Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali polymath, best known as a poet. Born in Calcutta – then part of the Bengal Presidency, and the capital city of British India – Rabindranath was the youngest child of Debendranath Tagore, the first leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a religious and social reform movement prominent in the development of the Bengal Renaissance.
The Brahmo Samaj was a coming together of the Brahmo Sabha, founded in 1828 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy; and Debendranath’s Tattwabodhini Sabha, a related movement which he founded in 1839. Both Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore sought to reform Hindu religion, culture and society along humanist lines, based upon a clear conception of the Upanishads, the philosophical texts which comprise the closing texts of the Vedas. When Ram Mohan Roy died in 1833, the Brahmo Sabha declined as a force; and the movement merged with the Tattwabodhini Sabha to become the Brahmo Samaj, under Debendranath, in 1843.
The Bengal Renaissance which Ram Mohan Roy fathered, and to which Debendranath and the Brahmo Samaj were central, essentially entwined the teachings of the Upanishads with the political and cultural influences of the European West. In this it served to shape modern Indian society. Rabindranath – himself often considered a later character of the Bengal Renaissance – was brought up in the conflux of these religious and secular, these spiritual, philosophical, cultural and political rivers.
Many of his seven brothers and four sisters became notable figures in the arts and sciences. Rabindranath eschewed formal schooling in his youth, preferring to learn and to discover in his own way, from the expanse of resources located at the family’s Jorasanko mansion. At sixteen, he published his first collection of poetry under the pseudonym Bhanusimha (‘Sun Lion’). It was well received – taken as a lost seventeenth century classic – and he would continue to write poetry throughout his life; completed eighty-four short stories, four novellas and eight novels; several pieces for the theatre; over two-thousand musical compositions, many drawing their lyrics from his literary works; and took up painting later on in life, at the age of sixty.
Rabindranath’s artistic reputation across the Indian subcontinent is unsurpassed. Two of his compositions, Jana Gana Mana and Amar Shonar Bangla, serve as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh respectively. In the West, he is best known for his Gitanjali (‘Song Offerings’). This collection of 157 poems was originally published in Bengali on 14 August, 1910. Over the following two years, Rabindranath set about translating fifty of these poems, plus other pieces, into English, into free verse. Travelling to England in the summer of 1912, and staying with the artist William Rothenstein, Rabindranath’s translations were passed about literary circles and led to the publication of the Gitanjali in English in November of the same year. The English Gitanjali were readily and widely acclaimed.
They came accompanied by an introduction by W. B. Yeats. Yeats compares Tagore to St. Francis and William Blake; and writes that the poems ‘have stirred my blood as nothing has for years’, and that,
‘I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.’
Yeats met Rabindranath for the first time on 27 June, 1912; the two remained friends until Yeats’ death in 1939. Their friendship has been described as an important influence on both: ‘To Yeats, Tagore represented the wisdom and dignity of the East, and justified the faith that he had placed in the strength and vitality of Asian philosophy. For Tagore, Yeats was a vibrant symbol of the creative energy of the West’.
Owing much to the reception of the English Gitanjali, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 – becoming the first non-European to receive the award. He was knighted by George V in 1915, but repudiated the honour after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. Rabindranath’s poetry would go on to be translated across Europe, notably by André Gide into French (Gide and Tagore met in Paris in 1921, and shared correspondence in 1930), and by Anna Akhmatova into Russian.
A number of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems as translated in the Gitanjali share similarities with some of the works of E. E. Cummings: both poets made use of free verse forms, a gently rhythmic syntax, and formal and archaic phrases and pronouns. A point of comparison and an additional point of connection may be found through the music of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (the pseudonym of Will Oldham) and Björk.
In 2000, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy collaborated on an EP with Marquis de Tren – a name used by the Australian musician and artist Mick Turner. The EP, Get on Jolly, includes a song entitled ‘2/15’, whose lyrics are drawn from the second and fifteenth songs of Tagore’s translated Gitanjali. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy performed ‘2/15’ live during a 2003 performance in Coney Island (as part of a festival at which Björk also appeared); the performance segued into ‘New Partner’ from Viva Last Blues, and was captured on video by the filmmaker Lance Bangs.
When thou commandest me to sing it seems that my heart would break with pride; and I look to thy face, and tears come to my eyes.
All that is harsh and dissonant in my life melts into one sweet harmony – and my adoration spreads wings like a glad bird on its flight across the sea.
I know thou takest pleasure in my singing. I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.
I touch by the edge of the far-spreading wing of my song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach.
Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call thee friend who art my lord.
I am here to sing thee songs. In this hall of thine I have a corner seat.
In thy world I have no work to do; my useless life can only break out in tunes without a purpose.
When the hour strikes for thy silent worship at the dark temple of midnight, command me, my master, to stand before thee to sing.
When in the morning air the golden harp is tuned, honour me, commanding my presence.
Bonnie Prince Billy – ‘2/15’ / ‘New Partner’
Björk has adapted three poems by E. E. Cummings to music. Questioned by Interview Magazine in 2004, at the time of Medúlla, Björk considered her relationship with Cummings, whose poetry she first became familiar with five years previously. She recalls immediately wanting to sing his words; evokes his poetry as ‘euphoric, but humble at the same time’; and notes that ‘It goes so well in the mouth!’.
Björk’s first adaptation of Cummings came in 2001, on Vespertine. The album includes the song ‘Sun in My Mouth’, with lyrics from Cummings’ 1923 poem, ‘I Will Wade Out’. ‘Hidden Place’ was Vespertine‘s first single; ‘Mother Heroic’, featuring an excerpt from Cummings’ ‘Belgium’, appeared on the second of the singles’ two discs. Then on Medúlla, her subsequent solo album, released in 2004, the tenth song, ‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI’, is an adaptation of Cummings’ poem of the same name.
‘I Will Wade Out’ (1923)
i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon
Oh thou that liftest up thy hands in prayer,
Robed in the sudden ruin of glad homes,
And trampled fields which from green dreaming woke
To bring forth ruin and fruit of death,
Thou pitiful, we turn our hearts to thee.
Oh thou that mournest thy heroic dead
Fallen in youth and promise gloriously,
In the deep meadows of their motherland
Turning the silver blossoms into gold,
The valor of thy children comfort thee.
Oh thou that bowest thy ecstatic face,
Thy perfect sorrows are the world’s to keep!
Wherefore unto thy knees come we with prayer,
Mother heroic, mother glorious,
Beholding in thy eyes immortal tears.
‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI’ (1917)
It may not always be so; and I say
That if your lips, which I have loved, should touch
Another’s, and your dear strong fingers clutch
His heart, as mine in time not far away;
If on another’s face your sweet hair lay
In such a silence as I know, or such
Great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,
Stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;
If this should be, I say if this should be —
You of my heart, send me a little word;
That I may go to him, and take his hands,
Saying, Accept all happiness from me.
Then I shall turn my face, and hear one bird
Sing terribly afar in the lost lands.
Björk – ‘Sun in My Mouth’
Björk – ‘Mother Heroic’
Björk – ‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI’
Björk and Oldham have worked together on several occasions and are linked in a number of ways. Valgeir Sigurðsson, who produced both Vespertine and Medúlla, also produced Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s 2006 album, The Letting Go. A year later, Oldham covered ‘I’ve Seen It All’ – from the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark – on Ask Forgiveness, an EP comprising a collection of covers. More closely, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy toured with Björk in 2003. With Björk working around the same period on the soundtrack to her partner Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, Oldham sang on the first track, ‘Gratitude’: a setting to music of a letter from a Japanese fisherman to American General Douglas MacArthur.
‘Gratitude’, from Drawing Restraint 9
Björk’s interview with Interview Magazine, 2004: http://www.bjork.fr/Interview-Magazine-2004
Cummings, E.E. Complete Poems, 1904-1962 (Liveright, 1994)
Hurwitz, H. M. ‘Yeats and Tagore’ Comparative Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter (1964) pp. 55-64
Tagore, R. Gitanjali (1912) (A full flash version of which may be accessed here)
Tagore, R. Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore eds. Dutta, K. & Robinson, A. (Cambridge University Press, 1997)