Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Tagore and Tennyson

Prof. K. Mukherjee


It is not generally known that there are some resemblances between Tagore and Tennyson, not only as thinkers but also as artists. Prof. Thompson indeed mentioned De Profundis in his biography of Rabindranath;* but he neither mentioned nor discussed any poem of Tagore in which Tennyson’s influence can be traced. “But it should be remembered that Rabindranath first came across Tennyson when he had been staying for about six months with his second elder brother, Satyendranath Tagore, judge of Ahmedabad at ‘Shahibag,’ a palace of the Badshahs or Emperors of old, known then as the judge’s House, before he sailed forEngland on Sept. 20, 1877 to return home a year later. In his My Reminiscences he has told us how this came about: “Into the niches in the wall of a large chamber my brother had put his books. One of these was a gorgeous edition of Tennyson’s works, with big prints and numerous pictures. The book forme was as silent as a palace, and much in the same way I wandered among its picture plates. Not that I could not make anything of the text, but it spoke to me mere like inarticulate cooings than words.”

From the above it should be clear that Tagore’s love for Tennyson was first born at Ahmedabad, when he was barely sixteen. And it is now known that Tagore was not only very greatly influenced by Tennyson’s De Profundis but that at the age of twenty, he wrote an article on this great poem in the ‘Bharati’ of 1288 B. S. (1881) with a commentary of his own–the only one he ever wrote on any English poem. It is undeniable that the poet who was ever under the all-pervasive influence of the Upanishads, got a consonance of his ideas with those in Tennyson’s De profundis “perhaps, on the whole the most important of his religious poems, suggested by the thoughts arising at the birth of his eldest child where he emphasises the double, nature and double origin of the individual, material and spiritual–the material body ultimately traceable to that vast seething mass of nebulous matter from which, according to modern science, the earth , arose.”

In his article, Rabindranath wrote: De Profundis (Out of the Depths) was composed by Tennyson on the occasion of the birth of his son:

Out of the deep, my child, out of the deep,
Where all that was to be, in all that was.
Whirl’d for a million aeons thro’ the vast
Waste dawn of multitudinous-eddying light–
Out of the deep, my child, out of the deep
Through all this changing world of changeless law,
And every phase of ever-heightening life,
And nine long months of ante-natal’ gloom,–

Touched with earth’s light-thou comest darling boy.

At the birth of his first-born child, Tennyson asked: “Whence did it come?” Even so did the Vedic sages enquire with deep reverence, “Whence did it come?” when they saw the new sun riling out of the widely spread womb of the sea. He found that his new-born son was brother to the very earth on which he was born–a twin-born brother to the great solar system. Addressing him, he said, “My boy, thou hast come from the ocean in which through millions of aeons, the future (all that was to be) was whirling in the past (all that was), in the waste of the dawn of multitudinous-eddying light. The sun has come from there, the earth and the moon and all their planet brethren.”

The poet, Tagore said, entered into the womb of the dawn of the past, and found there the beginnings of his new-born son whirling with the beginnings of the earth, still inchoate, still undeveloped. Both are of the same age; their difference lies only in the one being revealed before our eyes and the other being revealed late. The past like a mother has rocked on the same resplendent cradle, his son with the sun, the moon and the other planets and stars; and has nourished them all at the same breast. 

O dear Spirit half lost
In thine own shadows and this fleshly sign
That Thou art Thou–who waitest being born
And banished into mystery, and the pain
Of this divisible-indivisible world....
Soul, whence art Thou here?

The world in which Thou wast once, is not one to be measured or counted or reckoned. Then Thou wast in space and time unlimited the world and the time into which Thou hast been banished
though seemingly infinite has its limits. But Thou wilt not have the end here: Thou hast come from the infinite to an infinite distance: Thou wilt be nearing Him through time infinite.

Into what an infinite world has the poet entered after looking at his baby boy? Whom did the poet find in that shrine unbounded? What song did he burst into?

Hallowed be Thy name–Halleluiah!
Infinite Ideality!
Immeasurable Reality!
Infinite Personality!
Hallowed be Thy name–Halleluiah!

Idea infinite. Truth immeasurable, and Person infinite. Idea infinite is very far off from us: we cannot go near It, by any means. When that Idea at last we know and realise as Truth, He comes nearer to us. But we are not satisfied if we realise Him as Truth only. When we realise Him as an Infinite Person, He comes near us, and we can please Him then. Then alone do we sing Halleluiah to him:

We feel we are nothing–for all is Thou and in thee:
We feel we are something–that also has come from Thee;
We know we are nothing–but Thou wilt help us to be.
Hallowed be Thy name–Halleluiah!

but all this is of the past. When we were inside Thee, then Thou wert all and all was in Thee. This was our Ideality: we were then in Thee in the form of ideas. At last when we came away from Thee, We began to feel that we are something; but that also has come from Thee. This is of the present and this is our truth. Now we have become something; We have become true. “We know we are nothing–but Thou wilt help us to be. This is true of the future. “We know We are nothing, but Thou art gradually making us, unfolding us. Thou art leading ourselves to perfection by teaching us new and newer truths and giving us new knowledge through our deaths. But that perfection will remain ever unattainable, and Thou wilt ever help us to be perfect; and we shall ever enjoy the joy of advancing from our imperfect state to that of perfection. In our earthly life also we get a similitude of this gradual evolutionary process. At first man lay mingled with the vast mass of vapour with-in the primordial matter of the universe. Then was he born as man little by little in gradual stages. Then with his growth his personality also began to grow. It is according to this order that the poet first called God Infinite Ideality, then Immeasurable Reality, and lastly, Infinite Personality.”

Rabindranath realised this cosmic Truth, this cosmic Law which he found not only in Tennyson’s poem but in the Upanishads also, and gave expression to it many times in his life. When he reached the last stage or his life, the series of these ideas appeared as a whole in his mind, and he gave expression to these ideas in the series of poems published as ‘Janmadinay’ (On my Birthday) after suffusing them with the feelings of his dying days. It is clear that like Tennyson Tagore also was a strenuous advocate of the view of change and evolution. It has been said about Tennyson that “all the conclusions of modern science he thankfully welcomed.” Rabindranath also did the same. Evolution, the watchword of the speculative thought of the nineteenth century, was received by both Tennyson and Tagore, as the fundamental principle of the Cosmos.” In the case of Tagore, the intelligent reader can readily see that his Jibandebata doctrine, originally an Upanishadic idea, was interpenetrated with the Theory of Evolution. Standing at the extremity of this world where is going on the play of the Creator, His Lila, he looks through darkness into where he lay merged in the infinite consciousness of the great Ineffable. He yet echoes the Upanishads when writing on the final fulfilment of the individual soul:

Again and again I say to myself. ‘I go
Where there is no name,
Where is merged
All individuality,
Where all being and non-being
Has mingled into one,
Where the streams of my I’s
Will merge gradually
In the confluence
Of the sea of entire consciousness.


From a perusal of at least two of Tagore’s poems, it has always seemed to me that Tagore was inspired to write them under the influence of Tennyson. Nirjharer Swapnabhanga (The Awaking of the Spring) was inspired by Tennyson’s Brook, very probably, though Tennyson’s is a very simple poem and Tagore’s an autobiographical one, indicating his lifelong urge towards a cosmopolitan life. Tagore’s Abhisar (The Tryst) owes something of its artistry to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. The Lady of Shalott, containing all the characteristics of Tennyson’s pictorial art, was interpreted by the poet himself in the following words:

“The new-born love for something, for someone in the wide world from which she has been so long secluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities. The poem is also symbolical of the romantic escapist who dies a spiritual death, because unable to face life he lives in a world of dreams, but the call of life proves irresistible, and he has finally to come to realities only to be repulsed by them as he has never any knowledge of them. In the poem of Tagore, we read quite a different story–the story of a paragon of beauty dying a spiritual death in the midst of a life of lust and lasciviousness. She catches sight of a spiritual being and wishes to live a life of happiness with him; but she is repulsed just then, and is asked to wait for the right moment of spiritual rebirth. This happens when she is thrown off by society out of the city gates, suffering from small-pox: the same spiritual being comes now and takes care of her and says. “To-day is come our trysting night.” In Tennyson the repetition of the penultimate rhyme rings through all the stanzas bringing artifice to the aid of art: but in Tagore, the rhyme varies in each stanza; but there is a similarity of artifice in all, which shows Tagore a greater artist. The poem begins with Sannyasi Upagupta, which reads very much the same as The Lady of Shalott, and exhibits that Bengali is richer than English in similar endings.”


Both Tennyson and Tagore, as already noticed, were interested in modern science and rejoiced in its manifold achievements: ** Tennyson, narrow, because national with his insular pride and British pharisaism, in Locksley Hall–for long the most popular of his poems, yet nourished his youth with the fairy tales of science and the long result of time: and

Dipt into the future far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.
With the sanguine thinkers of the age, he also
Saw the heavens filled with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales:
Till the war drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furl’d
In the parliament of man, the federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

But Tagore was completely free from all narrowness, had world-wide interests and sympathies and was a genuine cosmopolitan, having travelled throughout the world and growing conversant with its problems and ever trying for their solution. But Tennyson in disgust in Locksley Hall sixty years after, wrote–

‘Forward’ rang the voices then, and of the many mine was one; Let us hush the cry of ‘Forward’ till ten thousand years have gone.”

And it has been said by Compton Rickett “It would have been the better and the sweeter, if Tennyson had understood other nationalities as well as he did his own race, since cosmopolitan sympathies strengthen, in place of weakening–as some imagine–the spirit of patriotism’. Though a cosmopolitan, Tagore was a great patriot as well; and he never lost faith in the continual progress of the human spirit.

Both Tagore and Tennyson were called mystics; but neither of them was a mystic, though they were both mystical, Both Tagore and Tennyson will always be regarded as religious poets: Tennyson especially in In Memoriam, De profundis and the crown of all his works, ‘Crossing the Bar’; Tagore specially for Naibedya, Gitali, Gitanjali and Gitimalya, with which the West has become familiar through the English Gitanjali only. What is particularly interesting in this connection is that both have been called and regarded as sage-poets, though Tagore in a letter to me in 1932 wrote, “Some call me a bad and some, a good poet, but by no means do I deserve to be called a sage-poet.” And what is specially noticeable is that there are strange coincidences of thought and idea in one of Tagore’s latest songs, that beginning:

Before me spreads the ocean of peace:
Set now thy boat afloat, O Pilot!

with those of Tennyson’s one beginning with ‘Sunset and the evening star’, the idea of God as the Pilot being very old in Indian literature. But there was this difference between the two poets that where Tagore came into direct personal relation with God and addressed Him as the Pilot, Tennyson was forced to postulate a God ruling and working behind the outward show of things, a God in whom we live and move and have our being; but a God who rarely if ever comes into direct personal relation with His creatures, never contemplating the soul laid bare before Him who is all Holy, all Perfect, and all Pure. 1 ‘With Tennyson God is God who hideth Himself: who shows Himself only in His works, through dim and cloudy visions; and consequently the direct certainty of His presence is not to be found in his poems. 2

* Rabindranath Tagore, Poet & Dramatist, 1926. p.2l4
The only exception is on p. 268, where Prof. Thompson referred to Freedom (Mukti) (in Palataka-The Fugitive) as a kind of inverted May-Queen.

I. Tennyson first entered into Bengali literature when Michael M. S. Dutta wrote a commendatory sonnet on him about 1864 and included it in his Chaturdaspadir Kavitabali (Sonnets). Our next great poet Hemchandra Benerji must have been charmed by the lyricism of Tennyson: he adapted his Lotos-Eaters in his Kamalbilasi, but his motive was patriotic, and he represented his own countrymen as so many lotos-eaters.

II. Tennyson as a Religious Teacher by C. F. G. Masterman, 1900. Pp 57 and 7l.

** But when his resemblance to Tennyson has been noted–his interest in scientific speculation and discovery, his vast preponderance of decorative world, the long and steady exercise of his poetical faculties–we note also the difference–his many-sided touch with active life, the freedom of his mysticism, at any rate in its later expressions, for any speculative elements such as we find in vastness, his power of being aloofly intellectual and lonely.–pp. 302-303. Rabindranath Tagore, Poet and Dramatist. First Edition 1926.

1 Tennyson as a Religious Teacher by C. F. G. Masterman
2 Ibid.

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