“I was a poet and a politician, not a philosopher!” Sri Aurobindo said. (Sri Aurobindo to Dilip. Ed. Sujata Nahar and Shankar Bandopadhyay. Pune and Mysore; SariKrishna Mandir Trust and Mira Aditi. V-2.p.100)
Whereas the poet claims himself to be a poet contributing so much in poetry, above 50000 lines, experimenting in various metres including those of the other languages like Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, brought into English language, introducing mantra of the Vedic and Sanskrit into English, breathing a new life into it which prompted a critic like Ann Margaret Robinson (Shraddhavan) to hail him as “A supreme master of English poetic expression and the greatest innovator in this language since Shakespeare” (Shraddhavan (Ann Margaret Robinson). Sri Aurobindo and the Modern Poetic Milieu. Mother India. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo ashram. October 1990 issue)
There are poets and critics who have denied his right to be called a poet: “I do not see Sri Aurobindo as a poet at all”, said Kathleen Raine. (Shraddhavan)
Whereas Ronald Nixon (Krishna Prem) wrote about Savitri, “It is an omen of utmost significance and hope that in these years of darkness and despair such a poem as Savitri should have appeared. Let us salute the dawn.” (A. B.Purani. Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri- An Approach and a Study. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Society. Introduction) An American journalist wrote, “Sri Aurobindo is also engaged upon one of the longest and worst epic poems of all time called ‘Savitri’ ”. (Purani)
Not only the Western critics took an adverse view of Sri Aurobindo’s poetic works, some Indian poets and critics like P. Lal and Nissim Ezekiel, following their trail, criticised and disapproved of his creations. One of Sri Aurobindo’s followers, poet and critic, K. D. Sethna, amply replied them. His dialogues with Kathleen Raine have been published as a book.
The Dr. P Lal episode is pretty interesting and needs a mention. At the mature age he was confronted by Dr. Sisir Kumar Ghose, professor of Viswabharati University at Shantiniketan. Dr. Sisir Ghose, an essayist, critic and writer, did not challenge him but maintained a good relationship with Lal. Lal wrote a piece commending Sisir Ghose on 2 May 1991 as a memoir after his passing:
“The trouble with Sisir-da was that he won you over with love. In 1965 I was the self-appointed enfant terrible, the very vocal critic of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry. He was a devotee of the Sage of Pondicherry. Instead of picking holes in my charge against his guru- and holes there were many; I was young and intemperate- . . . . I’m sure he knew I’d ultimately give in. And indeed, he had the last laugh. Ten years later I wrote an appreciation of Sri Aurobindo, confessing my sins and acknowledging him as a Titan of Indo-Anglia.” (6 P.Lal. Sisir-Da. Sandhitsa. Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata. August 202 issue)
This was P. Lal who understood and duly corrected his position vis-à-vis Sri Aurobindo. We can understand him better in contrast to another Indian poet, Keki N Daruwalla, who remarked, en passant, while writing a memoir on Professor P. Lal commending him, “He was a fine critic and I specially liked his trenchant criticism of Aurobindo’s terribly inflated verse (I will need a gunman to protect me if I ever enter Pondicherry again)” (Keki N Daruwalla. A Passion for Verse. The Hindu, Chennai; 5.12.2010)
Humour apart, it is true that an intellectual jugglery to realize Sri Aurobindo’s mystic poetry would result in its inflated appearance.
Ann Margaret Robinson in the same article wrote some plausible causes of such adverse criticism, “The scientific world view and the grim realities of the 20th century have led poets to seek for an austerer use of language, and for themes and images rooted firmly in the physical world- and that perhaps in its greyer and grimmer aspects. Sri Aurobindo’s vision and language tower so immensely beyond everything that has gained recognition as poetry in the present century- perhaps particularly in Britain . . . that for most of those who live and breathe in that tiny air, he is simply out of sight.”
And “In India there is a tradition that the kavi sees- and not just a little behind the veil, but into the very heart of things; and by embodying what he sees in inspired, truth-revealing speech, he brings closer to material manifestation the hidden verities that lie potential and preparing there, the true creativity. Of course in England there is no such tradition, no such intuition even.” (Shraddhavan)
Here we may compare what Sri Aurobindo said about Savitri which is relevant in respect of his many other poems, particularly those which are symbolic and mystic poems and find the truth of Ann Margaret’s statement:
“What I am trying to do everywhere in the poem is to express exactly something seen, something felt or experienced” and “You must not expect appreciation or understanding from the general public or even from many at the first touch; as I have pointed out, there must be a new extension of consciousness and aesthesis to appreciate a new kind of mystic poetry.” (Sri Aurobindo. On Himself. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. 1970. Vol-26. pp. 249)
Another relevant observation by Ronald Nixon may be cited- “The English language has been given to the world and its usages and limits can now no longer be determined exclusively by the ears of the Islanders whose tongue it originally was.” (Purani)
James Cousin in his ‘New Ways in English Literature’ (pp.27-31) took up Sri Aurobindo’s Ahana and other Poems for discussion. Cousins’ criticism was mentioned in ‘On Himself’ by Sri Aurobindo and also referred to by Peter Heehs in his ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’.
Admitting the high thinking quality of his poetry, Cousins hinted at him as philosopher-poet rather than poet-philosopher though he admitted that “The poet’s eyes perpetually go behind the thing visible to the thing essential, so that symbol and significance are always in a state of interfusion”. Admitting the authenticity and beauty of his poetry, Cousins said that at its worst it was “Poor minted coin of the brain.”
Sri Aurobindo took note of them. Regarding Cousins’ ignoring the poem, The Rishi, he opined that had Milton written his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained in Cousins’ time instead of having an established reputation for centuries, Cousins would have commented, “This is not poetry, this is theology”. (Sri Aurobindo. V- 26. p.277)
Sir Herbert Read graciously received Sri Aurobindo’s poetry from A. B. Purani and wrote to him on 1 March 1957, “‘Savitri’ is undoubtedly one of the world’s great poems and now that I possess it I look forward with great pleasure to making myself familiar with its message.” (Letters from Aldous Huxley and Herbert Read On Sri Aurobindo. Mother India. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. August 1987)
He wrote to him in another letter on 5 June 1958, “Poems like Savitri and Illion must wait for the return of an age of serenity, and meanwhile will only find a few readers who are capable of abstracting themselves from the confused anxieties of modern
civilization.” (Huxley. Mother India)
Apart from these usual criticism of poetic works by a poet writing in English from India whose works were highly esteemed by many critics and scholars, specially from India, his life and works has recently been criticised not in a book of criticism but a biography that throws not light but darkness on his image, not by proper justification but by ill motive. Though it can hardly do so, its designs are open to verification. It has been opined by critics in the blurb of his book, (‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’. Peter Heehs.New York; Columbia University Press. USA. 2008) that all previous biographical works on Sri Aurobindo were hagiographies, sometimes tainted by piety and Hindutva apologetics, that this is the only authentic biography of Sri Aurobindo presented to the world. It is claimed that the writer was in a privileged position to have full access to all primary sources of Sri Aurobindo’s life and works. Really, many did not get the opportunity as he, though he was no direct disciple of the master. We have not heard that he was ever close to the Mother either. All references to this work are given in brackets with respective page numbers, hence no separate footnotes or reference items at the end are given.
One striking note from the beginning that has drawn our attention is that though the title of the book mentions his name as Sri Aurobindo, written long after he left the earth, everywhere else in the book he is mentioned as Aurobindo whereas Mother (Mirra Alfassa), the spiritual collaborator of the master, wished that he should always be mentioned as Sri Aurobindo, Sri being an integral part of his name, as Sri Aurobindo wrote in the later part of his life.
Only 10 pages (pp.298 to 307) of the book, containing 496 pages, besides the title and introductory pages, in the chapter titled ‘Poetry of the Past and Future’ comes here for discussion as it is on Sri Aurobindo’s poetry. In only 10 pages we get so many intriguing things that it casts a doubt as to how many such gems are scattered in almost all the other pages of the book to so greatly represent Sri Aurobindo before the enthusiastic public.
Sri Aurobindo wrote some dramas in verse with characters, mythical and historical, belonging to different countries. The biographer writes, “In most of his earlier plays, the main characters are handsome princes and beautiful, resourceful princesses who have become enslaved. In Vasavadutta, the situation is reversed. . . . From a literary point of view, Aurobindo’s plays are the least interesting of his works. Biographically speaking, they may offer insights into movements in his imaginative life. If his earlier plays suggest that he was searching for his ideal life partner, Vasavadutta seems to hint that he had found the woman he was seeking and was waiting for the moment when she would join him.” (Lives. pp. 298-99)
Situation was reversed in the sense that in Vasavadutta Vuthsa, the young king of Cowsambie, was captured to become a slave to Vasavadutta, the daughter of Chunda Mahasegn, the king of Avunthie. He fell in love with her and eventually the two were married and ruled the country. Sri Aurobindo married Mrinalini Bose, a handsome young lady of Calcutta but lived very few days with her. He never became a family man in the usual sense of the term. The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, first came with her husband, Paul Richard, and met Sri Aurobindo on 14 March 1914 and on 22 February the next year they had to leave Pondicherry due to immense political pressure by the British on the French Government, as they associated with Sri Aurobindo or the revolutionary Aurobindo Ghose of former time. Vasavadutta was written in October 1915. The Richards could come back to Pondicherry only in April 1920. The world knows about the spiritual relationship of the Mother, addressed as such by Sri Aurobindo himself first, with the Yogi. She was a Yogini, a spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo. She was the first woman to have joined him and a few disciples of him who lived with him. Sri Aurobindo went into seclusion for 24 years from 1926 up to the last days of his life, living almost alone, seeking the Supramental and doing sadhana for that. After he fell down breaking his knee in 1939, some doctors and few others were allowed to visit him. Could an ordinary biographer delve so deep into the imaginative life of a yogi like Sri Aurobindo and that too through his dramas, to come to a conclusion that he was seeking a woman through them? For obvious reasons the insinuations in the above quoted lines seem to be indecent and sheer nonsense, if not worse. One may ask him to prove what he has written.
About Savitri it is said that the poem in its earlier form was written as a narrative of 2000 lines in Victorian model as Love and Death. It is well known that Sri Aurobindo revised Savitri many times to suit the ever higher level of his consciousness as he worked with it for more than 50 years. “Savitri is a work by itself unlike all the others. I made some eight or ten recasts of it originally under the old insufficient inspiration. Afterwards I am altogether rewriting it, concentrating on the first book and working on it over and over again with the hope that every line may be of a perfect perfection- but I have hardly any time now for such work.” He wrote in a letter in1934. (Savitri. V-29. p.728)
When we quote some lines of a poem to give some idea to the reader of its quality or even the absence of it, it is from the final approved portion of the poem for even an ordinary poet may change his poem many times till he lives. But the present biographer has preferred to quote four lines from the epic as it was in its draft stage at some time, as he was in possession of his papers. He writes the source-“First draft of Savitri, Sri Aurobindo Papers, NB G35, 113-114, in SAAA (Lives. p.450).” It is like this-
“Because thou hast rejected my fair calm/ I hold thee without refuge from my will; / And lay upon thy neck my mighty yoke. / Now will I do by thee my glorious works . . . . / For ever love, O beautiful slave of God.” (Lives. P.300)
It is said that the Yama, the Lord of Death, said this to Savitri towards the end of the poem. But after all transactions with the Yama had ended, we find two more books in the epic. Let us see what actually happened to yama in the finished form of the poem:
At last he knew defeat inevitable
And left crumbling the shape that he had worn,
Abandoning hope to make man’s soul his prey
And force to be mortal the immortal spirit. (Savitri. P.667)
Let the readers judge which four lines represent the position better as a victory of Man over Death, as is the theme of the poem.
The biographer writes, “In Baroda poetry was his religion, a cult in which he worshipped and tried to emulate the finest minds of the past.” The biographer has mentioned the short book of poems ‘Ahana and Other Poems’, written in Baroda,Calcutta and Pondicherry which was brought out in 1915. The biographer dismisses the poems in this volume with these words, “All of the pieces in the collection, even those written in Pondicherry, bear the stamp of late Victorian romanticism. The ideas in them may not have occurred to a Tennyson or Swinburne, but striking ideas in metrical form do not of themselves make poetry.” (Lives. pp.301-302).
To prove his point that Sri Aurobindo was no worthy poet, he peeps into the other areas of his work. He says that Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s first volume of poetry was praised by Sri Aurobindo in his Arya. To show the insignificance of Chattopadhyay’s poem he cites four lines from his poem published in the first issue of ‘Shama’a’ , a magazine of repute of the time: “For He shall find our very eyes/ Turned into skies/ And know our human bodies hide/ Fine Gods inside.”
Citing this the biographer hastened to add, “It is no surprise that the author of Ahana and Other Poems found something to enjoy in such verse. (Aurobindo was honest enough to acknowledge that ‘a poet likes only the poetry that appeals to his own temperament or taste, the rest he condemns or ignores.’) But Chattopadhyay never got beyond his rather insipid beginnings, and his work is now unknown even in India.” (Lives. pp.306-07)
In this connection we write to inform that a new book has appeared late in 2009, written by Sarani Ghosal (Mondal), published by Subarnarekha, Kolkata, titled, ‘Various Voices: Indian Writing in English’, in which a chapter is titled- ‘Harindranath Chattopadhyaya: The Poetry of Yearning and Aspiration.’ Harindranath was awarded for his poetry in India during his life time.
The reader can easily discern the derogatory tone of the scientific biography to belittle its subject. It is perhaps the anti-hagiographic posture of an objective biographer. For better understanding of the situation I quote the relevant portion of the letter written by Sri Aurobindo, as if by way of talking, putting forth his ideas in respect of his disciple’s enthusiasm about the prospect of his famous narrative poem, Love and Death, being sent to England.
“If you send your poems to five different poets, you are likely to get five absolutely disperate and discordant estimates of them. A poet likes only the poetry that appeals to his own temperament or taste, the rest he condemns or ignores. Contemporary poetry, besides, seldom gets its right judgement from contemporary critics . . . . I know the limitations of the poem and its qualities and I know that the part about the descent into Hell can stand comparison with some of the best English poetry; but I don’t expect any contemporaries to see it.” (Sri Aurobindo. On Himself. Pondicherry; SABCL. Vol-26. p.273)
Besides the Harindranath episode, the biographer refers to another issue of a greater import as it appeared in the same issue of ‘Shama’a’: “Ironically, another item in the first issue of Shama’a was a manifesto of the poetry that would dominate the twentieth century, and Aurobindo ignored it completely. The piece was a lecture by the then little-known T.S.Eliot, in which he introduced many of the ideas that he would develop in later essays . . . . it offers a radically different view of the future of poetry than the one that Aurobindo was developing. Perhaps for that reason, he declined to engage with it.” (Lives. p.307)
That Sri Aurobindo was not averse to Eliot’s poetry we know through the witness of Nirodbaran, who in his ‘Twelve years with Sri Aurobindo’ stated that the poet used to get modern books of poems from Madras and after hearing a poem by T. S. Eliot he appreciated it.
Before coming to the radically different position of modern poetry and its dominance throughout the twentieth century, we may talk a little about the two poets. Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 and Sri Aurobindo in 1872. Eliot was surely carrying a different conviction about poetry than Sri Aurobindo. But both had deep rooted religious faith; Eliot’s in Christianity and Sri Aurobindo’s in the ancient religion of India which had undergone changes later as his aim through yoga became going beyond any religion, into the spiritual world: “On the white summits of eternity” of Shiva, where joins “The Mighty Mother’s dumb felicity” as to complete it, “The Spirit leaps into the Spirit’s embrace.” (“Shiva”, a sonnet by Sri Aurobindo)
Both the poets used myth and religion to create their world of poetry. Both were extra ordinary poets. While T. S. Eliot, in spite of his achievements, knowledge and life’s spiritual urge was a poet only, Sri Aurobindo was a yogi and a great philosopher of ‘Life Divine’ with all hope for man’s spiritual fulfillment of life in future. Both of them were present during the first and the second world Wars and wrote. But the range of consciousness in which they lived was different. “Standing in the fragmented civilization of the West, Eliot could only produce a series of broken images. He could only reflect the reality around and not posit the ideal as a full-fledged image.”- Wrote Prema Nandakumar. (Prema Nandakumar. Sri Aurobindo and T. S. Eliot: Poetry as Prayerful Hope. Pondichery; Sri Aurobindo’s Action. June 1989)
Eliot was furious in his thought and in spite of his beliefs the happenings during the war years made him hopeless sometimes and pessimistic too.
Ash on an old man’s sleeve
In all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death, of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.
(Four Quartets-Little Gidding-2. The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. England. 1970. p.106)
Let us see lines from two different parts of his famous ‘The Waste Land’ -
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeny to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
(The Fire Sermon. The Waste Land. Oxford University Press. Chennai. 1999. p.80))
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
(Death by Water. The Waste Land. p.85)
Living and writing at the same time as Eliot, Sri Aurobindo wrote about the dreadful march of Hitler, addressed him in his poems like “The Dwarf Napoleon” or “The Children of Wotan”, wrote satirical poems about the claim of science-“A Dream of Surreal Science” or about the idea of Self of a puny man in “Self”, but he wrote large numbers of sonnets out of spiritual experience and mystic poems too which are of greater importance. He wrote the spiritual epic, Savitri.
In ‘Life-Unity’ he writes,
A deep spiritual calm no touch can sway
Upholds the mystery of this Passion-play.
Or in “Bliss of Identity” he writes-
The spirit’s infinite breath I feel in me;
My life is a throb of Thy eternity.
(Sri Aurobindo. Collected Poems. Vol-5. p.135)
The biographer’s last word about the poetry of Sri Aurobindo was like this-
“As the Modernist movement progressed, Aurobindo became out of touch with contemporary developments in poetry. As a result his poetry and criticism must now be judged by the standards of the past, or else taken – so far with little support- as harbingers of a future yet to be glimpsed.” (Lives. p.307)
Regarding Sri Aurobindo’s theory and theme of poetry, its past history and future shape, written under the title, ‘The Future Poetry’, a voluminous book of some 560 pages, the biographer passed his judgment in about six pages of his book. He said that Sri Aurobindo could not surpass Matthew Arnold’s formula when he defined poetry to his students at Baroda. He did not quote a passage from ‘The Future Poetry’ to prove his comment but from the poet’s ‘Early Cultural Writings’ as again, he was in possession of them all, to use to his purpose. Can what he taught to his students in the class be considered for a judgement on his poetic theory if he changed his position later and wrote such a great book as ‘The Future Poetry’, initiating Mantra as a life breath of pure poetry?
And the biographer’s final judgment about ‘The Future Poetry’ is:
“By 1920 the Modernists were changing the face of European and American literature, and many of the ideas on which ‘The Future Poetry’ was based had become antiquated curiosities before any important poet or critic could read the book. Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print.” (Lives. p.306)
It is known that Sri Aurobindo was acquainted with the then moderns through their latest books of poems brought from Madras. About the proposal to publish his ‘Love and Death’ in England Sri Aurobindo said, inter alia, that “I fear it would be, if not altogether ignored which is most likely, regarded as a feeble and belated Indian imitation of an exploded literary model dead and buried long ago. I don’t regard it in that light myself, but it is not my opinion that counts for success, but that of the modern high-brows. . . . I know there are many people still in England . . . who would read it with enthusiasm . . . .” (Sri Aurobinod to Dilip. p.148)
‘Songs to Myrtilla’ was his first book of poems published for private circulation.
The biographer mentioned a few of his early books of poems like ‘Ahana and Other Poems’ and ‘Love and Death’ after Songs to Myrtilla, but none of the poet’s greater achievements, none of his mystic poems. And how Savitri is quoted is given above. From the above few examples the biographer’s intention to gain greater recognition for Sri Aurobindo in the world (why only in the West?) is amply clear. He seems not to be a poet or a renowned critic of poetry but a biographer only or may we categorise his work as bad-biography as they categorise others’ works as hagiographies?
While Sri Aurobindo himself saw and acknowledged many others’ genuine criticisms in a proper light, like that James Cousins’, it is a pity that such a great work he is not there to see.
Long before the article written by Shraddhavan (Robinson) referred earlier, Dr. Sisir Kumar Ghose wrote,
“As Sri Aurobindo has suggested, ancient India was created by the Vedas and Upanishads. Sri Aurobindo the poet belongs to that family. Among those that know he has been hailed as the maker of a new age, a civilization of consciousness, the promise of a new race.” (Dr. Sisir Kumar Ghose. Indian Literature. New Delhi. June 1972. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Number. P.46)
Sri Aurobindo was poet of a particular period, no doubt, but many of his poetic creations surpassed his time and may be considered as classic for all time to come, as the poems of some other great poets. And perhaps Savitri has to wait further for its full appreciation by future generations.
Now let us take the opinion of one of the present age senior British poets, Bernard M Jackson, who in a recent article is all praise for small press publications which is also called Little Magazines, not only in England but in India too. Among other things he has written,
“When we speak of English poetry, I suppose it would be only natural for those living abroad to summon up thoughts of William Wordsworth’s frequently quoted verse, or perhaps one might address one’s ideas to recall of some of William Shakespeare’s better known sonnets. Perhaps, too, the names and poetry of John Keats, Percy Byshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning may equally spring to mind. However, what can nowadays be seen to be abundantly clear is the curious fact that we in the U. K. no longer have poets of that same high stature as those aforementioned giants of yesteryears’ poetry world.” (Bernard M Jackson. ‘Within the Heartland of Contemporary British Poetry- the half hidden world of Small Press Publication’. Poetcrit. Maranda, H.P., India. July 2008)
He has discussed different phases of poetry movement in Britain and opined that by the sixties of the twentieth century “Standard poetry was on a noticeable decline . . . .” (Jackson)
So even after the “Modernist movement progressed” and “Modernists were changing the face of European and American literature”, as realised by our biographer-historian, we may say that the face has not actually changed much. Literary movements come and go but the real creations with their authors remain. Sri Aurobindo has remained and we believe that he will remain.
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2011