You may have millions of stars and planets: Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.

Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:

“…

You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.

You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”

(Gitali 77, excerpt)

Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.

I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:

“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”

(“Glimpses of Bengal”)

The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:

“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”

(“My Reminiscences”)

So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!

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Four Welsh poets

1. Dylan Thomas

One week, when i was around twelve years old, our local paper printed his poem “The Hunchback in the Park”. I was awestruck. I cut the poem out and pasted it into the inside cover of my scrapbook. All week i waited excitedly to see what they would print next time, but there were no more poems. I suppose they must have unexpectedly had some free space to use up the week they printed “Hunchback”; some advert or other must have fallen through and left a hole in the edition. At home I learnt the poem off by heart and marvelled over the beauty of its language. Even now one phrase in particular

wild boys innocent as strawberries

fills me with wonder. Poetry has never got more magical for me than happened that week. As for Dylan Thomas himself, i went on to buy a volume of his poetry and a biography. Most of the other poems left me cold and i found him something of a drunken bore.

2. R.S. Thomas

We only did one book of poetry for O-Level and it was nearly all drivel. I was so disappointed! The only true poem in the book was “Cynddylan on a Tractor” by R.S. Thomas, Anglican priest and Welsh nationalist. The English teacher singled it out for mockery because it wasn’t humorous or entertaining like the other poems in the book (supposedly) were. It was dark, brutal, anti-modern – and worse still, its themes were rural:

Ah, you should see Cynddylan on a tractor.
Gone the old look that yoked him to the soil,
He’s a new man now, part of the machine,
His nerves of metal and his blood oil.

Not one of the man’s greatest works, but it was real, and i understood that instinctively. Discussing this post with a friend, i discovered that she too retained vivid memories of encountering the poetry of R.S. Thomas at school. As happened in my case, the poem (“On the Farm”) was in the book they used but was passed over in class:

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

R.S. Thomas remains one of my favourite poets. I love him despite – perhaps because of – his unfriendly character. I feel a certain kinship with him in his frustrated love for Wales and the Welsh language, doomed as it was by idealism and nostalgia. Like him i have always wished i were a native Welsh speaker. Unlike me he at least achieved fluency in the language, but too late in life to achieve the creative freedom in it that is needed to write poetry. And so he was always trapped in English, always an interloper, rather like the clergyman he describes in his verse play “The Minister”. Its Welsh language epigraph describes his life well i think:

Swn y galon fach yn torri
The sound of the little heart breaking

3. Saunders Lewis

I discovered him on the poetry shelf of the public library. Most of the books were reference only, so i used to sit on the carpet and copy out their contents by hand. This was during my seventeenth and eighteenth years. Hours and hours i sat on that damn floor! Where R.S. Thomas was austere, Saunders Lewis was rich and sensual. It came as no surprise to me that learn that he converted to Catholicism. “Mair Fadlen” (“Mary Magdalene”), his poem about the Crucifixion, is the one which i know and love best. The first stanza breaks my heart in its English translation:

About women no one can ever know. There are some, / like this one, whose pain is a locked tomb; their pain is buried inside them, there is no flight / from it nor any giving birth to it. There is no ebb / nor flood to their pain, it is a dead sea without any movement to its depths. Who – is there no one – who will roll the stone away from the tomb for a time?

This is exactly how the stanza was laid out in the book, forward slashes and all. I copied it faithfully, determined not to change a single thing, so overwhelmed was i; yet sadly forgot to note the name of the translator. I was too young then to understand what is involved in translating poetry. The original Welsh, on the other hand, is beyond me (except in its glorious sound!) and probably always will be; but for anyone whose command of the language allows them to appreciate it and because these are Saunders Lewis’ own words:

Am wragedd ni all neb wybod. Y mae rhai,
Fel hon, y mae eu poen yn fedd clo;
Cleddir eu poen ynddynt, nid oes ffo
Rhagddo nac esgor arno. Nid oes drai
Na llanw ar eu poen, môr marw heb
Symud ar ei ddyfinder. Pwy – a oes neb –
A dreigla’r maen oddi ar y bedd dro?

I only discovered later how Saunders Lewis had become tainted by his refusal to support the British war effort during World War 2 and his earlier enthusiasm for the Nazis. Like many nationalists he seems to have subscribed to the notion that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. His nationalism was so tied to yr hen iaith (‘the old language’) that he refused to countenance any space for English to be spoken in the nascent Welsh nationalist party, weakening the movement as a populist force. I have read that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the early 70s. I don’t know if this true, but i do know that when he died in 1985 i had no idea he was even still alive.

4. W.J. Gruffydd

Finally, W.J. Gruffydd, about whom i know nothing. I assume he is the same poet who is known by the bardic name Elerydd, but i can’t be sure. For me he’s a single poem, “In Memoriam”, which i discovered in the same long since forgotten book which also introduced me to Saunders Lewis. Interestingly, this is a poem where the Welsh made more of an impact than the English so i’ll give (the first stanza of) that first and then the English (which i think is very flat in comparison):

Pan glywai Gwen o’r diwedd
Yr Angau du gerllaw
Hi gofiai am goed y Gelli’n
Diferu yn y glaw.

When Gwen heard at last
black death come near
She remembered the trees of the Gelli
dripping in the rain.

For me death is forever associated with the dark, dripping “trees of the Gelli”. And poetry with these four Welsh poets.