)
One can speculate that his obsession with Indian mysticism is a kind of mask which was bound to be unmasked.
The same kind of romantic idealization is also evident in Yeats’ relation with Tagore. When Rothenstein first introduced to him the prose rendering of Gitanjali, he was simply carried away as if he had found something he had long cherished for. Yeats’ immediate fascination for Tagore’s verses may have been for two reasons: his longing for oriental mysticism and his identification with Tagore as a poet of country colonized by the British. Yeats met Tagore on 7 July, 1912. It was the period when his nationalistic zeal was very high. Troubled as he was by the imbroglio of the time, the songs of Gitanjali struck him as the epitome of Eastern wisdom. He found in them what he could not find in Europe. The result is his elevation of Tagore to mythic height as is amply demonstrated in his famous introduction to Gitanjali. Yeats was told that every morning at three Rabindranath meditated for two hours upon ‘the nature of God’; his father often fell into contemplation for whole day because of the beauty of the landscape; his brother has such divinity that ‘squirrels come from the boughs and climb[ed] on to his knees and the birds alight upon his hands’. Factual or not, but the way Yeats narrated these details in the introduction makes it clear that he believed at that time that Tagore must be someone from a different planet only born in the East. After acknowledging to the point of embarrassment in public places, that the Gitanjali lyrics often moved him , Yeats wrote:
“These lyrics…display in their thought a world I have long dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture. . . 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.” (Gitanjali, 9-10)
This is not only introducing an oriental sage in the West, but also ‘mythologizing the mystic’ as it has been contended by Malcom Sen:
…like a teenage love affair, Yeats’ fascination with Tagore was intense but short-lived, it is not only a commentary on cross-cultural encounters within the British colonial world but also exemplary of western conceptions of the Orient…India, sieved through Tagore’s poetry, appeared to Yeats as everything that he had expected it to be: enamoured of the mystical, and supporting a tradition where poetry and religion were the same thing. “
(‘Mythologising a ‘mystic’:W. B. Yeat on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore’, 3 )
Yeats’ enchantment with Tagore did not last long because one cannot continually dote on something whose essence one cannot feel. Yeats may have been a mystic, but Tagore really was an intellectual polymath, not merely a spiritual poet. Thus, Yeats’ misunderstanding of Tagore’s writing is in itself a commentary on the Western attitudes towards the East.
The Irish poet identified India, as did other orientalists, as a spiritual storehouse whose ambiguity-laden philosophy would, in the end, be amenable to the strictures of western pragmatism. Thus came Yeats’ disenchantment with Tagore, as is observed by Sen – “Surprisingly, Yeats would admonish Tagore years later for the very religiosity that he had initially found admirable. “He speaks too much about God”, Yeats said, and further clarified that
“My mind resents the vagueness of such references … I have fed upon the philosophy of the Upanishads all my life, but there is an aspect of Tagore’s mysticism that I dislike. I find absence of tragedy in Indian poetry. “
Yeats was a crucial figure in the Celtic Revival through which he, along with Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge and others, tried to create a distinctive Irish literature as a way of resistance to British imperialism. While identifying Yeats as an anti-colonial poet who prophetically perceived the ‘need to balance violent force with an exigent political and organizational process’ for decolonization , Said also has observed:
“For Yeats the overlapping he knew existed of his Irish nationalism and the English cultural heritage, which both dominated and empowered him, was bound to cause tension, and one may speculate that it was the pressure of his urgently political and secular tension that caused him to try to resolve it on a ‘higher’, that is, non-political level.” (Culture and Imperialism, 273)
Thus, Yeats was ultimately the product of the English or in a broader sense, the European cultural heritage. He may look to the East to find something magical, something which will reconcile the opposites; but his consciousness remained saturated with the British literature and European civilizations, especially the ancient Classical one. This is not to say that he hated Eastern civilizations; rather, despite being sympathetic to India for its mysticism as well as its colonized status, he could not come out of his ‘Eurocentric’ cultural heritage. He may have helped Tagore to bag the coveted prize, but did he do it for the right reasons?
Henn, T. R. The Lonely Tower . London: Methuen.1950. Print.
Said, Edward. W. Culture and Imperialism. London:Chatto & Windus. 1993. Print.
—. Orientalism. New Delhi: Penguin Books.1978. Print.
Sen, Malcom. “Mythologising a ‘mystic’:W. B. Yeat on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore”. 20th- century / Contemporary History, Features , Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18. Web.
Sing, Suman. “Mohini Mohan Chatterji’s Influence on W. B. Yeats”. www.sdodh.net. 16 June, 2015.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali. New Delhi: Macmillan.2011[Orig. Publ. 1913]. Print.
Pabitra Kumar Rana is Assistant Professor of English in W.B.E.S., presently posted at Dantan-II Govt. College, Paschim Medinipur (Previously at Nayagram P.R.M. Govt. College, Paschim Medinipur ).