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By Rabindranath Tagore
Translated by Ed Emery
New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2001
ISBN # 0-8076-1488-2
Preface and Introduction 45 pages
Poetry 71 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2013

I am sad to begin these comments by admitting that until recently I had never even heard of Rabindranath Tagore. However, when I began my project to read and comment on everyone who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I discovered his work. He was the laureate of 1913.

The first work I found and chose to read is his very last book. It is a set of poems he wrote at the very end of his life. The authors of the preface tell us:

“These are poems written by a man in extreme pain, who is, even on ‘good days’ excruciatingly weak. The poems express terror, awe, anger, grief as well as acceptance, wonder, exhilaration, and even joy at the imminent prospect of setting out for the ultimate ‘unknown regions.’”

The poems were written mainly in from May 1940 to July 1941 with one poem from 1939.

The translators discuss the tremendous difficulty of translating the Bengali to English and they had to make some concessions:

“. . . we realized we had no chance of recreating the musical and linguistic complexities . . . Instead we decided to strive to create the mood and tone of a poem and to use ordinary American colloquial diction . . .”

This was made easier for them since the original poems “. . . were for the most part written in free verse.”

In the Introduction Saranindranath Tagore (a distant relative of the poet) writes that these poems are quite different from many of his earlier poems and are surrounded by “the consciousness of death.” Much is rooted in the Hindu religion and Upanishadic doctrines. There is no personal god and Brahman, the highest reality, transcends all conceptions of linguistic qualification. In this sense Saranindranath indicates that it makes it more likely that there is some hope in poetry to better approach the discussion of these last days of the poet and his wrestling with understanding death and its meaning.

I read these poems in awe of the power of the thoughts, ideas and insights which Tagore reveals. Often his poems brought tears to my eyes at the power and touchingness of his words. His perspective isn’t as much worldly as cosmic. He sees this planet, each of our lives on Earth, to be a tiny blip of time. This doesn’t make it unimportant, since he seems to see all being as just “there,” a great wonder, something he holds in awe, but it just IS. It’s isn’t that things are “good” or “evil” or anything other than that fact that something IS, and revealing that “isness” to himself and us seems to be the task and meaning of his poetry.

In the poem “Sickbed 26” he writes:

“I have no faith in my works
I know Time’s ocean,
its lashings of waves,
day by day
will erase them.”

He is perhaps too humble. Certainly time dulls the interests readers have in most any writer as time and thought moves on. Yet now, after a couple of generations since he wrote this poem he is still well known and is likely to remain so for many generations to come.

He often writes from a cosmic perspective. Often it is not the world of Earth that is the backdrop of his reflections, but the entire cosmos itself. “On My Birthday 5” is one poem that emphasizes this aspect of his thought. It is his 80th birthday and he is in wonderment about it:

“As I enter my eightieth year,
wonder rises
at the hundreds of millions of stars’
fire-fall of silent flood
streaming at ineffable
speeds though unknown emptiness
in all directions.
In that darkness-packed, limitless breast of sky
suddenly I burst
like a momentary spark from the first of the endless universe
into the histories of centuries’ successions.”

The universe is both real, actual, tangible, but beyond comprehension. Later in “On My Birthday 11” he writes:

“My being – from where I don’t know –
rises, a swift-running current.
Suddenly, inconceivably,
from an unseen origin, the center forms itself.
The world’s soul peeks through:
behind this jest, an unknown jokester.
The infinite’s play with a freckle of time
knits openings to closings, luminous rhythms.

This small book of poems moved me deeply. However, the editors were at pains to say this last book of his is quite unlike his earlier works. Not in the ideas and views of the universe, but in the focus on his life, sickness and coming death. Nonetheless, this work has made me want to read more of him. I am currently reading the 1930 lectures he gave at Oxford University in England and I have just ordered three more works, two books of his poetry and one book of short stories. I’m looking forward to reading more of Rabindranath Tagore in the very near future.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett