Beyond the Orientalist Discourse: A Reading of Yeats’s ‘Introduction’ to Tagore’s Gitanjali

Soumen Chatterjee, Mahishadal Raj College, Purba Medinipur, West Bengal

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Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, the terms- ‘Orient’ and ‘Orientalism’ have become buzz words in the field of the post-colonial studies. The Orientalist discourse is a political discourse that legitimizes the difference between the Occident/ West and the Orient/ East and upholds the superiority of the Occidental culture. Identifying the Orient as ‘Other’ and inferior to the West, the Orientalist discourse has defined the Orient in terms of certain stereotypes like cruelty, sensuality, seductiveness, laziness, inaccuracy, indiscipline, backwardness and others. Apart from these stereotypes, the Orient has also been associated with mysteries and decadence and has been represented as “a living tableau of queerness” (Said 103). Actually, the Occident/West has mapped the Orient/East in terms of those aspects which the westerners never associate with themselves and the Orient has been seen by the West as a “surrogate and even an underground self” (Said 3). The unique cultural iconography of the Orient has never been acknowledged by the West and the Occidental literature, down the ages, is replete with images that represent the Orient as a mysterious land of riches and the people living there as savages and barbarians.    Apart from this the Orientalist discourse has presented the people living in the East not as individuals who have intellect, choice, free will and voice of their own, but as masses whose actions are determined by some specific instincts and emotions. To quote Peter Barry, “It [the East] also tends to be seen as homogenous, the people living there being anonymous masses, rather than individuals, their actions determined by instinctive emotions (lust, terror, fury, etc.) rather than by conscious choices or decisions” (193-194).

But the literary responses towards the Orient changed fast from the last part of the nineteenth century.  Flaubert and Schegel in the 19th century substantially challenged and debunked this stereotypical image of the Orient. With the turning of time to the 20th century, this tradition gained more momentum as T.S. Eliot, T.E. Lawrence, Yeats and others dreamt of a Europe, regenerated and revitalized by Asia. They, going beyond the conventional image of the Orient as inferior to the Occident, stressed that the Oriental/Eastern culture can heal the Occident from the malady of materialism and different types of schisms. Like them Yeats also realized that the Oriental philosophy can provide  cultural unity in the Occident and he felt a genuine interest in the writings and philosophy of  Mohini Chatterjee, Shri Purohit Swami and, of course, Rabindranath Tagore. In Rabindranath Tagore, he saw a unified culture that has not been destroyed, subverted and disorganized anyway by modernization and colonization. He envisaged this Oriental culture as the ideal one for the West where culture, having been fragmented, had lost its primeval purity. This paper, using Yeats’ ‘Introduction’ to Tagore’s Gitanjali, as its case study, attempts to show how Yeats traced in Tagore’s Gitanjali those cultural elements that have been associated by the Orientalist discourse with the Occident/West. Thus this paper will demonstrate how to Yeats, contrary to the Orientalist discourse, both the Oriental and the Occidental culture are organically and internally same.

Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, entitled Song Offerings and introduced by William Butler Yeats, was published by Macmillan, London, in March 1913. This slim volume of poems which contains translations from several of his Bengali volumes of poetry like Gitimalya and Naibedya  took the whole world by storm and by the time Tagore was awarded the Nobel prize in November, 1913 this volume had gone into ten editions. Yeats’s ‘Introduction’ to Tagore’s Gitanjali which contains one hundred and three short lyrics is of immense significance. In his “Introduction” to Tagore’s Gitanjali, he has acknowledged that the lyrics that are in Gitanjali are the product of a superior culture and they are profoundly speculative like the masterpieces of the West. In them he found the disclosure of the same philosophical and cultural world which is generally found in the masterpieces of the West:  “The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes” (xiii-xiv).

In these lyrics Yeats found the presence of a unified culture that had not been vitiated by modernity and colonization and he traced the celebration of the same unified culture in Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida and in the works of Chaucer’s predecessors. Indeed, to Yeats the Oriental cultural space, as presented by Tagore, was untainted, virginal and pristine in its purity. Moreover, putting the Oriental philosophy and culture to that high pedestal where the Orientalist discourse always placed the Occidental culture, Yeats substantially challenged the Orientalist myth of the inferiority of the Orient.

These lyrics also present the evergreen pictures of love and mysticism and the lovers, as Yeats contends, will always find their own images in these love lyrics. These lyrics preach the uniqueness of love and religious values and celebrate the value of human life. But still these exotic images are not exceptional to the Orient as the Orient is often associated by the essentialist Orientalist discourse with the exotic elements. Rather they remind him of the strange and exotic images of pre-lapserian states depicted by Rossetti and other poets of the West:

“A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, as though we had walked in Rossetti’s willow wood, or heard, perhaps for the first time in literature, our voice as in a dream.” [italics mine] (xvi-xvii).

In this way, Yeats has gone beyond the East/ West dichotomy and has not presented East as an exotic ‘Other’ to the West. He even acknowledged that while reading these lyrics, an abnormal kind of serenity comes upon him and he, no longer, hesitates to forsake this corporeal world and ventures towards the realm of metaphysics. These lyrics actually arouse in him an intense mood which is generally aroused by the lyrics of Blake.

But Yeats’s movement beyond the Orientalist discourse comes into full view when he acknowledges the fact that the writers of the West like him revolve round the narrow world of politics and senses, but Tagore hovers in the land of spirituality which, in turn, is also the hall mark of the Indian civilization itself:

“We write long books where no page perhaps has any quality to make writing a pleasure, being confident in some general design, just as we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics all dull things in the doing while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity. He often seems to contrast his life with that of those who have lived more after our fashion, and have more seeming weight in the world, and always humbly as though he were only sure his way is best for him.” (xx).

Here Yeats, actually, acknowledges the riches of the Oriental culture and goes beyond the typical egoistic attitude of the white men who regarded the Occident as the only and real source of light, civilization and culture. The stark contrast between the Occident and the Orient finds expressions here in the contrast between the mottos of the contemporary Occidental writers- “fight and make money”- and the motto of Tagore “discover the soul”. In fact, these lyrics provided Yeats with the true essence of the Oriental culture which is akin to the Occidental culture of the bygone ages and the Oriental culture, as Yeats perceives, even surpasses the Occidental culture in some dimensions. Furthermore, as shadows of the first world-war were round the corner and human beings were fast losing their humanity, Yeats found in these lyrics the healing sprays of consolation and love. Thus the Oriental culture and philosophy offered him a haven from the conflict-ridden outside world in which the black shadows of the impending first world-war loomed large. In the words of Jayati Gupta, “With the shadows of an impending World War gathering its cumulative fury, these poems encapsulated a simple faith in man and divinity, a refuge from the crass materialism that was engulfing the world” (“Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?”, (web)).  These profoundly speculative lyrics were all about the union of the Individual Self and the Universal Self and, thereby, they opened the eyes of Yeats to the Oriental spirituality. Being enlightened by this type of spiritual insight, Yeats found in these lyrics a refuge from the contemporary Ireland that was fragmented by the parochial sectarian politics between the two religious sects, Protestants and the Catholics. To quote Joseph Lenon, “For Yeats, however, Tagore’s spiritual poetry meant more than a fresh expression of the spiritual, it was an avenue to avoid the claptrap of established European religions, particularly the schisms between Catholicism and Protestantism” (153).

Thus Yeats realized that Tagore though spatially belongs to the Orient, but was a spokesman of the whole world. To Yeats actually, Tagore ‘was a world citizen not because he became world-famous but because he felt with the world…’ (Kripalani 267). In this way, Yeats has not presented ‘Orient’ as a cultural contestant of the ‘Occident’ which is one of the recurring image of the other in the Orientalist discourse. Actually, he has not presented the Occident as an actor and Orient as the mere silent spectator of this acting performance; rather he has subverted this actor/spectator relationship. He has shown that the East and the West do not share any binary relationship, but they are the different sides of the same cultural coin and each can sustain and nourish the other. In other words, Yeats perceived the real essence of the Oriental culture and realized that it is akin to the Occidental culture or a mere copy of the Occidental culture in several dimensions. To quote Joseph Lennon “Yeats was not merely interested in building mystical or allegorical bridges; he saw these cultures as having the same cultural roots” (152). In fact, Yeats fostered “an inclusive, rather than an exclusive understanding of culture, characterized by differences” (Nordin et al x).

Yeats has also placed the essentiality of the Orientalist discourse under his strong challenge in another significant dimension. Unlike the Orientalists who had not acknowledged any trace of individuality for the human beings living in the East and presented them as people goaded by emotions and instincts or “representative of some earlier moment in evolutionary history or some primordial human trait” (Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin143), Yeats has shown that they also had their choice, intellect and individuality of their own. Here he has bestowed encomiums on the Tagore family as he came to know how each and every member of that family excelled in their respective intellectual domain:

“He then told me of Mr. Tagore’s family and how for generations great men have come out of its cradles. “Today,” he said, “there are Gogonendranath and Abanindranath Tagore, who are artists; and Dwijendranath, Rabindranath’s brother, who is a great philosopher” (xi).

In this way, Yeats moved beyond the rigid Orientalist discourse that is marked by a radical fragmentation between the Orient and the Occident and envisaged of a global cultural uniformity and cultural transactions between the Orient and the Occident. In a nutshell, Yeats’s “Introduction” to Tagore’s Gitanjali bids farewell to the Orientalist discourse and gives a clarion call to the Orientalists to have to a fresh look at the Orient which just like the Occident “is characterized by heterogeneity rather than by homogeneity” (Hinz, Catherina and Isolde Kurz 361). However, Yeats was not the only Westerner who realized this uniqueness of the Oriental culture. Actually, as the wide gap between the West and the East decreased considerably from the 19th century owing to radical changes in the field of communication and commercial relations between them increased, the intellectuals from the West became acquainted with the ideas of the East. Resultantly, they moved beyond the East/ West or the Orient/ Occident binary and perceived the underlying similarity between them.

Works Cited:

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008, Print.

Gupta, Jayati. “Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?” Muse India 61 (Jul-Aug, 2015). Website:, accessed on 29/6/2015.

Hinz, Catherina and Isolde Kurz. “From Orientalism to Post-Orientalism: Middle Eastern and South Asian Perspectives.” Thamyris 3.2 (1996): 335-366. Print.

Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin. Postcolonial Ecocriticism. Oxon: Routledge. 2010, Print.

Kripalani, Krishna. Rabindranath Tagore, A Biography. New Delhi:UBS Publishers, 2008. Print.

Lennon, Joseeph. “Irish Orientalism: An Overview.” Ireland and Postcolonial Theory. Ed. Clare Caroll and Patricia King. Cork: Cork University Press, 2003. Print.

Nordin, Irene Gilsenan, Julie Hansen and Carmen Zamorano Llena (Eds.), ‘Introduction’ in Transcultural Identities in Contemporary Literature, Cross/Cultures 167, Amsterdam/ New York: Rodopi, 2013, ix- xxvii, Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism (1978). Mumbai: Penguin India, 2001. Print.

Yeats, W.B. “Introduction.”  Gitanjali. Trans. Rabindranath Tagore. London: Macmillan and Co, 1913. Print.

Soumen Chatterjee (M.A., UGC-NET) is working as a Guest Faculty in the department of English in Mahishadal Raj College, Purba Medinipur, West Bengal.

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