Yeats’s Connection with India : A Re-evaluation from Postcolonial Perspective

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…”

  1. 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?

Works   Cited

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”. 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  ).

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