Tagore's dark abyss

Publié le 30 Mars 2015

Tagore's dark abyss

In the morning I cast my net into the sea.
I dragged up from the dark abyss things of strange aspect and strange beauty—some shone like a smile, some glistened like tears, and some were flushed like the cheeks of a bride.
When with the day's burden I went home, my love was sitting in the garden idly tearing the leaves of a flower.
I hesitated for a moment, and then placed at her feet all that I had dragged up, and stood silent.
She glanced at them and said, "What strange things are these? I know not of what use they are!"
I bowed my head in shame and thought, "I have not fought for these, I did not buy them in the market; they are not fit gifts for her."
Then the whole night through I flung them one by one into the street.
In the morning travellers came; they picked
them up and carried them into far countries.

This is poem n°3 from Tagore's collection The Gardener, published in 1903. I have chosen it because it seems to encapsulate much of the unassuming magic which readers admit radiates from from his poetry, without being always able to say why.

We are "in the morning", that is, at the beginning of a cycle. The preceding poem was set in the evening and evoked the poet's mission, which was not to "brood over the afterlife", but to live with the living and be their prophet. Interesting, because, according to Tagore, a poet's mission shouldn't be to open his inner ears to whatever intimations might come from God and the realm beyond (and therefore perhaps prepare himself to depart this life), but to remain attentive to this world and the needs and aspirations of men close to him.

So now it's the morning and the poet has wasted no time: his net is already full of the "dark abyss things" which it has lifted from the sea. What things could they be? Thanks to the description, one can imagine : pearly shells, rare fish, coral, jetsam, whatever comes out from the sea and, having stayed there, "suffers a sea-change into something rich and strange" (The Tempest, I,2). He then winds his way home, and, after a moment's hesitation (perhaps he is wondering whether he might have gift-wrapped them, or made an appropriate selection?), puts the strange sea-things in front of his loved-one, who is idly tearing petals from a flower. Is she shown doing this because she is ostentatiously checking her lover's attention to her? Anyway, she doesn't welcome his gift with a very warm appreciation: "What strange things are these? I don't know what use they might be". Note she's expressing herself in utilitarian terms.

Then comes the poet/fisherman's reaction. He realizes the gifts aren't adapted to her, because they come neither from the battlefield (which would justify his absence?), nor from the market, whence perhaps she was expecting some finery? He's ashamed not to have taken her real needs into consideration, and brought her objects which he probably knew she wouldn't like, and this explains why he had hesitated at first. So what is left for him to do? Get rid of the wretched things, which alienate him from his beloved. One by one, says he, he flings them into the street. One by one, why? I think because this way he has a chance to peer at them, their smiles, their tears, their flushing cheeks, before they're gone. And so indeed the next morning, they're no more, "travellers" have taken them and whisked them away on their way back to their own countries.

Tagore's dark abyss

The interest of poetry is that, like the sea, you can drag up to the surface some strange and beautiful things until then hidden in the dark abysses. The association which Tagore makes of the strange and the beautiful is particularly apt: creation (poiesis) means that you hadn't seen what you now see thanks to the dragging power of poetry. So what you see is strange and new, its beauty is only half-recognizable, because it comes from so deep down. It has gone through the process of depth and darkness, and now it's brought to the surface...

In this poem the sea-things which emerge from the net and embarrass the poet in front of his idle love at home, can first be understood as evoking for him parts of a feminine apparition, a mermaid creature whose smile, tears and blushing cheeks first charm and surprise him, and whom he naturally enough feels guilty about. Logically too, his wife or partner disdains what he brings her! And then, ashamed, he gets rid of these over-evocative "things" before greedy passers-by whisk them away. Note how long this took: "the whole night through", and the violence needed: "I flung them in the street" - it does seem that he's unwilling to part with such treasures, and only does it out of spite and shame, but without any pleasure. The indication "far countries" could also mean either his regret - he will never see them anymore, or his exasperation, because too far will mean no hope of being able to travel there one day and see them once again. 

A sea-jewel

A sea-jewel

The poem's situation, at the beginning of the collection, enables one to propose another interpretation, of a more literary nature. After having, in the introductory poem, the conversation between the Queen and the servant (clearly none other than the poet himself), obtained the guarantee for his official mission, and in the second poem, laid out his intention to sing of the living and not to look out into the world beyond life, he starts his quest and plunges deep into his source of inspiration, his dark sea, his poetic abyss. He knows that hidden deep, marvels of songs are lying there, waiting to be sung by a new voice, to be caught by a tongue and voiced! Hardly does he know what emerges: he isn't the creator, only the mediator of songs. Songs find an outlet in him, they flow through him and gush out, having found a new channel. And so their beauty feels strange, unexpected. Yet they recognize him, or at least, they are from him, they bear his resemblance: some shine like a smile - from being here with him? ; some glisten like tears - from recognizing him?; and others are flushed like the cheeks of a bride - at being sung by him?

Naturally then the poet comes back to his everyday tasks, and to the life he leads with his beloved. But having been showered with the charms of his new songs, like a spring rain, he's diffident: how should I speak about this new beauty, this form of joy which doesn't come from her, but from an unknowable source hidden so deep no one can see it? How can I even begin to explain? I am changed, I am drenched in song. And my beloved will neither see nor hear. Here she is, in her idle life, wondering if her love will die or live, tearing at the symbolic flower of love. But I must try, I will not hide what I now am: let me disclose my source of beauty to her, let me introduce myself, my changed self to her because she is my love: cannot love embrace the whole universe?

His loved one is detached. As detached as the leaves of the flower she's negligently tearing apart. A symbolical tearing apart of leaves, where songs could be written down and kept as in a book.

The rest of the poem describes his disillusionment, and his only ressource will be to write down his poetic findings on whatever will enable other readers to collect them and take them away to their distant homes throughout the world. So that if today we can read the poet's songs, if we can sing them at all, is because one dear to his heart wasn't able to listen to them and welcome them as her rightful gifts.

We can hear a poet's music because he couldn't find the ears whose love would have grown thanks to it! We can hear a poet's words if they have reverberated on someone's deaf ears. We can hear a poet speak if he couldn't find a heart to hush it with love.    

Tagore's dark abyss

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Poetry

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Rita Raju 17/11/2017 11:30

He would have done better had he not been set up to marry her by no choice of his own the lady was lucky to be married to him

yves 17/11/2017 14:17

Hello and thanks for visiting & commenting. I see you choose to find a solution to the difficulty by deciding that it lies in a human relationship (the poet and his married spouse, I suppose). But perhaps there is no biographical background, perhaps Tagore is just projecting into imaginary lives the difficulty of all poetic language, which is not so frequently understood and on the contrary considered strange and outlandish...

sbasu 07/04/2015 04:51

To your last comment... an artist.. whether a poet of a painter.. creates the piece of art for His/ her own satisfaction, to express his inner feelings, turmoils, confusions, contradictions, happiness... but once he/ she has crated it, it is in public domain. Now the person who is reflecting on it, would interpret it in his/ her way. Who is right? Both. A piece of art isn't a personal property any more. The greatest art is one from which more and more re-interpretation is possible, without sacrificing the form. Even a simple topic as Mona Lisa's smile has been and still being interpreted in so many ways. Your interpretation might very well be nearer to what the poet was thinking at the moment (He was not only religions but a die hard romantic too). And the religious or philosophical part could have come in some foot note in the Gardener? This was translated by him (not by some one else). So who knows.. interestingly I was trying to look for the original version of this ... but no where there seems to be a reference to the un-translated poem. When one looks at the translated and untranslated version, boith by same author, the feelings could be better understood.

yves 18/04/2015 17:04

Yes, true!!

sbasu 17/04/2015 07:14

I can take only a sadistic pleasure.. in Bengali font it is available, in various places, for example, http://tagoreweb.in/
The original english ones too are there in it in Roman script (like Geetanjali, Fugitive, etc). These are in webpage format (not pdf). However if searched, I am sure the translated versions too will be available somewhere or other. But most of the translations/ translators do not go by the intentions, but by the words (You might very often see that in movie subtitles... where some times it becomes quite ridiculous).

yves 17/04/2015 00:11

Thanks Sbasu for this answer; perhaps one of these days, somebody will make all of Tagore's works available on the web!

sbasu 15/04/2015 10:57

The trouble is he was a prolific writer/ poet. My parents had a full collection of the literature (rather my mom. She was in fact trained in the Rabindra Sangeet...but in those ages, after marriage, most of those fire are covered through thick ash. She was of older gen.. married in same year as Nutanji, and unlike her, she allowed her talent to go waste... bringing us up. She did try with my sisters, but failed. We heard her only in the amateur programs (or at home). In those volumes, unless you have reference you really cant't search these originals out. In fact these poems are, if I am not wrong, scattered in the collected works. I tried web search (to pin point even individuals), but couldn't. Only experts could I think, not the son of amateur (though the amateur had she been alive, most likely could have). I tried web search for quite some time, but then left.

yves 08/04/2015 15:19

Yes, I knew that Tagore had translated his Bengali text into English himself... But it is indeed strange that you couldn't find a Bengali version?! Perhaps if you went in a Library?

sbasu 06/04/2015 13:14

That's one way to look at it... look at the 'allegoric' way...but we don't know what was playing on the poet's mind...
Is it he and his loved one?
Or a Human soul and it's love one?
The things gathered from the dark abyss are the colourful things that we keep on gathering throughout our life,assuming it would please Him?
He (here it is She) is meanwhile impatiently waiting for the beloved to come to Her .. whiling away time impatiently (tearing petals of flower one by one) Rabindra Nath has been gender equal in the Supreme one.. in fact in most of the cases he had made Him as Her..
Obviously rebuked... the wooer discarded what he had collected (which he thought virtues but were vices) ... which were collecte by the people who found them, mistakenly, like the hero, thinking them to be prized possessions..
And then the cycle restarted (re-incarnation)?
Only thing that creates a discord is when the hero thinks" SInce these were not won in battle/ bought from market hence they are not fit for her"
I would have interpreted the fought for against nature (greed/ tendencies), bought (through sacrifice) ... but despite being philosophical, I don't think RNT was of that level of depth.

May be I am being more philosophic than the poet himself by finding hidden meaning where none existed?

sbasu 07/04/2015 04:26

In our times, and in a Bengali language mother tongue, we were brought up in family full of his (as well as other writer's ) books. That was the age of paper, not TV, leave aside the web. Only air was the Radio. And the cultural programs would invariably be on RNT, wither songs or dance-dramas. So thought not purely afficiando, I had some exposure.

yves 06/04/2015 21:31

You seem to know Tagore, and like him too... Yes, I do think his mind was profoundly religious. Anyway it's the impression I get when reading Sadhana. But really I know only little of him. I've only dipped into some of his poetry and a few stories.

sbasu 06/04/2015 20:33

Interestingly a lot of his poetry had.. I won''t say purely religious significance, but in a way so.. it was the yearning of the meeting and be close to the creator. even there is a song "when I used to play with you, I didn't know of your identity, There was no fear, no shyness amongst us, the life used to have its own complications" all these could have been with the beloved... but the last couplet "However in the end of game what do I see? The sky, the sun, the moon all are silent, the whole world is waiting in attendance, the eyes fixed at your feet" ... As you mentioned... the poets write with their own thoughts, the readers interpret based on their... both are right... the poets write for their creative expression.. and the readers read and interpret it using their own creativity.

yves 06/04/2015 18:59

Thanks Sbasu; perhaps it is the same for me naturally! But I believe that poetry, like other forms of art by the way, is a proposition: the artist creates his works of art, drags up his inspiration from his own secret soul, and crafts strange new forms... In his disinterested love, he brings them out for the world to see... and then "travellers come and carry them into far countries"... The things of beauty are no longer completely his, they belong to whoever has thought them beautiful enough to pick them up and live with them...! So maybe Tagore didn't mean anything which I saw, quite certainly so. Who knows his own abysses?