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....

Tamil Classical Poetry in English Sonnets

K. C. Kamaliah


The sonnet was an invention of Italy. It was Guittone of Arezzo, (d. 1294)who firmly established its laws. Sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines and it was recognised that there must be an “octave” with rhymes (in an unusual notation) a, b, b, a; a, b, b, a, and a “setset” in which while some variety is allowed the final couplet is excluded.1 Even during the time of Guittone, the unitary character of the sonnet was established by him. Though poetry cannot be chained within limits, the sonnet “becomes a supreme type for a whole class of literature, in which the form is fixed as a mould, and the most varied matter must become pliable and fit this mould.2 Dante was the first great master of the sonnet and this mould was enthusiastically and eagerly adopted by English poets. As “the lyric of self-revelation,” there is no English poet of renown, not excluding Shakespeare, not attracted by the sonnet “described as an apartment for a single gentleman in verse,” and it came to be recognised as “the natural medium through which the culturedreader seen access to the mind and heart of the great masters of literature.”3 There is a sonnet on Sonnet by William Wordsworth who gives us the names of poets born in distant ages resorting to this magic mould, using it as a talisman to reveal their minds to the world at large.

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless ofits just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of that small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camoens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gaymyrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow; a glow worm lamp, \
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand,
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul animating strains–alas, too few!

In another sonnet, Wordsworth speaks of the necessity for self-restraint. Liberty becomes a licence, unless one pegs oneself tethered to some sort of vocation. Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room nor hermits with their cells. Maids are at the wheel and the weaver keeps to his loom. A poet’s horizon transcends the far off skies, scales the loftiest peaks and measures the depths of the ocean. And yet Wordsworth finds solace within the fourteen lines of a sonnet.

.... and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for which there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

John Milton’s sonnet ‘On His Blindness’, ‘is a piece which lovers of literature can ill afford to ignore. It is through this medium of sonnet that the worshipper at the altar of Muse as is Milton, wants to join issue with God how He can “exact day-labour light deny’d. But Patience cries halt and preaches a timely advice: “Who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” It is at His bidding that winged messengers carry out His behests over land and sea. The inner voice of Milton gives him the wholesome advice: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” For an epic poet like Milton, a fixed structure as the sonnet served as the instrument, which as Wordsworth rightly said, “In his hand the thing became a Trumpet” from where he blew soul-animating strains.

The Sonnet, though an imported commodity from Italy, became a hot favourite not only of those with English as their mother-tongue, but also of all the English knowing people in all the five continents. Poets normally resort to blank verse for writing long epics, but take to quatrains for shorter themes. Ethical works are generally couched in epigrams, for serving the dual purpose of easy and facile quotation and brevity with profundity. Other forms are resorted to for poems covering fields other than ethics. For compressing a deep thought, a smaller structure is the testing ground of the author’s versatility and genius. There are, of course, exceptions. While Homer resorted to blank verse for writing his epics, Valmiki took to a sloka of two lines. Kamban’s Ramayana in Tamil of over 10,000 viruttams are in quatrains. Tiruvalluvar’s Tirkkural are in couplets with four feet in the first line and three in the second, the total number being 1,330. Those familiar with the Kural will agree with what one of the panegyrics describes of it:

Piercing the atom and pouring into it the seven seas
Is the shortened Kural. 4
G. U. Pope, distinguished Doctor of Divinity and a life-long student of Tamil, translated all the three parts of the Kural into English in metric form, annotated the work, wrote a scholarly preface, gave explanations, dotted it with parallel quotations not only from Tamil, abut also from other languages and furnished a concordance and lexicon. As a climax, he made his obeisance to Tiruvalluvar, the bard of universal man, with a sonnet from his pen, carrying the legacy of an Englishman, which term includes a Scots­man also, adorning the Sacred Kural of Tiruvalluvar. English literature has been enriched by his sonnet.

Sage Valluvar, priest of the lowly clan,
No tongue repeats, no speech reveals thy name;
Yet, all things changing, dieth not thy fame,
For thou art bard of universal man;

And still thy ‘book’ above the waters wan,
Virtue, true wealth, and joy, and being’s aim,
In sweetest mystic couplets doth proclaim,
Where winds sea-wafted palmy forest fan.

Haply, undreamed of ‘visions’ glad thine eyes
In realms beyond thy fabled ‘seven-fold birth’,
And clouds of darkness from thy spirit roll.

While lands far-off have heard with strange suprise
Faint echoes of thy song. Through all the earth
Men hail thee brother, seer of spotless soul. 5

Another major translated work of Pope into Tamil was Tiruvacagam, besides renderings of Naladiyar, Purapporul Venbamalai, grammatical work on the science of war and some classical poems from Purananuru, a Sangam work. Pope rendered two of the verses from Purananuru into English in sonnets. One is the very famous piece by Kaniyan Punkuntran (Purananuru 192). He gives a brief introduction followed by his translation in verse, giving it the title, ‘The Sages.’ He’ writes: “This ‘Agaval’ (blank verse) is by a minstrel, known to us as Kanyan or ‘Singer’ of the flowery hill, who was a court-poet and friend of Ko-Perum C’olan of Uraiyur–a little it may be before the date of the Kural.”

To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life’s good comes not from others’ gift, nor ill.
Man’s pains and pains’ relief are from within
Death’s no new thing; nor do our bosoms thrill
When joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for we deem
This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of mountain stream
That o’er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho’ storms with lightnings’ flash from darken’d skies
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise!–  
We marvel not at greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate. 6

In the above translated English sonnet from Tamil, barring the last two lines, the alternate lines rhyme with each other. This is a poem of extraordinary significance, in as much as universalism in man’s life was preached two thousand years ago. Pain or pleasure depend on the mentality of the person. Though Fate gets a special treatment, the egalitarian spirit is given a leverage in the last two lines. Because of the universal appeal contained in the first line of the poem–yatum ure yavarum kelir, the same is inset in emblems of organisations engaged in international research. Kaniyan Punkuntran’s message looks so modern that Pope’s translation, if circulated without notes, may go as the product of an English poet steeped in universalism and international understanding with an oriental flavour.

The second English sonnet of Tamil classical poetry rendered by Pope is given the title of ‘The Sea and the Streamlet.’ A celebrated chieftain who lavished gifts to poets was Ori, one of the seven celebrated chieftains of the old Tamil country. Three songs are in praise of Ori, found in Purananuru, (152, 153, 204), two by poet Vanparanar and one by the poet Kalaitinyanaiyar. Ori was known as Valvilori–The Hill Chieftain with ‘Strong Bow’. Pope writes of Kalaitinyanaiyar: “Another bard, whose epithet was ‘Owner of the elephant that chews the sugarcane,’ and who is otherwise unknown, has composed an interesting poem in his (Ori’s) praise.” The English rendering has been done in fourteen lines, being of the same length as the Tamil original. (Purananuru, 204)

The Sea and the Streamlet

’Tis shame to wealth, churls, ‘give ye,’ to cry;
Sorer disgrace when these their gifts deny.
Doubtless, who saith, ‘Take this my gift,’ does well
Who saith, ‘I take not,’ doth in worth excel,
Who thirst for water will not stoop to drink
Where sparkling wavelets play on ocean’s brink,–
Tho’ draught be crystal clear. Where cattle pass
And thronging make blank a muddy pass,
And though the streamlet trickle scant and slow,–
There is well-trod path to where sweet waters flow!
If thou give not, thy suppliants blame the hour
And inauspicious signs, and fate’s dread power;–
They blame not thee, as all forlorn they sigh,
For thou art liberal as th’o’er arching sky! 7

A slight explanation is necessary. The bard seeking favours at the hand of the patron tells him that it is demeaning to beg, but reminds him that it is more demeaning on the part of the giver to say: ‘I give not’. Similarly, it is noble on the part of the giver to give, but nobler on the part of the recipient to say: ‘I accept not’, The poet thus administers a lesson to the chieftain or the king, that it is the recipient that gets a chance to excel in conduct than the giver, curiously not in harmony with Shakespeare’s saying that the rain “blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Ori, to whom the poet goes for gifts is not a mighty king but a petty chieftain with a large heart, However big the ocean is, one cannot quench his thirst there, But, however small and tiny may be a small pond frequented by cattle, it gives sweet water. Knowing the chieftain too intimately for his large-heartedness in lavishing his gifts to poets, the poet says that even when he does not give, those who frequent his court blame not the chieftain, but find fault with the inauspicious time they have chosen to ask for gifts from him. They verily know that the chieftain is as liberal as the cloud in the sky,

G. U. Pope, to some extent, was responsible forputting Tamil on the global map. Of the western scholars in oriental learning, he shall continue to occupy an honoured place regarding Tamil studies and he lies buried in his grave with the words, ‘A Student of Tamil’ written on it.

1 Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1945), Vol, 20, page 997
2 Richard G. Moulton: World Literature, New York, 1921
3 Ibid
4 Tiruvalluvamalai
5 G. U. Pope: The Sacred Kural of Tiruvalluva Nayanar, London, 1886.
6 The Tamilian Antiquity, No.6, 1910
7 Ibid

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