Sunday, July 24, 2011

THE POETRY OF SRI AUROBINDO


THE POETRY OF SRI AUROBINDO:
MANTRA, METRICS AND MEANING
BY ROD HEMSELL


In this course, I would like to approach Sri Aurobindo’s poetry from the point of view of
Mantra, Metrics and Meaning, each of which I believe to be unique to Sri Aurobindo. Sri
Aurobindo’s interpretation and application of the principle of Mantra is unique. What
poetry is or should be, for Sri Aurobindo, is a special peculiar intensity of speech. He
identifies it as Mantra, which indicates both a form and a content. But, it is inspirational
and transformational in a way that is not even generally understood by the term mantra.
The term mantra applies to a superhuman inspiration and speech. Sri Aurobindo applies
the term to a kind of poetic creativity that conveys the truth of things, normal human
things, in a different way. He says,
“The Mantra is a direct and most heightened, and intensest, and most divinely burdened
rhythmic word which embodies an intuitive and revelatory inspiration and ensouls the
mind with the sight and presence of the very self, the inmost reality of things.”1
Not gods, not divine planes of consciousness – Things. This is a theory of poetry, he says,
which is very different from any that we now hold. And in fact, he says, no thinking age
has been so far removed from such a view. In The Future Poetry, while he is exploring
different periods and styles, he points out that since the 18th century or so we have lost
the ability to read poetry. We have learned to ‘read’ poetry, but not to read poetry. We
look at the words and the images on the page and we think about what they mean. By
doing that, by generally accepting through the last couple of hundred years that this is
what we are supposed to do, that this is what poetry is, we lose touch with the essence of
poetry. The kind of poetry that Sri Aurobindo bases his theory on is basically classical,
mythical poetry - the poetry of Homer, Vyasa and Valmiki, the poetry of Virgil. And the
subject matter of those poets was heroic, the heroic time when the gods and men
conversed, when the gods were visible, and the poet mediated them. He says, to read
Homer in the original Greek is literally to bring down the gods from Mount Olympus.
The poetry of the Veda is meant to bring down the gods, to reveal them, to allow that
Word to express itself, which reveals that of which it speaks to the hearer. It’s Divine
speech. Sri Aurobindo says, Savitri is the Goddess of illumined speech. He refers to Her
continually in Savitri as the Word, the Rhythm, the Sound, and the Silence. She is the
Word and the Silence. So, that ‘word’ comes from somewhere else, and it comes on a
kind of rhythm, it is carried by a rhythm which you hear and through which you see.
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Sri Aurobindo speaks about this at length in The Future Poetry where he says that this
age is perhaps further than any other from such a view. And then he says, “a greater era
of man’s living seems to be in promise, but first there must intervene a poetry which will
lead him towards it.”2 This is a theory of poetry as revelatory power and guide, a kind of
intercessor whose purpose is to “cleave the darkness, raise the Earth-soul to Light, and
bring down God into the lives of men”.3
The importance that Sri Aurobindo gives to this theory of poetry can be noted in the
archival discovery that he revised 20 chapters of The Future Poetry in 1950. He spent the
years of the 30’s and 40’s writing poetry. The master of the Supramental knowledge
spent those years writing poetry. He worked on the poem Ilion, and in 1942 he published
a book on quantitative metre about the theory of poetry that he was applying at that time
in the major works he was writing. His theory of poetry is written about that writing that
he was doing. He didn’t write the theory of quantitative metre in 1893 when he wrote his
early poems, nor in 1931 when he was writing about the inspiration of poetry from the
Overmind. He wrote about it in 1942. He was undoubtedly then at the very height of his
poetic power and artistry. This is when he enlarged and completed Savitri. This was the
big push when many chapters of Savitri were added, all the rest completed, and the
purpose of it and style of creating it could not have been more present to his
consciousness.
Just the mere fact of the importance that Sri Aurobindo gave to this work, considering
who he was, his mission, is extraordinary, it’s unbelievable in a way. For us, then, to
come to understand this a bit fully and in depth would perhaps be worthwhile: what it is
that Sri Aurobindo thought so important to burn the midnight oil of the last 20 years of
his life, and to say in 1944, that he regretted not having more time for Ilion... It was
apparently disturbing that he didn’t have more time to finish it, and in fact he didn’t
finish it. However, there are a hundred pages of it there, and it is magnificent and
illustrates very well the theory.
So the best way to learn the theory is to read the poetry. There is absolutely no point in
talking about or studying to a great extent the theory alone, but to know generally about it
helps. It helped me to come to terms with this question of the importance of such poetry.
Sri Aurobindo examines the principles of poetic structure that make mantric poetry
possible. He writes about metrics, known in English as prosody. How one scans a line of
poetry, what are the principles in the construction of a line of poetry; besides the
inspiration and descent of force, there is technique. Sri Aurobindo mastered this
technique of English poetry. About Mantra, that additional aspect of the technique, he
mentions “the powerful sweep, the divine rush, or the assured truth of tread of that
greater word music.”4 And here he is also speaking about something he calls the principle
of quantity, quantitative metre, which he said at that time was not a principle that was
applied very consciously in English poetry although it’s always there, it’s present. But in
the classical languages it’s very prevalent. He endeavored to bring out in English this
principle.
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The principle of quantity that he insists upon is based upon the same principle found
prominently in the classical poetry of Greek and Sanskrit. True quantity, he said, “must
be something inherent in the tongue recognizable everywhere in its rhythm. Not an
artifice or convention governing its verse forms but a technique of nature flowing
spontaneously through the very texture of the language as a whole. It is this principle of
rhythm and measure which is somehow synonymous with a free outflow of significant
sound and harmonious word from the depths of the Spirit.”5
Sri Aurobindo defines three fundamental determinants of poetic metre or rhythm: accent,
stress, and quantity. He points out that English poetry is usually constructed on the
principles of accent and stress. So, I will demonstrate, and we will hear again and again,
examples of these principles. Don’t worry about understanding these principles
analytically. They can only be heard. But, after you hear them you can distinguish and
define how they work. He points out that the lack of a certain subtlety and power has
been responsible for the deficit in English poetry of the principle of quantity, - a certain
lack of subtlety and power. What could that possibly be, that degree of subtlety and that
degree of power which would enable the English poet to bring forth this principle of
quantity which is the outflow of the Spirit?
I would suggest it is especially because of a certain extraordinary subtlety and power of
poetic consciousness that Sri Aurobindo was able to discover this secret. His
consciousness, the yogic consciousness, combined with his poetic genius enabled him to
see this, to do this. He said, “It requires a great poetic force which adds the atmosphere of
the unexpressed reality of the thing in itself.”6 Even the thing itself doesn’t express this
degree of its reality, its Truth. Even the person, even the flower, even the sunrise, even
the vast movement of human civilization doesn’t express outwardly the innermost truth
of itself. It labors, it lives, it exists for that purpose. But temporal reality is limited; the
thing itself, the Being of the thing is unlimited, Infinite. Whitehead says in philosophy
that we always move from the finite to the infinite and from the infinite to the finite in
our attempt to allow the truth of things to become self evident and then to express that
truth. We go from the most incremental here and now specificity to the most general ideal
truth. We constantly try to relate them to each other in order to understand what things
really are and not just what they appear to be, because their appearance is not the full
expression of what they are.
Sri Aurobindo says then, - it is the atmosphere of the unexpressed reality of the thing
itself, which it is in the power of rhythm, of word music, as of all music, to create. Here
the poet, as Sri Aurobindo says, is not inventing poetry; the poet is channeling from the
vital plane, from the mental plane, from the higher mind or Overmind, from the psychic
plane; the poet is the channel of the thing itself. In this book, Letters on Poetry, which is
a compilation of his letters, he says “Poetry comes always from some subtle plane
through the creative vital and uses the outer mind and other external instruments for
transmission only. The most genuine and perfect poetry is written when the original
source is able to throw its inspiration, pure and undiminished, into the vital, and there
takes its true native form and power of speech, exactly reproducing the inspiration
without alteration, of what it receives from the godheads of the inner or superior spaces.”7
6
He is speaking about the poetry of the godheads, the principles, the universal truths of
things in their manifestation, so that we can come to know both the limited manifestation
and that divine reality which is trying to express itself in Things. “If the substance,
rhythm, form, words, come down all together ready formed from the plane of poetic
creation, that is the perfect type of inspiration. The Overmind is the ultimate source of
intuition, illumination, or heightened power of the planes immediately below it, - higher
mind, intuitive mind, poetic intelligence - it can lift them up into its own greater intensity
or give out of its intensity to them or touch or combine their powers together with
something of its own greater power. Or, they can receive or draw something from it or
from each other…”8 – that is, the planes of consciousness can do this.
In one of his letters he says that in all of poetry there are only a few lines that have been
touched by the Overmind inspiration directly. He also explains that his endeavor in
writing Savitri was to write from that plane. In response to a critic who was criticizing his
repeated use of so called “highlight words”, he said, “What of one who lives in an
atmosphere full of these highlights, in a consciousness in which the finite, not only the
occult but the earthly finite, is bathed in the sense of the Eternal, the Illimitable infinite,
the immensities or intimacies of the Timeless. A new art of words written from a new
consciousness demands a new technique.”9
In The Future Poetry, Sri Aurobindo is speaking about something which nobody perhaps
understands. I’ve read it many times, and today when I pick it up and read it, I sometimes
don’t know what he is talking about. Sometimes he writes four or five pages with this
power, this incredible, synthetic view, his vision of what poetry is, explaining all of the
planes, the images and what it is doing, and you are used to reading prose, philosophy
and criticism. It’s only when you start reading the pages aloud that you begin to get some
sense of what he is talking about. At least you know he knows what he is talking about.
But, you still don’t get it. I challenge you. Read the last six chapters of The Future Poetry
and tell me what he is talking about. That book, these letters, and the Collected Poems are
on our reading list. We will read from each of them.
(Question) Why don’t we understand Sri Aurobindo’s writings?
If Sri Aurobindo is writing about Overmind inspiration, and he is writing about the kind
of poetry that Overmind inspiration produces, how can we possibly understand that? He
says that this kind of poetry is needed to show us what’s possible in the future evolution,
that the further evolution of consciousness he envisions isn’t going to happen until
something mediates between that plane of consciousness and our ordinary consciousness
and begins to show us the way of seeing of that consciousness, the way of feeling, the
way of being of that consciousness, and then we have an aid, an intercessor, a
paracleitos, in Greek- the divine logos in the form of mantric poetry.
I’ll save the bit on English accent, stress and quantity until next time, and we will go a
little more in depth into that. There are two things, I think, to be realized. One is what
we’ve been talking about: that Sri Aurobindo’s poetry is unique and that the principle and
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power of Mantra is being applied in a way that it was not previously applied. That’s more
about the metrics and the music. The meaning is that the poet is describing the processes
of being and knowing on the planes, the godheads of the planes, the powers of the planes:
the vital as a whole is his territory, the mind as a whole, the intuitive and higher mind as a
whole, are his territory; his consciousness is dwelling on the level of the universal planes.
He is not speaking from mortal experience. Even if he speaks “about” mortal experience,
he is not speaking from the plane of mortal experience.
Another special poetic experiment he conducted at the time he was also writing Ilion and
Savitri is called Ahana. This one is different from the others in that it combines
quantitative hexameter with rhymed couplets. Normally he writes free verse or unrhymed
verse; Ilion is like that. He uses different kinds of rhyme in different poems and in Savitri
it is an extraordinarily subtle and free kind of rhyme or blank verse. In the poem Ahana,
which is especially musical, he uses both quantitative hexameter and rhymed couplets,
which he does not use in Savitri. There he uses pentameter. Hexameter is a very long
line, actually two lines of poetry combined, with a change of metre between the segments
and it requires an extraordinary concentration and power of speech, and balance from line
to line. This is Sri Aurobindo’s poetic art at its absolute height, but he is using it for a
very light melodic purpose here. The meaning as always in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry is that
he is performing the Vedic sacrifice, aspiring to the plane of the gods, communicating
with the gods, and allowing the gods to respond through him. That is the meaning of all
his poems.
His little introductory statement says, “Ahana, the dawn of God, descends on the world,
where amid the strife and trouble of mortality, the hunters of joy, the seekers after
knowledge, the climbers in the quest of power are toiling up the slopes or waiting in the
valleys. As she stands on the mountains of the east, voices of the hunters of joy are the
first to greet her.”10 Sri Aurobindo is identifying himself here with a type of humanity
that we would probably learn about only in the classics: the hunters of joy, those for
whom the delight of life is paramount. Should we dare such a thing? These ascetic and
serious souls striving for transformation, should we dare such a thing? Sri Aurobindo
seems to think it has some importance.
“Vision delightful alone on the hills whom the silences cover,
Closer yet lean to mortality; human stoop to thy lover.
Wonderful, gold like a moon in the square of the sun where thou strayest
Glimmers thy face amid crystal purities; mighty thou playest
Sole on the peaks of the world, unafraid of thy loneliness. Glances
Leap down from thee to us, dream-seas and light-falls and magical trances;
Sun-drops flake from thy eyes and the heart’s caverns packed are with pleasure
Strange like a song without words or the dance of a measureless measure.
Tread through the edges of dawn, over twilight’s grey-lidded margin;
Heal earth’s unease with thy feet, O heaven born delicate virgin.
Children of Time whose spirits came down from eternity, seizing
Joys that escape us, yoked by our hearts to a labour unceasing,
Earth-bound, torn with our longings, our life is a brief incompleteness.
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Thou hast the stars to sport with, the winds run like bees to thy sweetness.
Art thou not heaven-bound even as I with the earth? Hast thou ended
All desirable things in a stillness lone and unfriended?
Only is calm so sweet? Is our close tranquility only?
Cold are the rivers of peace and their banks are leafless and lonely.
Heavy is godhead to bear with its mighty sun burden of luster.
Art thou not weary of only the stars in their solemn muster?
Sky-hung the chill bare plateaus and peaks where the eagle rejoices
In the inhuman height of his nesting, solitudes voices
Making the heart of the silences lonelier? Strong and untiring,
Death with the cry of the waterfall, lonely the pine lives aspiring.
Two are the ends of existence, two are the dreams of the Mother:
Heaven unchanging, earth with her time-beats, yearn to each other –
Earth-souls needing the touch of the heavens peace to recapture,
Heaven needing earth’s passion to quiver its peace into rapture.
Marry O lightning eternal, the passion of a moment-born fire!
Out of thy greatness draw close to the breast of our mortal desire!
Is he thy master, Rudra the mighty, Shiva ascetic?
Has he denied thee his world? In his dance that they tell of, ecstatic,
Slaying, creating, calm in the midst of the movement and madness,
Stole there no rhythm of an earthly joy and a mortal sadness?
Wast thou not made in the shape of a woman? Sweetness and beauty
Move like a song of the gods in thy limbs and to love is thy duty
Graved in thy heart as on tablets of fate; joy's delicate blossom
Sleeps in thy lids of delight; all Nature hides in thy bosom
Claiming her children unborn and the food of her love and her laughter.
Is he the first? Was there none then before him? Shall none come after?
He who denies and his blows beat down on our hearts like a hammer's,
He whose calm is the silent reply to our passion and clamours!
Is not there deity greater here new-born in a noble
Labour and sorrow and struggle than stilled in to rapture immobile?
Earth has beatitudes warmer then heaven’s that are bare and undying,
Marvels of Time on the crest of the moments to Infinity flying.
Earth has her godheads; the Tritons sway on the toss of the billows,
Emerald locks of the Nereids stream on their foam-crested pillows, -
Dryads peer out from the branches, Naiads glance up from the waters;
High are her flame-points of joy and the gods are ensnared by her daughters.”11
This poem is about twenty-five minutes long, altogether, and it ends with an absolutely
ecstatic triumphant joy. Another principle of mantric poetry as Sri Aurobindo applies it,
is that its rhythms gradually bring you up to that level of inspiration where you see those
qualities of beauty and joy and they begin to flow like honey in the atmosphere. This is
Sri Aurobindo’s poetry. In the next lecture we shall look closely at his theory of
quantitative metre and begin to explore how it works. For this we will concentrate on
some of the shorter poems. Then, to explore more deeply both the music and the meaning
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of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry we will dwell for sometime on Savitri. And at the end we will
return to the epic hexametres of Ilion.
Savitri Bhavan
17/09/2008
Notes
1. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry (1997 ed.), p. 218
2. Ibid. p. 219
3. Sri Aurobindo, Savitri (1993 ed.), pp. 172 and 699
4. Op. cit., p. 322
5. Ibid. p. 321
6. Ibid. p. 327
7. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry (1972), p. 5
8. Ibid. p. 7
9. Ibid. p. 81
10. Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems (1972), p. 523


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